Anti-fascists surround Scottish Defence League; “Scotland United” tries to stop confrontation

Author: 

Dale Street

The Scottish Defence League (SDL) suffered another humiliation on Saturday 20 February when its promised demonstration in Edinburgh ended up as five hours in a pub, surrounded by anti-fascists and protected by several hundred police.

“Scotland United” – a variant of Unite Against Fascism (UAF), but even worse – suffered a humiliation as well, albeit of a different type.

In many ways, what happened in Edinburgh in the run-up to last Saturday, and on the day as well, was a re-run of what had happened in Glasgow last November, when the SDL had attempted to stage a demonstration in the city.

In Glasgow an ad hoc Glasgow Anti-Fascist Alliance (GAFA) was launched in order to confront the SDL and prevent them from taking to the streets. It involved members of some, but not all, socialist groups and a variety of non-aligned activists.

“Scotland United” was also set up. This was the ‘official’ anti-SDL initiative, backed by the Scottish TUC, individual unions, elected representatives (including Tories) from across the political spectrum, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), UAF, the Scottish-Islamic Foundation, and various religious and voluntary sector organisations.

“Scotland United” deliberately called a rally and march at a time and place which ruled out any possibility of confronting the SDL. The GAFA, on the other hand, managed to track down the SDL to the pub were they were skulking and stage a protest there, albeit only briefly, before the SDLers were bussed out of the city.

(For a full report of the events in Glasgow, see: workersliberty.org/story/2009/11/14)

In the run-up to last Saturday’s events in Edinburgh an ad hoc Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Alliance (EAFA) was set up to mobilise people to confront the SDL. Like the GAFA, it was a mixture of non-aligned activists and members of some socialist organisations.

“Scotland United” was also resurrected for the day.

It issued the same bland anti-SDL statement that had been used in Glasgow last November, the only difference being that “Edinburgh” was substituted for “Glasgow”. Signatories to the statement included Tories, Liberal-Democrats, the SWP, the SSP, Tommy Sheridan, UAF, Alex Salmond, the STUC, and those well-known opponents of bigotry – the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Running true to form, “Scotland United” organised a march and rally at a time and place which ruled out any chance of confronting the SDL. The main speakers at the rally were Jenny Dawe (Lib-Dem Edinburgh City Council leader), Iain Gray (Scottish Labour Party leader) and Kenny MacAskill (SNP Justice Minister).

In an act of unconscious irony, the “Scotland United” leaflet publicising its march and rally proclaimed: “Let Us Do the Same Again”. That was the problem – “Scotland United” was indeed “doing the same again”.

(The leaflet advocated “Let Us Do the Same Again” by attempting to give “Scotland United” the credit for the fact that the SDL had ended up corralled in a Glasgow pub last November. The leaflet omitted to mention that this was solely due to the efforts of the GAFA, not “Scotland United”.)

In the run-up to the anti-SDL protest in Glasgow the SWP/UAF had thrown its weight behind “Scotland United”, while maintaining a watching brief on the GAFA. In Edinburgh the SWP/UAF likewise gave uncritical support to “Scotland United”, while stressing that there was “enough room for two events on the day” (i.e. the EAFA one, and the “Scotland United” one).

Just before last Saturday, however, the SWP/UAF dropped the line of “enough room for two events on the day”, which had doubtless never been intended sincerely in the first place. Instead, their new line was: follow instructions from “Scotland United” stewards, and “Scotland United” stewards only.

By the time February 20th arrived, three anti-SDL events had been organised: the EAFA was meeting in Princes Street at half nine, UAF was meeting further along Princes Street at half ten for “mass leafletting”, and the “Scotland United” march was assembling in Princes Street Gardens at half eleven.

The purpose of the UAF “mass leafletting” was to pull people into the orbit of UAF (and, from there, into the SWP) before moving on to link up with the “Scotland United” march and rally. It was a tactic which badly backfired on the UAF/SWP.

