Is There Really a Problem with Left Wing Extremism in the UK, or Is the Government Seeking Excuses to Suppress Fair Protest?

Yves here. We may be going a bit heavy on “media watch” and freedom of speech coverage, particularly the gratuitous bashing of the barely-able-to-fight-its-way-out-of-a-paper-bag left, but your programming alternative is the tempest du jour of the Trump impeachment saga, which is being amply covered in Links anyhow.

Admittedly, this impeachment iteration looks to be on track to be more successful than the first by virtue of being less drawn out. While the Trump legal team looks to be making an embarrassing show of itself, is this just incompetence or the attorneys deliberately demonstrating they don’t have to care? Tellingly, some of the Trump team critics are comparing its legal show to My Cousin Vinny. Did they forget that Vinny won? And its best scenes are classics? Watch in succession. The boys Vinny is defending are accused of murder:

To more serious matters, the depiction of “extreme” as in on the far end of our very narrow political spectrum as tantamount to violent and hence legitimate to silence. In the UK, this follows the shameless bashing of Corbyn for purported anti-Semitism. Any excuse not to pay workers a decent wage.

By Richard Murphy, a chartered accountant and a political economist. He has been described by the Guardian newspaper as an “anti-poverty campaigner and tax expert”. He is Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University, London and Director of Tax Research UK. He is a non-executive director of Cambridge Econometrics. He is a member of the Progressive Economy Forum. Originally published at Tax Research UK

I posted this comment on Twitter last night:

There was, of course, a context for doing this. As The Guardian noted in the last day or so:

The government has reportedly ordered an investigation into the extreme fringes on both ends of the political spectrum, with a peer tasked with offering recommendations to the prime minister and home secretary.

The review will be led by John Woodcock, the former Labour MP who now sits in the upper chamber as Lord Walney and was appointed as the government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption last November.

Let’s be clear: the government is right to note that we face an extremist threat. Fascism is growing in out society. Threats are commonplace. I have no time for them. They are utterly unacceptable, from wherever they come.

But let’s also be clear that as far as I can see the only left wing extremists that will be found are likely to be, in the government’s opinion, Extinction Rebellion and Black  Lives Matter. Both take action to affirm the right to live in freedom of fear.

In contrast, on the right what we are seeing is the active promotion of fear. Oppression of others is the stock-in-trade of the right.

So, we have one supposed extremism wing affirming the right to life free from fear and discrimination in all its forms, and the other extreme seeking to do the exact opposite.

And what that very strongly suggest to me is that we are not comparing like with like. In fact, the analogy is deliberately a falsehood in itself and part of the process of oppression in its own right.

I am not suggesting I always agree with all protest methods used by XR and BLM, because I can have my own views on what is appropriate. But have I ever spotted what might fairly vibe called extremism in their actions? No, is my fair response to that.

But I do see oppression and violence, and violent threats coming from the right. So shall we not equate the two, whilst always condemning all those who use such methods?

I cannot help that feel that just as the government is cracking down on charities to oppress the proper statement of history to prevent exposure  of those who oppressed in pursuit of profit, so too is the government now seeking to use right wing violence as an excuse  to oppress those who want to curtail those who still do the same thing. And that is utterly unacceptable, but a clear indication of the world we now live in.

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      1. Harry

        Very interesting subject (well at least it is to me). The UK has long been a world leader in propaganda techniques. Sorry, I mean PR.

    1. John Siman

      Hooray for CJ Hopkins and his Consent Factory in Berlin! No other writer more incisively shows how the smear-word “extremist” is used to demonize anyone who questions our increasingly totalitarian Neoliberal Orthodoxy, which is now both savagely militaristic and savagely woke. And to address this matter with more gentleness: let me recommend a short, thoughtful YouTube video by Yanis Varoufakis:
      Why demonizing Trump supporters (as Domestic-Violence-Extremists!) destroys democracy

  1. PlutoniuKun

    In the 1990’s the Tory government at the time encouraged the use of laws originally intended for football hooligans against environmental protestors. Those laws essentially gave the police the power to break up any type of gathering they deemed unauthorised. Later on, the hysteria about the rave culture (i.e., as the law put it ‘music that includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’), gave yet more powers, which were again used against environmental protestors, particularly anti-roads protests. The Labour government, needless to say, never retracted those laws.

