Banning EDL marches? Or being careful what you wish for

If you were a genuine democrat at the turn of 1937, you would have been scared. Fascism was on the march across Europe. Italy had fallen first; German Nazism had shut down the world’s greatest labour movement virtually overnight and was upping the persecution of the Jews; and a fascist-backed military coup against Spain’s left-leaning government had plunged the country into a nightmare civil war.

Here in Britain, Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts – backed by the likes of the Daily Mail – were loudly agitating for a fascist government on the European model. Could British democracy fall next? Without the benefit of hindsight, and with the tragic complacency of many imprisoned (or dead) European leftists seared on to your recent memory, you could not be sure that the lights would not go out here, too.

So perhaps you would have backed the Conservative Government’s Public Order Act, signed in to law on 1 January 1937. Ostensibly, it had been aimed squarely at the Blackshirts in the aftermath of the iconic Battle of Cable Street. Among other things, it required police consent before political demonstrations could take place and banned the wearing of “political uniforms” in public.

You may not have realised that the Public Order Act would end up being used against the left. In the 1970s, it was used against pro-Irish Republican demos. During the Miners Strike of 1984-5, it was used against flying pickets.

More broadly, it established the precedent of state interference in protests. Wondering how we ended up with cops imprisoning 14 year old school kids in freezing temperatures for 8 or 9 hours? The Public Order Act is as good as any place to start.

This is a warning from history, because it shows what happens when you start asking the state to use its power against those who could be deemed political undesirables. If you set a precedent, how do you know it won’t end up being used against you next time?

The dramatic rise of the virulently Islamophobic English Defence League has provoked understandable fear throughout the left. When they have marched through town centres, they have been intimidating (particularly to British Muslims), and participants have been heard yelling racist abuse.

That’s led some on the left to call for their marches to be banned, most recently in Luton, and before that in Birmingham. Back in October, the Government actually did ban them marching in Leicester.

I think it is a mistake for the left to demand that the state steps in and bans any form of demonstration. In the aftermath of the student protests that began in November, it is far from beyond the realms of possibility that left-wing demos will be banned – it’s already been mooted. If a genuine mass movement against the Government gathers steam, it will be the left on the receiving end of repressive measures.

Under the last Government, we saw how authoritarian legislation was, in practice, used in a far more wide-ranging way than was originally claimed. Anti-terror laws have repeatedly been used against protesters – including octogenarian Walter Wolfgang for the crime of heckling Jack Straw. Even anti-stalking laws have been twisted to clamp down on the right to freely protest.

The answer to the EDL is not to run to the state like it’s some sort of neutral arbiter, giving it left-wing cover to chop away further at the right to protest. It is to confront head-on the grievances that the EDL feeds on: not least, the fact that working-class people in this country have been deprived of political representation.

So, next time an EDL demo gets banned, pause before you cheer: because it might be you next.