By Scottish Socialist Appeal supporters Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Saturday November 14th saw the Scottish Defence League’s attempt at a Glasgow city centre rally fail miserably. The group spent most of the day confined in a pub, protected by hundreds of police, before being forced onto chartered buses in the face of a much larger counter demonstration. However, the story is not simply one of the far right being driven from the streets by a left wing demonstration. There are many political lessons to be learned from Saturday’s events and the lead up to it which are important for those attempting to effectively oppose the English Defence League and its Scottish ally.
The Scottish Defense League originally announced plans to hold a rally in Glasgow in September. It is clear that this group is a Scottish branch of the ‘English Defence League’. This organisation, spawned from the football hooligan group ‘Casuals United’, have held a series of demonstrations allegedly targeting “Muslim extremists.” In practice these have been violent racist affairs that have seen attacks on mosques, Asian small businesses, gay pubs, people with the “wrong” skin colour and the organised left. These demos have also seen the widespread use of Hitler salutes, it is evident that this group is supported by politically motivated neo-Nazi elements as well as racist football hooligans (not that they are mutually exclusive!). It’s clear that there is a cross over between this group and the BNP, with members of the BNP having been seen on EDL events in spite of their party officially banning them from partaking in them.
Organising to Oppose the SDL
The first attempts at organising a counter demonstration against the SDL march took the form of meetings called by the Glasgow University Left Society, starting from September 30th. The last two meetings were the largest with about fifty people attending. At these meetings there was a clear awareness of the need to have both a political response to the SDL and to confront the fascists. There was also an understanding that an effective counter-action could not be organised solely from the university and of the need to mobilise workers and youth on a wider scale. As a result of this extensive leafleting and postering was organised for two public meetings in the Southside of Glasgow.
In early October the left wing lawyer and activist Amir Anwar and ‘Unite Against Fascist’ announced a demonstration under the banner of ‘Scotland United’. This was a police sanctioned demonstration with a definite route that was to assemble at 12.00 midday at Glasgow Green, not marching until 1′ o’clock and with the support of the political establishment (including the Tories!) and religious organisations. The group organising around the Left Society came into contact with other groups opposed to what was obviously going to be an ineffective way of opposing the SDL from marching as, at this time, we knew they would be gathering much earlier than 13.00 pm. The Left Society came into contact with other groups with a similar outlook, this resulted in the calling of a demonstration at 10.00 am in the centre of town under the banner of ‘Glasgow Anti-Fascist Alliance’.
Initially this demonstration was written off by UAF and Amir Anwar as a violent attempt to confront the SDL on an individualist basis. In contrast to this false assertion the demonstration at 10.00 am was widely built for, thousands of flyers were distributed across the city and posters put up around the University and in a large number of shops in the Southside. As it soon emerged that there was widespread support for the assembly at 10.00 am the UAF position changed and two days before the event they decided to support the demonstration
What happened on the day
On the morning of November 14th hundreds of people gathered at St Enochs Square in the city centre, with spotters relaying information back at around eleven o’clock that the SDL had gathered in the Cambridge Bar on Cambridge Street. At this point the decision was made to march, the gathering’s size forcing the police to allow this. On approaching the pub the march had approximatly five hundred people. At this point the UAF contingent, having assembled on the other side of the street, attempted to put itself at the head of a demonstration they had played next to no role in building. Weyman Bennett, the nominal leader of UAF, began shouting down a megaphone that the march should redirect itself towards the UAF rally at Glasgow Green despite the fact the march would not be leaving until 13.00 pm! However because of the militant mood of the demonstration these calls were ignored and the whole body continued to move towards the Cambridge. The pub was protected by approximately 200 police standing in lines six deep. It became clear that as the front of the march approached that the police were bringing in reinforcements to create a kettle and block off the front of the march from the rest of it. It was evident they had been scared by the mobility of the march and its willingness to confront the fascists.
At this point the march regrouped and moved on past the pub. Eventually it was decided to redirect towards Glasgow Green, with the aim of returning when we got more information as to where the fascists were going to assemble; the information we had already indicated that there were fascists in multiple pubs and it would be dangerous for our forces to be stuck “kettled” outside one. However in retrospect this was a mistake, tactically it was wrong to go so far from the city centre, although the blame cannot entirely be put on the GAFA organisers who had been forced to make an impromptu call and had not called the demonstration at a location as far away as Glasgow Green. The GAFA march entered the Green as a united bloc five hundred plus strong and stayed together, which proved important in further developments. It also clearly demonstrated that it had not been a small march hell-bent on a violent confrontation and that it stood with the rest of the movement against the SDL.
