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Five years on

Last week began with a commemoration on BBC Radio 6 Music of the five years since David Bowie’s passing, his own words plugging a programme, simulcast on Radio 4 and Radio 6: “I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable.”

Brixton memorial to David Bowie,five years on

In the light of the suspension of Donald Trump’s Twitter account, following the attack on the Capitol, characterised by Fiona Hill as a ‘self-coup’, I’m sure I wasn’t the only listener to Bowie’s resounding words to have felt his prescience.

And yet, in 1975, Bowie himself provoked outrage, after suggesting an imminent fascist uprising in the UK, and having seemingly developed a fascination with Nazism. Years later, Bowie said that during the recording of Station to Station, his thinking had been aberrant. 

It was in the mid-seventies, when bewildered by Bowie, and concerned that the dominant notion of our rules of ‘fair play’ meant that National Front leaders had to be given airtime, I sought my father’s view. In addition to an encyclopaedic knowledge of twentieth century political doctrine, he protested regularly against neo-Nazis in West Yorkshire. (During a break at the inquest into his death, in 1983, my father’s brother suggested that, in view of that activism, neo-Nazis had killed him.)

Having immersed himself in literature on Nazi doctrine, my father taught courses on Fascism at Leeds and York universities. A former student of his later recounted how my father had goose-stepped his entrance into a York lecture hall – thereby evoking the visceral menace of the SS stamp. 

Aware that Nazism’s core methods were intimidation, violence, the eradication of opposing views, and the genocide of Jews and Roma, I wanted a parental steer as to whether fascists ought to be platformed. My father declared that the danger they posed was so great they must be barred from public platforms. I remember my father’s sardonic grimace, the triumphant gleam of his blue eyes in the glint of his glasses, as he said that as they were like rats – vermin – fascists must be crushed. As a teenager, trying to navigate my way through conflicting ideas, to get such paternal clarity on a topical point of political contention was a tremendous help. I felt physical and intellectual relief: from then on, no longer would I feel bound by conventional wisdom.

Fast forward two decades, when I was tasked to draft UNISON’s response to the new Labour Government’s Human Rights Bill, which was to incorporate into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights (‘the Convention’).

Absorbed in reading about the genesis thereof, the Convention having been conceived after the Holocaust and the total abuse of the rule of law in the Third Reich, I found myself drawing upon my knowledge of Nazism. Trades unionists’ freedoms to speak out and assemble were denied, ‘politicals’ were detained or eliminated.

Against that backdrop, and previous UK governments’-trade union laws, the Human Rights Bill’s potential domestically to challenge such was welcome: freedom of expression (Article 10, (‘A10’)) formed the spring-board from which to exercise the rights to freedom of thought (Article 9) and freedom of association (Article 11, (‘A11’)).

My copy of the Convention, underlining provisions for interference in rights under A10 & A11

In 1997, when Microsoft Word and Outlook email were only just being rolled out at UNISON, and my focus was on the paradigmatic framework the incorporation of European human rights would bring, I had no clue as to how the Internet would rock the foundations of the elected representation on which Western liberal democratic systems were built, post WWII.

Since 6 January, two developments have stood out. First, was the bitter of irony of a Polish bill to forbid administrators of social media websites from banning users.

Secondly, Angela Merkel got flak for asserting that the suspension of Trump’s Twitter account was not lawful. Strictly speaking, in light of the requirement of prescription by law, Frau Merkel is correct. Her interpretation of the illegitimacy of interference with freedom of expression under the Convention presents as “problematic” the revocation of free protections under the U.S. Constitution. In view of her background – the East German Stasi asked her to spy on her father, a pastor, who took part in anti-government protests – one can understand Frau Merkel’s respect for Convention and constitutional rights. 

Yet the big questions are: why governments have allowed ‘Big Tech’ to get away with platforming anti-democratic tendencies, as well as inflammatory misogynistic content, to be spread on the Internet? And whose interests have been served?

In the five years since the Brexit referendum campaign, and Trump’s election, my father’s words on platforming fascists have resounded. Last summer my Quebecoise cousin told me that before the last U.S. general election, a Black friend had seen a noose hanging in a New York park, with a sign attached, “Vote and this will happen to you”.

