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Thu 1 October 2020
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From his experience with the far-right, Caolan Robertson argues their reaction to that assault on commentator Owen Jones proves they are happy to silence opponents when it suits them

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When Owen Jones was violently attacked outside a London pub last year by three football hooligans, one of whom ‘karate kicked’ him in the back without warning, the response was disturbingly mixed. While many on the political left and the centre were justly horrified, there was a particularly disturbing and predictable response from much of the right.

On Telegram, the Russian app to which many far-right e-celebs have been exiled, comments and posts claiming Jones ‘had it coming’ or outright denying the attack happened were rife. Even now on Twitter, responses to a BBC tweet linking an article about the attackers’ sentencing include users calling him a ‘puff’,  claiming that he ‘brought it upon himself’ and that he ‘should have been hit harder’. 

James Healy, the man who led the attack was found to have been a member of a football hooligan ‘firm’ and to have kept neo-nazi group Combat 18 memorabilia at home. While this attack was clearly politically motivated, it’s also worth noting that one of Combat 18’s key tenets is ‘Kill all Queers’. Perhaps most concerning though, is not the actual violence from avowed neo-nazis, but rather the committed support for it from the much less radical sections of the right. 

The right simply does not care about freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, or freedom of association or assembly or any other freedom that forms the basis of the Western democracy they profess to love so deeply.

On Telegram, the idols of the far-right such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Tommy Robinson and Gavin McInnes are vociferous in their insistence that free speech must be protected at all costs. But there is no clearer example of an attack on free speech than the brutal and ‘frenzied’ attack on Jones simply for his advocating left-wing ideals.

So why are so many on the right, even the ‘centre-right’ dismissing or even lauding what is essentially a shocking, appalling, affront to the very idea of free speech? Not since the murder of Jo Cox, a sitting MP, has such a blatant and frankly shameless act of political violence been met with such disregard from those who profess to nail their colours to the mast of ‘Western Values’. 

News of Healy and his accomplices’ sentencing (two years and a suspended sentence of eight months respectively) comes at a time when the culture wars topic du jour is ‘cancel culture’. The timing could not be more pertinent. At this point, we must stop and ask ourselves which is the greater affront to freedom of speech and Western democratic ideals?

Certainly, the use of physical violence, of any kind, against a political opponent is a far greater threat to the ability of any person to speak freely than the possibility of losing a job, a book deal or some other professional commodity.  We can debate whether cancel culture exists or not but all of its supposed impacts pale in comparison to actual violence. Yet the most outspoken advocates of free speech are not up in arms over this attack but at worst celebrated it and at best dismissed it completely.

Thus their hypocrisy is laid bare for all but themselves to see. This is because they patently do not care about freedom of speech or Western democracy. Milo Yiannopoulos, the right-wing provocateur who artificially inflated his book sales, posted on the right-wing app Parler as recently as this week, declaring he doesn’t want to see less cancel culture but more of it, as long as it is those he disagrees with being cancelled. 


Free Speech and Violence

Once upon a time, when I was much younger and vastly more stupid than I am now, I worked with Milo and this was very much his stance on politics. I also worked with ‘Tommy Robinson’ and many other content creators on the online right and can assure you that this attitude is not limited to Yiannopoulos. As the outtake from 2018 below reveals, Robinson’s latching onto the notion of ‘free speech’ was very much opportunistic and insincere.

The trouble is that in recent years the line that separated the far right from the mainstream conservative movement is eroding fast.

Last year Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed Chloe Westley as head of social media for Downing Street. Westley openly referred to the co-leader of Tommy Robinson’s Pegida UK (a branch of a German alt-right ethnonationalist group) as a ‘hero’. Anne Marie Waters, the far-right activist in question, was caught on camera by ITV claiming the EU wanted to turn Europe into an ‘Islamic State’.

I even met with the CEO of Westminster Digital, a production company responsible for much of the Conservative Party’s campaign content to discuss working on their content while I was working with Tommy Robinson and other hard-right ideologues. 

One of the reasons I began working with these people was because I believed that freedom of speech was under attack, I heard the figures about Sadiq Khan’s ‘online hate crime hub’ and the increasing number of arrests made over Twitter posts in 2016 and 2017. Like many, I had a knee jerk reaction to it, and this was part of the reason I drifted into hardcore right-wing politics.

One of the reasons I began to question my involvement was a violent attack on Muslim Youtuber Ali Dawah at the Day for Freedom rally in 2018. We had planned for the event to be the largest pro-free speech rally in recent memory and the lineup was a who’s who of the online right at the time. The day before the event, Ali Dawah had been making a lot of noise on Twitter claiming that if the rally was really about free speech we would let him speak too.

What a coup it would be, we thought, if Ali Dawah, who had a history of online spats with Robinson would crop up on stage and speak. We thought we could prove the naysayers wrong, prove that it was ultimately all about the freedom of speech, about democracy and Western values of freedom.

It was agreed that he would be put on stage and the update was announced via Robinson’s assistant on Twitter. The backlash was instant and Robinson publicly revoked the invite and denied any participation in making the decision, wasting no time in throwing his assistant under the bus.

Privately, however, Dawah was still slated to speak until the last minute when he had already arrived. A handful of supporters broke loose and violently confronted Dawah and his cameraman, assaulting him mid livestream in an attack that terrified me even then. My relationship with Robinson began to break down when that afternoon he reprimanded me, his assistant and my partner George Llewelyn-John for sharing tweets condemning the attack and appealing for witnesses to identify the men responsible. 


Don’t Fall for the Trap

At the Day for Freedom, Ali Dawah wasn’t just literally cancelled but he was made the victim of all too common far-right violence, violence that is implicitly supported by people like Robinson and Yiannopolous.

But Ali Dawah and Owen Jones are far from the only victims, a labour activist in her 70s was attacked by right wing thugs and suffered cracked ribs as recently as November last year. In March that same year the DFLA, a loose union of football hooligan ‘firms’ stormed into the Guardian offices demanding a letter they wrote be published and threatened to ‘return in greater numbers’ if their demands weren’t met. There are countless examples of threats and actual violence from the far-right and yet none of the doxxing, assaults, threats or harassment are on the table for discussion when the right want to talk about cancel culture and it’s danger to freedom of speech. 

It is time we all woke up. The right simply does not care about freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, or freedom of association or assembly or any other freedom that forms the basis of the Western democracy they profess to love so deeply. Nor do they care about democracy itself. They care only about winning, about spewing hate or perpetrating acts of violence with impunity

If we are to stand any chance of slowing or reversing the tide of right-wing populism, if we are to protect freedom of speech and the right to dissenting opinions, we must stop meeting them where they are. We must stop taking their arguments at face value; false, disingenuous arguments meant only to subvert our democracy, to divert our attention while they conjure up something much worse.

We have to stop falling for it every time, arguing with them over a cancel culture that they don’t even believe exists. It is all just a vehicle for them to achieve their reactionary goals, and while we are getting down in the mud with them from behind our computer screens, they are on the streets putting journalists in hospital and convincing a large proportion of the population that it didn’t even happen.

I used to laugh about the idea of fascism in the UK. I used to joke about it because I thought it wasn’t even a remote possibility.

How wrong – how naive I was. 


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