    That said, real far right protests are a rare thing in the UK. It obviously exists underground, mostly via some football clubs and online. To a large extent, I think this is down to the success of the mainstream right in absorbing the populist/far right while persuading them to be not too obviously racist. On the rare occasions they go out on the street, they usually get a pretty severe beating from anti-fascist groups, who usually far outnumber them.

    It was almost entirely overlooked in the UK that a far right political party was in fact in power. The DUP has long had both overt and covert contact with far right groupings throughout Europe and elsewhere (among other things, they were enthusiastic supporters of the South African white supremicist government). They also have had long established links with domestic* far right paramilitary groups. But somehow, the British media were just too polite to mention this when they shared power with Theresa May’s government.

    *by ‘domestic’, i mean in the UK, but the UK media never acknowledges that anything that happens in Northern Ireland is ‘British’ when it suits them. Hence you can have openly fascist death squads marching in the open, but since its in Belfast its ‘over there’, not a British problem.

    1. Major Dalby

      There is also the linkage between the left and the Palestinian cause which is a live wire in UK party politics and was one of the things that dogged Jeremy Corbyn in the media. There is also a linkage with anti-semitism on the left (at least towards the Jewish community members of the Labour Party). In that respect the far left and far right have some commonalities – though neither would admit it. In the UK, the far left are surprisingly active, prior to COVID, the socialist worker was regularly sold at the local tube station, there were lively meetings, demos and a persistent stickering campaign on every piece of street furniture in my neighbourhood.

      Finally, the far left have been linked (possibly unfairly) with supporting Chinese over UK interests (if, true, they have a lot in common with the UK’s universities and financial services sector). This last one is a bit of a stretch. The Hong Kong protests and Uighur situation puts the left in a bind. Both are movements that would appeal to their base; but its China. Which is the reasons why I think that they’ve been quiet.

  2. John A

    Veteran film director Ken Loach, renowned for hardhitting exposes of the cruelties of neoliberalism, most recently his film about an amazon type gig worker delivery driver ‘Sorry We Missed you’, who is a strong supporter of both Corbyn and Palestinians, has been the subject of a deplatforming attempt by the Jewish Chronicle and other pro-Israel groups, when he gave a talk at Oxford University this week. The charge, naturally, was that Loach is ‘anti-semitic’.

    1. JBird4049

      It is rather like how the American regime has been using the “war against terror” as justification, if a technique is a cause to fight, for the terroristic, murderous, lawbreaking, and ineffective “war’ that is being waged; just how is it pro-Israeli, forget about patriotic, to defend crimes against humanity? You cannot because it is not for the defense of life, country, civilization or anything else, but of greed in both cases.

  3. Maff

    ‘In contrast, on the right what we are seeing is the active promotion of fear. Oppression of others is the stock-in-trade of the right.”

    A typical example of the wooly narrative coming from the dogmatic left. How far right do I have to go before I am tarred with this brush? Would, for example, a democratic vote to tighten immigration laws and reaffirm the right to at least express more traditional values (e.g. on gender) be considered “oppression”?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      “Wooly narratives”. My goodness, a classic case of projection, compounded by reading comprehension failure. In a less than 800 word post, you missed, “Any excuse not to pay workers a decent wage.”

      Wokeness and open borders are top 10% projects. Affluent professional need their cheap nannies and yardmen.

      1. vlade

        Wokeness is not even top 10% project, it’s a special part of the population that is just .. weird. I guess they don’t go for bondage, so instead they go for the artificial guilt (both of feelign superious because _they_ feel it, as well as torturing those who don’t with it).

        1. .Tom

          But sadism is a possibility we should consider among the motives to actively join in with a public shaming.

      2. Harry

        I thought I had detected an desperate attempt to introduce “culture wars” into the UK to split the lower classes much as had been achieved in the US. Its not confined to the Tories. Starmers flag gambit, might be viewed as a dogwhistle (Im nothing like those horrible woke people or their ethnic friends) to win over the defecting “red wall”. Are there really that many transsexual people? Why are we constantly talking about transsexual discrimination? Isnt there enough other types of discrimination around? I cant help but think its the perfect articulation of the culture war for the right. What would they rather campaign on?

        I dont mean to dismiss this kind of politics. If it aint broke and all that. But its hard to applaud the naked cynicism of it. Of course, perhaps I too cynical and I am just imagining it.

        1. paul

          Blair Staliner’s position seems to be:

          We are,because of the deplorables, in a basically right wing country, but let’s try to be nice about it.

