By Dale Street
The Scottish Defence League (SDL) had planned to stage a city-centre rally in Glasgow today (14th November). In the event, they spent most of their time sitting in a pub, reliant on the protection of several hundred police officers.
As more reports are written and published over the next few days, a clearer picture will emerge of what actually happened today. Right now, however, the day’s events and their – chronological and political – background can be summarised as follows.
In late September articles appeared in the Scottish media about a protest which the Scottish Defence League (SDL) planned to hold in Glasgow, following similar events staged in English cities by the English Defence League (EDL).
The SDL claimed that it was not against ordinary Muslims – just those who wanted to see sharia law implemented in Britain, and those who supported Islamist terrorism. The SDL also claimed that it was non-racist, nothing to do with the BNP, and a non-sectarian organisation.
It is true that the Scottish BNP website has carried articles condemning the SDL, just as the website used by the EDL and the SDL has carried articles criticising the BNP and its Combat 18 thugs.
But the SDL’s professed non-racism and aversion to the BNP stand in stark contrast to the reality of racist chants on EDL protests, the presence of known BNPers on those protests, and the involvement of individual BNPers in organising such protests.
Similarly, the SDL has had no success in its claimed ambition of ‘rising above’ the West of Scotland sectarian divide. And this was certainly confirmed by today’s events.
In response to the news breaking of the SDL’s planned protest, “Scotland United” (SU) was launched at a press conference on 19th October. Although it is not clear who the political forces were behind this initiative, it soon took on a familiar political physiognomy.
Following a well-established tradition – dating back to the years when the Communist Party exercised a substantial, albeit entirely pernicious, influence on the Scottish trade union movement – SU was set up as a ‘broad’ non-party-political initiative devoid of any specific labour-movement orientation or politics.
Thus, the initial list of SU signatories included the Scottish TUC, individual unions, the usual religious organisations, MPs and MSPs from different political parties (soon to include the Tories), voluntary sector organisations, and various individuals anxious to bathe in the reflected glory of such an august body of sponsors.
United Against Fascism (UAF; read: Socialist Workers Party (SWP)) signed up to it from the outset, and so too did the Stop the War Coalition (read: SWP) and individual members of the SWP.
While some Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) members denounced SU as an exercise in ‘popular frontism’, the SSP as an organisation signed up to it, along with a number of individual SSP members. Tommy Sheridan likewise put his name to SU, along with the rump Scottish Solidarity Movement which split from the SSP in 2006.
The SU founding statement called on Glasgow City Council and the police to ban any SDL activity on November 14th (which eventually emerged as the date chosen by the SDL for a stationary rally, after it had failed to be given permission for a march).
Initially, the sole activity which SU intended organising on 14th November was its own stationary rally on Glasgow Green, at the (assumed) same time as the rally being held by the SDL. By early November, however, SU had decided that its Glasgow Green rally would be followed by a demonstration through the city centre.
Politically, the SU dissolved a specific labour movement response to the threat posed by the SDL into a nebulous multi-culturalism and celebration of religious pluralism. Organisationally, as a necessary consequence of those politics, it staged a rally and demonstration as an alternative to mobilising to confront the SDL.
A statement on the website of the Scottish-Islamic Foundation (one of the SU’s initiators) explained: “The move (to launch SU) comes after the stated intention of the far-right SDL to protest outside Glasgow Central Mosque on 14 November. SU have said that they will be organising a rally elsewhere in the city at the same time.”
An SU representative put it even more bluntly at a meeting held on 13th November: "We have a clear policy of avoiding direct confrontation with the SDL. Police are in agreement with this and the SDL will not be allowed to protest or congregate anywhere near where Scotland United will be."
While SU prepared for its rally and demonstration “elsewhere in the city at the same time” as the SDL’s protest, a series of meetings were held to mobilise to confront the SDL.
The meetings were initiated by “Socialist Appeal”, the SSP, and non-aligned socialists. Eventually, the name “Glasgow Anti-Fascist Alliance” (GAFA) was adopted as a flag of convenience.
The GAFA meetings were not about having a confrontation with the SDL for the sake of it. There was no rhetoric at GAFA meetings glorifying physical confrontation as an end in itself. The need to confront the SDL was posed in political terms.