Those words rang true. In the days after the Brexit Referendum, I worried that organised racists would return to Brixton. As I have written previously, after the UK Supreme Court’s decision in Miller No.2 Remainers’ windows were smashed, under the rubric of ‘traitor’; the Brexit press having denounced senior judges as ‘enemies of the people’. 

By last December, when the trade deal with Europe was under negotiation, to include EU access to fishing in British waters and post-Brexit paperwork, a Leave-voting fisherman was complaining, “… I was brainwashed”.


Aside from effecting Brexit, 2020 saw intrusive powers to curtail movement, the likes of which had not been deployed since WWII. Considering the lawfulness of interference with Convention rights, A10 and A11, and the prohibition on gatherings, the Joint Committee on Human Rights pondered whether the UK’s lockdown rules were ‘prescribed by law’. It was noted, for example, that the policing of Black Lives Matters protests, where social distancing had been observed, had been called into question.

Brixton poster – note request to bring a mask

Perhaps it’s not surprising that there’s been a backlash against governments. Most disturbing of all, though, is the venting by anti-progressive forces, fuelled by intolerance of the rights of others, and using social media’s proverbial ‘echo chambers’, to mobilise protests on the streets, to incite violence and intimidation; the most recent example in London being Covid deniers’ intimidation of NHS workers outside St Thomas’s Hospital.

Latterly, German security services have become alive to their deniers of science, Querdenken, including ‘anti-vaxxers’ and conspiracy theorists who, in organising intimidatory anti-Shutdown protests, are seen to pose a potential threat to the constitution – so severe as to be on a par with that of the Red Army Faction in the Seventies. In response to the attack on the Capitol, security at the Reichstag has been heightened. 

Hydra-like manifestations of ignorance, when organised to attack ethnic minorities lesbians and gays and women are terrifying. The critical challenge for progressive thinkers and activists is to devise a strategy to combat prevailing misinformation, and populists garnering a mass base via denialism and contempt of experts. 

First, the fight against these incursions into the public domain via the Internet will require clarity as to what we face. Shocked by the invasion of the Capitol (and previously of the Reichstag) I’ve been tempted to lump together right-wing populists (Rechtspopulisten) as ‘fascists’. Reminding myself that Fascism and Nazism are political doctrines of historical specificity, however, I’ve turned to David Renton’s analysis of far-right traits and trends.

In The New Authoritarians Renton asserted, “we are in a post fascist moment”. He noted:

However, as the far right has grown, in particular since 2016, we have started to see initial signs of parts of the politics of the 1930s returning… From the perspective of those who identify with the far right, fascism is a ‘tight’ ideology, which provides a series of positions which justify the adoption of violence and offer its supporters not just the excitement of military struggle and race war but in the final stages a new society and a new fascist mandate. Nothing developed by the far right in the past decade, in the US or in Europe, offers the same coherence.”

Trump’s mobilisation showed the deadly combination of the rights to free speech and to bear arms. Given the far-reaching networks of Neo-Nazis, such as Atom-Waffen SS in and beyond the U.S. the forces unleashed by the Internet, and the risk of fascism’s revival, my father’s words echo in my ears.

Secondly, it’s imperative that we stand together. Not only was my father crystal-clear on platforming: had the Left united, Hitler could have been stopped.

Already, there are hopeful signs in the U.S. In Georgia, Black and Jewish Americans harnessed years of campaigning in a coalition to mobilise voters for Democrat candidates, Ossoff and Warnock, in the run-off Senate elections.

Across ‘the Pond’, where concerns already exist as to some EU member states’ adherence to the rule of law, we must now call on our elected representatives to address the management of A10. A reappraisal of the effectiveness of democratic governments’ application to Big Tech of the rules governing interference with freedom of expression is long overdue. Before we see further violence on our streets,the State must draw linkages between conspiracy theorists, disinformation and hate-crimes – and punish law-breakers for breaches of criminal law.


  4. On being silenced, my 6th blogpost (6 October 2019)
  7. House of Commons House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights, The Government’s response to COVID-19: human rights implications, Seventh Report of Session 2019-21
  8. The New Authoritarians, Renton,D. Pluto Press, 2019

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