          The worthless,calculated rise of this character, both relying on and standing on, his predecessor, makes a powerful case for despair.

          The thing he guarantees: no return to corbynism.

          The other thing he guarantees: no return to labour.

          As the polls show, his ‘forensic abilities’ (those attributed in honorarium to anyone who has been forced to read a law book while in pursuit of prestige and standing(social)) count for very little in his target audience; the people.

            1. John A

              Starmer has now been banned from the society of Socialist Lawyers – because he is “demonstrably not a socialist”

              So true, so sad. Wrapping himself in the flag was idiotic.

    2. James Simpson

      Tighten immigration laws? You mean they aren’t already? Perhaps you’re looking for death camps or for the Royal Navy to use machine guns on families crossing the Channel. Given the hatred, fear and contempt whipped up by the British media, which is almost entirely owned and controlled by capitalist corporations and right-wing oligarchs, as well as by the Tory and Labour leaders apart from the brief interregnum when Mr Corbyn was allowed a say, is it any wonder that there is so much ignorance about migrating people? As for expressing what you term traditional values e.g. hatred of non-binary children and adults, those hateful views are all over social media, newspaper columns and stand-up comedians’ routines, so there’s little danger of them getting censored.

  4. Mark James

    I be leave we are seeing the beginning of a soft coup in the UK, where all but approved dissent is effectively outlawed?

    1. TimH

      That’s essentially true in every country, regardless of laws protecting dissent/speech.

      I PROC, discussion of dissent (tanks in a certain square for example) is prohibited. MSM has been selective for years in the West, and in USA you now have attacks on Sec. 230 plus FB saying today that political speech will be moderated. “political speech” of course won’t have a firm definition, just like “terrorist act” doesn’t.

      Control the people by controlling what they see and hear.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Social Media is just a bunch of floating ” digital sea ice” floating on top of the internet. Most people just use Social Media or certain establishment icebergs also floating around on top of the internet. The internet itself is the whole vast ocean beneath the digital sea ice and icebergs floating around on the top. Those people who are able to bore down through the ice into the ocean beneath will still be able to get news and views and info unmediated by the Lords of the Surface.

        But they will have to learn how to do it.

  5. The Rev Kev

    This may be part of a larger pattern this. Just recently Facebook in the UK permanently blocked accounts to the Socialist Equality Party, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK and in fact the permanent disablement of other accounts was fairly extensive. And now the government has reportedly ordered an investigation into the extreme fringes on both ends of the political spectrum which will probably target the Left and not groups like the English Defence League. I have grave suspicions here as the UK in recent years has ramped up on propaganda organizations with ties to think tanks, army organizations (77th Brigade) and others, surreptitiously spreading conflict with countries like Russia and the adoption of a neocon foreign policy. We recently saw in Time’s article “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election” how this worked out in practice in the US so I see no reason to doubt that there is a similar, extensive program to shape the UK in certain ways. And I think that the destruction of Corbyn was just one sign of their handiwork-

  6. vlade

    There’s another interesting thing just happening in the UK. Much of weird happenings around the Royal family came out in the last few days, like allegations that they used their veto (which everyone was before saying is just technical, and never happens) for their personal gains and political preferences.

    For ever and ever the Queen was held up as a selfless paragon serving the nation (yes, in a goldplated cage, but still doing what she considered right vs. the easy stuff). If the allgations hold, it will shatter the Royal myth – which was going that way with Charles already, but this would be worse.

    If that myth is shattered, the UK may move towards ceasing to be a monarchy, or it can be used as an excuse to move towards an entirely different political system (presidential republic?).

    Since the stuff alleged has been around for ages, it’s a question of why was it dragged out now? Especially when patriotism and soft-nationalism is making a comeback, and the place of the Royal Family there is on par with the flag, apple pie and similar for the US.

    1. Halcyon

      With all due respect, I don’t think anything, at least not while the Queen is alive, will “shatter the Royal myth.” If Prince Andrew being essentially widely acknowledged as a pedophile buddying up to Epstein and lying to everyone on national TV wasn’t enough, the fact that they influence laws for personal gain won’t matter a jot.

      In Britain, I feel the vast majority of people simply don’t care about the royals all that much. You have a tiny minority of staunch Republicans, a much larger contingent who are “fans” that follow them like celebrities and gush over royal weddings and such, and a great mass who range from “eh probably shouldn’t have a monarchy in this day and age” to “well they’re good for tourism so they can stay” but who ultimately don’t care that much and hardly ever think about it.