The political issue recognised by GAFA, but not by SU, was that any SDL activity carried with it the threat of physical attack – or, at the very least, intimidation and threats – directed at members of ethnic minorities. Not confronting the SDL would only embolden them and give them the confidence to stage further protests, which, again, could easily flow over into racist attacks.
The emergence of GAFA confronted the SWP/UAF with a problem. Unable to ignore it, they had to decide whether to support it or oppose it as a diversion. (SWP/UAF are referred to here as a single entity because that is what they were, in the sense that the UAF was no more than a transmission belt for SWP decisions.)
You would think that it would be axiomatic that anti-fascists and revolutionaries would support the GAFA initiative. But supporting GAFA would sour SWP/UAF relations with SU, while not supporting it would undermine their posturing as the militant anti-fascists. An additional problem for the SWP/UAF was that they did not control GAFA.
At the early GAFA meetings the SWP/UAF maintained a low profile and generally limited themselves to stressing the importance of building for the SU event. But at the GAFA meeting of 10th November, the SWP/UAF finally came out with a fully developed position.
The GAFA decision to meet in the city centre at 10.00am on Saturday, instead of at Glasgow Green at midday, explained an SWP member, was “voluntarism”. (He probably meant “adventurism”, but that would have been no less inaccurate.)
Assembling in the city centre at 10.00, he eruditely continued, would mean isolating the most militant elements from the masses (i.e. supporters of the SU event at Glasgow Green). This would be a gross mistake.
The UAF approach had been proved correct in the past, he claimed. The UAF had stopped the BNP’s “Red, White and Blue” festival from going ahead (not true), the UAF’s tactics had been successful when Nick Griffin had appeared on “Question Time” (how?), and the UAF had stopped the SDL in Leeds (not true).
In response to criticism of the SU rally being addressed by Tory MSP Annabel Goldie, the SWP member argued that while some speakers at the SU rally were “not as good as you might want”, they would attract people who would otherwise not turn up.
(The idea that anybody would turn up to Glasgow Green at midday on a Saturday to hear Annabel Goldie speak was surely the most preposterous of all the claims made by the SWPer.)
With a concluding flourish, the SWPer declared that we needed to get away from a situation where it was just the left against the fascists – what was needed was “society against the fascists”.
Like Baldrick of “Blackadder”, the SWP/UAF had a cunning plan: You turn up to the SU rally, and then, when the details of the time and venue of the SDL event are discovered, you split off from the SU demonstration and take the militant elements with you in order to march on the SDL.
But subsequent events were to show that, like Baldrick himself, the plan stank.
The day after the GAFA meeting of 10th November, the SWP/UAF’s cunning plan was already in tatters. It became known that the SDL had instructed its supporters to turn up in Glasgow city centre at 10.00am on Saturday.
Staging a rally in Glasgow Green which would not begin until half twelve and a demonstration which would not begin until half one, would all be too late. The SDL would have been and gone well before the SU rally had had the delight of being addressed by a Tory MSP.
The SWP/UAF then supposedly changed line – the operative word is “supposedly” – and claimed that it would be supporting the GAFA mobilisation for 10.00.
But even after the supposed change-in-line the UAF website carried no information about the 10.00 mobilisation. It publicised only the SU rally and demonstration. And while the odd individual member of the SWP or UAF may have helped distribute publicity material for the GAFA mobilisation, neither the SWP nor UAF as organisations made an effort to publicise the 10.00 mobilisation.
Around 300 people had turned up at the GAFA assembly point by about half ten this morning. An SWP/UAF contingent was present, but not in any great numbers. And, symbolically, it assembled on the opposite side of the road from the GAFA assembly point.
By eleven o’clock spotters had reported back that the SDL were gathering in a pub in Cambridge Street, on the opposite side of the city centre.
The GAFA contingent headed off towards Cambridge Street, with the publicity-conscious SWP/UAF contingent putting itself at the head of the contingent – despite their earlier opposition to the initiative – and SWP/UAF full-timer Weyman Bennett suddenly emerging as some kind of self-appointed steward-in-chief.
