• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

    Previously at:
    blogs.salon.com/0003494
    barthsnotes.wordpress.com

    Email me
    (Non-commercial only)

  • Archives

  • Twitter

  • Supporting

  • Recent comments

Some Notes on the London “Yellow Vests” and Protests at Parliament Square

The opportunistic rebranding of the “Justice for Our Boys” campaign into a copycat “Yellow Vest” movement focusing on pro-Brexit stunts in central London has proven a huge success: when I wrote about the group in September, it was just one fringe-right presence at “Free Tommy” events; now, its strategies of traffic disruption and aggressive confrontations with Members of Parliament in and near Parliament Square has been rewarded with national headlines and comments in the House of Commons, and provoked debates around policing and freedom of protest. The group’s figurehead (he insists he is not the leader) James Goddard has currently eclipsed Robinson as the street face of the populist right. Here are a few observations.

1. Right-populist protests movements often complain that they are mischaracterised as “far right” and “racist”. However, Goddard allegedly has a history of using the ethnic slur “Paki”, and he has suggested that black people of whom he disapproves should go back to “Bongo Land” or “the jungle”. This is racism, although it may be casual rather than ideological: when the group’s protest on Saturday chanced upon some Cameroonians demonstrating about the situation in southern Cameroon they happily joined in, explicitly commenting that this would confound allegations of racism. Goddard also wants mass deportations of Muslims.

2. The group is heavily invested in conspiracy theories. Goddard’s Yellow Vest incorporates the WWG1WGA slogan popularised in the US by Qanon believers, and at one event in July he suggested that the country is run by “Satanic paedophiles” (for some reason now reported in the Daily Mail as “hostile paedophiles”. Tracey Blackwell (var. Tracy Blackwell), who is also a figurehead for the group, used the “Where We Go One We Go All” phrase in a pep-talk ahead of Saturday’s protest, amplifying its use by a member of the crowd, and last month she described Melanie Shaw and Sabine McNeill as political prisoners – since then, McNeill has been sentenced to nine years in prison for stalking offences relating to the Hampstead Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax.

3. There were four arrests during Saturday’s protest, in relation to scuffles with the police. One of these, of a 13-year-old girl, was first reported as an “attack on policeman”, which then escalated into the plural “assaulting officers”. Having seen a video of the incident (no link as there are laws about identifying minors in relation to arrests), though, this seems to me to be overblown. The girl appears to have been overwrought at officers corralling her mother: she shouts “don’t push her, don’t fucking push her”, and the arrest came when she shouted “get off of me” as an officer appeared (the view is obscured) to restrain her arm. I would be surprised if charges follow.

4. Why hasn’t Goddard been arrested on public order offences? I once saw a homeless man being arrested on Euston Road after he decided for some reason to sit in the middle of traffic; yet the police now look on while Westminster Bridge and other vital links across the river are deliberately blocked, and while Members of Parliament have been aggressively accosted in the street. Goddard was also filmed shouting at police that “You want a war I’ll give you a war”, which sounds very much like incitement to disorder (or perhaps even incitement to riot). Dai Davies, the former head of the Met’s territorial support unit, has said that he would have arrested them.

5. There has been particular focus on the group’s targeting of Anna Soubry, the high-profile Remain MP. Soubry was re-elected in 2017 on an openly Remainer platform, but the protesters take the view that her opposition to the referendum result means that she is a “Nazi”. The word was chanted at her during an open-air television interview, and she was recently approached in the street by Goddard and his associates and denounced as a “traitor”. As David Aaronovitch notes:

The issue is not being called a Nazi. Everybody gets called a Nazi some time. Doesn’t matter who you are. However, what was happening to the Tory MP Anna Soubry this week within spitting distance of parliament was physical intimidation. When a group of loud and angry men surround you, shout at you and seem to want to kill you, it’s intimidating. It feels like one small step away from serious violence.

It seems to me that this particular incident went beyond what an MP might reasonably expect to have to put up with, and officers should have intervened to at least warn the men to back off to a reasonable distance. This would not be inconsistent with the “right to let politicians know what you think of them”, which the predictable contrarian Brendan O’Neill believes is at risk from “privately educated political and media classes” who regard the protesters with distaste due to their working-class accents (1).

O’Neill’s view is that Soubry’s “quite minor travails” have been exaggerated, although it looks to me that such an assessment more properly applies to complaints about Remainer protests. Here’s David Davies, the Monmouth MP (and former boxer), unconvincingly claiming in February to being “intimidated” by SODEM, the Stand of Defiance European Movement; and the pro-Brexit Nadine Dorries – who despises Soubry and spread a lie about her on social media after the Brexit Referendum – has now produced an article for Conservative Home in which she alleges “I have barely been able to use my own office for over a year, thanks to the ‘Stop Brexit’ campaigners outside of my window”. This is difficult to credit for a couple reasons: first, that Dorries does not normally require a news bandwagon if she has a grievance about something; and second, that a photo posted by Dorries several months ago shows that the protesters are in fact in Old Palace Yard, across the main road from Parliament and several stories below her. (2)

Despite this, though, O’Neill has a point about the right to protest in Parliament Square, and we should be wary about how the law may be deployed to curtail protest activity: a month ago, the SODEM activist Steve Bray reported that a police officer had told him that his attempts to position himself in the background of news reports amounted to criminal damage of a cameraman’s footage – a completely bogus suggestion that might have led to a wrongful arrest. No sign of O’Neill then, though.

Footnotes

1. While O’Neill is scathing about Soubry’s complaints, he took a different view when a Muslim charity in Yorkshire complained about Sarah Champion’s op-ed in the Sun on Sunday which she herself said had been “stripped of nuance” by editors. In that instance, O’Neill took at face value her claims that the criticisms amounted to threats from extremists, and he cited the murder of Jo Cox MP.

2. Dorries also used her article to rehash old stalking allegations that went nowhere after a police investigation in 2013-14. I’ll note in passing that her new version of the story contains further falsehoods that serve to underline why the CPS declined to carry the matter forward, and why Bedfordshire Police are unlikely to take any new allegations from her at face value. Most recently, she has claimed to be “speaking [to] police” about disparaging remarks about her made by the broadcaster James O’Brien.