      I mentioned this very story to members of my family who are very pro-royal and the response I got was “Eh, everyone in power is on the take anyway, so who cares?” And anyone who isn’t reading The Guardian probably won’t see the story at all, just like they’re not reading anything bad about the impacts of Brexit.

    2. TimH

      I do believe, and would appreciate comment on the truthiness or not, that UK Royal family’s wealth is a state secret.

      I remember when the gorgeous Georgian terraces around The Regent’s Park, NW1 were exempt from the law allowing leaseholders to band together to buy the freehold… because Brenda owned some.

    3. ChrisPacific

      This seems odd. Surely if they used the veto it would be a matter of public record? I checked Wikipedia and it claims it hasn’t been used in the UK since 1708.

      1. c_heale

        Wikipedia on any contemporary political issue is not trustworthy, due to the fact it can be edited by almost anyone, and that the people running it have their own political views.

    4. Lali

      I totally agree. It is naive to imagine that an issue of such consequence was a ‘secret’ practice and a ‘mysterious’ procedural rule. According to the Guardian, each draft bill was sent to the palace and to the Queen’s legal advisers, and the Queen was given two weeks to comment. How secret could such a lenghty procedure have remained over the years!? It was secret only for the peasants. I bet everybody who was somebody in the smallish elite that lords over the UK knew about it – and considered it the cost of doing business.

      My trust in Guardian’s integrity has reached zero for some time, so if they are investigating the issue and whipping up the outrage so very deliberately, I am convinced it is for a purpose. For sure Brexit changed the configuration of power in the kingdom and things must be in flux right now. Maybe the plutocratic cabal wants something from Queenie, possibly in the constitutional realm, and ‘applying pressure’ is the best way to get it. Maybe they have decided that the House of Windsor is expendable.

  7. Carolinian

    Is it even clear what “left” and “right” still mean and are we in a race conflict or a class conflict? The media and establishment would claim the former whereas the original source of this terminology–the French revolution–would say the latter. It’s almost as though we are going through the motions of those 20th century protest movements while in a world that is now firmly capitalist and turning on itself.

    1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      I can’t agree more. Because the ‘Center’ is just the Neoliberal/Neocon Borg, people have been abandoning it like they abandoned Churches that preached about the evils of drugs and Comm’nizm.
      So how do you shepherd them back? Terror. Notice how social media for ‘conservatives’ is all about the cranking about how ‘left’ is for ‘burning down small businesses, cancel culture, mandatory sex change operations..’ “Left’ social media is fanatically woke and constantly reminded libs that Orange Man was foisted upon a great nation to destroy ‘our values’.
      It’s all been about pushing everyone back to watching the same old 80s peurile Hollywood bilge on a high tech screen. Listening to ‘experts’ who change their ‘expert advice on a dime when it suits Big Pharma or Big Military or FIRE. Everyone is being played.

  8. David

    The post is so short that it’s hard to be quite sure what the author was trying to say. But for what it’s worth, there are a couple of different issues being confused here.
    Although few people describe themselves voluntarily as “extreme” politically, it’s not necessarily a value judgement. There are milder and more extreme forms of almost every position, for example on Brexit or on how to deal with the virus. It used to be common for left-wing parties to try to differentiate themselves from each other by each claiming to be even more radical than the others, where “radical” is roughly equivalent to “extreme.” Even today, there tends to be a competition between Idiotpol figures to strike positions even more extreme than the last lot. The dynamics are a bit different on the Right, and less performative, but the same argument broadly applies. But although some of these positions are extreme – ie perched on the far end of political tendencies – they are not in themselves dangerous. So BLM sympathisers chanting “abolish the police” are harmless idiots, but BLM protesters going unreceipted shopping and smashing shop windows is something rather different. If that looks as if it’s going to happen, then it’s hard to argue that it’s wrong to make preparations against it. At least in the UK, groups that have set out to break the law and confront the authorities have been very largely from the Left (in the loosest sense of the word). The Right, unpleasant as it has often been, has tended to keep its extremism to words rather than deeds (though the National Front in the 1980s did attract the interest of the security services.)

    All that Murphy is really doing here (apart from confusing these two issues) is complaining that people he supports are labelled in the same way as people he opposes. But we all have this problem: repeat after me: I have firmly-held opinions, you are sometimes very radical, he/she is an extremist.