(And Cambridge Street could have been reached a lot quicker without the stops for photo-opportunities.)
The police were out in force at Cambridge Street. After a few minutes of facing up to the police lines the GAFA contingent did an about-turn and marched back through the city centre to join up with the SU event which was gathering in Glasgow Green.
This was a mistake (but is easy to be wise after the event). With the benefit of hindsight, the GAFA contingent should have stayed put.
True, there was a risk of the GAFA contingent getting ‘kettled’. On the other hand, there was also a possibility that more anti-SDLers might have turned up to swell the ranks of those already gathered at precisely the place where the SDL were meeting up.
And if the GAFA contingent had stayed put, then there was much less chance that the SDL would have been able to stage the ‘stationary rally’ which they subsequently held, even if only briefly.
But such considerations do not seemed to have counted for anything with the organisers of the SWP/UAF. They were visibly keen to lead people away from Cambridge Street and to the SU rally on Glasgow Green.
Around half twelve the SDL emerged from the pub. There were less than a hundred of them, and a number of them looked the worst for wear after two hours in a pub. Despite the SDL’s claims that it stood above football rivalries, their turnout looked like a day out for a handful of Rangers fans.
The SDLers marched about fifty yards, sang “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the Queen”, and shouted a few slogans against sharia law. A couple of them gave Nazi salutes.
Then they turned around and marched back to the pub, where they were put on buses by the police and driven away. Two double-deckers buses were more than sufficient for the numbers who had turned up.
The “two minutes silence for all British soldiers who have lost their lives so far this year” which the SDL had promised never materialised. Perhaps hanging around on a street corner after two hours in a pub was not the most appropriate occasion for it.
While the SDL was having its mini-march GAFA spotters phoned back to Glasgow Green to let people down there know what was going on and to urge them to return to Cambridge Street.
GAFA supporters who were at Glasgow Green at this time are categorical in saying that SWP/UAF organisers told people to stay put in Glasgow Green and not to head off to Cambridge Street.
And it is certainly a fact that the bloc which left Glasgow Green at this point – although it was too late to get back to Cambridge Street, which underlines the mistake of going to Glasgow Green in the first place – was devoid of the SWP/UAF.
The SWP/UAF’s cunning plan of breaking away from the ‘official’ protest in order to confront the SDL had turned out to be just so much hot air – a pseudo-militant posture designed to cover up their accommodation to SU.
In the meantime, the SU demonstration had set off from Glasgow Green in the direction of George Square in the city centre. There were about 2,000 on the demonstration, with the SWP/UAF firmly ensconced in its ranks. But by this time the SDLers were already on their way home.
According to a report currently on the BBC website, “There were clashes outside Central Station and at several points around the city centre. Police said they had made five arrests.” These appear to have been small-scale incidents with isolated groups of SDLers.
The SDL might try to present today’s events as another successful protest, given that they were able to march – even if only for a hundred yards or so.
In reality, they suffered a real setback. Only around a hundred of them turned up, there was nothing non-sectarian about their turnout, they spent most of their time sitting in a pub, they had to rely on police protection, and they had to be bussed out of town (or to other pubs) as soon as their non-event was over.
As one dejected SDLer has commented on the SDL Facebook page: “What demo in Glasgow? People were too scared to leave the pub. What a fucking shambles wae people laughing at us. I’m embarrassed. People were literally laughing at us like we were clowns.”
What lessons can be learnt from today for future anti-SDL and anti-fascist mobilisations?
One lesson, even if not necessarily the most important one, is that the SWP/UAF are not to be trusted, neither in terms of their political judgements nor even in terms of basic honesty. They were politically wrong to support the SU event, and they were politically dishonest when they claimed that they intended to confront the SDL.
More importantly, unfortunately, today’s events emphasised the gap – in fact, abyss – between those intent on confronting the SDL and the ‘official’ labour movement. There was not even a single trade union banner nor any kind of organised turnout from the unions on the GAFA mobilisation.
The third lesson, which follows on from the above, is the need to mount a campaign in the unions – not to just to mobilise against the SDL and the BNP, but also to provide a political alternative which can attract those who might otherwise be taken in by fascist demagogy and racist scapegoating.