The new Ukip arrived on Sunday, with a great Brexit Betrayal March from the Dorchester Hotel to Parliament. Farage is out – he is one of the betrayers. Tommy Robinson, the founder of the English Defence League (EDL), and a former member of the British National Party (BNP), is in, as leader Gerard Batten’s advisor on “Muslim rape gangs” and prison conditions, which Robinson would know about.
When Batten appointed Robinson, Farage quit the party after 25 years of memberhip. “There is a huge space for a Brexit party in British politics, but it won’t be filled by Ukip,” he said. Then he accused Batten of “turning a blind eye to extremism” and attempting to turn the party from an “electoral” force into a “party of street activism”. And here they are now.
I think Farage is right. I have covered Ukip events for 15 years and they never looked like this. They were tweedy and weird but not alarming. Today they look more like an EDL march and their favourite call is: Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!
It begins jovially under the strange tree by the Dorchester Hotel. There was laughter and plenty of hangovers too. It’s Sunday morning. Even if the country is crashing apart and splintering into raging tribes, it’s still Sunday morning. Life goes on.
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They are down from Yorkshire, Essex, Kent and Devon, the white working class in their Sunday bling. Some people are in fancy dress. There is a man in a bespoke Union Jack suit. “It’s not the first march it’s been on,” he says happily. There are a few dogs and children too, with loving grandparents. They look at the children with pride, because they are doing this for them.
But five times their number is massing two miles away at Portland Place, calling them far-Right fascists and a disgrace to the streets. Almost no one beeps in support from the cars on Park Lane; in fact, a hostile crowd watch from the park, raising their mobile telephones to film them. A man plays the bagpipes: It’s God Save the Queen. I hear it often, and also Jerusalem, a solo from a bearded tenor wearing a backpack. He sings terribly seriously and gets a small round of applause. They hold Union Flags on sticks. Some are 10 feet high.
The placards are various and heartfelt. “TREASON MAY – your “deal” is BREX-SHIT”. This is near a portable set of gallows, with noose, that someone built and brought up for the day, and this is chilling.
“GREAT BATTEN FOR GREAT BRITAIN”. “PARK FARAGE IN THE GARAGE”. There are silhouettes of soldiers: “LEST WE FORGET”. A “CHUCK CHEQUERS” sign, under a picture of Rees-Mogg at his most twinkling, yet serious; he wouldn’t dare show his face here, for fear of losing his standing with Conservatives. “BLACK HOODIES AGAINST BREXIT.” This is carried by a masked man in a skeleton suit. But I watch him and when he takes it off he is definitely white, which is definitely an act of cultural appropriation.
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They have a liberty bell. It is mounted on what looks like an ancient baby carriage. In a wonderful, and possibly deliberate metaphor, the bell appears to be rotting. They queue and take turns to ring it. The liberty bell creator won’t take questions. They don’t trust the press. Inside the carriage, for some reason, is a bunch of bananas. “Whose idea was it to stand by the fucking bell?” a man asks his friend, “I feel like fucking Quasimodo”.
The most sinister thing I see is a man in a full-face Donald Trump mask. He is wearing a suit and carrying a small dog. There is also an effigy of Theresa May made from a sex doll.
There are many Trump supporters here, which is new. “I absolutely idolise the man,” one tells me. He wears a Trump mask on the back of his head like a beret. “But we live in a country where if you like Trump you get called racist. I will support Trump unapologetically. He’s got strength which is what’s lacking in a lot of politicians. He’s 72-years-old and he’s put himself through all this crap just because he loves his country and he loves his people. Donald Trump didn’t need to do what he did. He could be on a yacht surrounded by loads of mint birds for the rest of his life. Because he’s a billionaire. What a role model he is, absolutely fantastic.”
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There are two Israeli flags too. White nationalists admire Israel, because they think it has things to teach them about hating Muslims. “Our roots as a country have always been Judeo-Christian roots,” says its owner. “Our Queen takes her oath with her hands on a Jewish book.”
One man carries a vast Tricolor because, he says, “I want to let the French people know they are not alone in their battle against globalism. We are engaged in a common struggle against people who really don’t like us.” He is Australian. But “I love Britain and I want Britain to stay fabulous”. Another man tells me, very seriously, that we will be prevented from leaving the EU because of demons, but we should ignore the demons and leave anyway. Although that may be hangover.
There are two celebrities: Neil Hamilton, the disgraced former Tory, who cannot help but skulk, and an Australian Jewish blogger called Avi Yemini who is a fan of Tommy Robinson. He is wearing a St George’s kippah, and doing a selfie with a man in a painted cardboard Crusader helmet. “Good man,” says the next fan, “such a pleasure. You’re a great man for supporting our Tommy and supporting our country. Yemini shakes hands with the prosthetic Trump as people shout, “Avi, Avi, Avi. Oi, Oi, Oi.”
It’s a spectrum, of course; everything is until it pulls together and forms something solid, and dangerous. There are men here who would be delighted to attack almost anything. “There’s no stopping us without a brick, fucking wall,” says one. “This country will kick off big time if it’s ignored,” says another, and I believe him. I also hear a lone shout of “Bloody Africans”. But there are also fishermen who march not for the right to push Muslims into the sea, but to get their 12-mile limit back, which they won’t.
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As they march down Victoria Street, the mood becomes sullen. Why Victoria Street, they ask, why not Birdcage Walk, which is a quicker route to Parliament? Is it something else beyond their control, something else to thwart them? They pass the construction site for the new Peninsula Hotel, which could be a metaphor for their woes – a home for a global elite, and in their own capital city.
“Oh, Tommy,” they wail, “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, Tommy ROBINSON.” He is in the crowd, but they can’t all see him. “He’s quite a little chap,” says a woman in mitigation. Outside the Green King pub they chant: “We want our country back, we want our country back.” They walk up Whitehall to the sound of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and to that, I do not know what he would say.
Robinson headlines the rally. “I am one of the 30-40% who have never voted,” he says. “I’ve never voted. None of my friends have voted. Because there’s no one to vote for. They have betrayed us. They have abandoned us. 90% of Labour MPs are middle-class. We need a party, a political voice, to electrify the working-class communities of this country. For too long we have looked across Europe.”
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We have, he says, cared too much. “It’s our turn and it’s our time and this country is ready”. He urges everyone to join Ukip for £4 a month “the price of a beer in London. Gerard [Batten] put his neck on the line. There have been resignations all week in Ukip. To all the people in Ukip who were worried. Don’t worry because the cavalry has arrived!”
There are cheers. “Their membership has gone up 25% since Gerard took over,” he says. “Gerard and Ukip can be a voice for the working-class communities when no other politician will talk about Islam. No other politician will take about the issues that you fear and are a threat to our country.” So Ukip steers hard-Right.
Is this the last throbbing gasp of the nation state? They think so. They rage at the ending of an England of their ideals and hate the one that does not look like them. But this is where, I think, inequality brings us – to anger and despair. For others it is something else: entertainment. I watched a group of Chinese tourists on the top of a bus, smiling and oblivious, waving at us all as the remnants of the post-war consensus fall apart.