  9. Alex Cox

    When I lived in England last, there were two functioning parties I would consider left wing: the SWP and the Greens. The SWP (which the Rev reports has been banned by FB) was so clearly infiltrated by the intelligence agencies that it was a bit of a joke – who else but a paid informant could afford to stand around all day trying to sell SWP newspapers?

    The Greens were certainly infiltrated, too, but not to the extent of the SWP: we didn’t have anything like as many ‘volunteers ‘.

    Twenty years later, it seems like the UK state is a lot more frightened by environmentalists and socialists than it used to be…

    1. Philip

      The UK state afraid of the left? Nah, but they have made a pigs mess of every thing, leaving a lot of angry people in their wake. Brexit was brought about by a lot of angry people needing something to blame for why their lives became crappier over the last thirty years, and they are becoming even crappier. So the state establishment needs scapegoats and enemies to deflect the blame from themselves, but they won’t go for the most powerful on the right, they are too dangerous. The right is much more a threat to the state today; the bankers, transnational corporations, corporate media, their foreign state backers and the neo-liberal ideology they pump. If that creed was followed to the letter, the state would own nothing, and all tax revenues (levied only on the non-rich) would go to pay “debts and fees” to the owner class. What is a state with no power and no revenue? Nothing, it’s an ex state, like in the parrot sketch. How can an ex state gain loyalty from those it no longer serves? Terror of the other! And they will keep pumping that all the time they can. When people see that all that is left is a shadow, and somebody else’s debts they have no reason to pay, the ex state will vanish. Today the left is pathetically weak, and every body knows it. Trying to make out that it’s a boogey monster will just make people laugh! People are figuring out who their enemies are, and it ain’t the left. People want a more powerful state that serves them, not the globalists, and that can come from a populist right as well as the left.

  10. Not important here

    You appear quite hyperbolic. There are no internment camps in Germany and making such claims comes across as quite insincere. There’s a broad consensus among German citizens that your individual freedoms stop where you infringe on the freedom of others or cause harm. So if a few extremist people that are under quarantine because of a proven infection go around purposefully infecting and endangering others by spreading a virus that can have deadly consequences, most people here agree that a few extreme repeat offenders should be put under house arrest in the current situation. Just shouting louder than the more quiet majority of German citizens that agree with their elected government might just prove the point of who cares here about rights and our common good. A German Citizen living with a multiply disabled, immune compromised, half paralyzed stroke survivor that has been living in self quarantine for the past year and just does not understand what all the moaning of a few spoiled western hyper individualists is. If you want to see what a dictatorship looks like you might want to look at what Citizens in Myanmar currently face – talking about “internment camps” in Germany is playing on certain prejudices and denying any kind of effort German citizens have made in the past 70 years.

  11. Ludus57

    Readers may be interested in Lord Walney’s back story, and why he now has this new job.
    As John Woodcock MP, he represented the formerly solid Labour constituency of Barrow in Furness, on the NW edge of Morecambe Bay, famous for shipbuilding, and where all Britain’s nuclear submarines and many other naval vessels have been built.
    Woodcock came to prominence during the leadership of Tony Blair, and is an archetype of the New Labour right wing.
    He served as chair of the New Labour think tank and grouping that call themselves Progress, although politically they represent, from the progressive point of view, Regress.
    He lost influence during the Corbyn years, and became a somewhat shambolic figure, due to personal issues.
    He lost his seat in the rout of 2019 after a period of precipitous decline in popularity – his constituents, when interviewed, generally regarded him as useless – and he is now happy serving his new Tory masters, as are other rightist former Labour MPs now raised to the House of Lords, notably John Mann and Ian Austin, living by their motto of “All for one, and one for himself”, and equally inept.
    There is no doubt that Johnson’s government expects problems down the line, but they have an overriding priority in trying to ensure that at pandemic’s end, the status quo ante prevails. Some hope.
    Although not a leader, the progressive ideas that Jeremy Corbyn represented did gain traction, and it is that, that the Tories and the Labour right find worrying, because of the challenge it poses to maintaining the status quo.
    There is some evidence that this is part of an exercise in ” heading off at the pass”, but one of the hallmarks of extreme Tory administration’s is that at some point, people take to the streets. It happened under Thatcher and Cameron. Johnson will end up no differently.

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