On Saturday, thousands of conspiracy theorists descended on Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against coronavirus restrictions, vaccines and 5G networks. The crowd was addressed by an array of speakers, prominent among them Piers Corbyn, the brother of Jeremy Corbyn and the UK’s premier conspiracist, David Icke. It was a large and heterogeneous group, difficult to label with any conventional political ideology: such is the power of conspiracy and the effect of wide-scale detachment from social reality.
However, amidst this crowd, a photograph of a man holding the flag of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) caught the attention of anti-fascists. Alarming as this may seem, it should not set anti-fascists off on a wild goose chase after an organisation that has not been politically relevant for over 70 years. No one now is seriously considering reforming the BUF, and there are greater threats on the far-right that must be opposed.
This has not stopped some on the left sounding the alarm over the return of the blackshirts. One anti-fascist facebook account declared that this was officially ‘not a drill’ (as if it ever had been). Another account engaged in a thread equating the British Union of Fascists, an organisation that had thousands of members at its height but, to reiterate, disbanded in 1940, to the New British Union of Fascists, a group of less than ten who LARP as fantasy fascists. A further widely shared post bemoaned the fact a fascist flag had been flown and no one on the demonstration had done anything about it – making a huge assumption that anyone in the vicinity would have known what the symbol even was. The fact that its use might have gone entirely unnoticed is a confirmation that it no longer has much meaning as a symbol of hate.
We are not saying, of course, that fascist and far right organising should be of no concern. Just this week far right groups have targeted hostels and hotels housing asylum seekers across the country, subjecting the most vulnerable to intimidation and potential violence. It is also true that the far-right is seeped in conspiracy, and conspiracy theorists have the potential to be a recruitment bonanza for them. It is frustrating that those raising the alarm about the BUF flag seem to have missed the active and well connected far right personalities who did attend the demonstration, such as holocaust denier James Thring who has spoken at the far right London Forum.
The furore over the BUF flag has betrayed a weakness in analysis amongst some on the left, one that prioritises representation and symbols over power and capacity. Anti-fascists need to be strategic in their focus, especially in a moment where the far-right is reorienting away from performative street demonstrations and towards community building and local politics. Anti-fascists who waste time chasing defunct symbols, who do not change with the prevailing conditions, will soon find themselves with nothing to offer.