Around half ten the EAFA contingent – around 250 strong – moved off to link up with the UAF “mass leafleting”. Word then came through that the SDL were meeting in Jenny Ha’s pub in the Royal Mile. Most of those engaged in the UAF’s “mass leafleting” moved off with the EAFA to head towards Jenny Ha’s.

UAF attempted to do exactly what they had done in Glasgow – get to the front of the march with their banner. This time, however, they failed and found themselves stuck at the back.

Confronted by lines of police as it attempted to get down the Royal Mile, the demonstration pulled back towards the crossroads with North and South Bridge.

In another act of unconscious irony – there was quite a lot of it around that day – the UAF banner was now at the front of the march (because everyone had turned round to head back to the crossroads). The UAF was finally giving leadership – away from where the SDL was gathering! And that just about sums up the UAF’s role in life.

The crossroads were then the scene of the battle of the megaphones.

Weyman Bennett (UAF Joint National Secretary) and Aamer Anwar (one of the leading figures in “United Scotland”) urged the demonstrators to head for the assembly point for the “Scotland United” march. EAFA activists urged people to head back down the Royal Mile and find a way round the police lines.

According to Aamer Anwar, the SDL were not going to be allowed to march as the Public Order Act had been invoked. If the anti-SDL demonstrators did not head for Princes Street Gardens, then they would be at risk of being subjected to a Public Order Act ban as well.

According to Weyman Bennett, the SDL were a bunch of Nazis who had to be smashed, driven off the streets, smashed, smashed and smashed again. However, no-one knew were they were (! – they were less than five minutes away) so the only sensible thing was to head off to Princes Gardens. (The smashing, presumably, could wait for another day.)

In Glasgow Bennett and the SWP had managed to persuade people to pull back from the pub where the SDL were gathering and head back to the “Scotland United” rally. This time they failed.

Most demonstrators headed back into the Royal Mile and cut through a maze of side streets to get to Jenny Ha’s pub.

(In trying to keep the anti-SDL demonstration under control the Edinburgh police were far less organised than their counterparts in Glasgow. Keep it up, boys!)

By about eleven o’clock, therefore, the SDL were stuck in Jenny Ha’s pub. The EAFA contingent had split in two, with one group up the road from the pub and the other one down the road from the pub. Between the EAFA groups and the pub were several ranks of police, police vans and mobile police cordons.

There were reports of other groups of SDLers being spotted in Edinburgh, but they failed to link up into a single group. They also failed to take part in anything which could be construed to be even a static demonstration. And the main SDL contingent was stuck in a pub on the Royal Mile.

That remained the situation until about four o’clock in the afternoon, when, under a heavy police escort, the SDLers were finally bussed out of Edinburgh.

Although two double-decker buses were used to ship them out, the SDLers numbered less than fifty – most of the seats on the buses were taken up by ordinary police and riot police.

And even that figure was reached only by English Defence League members mobilising to support the SDL: television footage of Jenny Ha’s shows a Leeds EDL banner in the pub window.

Edinburgh in February was an even bigger humiliation for the SDL than Glasgow in November was. And it also showed up UAF in general, and Weyman Bennett in particular, as obstacles to mobilising real opposition to the SDL and their allies in the BNP.

But there was a downside to the day. At its height, the EAFA contingent amounted to around 300 plus, compared with the 2,000 or so “Scotland United” claims attended its events. And even after last Saturday’s events “Scotland United” and UAF will continue to be seen as the ‘legitimate’ anti-SDL and anti-fascist campaigns in Scotland.

This applies in particular to the trade unions. As had been the case in Glasgow, trade unions mobilised solely for the “Scotland United” march and rally. There was no organised trade union presence in the EAFA.

Last Saturday’s events were certainly a defeat for the SDL. But they need to be followed up by taking arguments into all levels of the trade unions about why organising against the SDL must mean organising to confront them.