The speeches began about twelve. At about 12.30pm we got information that the whole of the SDL forces had congregated outside the Cambridge and were beginning to try to move onto the streets. At this point a breakaway march emerged from Glasgow Green, made up of those who had been on the GAFA demonstration. Approximately three hundred people left the Green and marched towards the city centre. As a result the police hurriedly forced the SDL onto chartered buses and they were denied the ability to hold a public march. The SDL were only able to fill one and a half of the four buses waiting for them, the media have estimated their numbers as between seventy and one hundred. It is evident that they failed to achieve a large turnout and that militant action prevented them from being able to assemble effectively.
One of the comrades from Socialist Appeal remained at Glasgow Green trying to get people to march up to the Cambridge bar to support the previous breakaway. However some present argued that we could not leave until the speakers had finished and that we would not take a section of the demonstration with us. One person went to ask Amir Anwar and Weyman Bennett to stop the speeches and call the demonstration to leave. Of course they didn’t oblige and the speakers continued after the designated setting off time of one o’clock, making it clear the organisers of the ‘Scotland United’ demo had no interest in confronting the fascists.
An argument that had been used against organising the 10.00 am assembly was that, when we knew where the SDL were to converge, the most militant activists in the demo could then pull a bigger section of the march to confront them. It was interesting to note that it was the same people who had argued this at previous meetings who on the day itself then argued not to breakaway to stop the fascists marching from the pub. The march eventually started to move surrounded by a line of police all along the sides. When it reached the exit of Glasgow Green the demo turned away from the town. At this point another attempt was made to organise people to set off for the town to support the previous breakaway, but these people were herded back into the main body of the march by UAF organisers. The procession was then led round the houses at a snail’s pace, complete with a stop for a minute’s silence against racist murders. We have no principled objection to certain minute’s silences but when fascists are congregated ten minutes away it is not exactly the opportune time.
After forcing the SDL out of the city centre the breakaway marched to George Square, ready to move to oppose any SDL hangers on. The main body of the official demo eventually joined them.
After the rally was officially over a group of SDL were found on a nearby street corner. They were promptly dispersed by a far bigger group of those who had been involved in the counter demonstrations. Another group of fascists approached in order to attempt to reinforce their friends only to run away when they saw the numbers they faced. That they chose to do so whilst Hitler- saluting and eventually resorting to hiding behind a large police presence exposes the character of the SDL for what it is. The police formed a large blockade between ourselves and the fascists, promptly arriving en-mass on motorbikes and in vans. At this point one of the anti-SDL demonstrators was arrested and the whole demonstration warned over its conduct! The media reported throughout the day that there were five arrests. Since two appear to have been from those on our side this leaves only three SDL as being nicked, in spite of Hitler salutes and other such conduct which is meant to be illegal. Clearly we cannot rely on the police to stop fascism.
Lessons of the day
In drawing our conclusions on November 14th we must be clear that the differences on how to best confront the SDL were not simply practical considerations. They were clearly political in nature. The ideas behind the ‘Scotland United’ demo are not new, they represent the legacy of popular frontism; that is to say the strategy of a cross-class alliance to oppose fascism. In effect it led to a situation in Glasgow where revolutionary socialists were supposed to line up with ruling class representatives including Annabell Goldie, the leader of the Scottish Tories. That is to say oppose fascism by relying on those who are responsible for fanning its flames whilst relying on the state to prevent the SDL from organising. Amir Anwar called on the crowd to cheer the police for apparently using the Public Order Act against the SDL. It was only through retaining mobility and organising on the basis of effectively opposing fascism by preventing the SDL from assembling that we were able to attain any level of success. On the day this was what prevented the SDL from having free reign of Glasgow, the demonstration in the morning forced the police to keep the SDL in the Cambridge pub and this demo laid the basis for the break away that ultimately prevented them from having a march in Glasgow.
The challenge posed by the far right, be it gathering on our streets or putting themselves up for election, needs a class based response. The trade unions and the wider labour movement as well as community groups in working class areas, students and ethnic minorities cannot rely on – or therefore ally with – the great and the good of the political establishment. This is the tactic that UAF have undertaken in Glasgow and nationally. We cannot rely on the police to prevent the far right from gathering, we can only rely on the mobilisation of working class people. In the past shop stewards networks and trade union organisation more widely played an important role in this. The unions need to break with the methods of diluting its forces to appease Liberals and the like and provide a clear independent opposition to the likes of the SDL. We had several trade union activists as part of the organising meetings for the 10.00 am mobolisation, and many trade unionists on the march itself. However, to fight the far right we need a general rank-and-file mobilisation organised by local shop stewards. In Glasgow we were criticised for organising independently of UAF and told we were siphoning off the most militant elements from the “mass of the demonstration.” In practice the most militant elements of UAF came with us. The demonstration at 10 o’clock was a united front. It was not simply the organised left that assembled but local workers and youth who we’d leafleted at Lidl’s on the Southside or seen a poster in the local shop. We’ve made the SDL think twice about trying this on again and laid the basis for a greater level of opposition if they do so.