There was none of the romance of being on the road as I drove down the length of Britain last week, shifting a van full of stuff from Edinburgh to London. A cross-country road trip might offer some insight on the state of nation, but I only really inspected the state of three motorway services.
There was one clue to Britain’s troubled mood, however, just over the Scottish border on an overpass above the southbound carriageway of the M6.
A Land Rover Defender was parked by the railing, so that drivers passing underneath couldn’t miss the red banner with white block capitals attached to its side. “Free Tommy,” it read.
If only all protests in support Tommy Robinson were as peaceful. The former leader of the English Defence League (EDL) is serving a ten-month prison sentence for contempt of court over repeated breaches of reporting restrictions in live criminal cases, trying to film propaganda pieces for right-wing websites. Demonstrations in central London demanding his release have twice in recent weeks descended into violence, with attacks on police and counter-demonstrators, and intimidation of journalists.
Robinson quit the EDL in 2013, saying the group, cited as an inspiration by the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, had become too extreme. Since then, he hasn’t strayed far from its Islamophobic roots. Now Robinson serves as a rallying point for the far-right, not just in this country but around the world.
Since its post-EU referendum collapse, UKIP has shed any pretension of being a mainstream party and has embraced both Robinson and his anti-Islam message under leader Gerard Batten. A Westminster petition calling for Robinson’s release has gathered 500,000 signatures in the UK.
Meanwhile, a right-wing American think tank paid a five-figure sum to bankroll Robinson’s legal defence, and others organisations are standing by to offer financial support. The architect of Donald Trump’s ugly, nativist presidential campaign, Steve Bannon, has pledged to bankroll a pan-European organisation to promote the far-right in Europe, and was recorded last week abusing an LBC radio journalist in his own studio for daring to question his support for Robinson.
Even the US Government has thrown its weight behind the ‘Free Tommy’ campaign, with its Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the former Senator Sam Brownback, lobbying the UK over his treatment.
Never mind the unaccountable global liberal elites that are supposedly betraying the will of the people – the former EDL leader is now at the centre of a global illiberal elite, backed by well-connected figures in Washington and who knows which other international capitals.
With the UK Government in turmoil, unable to deliver a Brexit that doesn’t alienate at least half the country, Robinson is being talked about as the future leader of a new far-right political party to capitalise on a narrative of betrayal.
Could that really happen here? The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system stops smaller parties from breaking into the political mainstream. Barring an extension of the Article 50 process, Brexit means the UK has already held its final set of European Parliament elections, where under proportional representation the BNP polled almost a million votes and won two MEPs in 2009.
But first-past-the-post is an electoral firewall; it doesn’t protect against political ideas. UKIP only ever elected one MP to Westminster, but by winning 12.6 per cent of the vote in 2015, the party spooked David Cameron into calling a referendum on EU membership. According to a YouGov poll last week, almost a quarter of voters say they would back an explicitly anti-immigration, anti-Islam political party.
More worrying than what happens when Robinson gets out of prison, however, is what people are willing to say and do about it.
Nine years ago, the BBC’s decision to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin onto Question Time provoked protests and complaints. Now Bannon appears in British media on a weekly basis, his ideas barely challenged by friendly outlets. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising when the US President can stand alongside the Prime Minister and rattle off far-right talking points about immigration destroying European culture, and face little official opposition.
But the media has a choice: to normalise the narrative, or challenge it. Increasingly, it is choosing the former.
In March, Bannon was allowed to glamorise Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism in one of Britain’s most venerable current affairs magazines. Only yesterday, David Cameron’s former speech writer Clare Foges used a column in the Times to suggest that “timid” leaders could learn from the likes of Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte, she wrote, is popular with his people thanks to his “disdain for etiquette”, a novel way of describing his decades-long campaign of extra-judicial killing that has claimed hundreds of lives and drawn condemnation from Philippine and international human rights monitors.
Politicians have a choice, too, in the language they use, but with many Brexit-supporting MPs gleefully destroying their own brand by echoing attacks on the political elite from within the Palace of Westminster, no wonder that another poll found 40 per cent of people have “no trust at all” in the Commons.
In his 2004 novel ‘The Plot Against America’, Philip Roth imagined the rise of the far-right being experienced by ordinary citizens as the “terror of the unforeseen”. With the Government open about its preparations to stockpile medicines and food for a no-deal Brexit, who could fail to see the UK in that description?
Surely it could happen here, just as it could happen anywhere.