On 9 December, the far right will descend on central London as part of a ‘Brexit Betrayal’ demonstration. The march – in the words of its organiser Tommy Robinson – is a response to the so-called ‘rape of Britain’ represented by Theresa May’s catastrophic Brexit deal.
Whilst the media has been sheepish about the extent of Ukip’s involvement in the march, it is clear from various social media channels that the party perceives it as an opportunity to revive its support on the ground. Not only have the far right been working closely with Ukip to promote the march, but key Ukip figures – Lord Pearson, Janice Atkinson and leader Gerard Batton – are confirmed as rally speakers. This is following explicit moves by Ukip to align itself with Robinson and his sizeable following in the streets and online – most notably by appointing him to the newly invented role of Ukip’s ‘grooming gangs advisor.’
The party’s shift to the far right has been contested in the media. However, aside from a little high-profile party dissension, namely from Nigel Farage and a few MEPs, there is no reason to believe that Ukip’s embrace of far-right movements is not the product of consensus in the party about its next steps. Following a frankly embarrassing performance in the last election, Ukip has decided to let go of all pretences and become the party apparatus that fascist street movements can ally with.
That Robinson has been invited to join the party’s institutional ranks through the entry point of so-called ‘grooming gangs’ is not only unsurprising – it’s a savvy strategic move that we need to wise up to. The ‘Asian grooming gangs’ trope, whereby groups of exclusively Asian men are perceived to be preying exclusively on adolescent white girls, began in the far right over ten years ago. In 2006, Nick Griffin – then leader of the fascist BNP – made a speech claiming: “These 18, 19 and 25-year old Asian Muslims are seducing and raping white girls in this town right now. It’s part of their plan for conquering countries.”
The continual circulation of this trope – of equating sexual violence against white girls with national security – culminated in a years-long investigation in The Times by Andrew Norfolk on what became known as ‘Asian grooming gangs.’ This was a seminal moment, as it involved the mainstreaming of far-right talking points – the idea that child sexual exploitation (CSE) is perpetrated mainly by Asian men who only target white girls – and that the reason this has been covered up is because of ‘political correctness gone mad.’ As has historically been the case – from transatlantic slavery to Britain’s Empire – sexuality and gender have been instrumental mechanisms through which racial oppression has been mediated and justified.
Let’s be clear. CSE is endemic in our society; from the top echelons of the media, to religious institutions, to the streets of Rochdale. The problem runs deep, with decades-long cover-ups being a regular feature of almost all major CSE scandals. The stories coming out of the north-east of England are deplorable, and tell us there is a serious crisis when it comes to the infrastructure available for sexual violence victims. The impact of austerity in the north-east has seen the decimation of women’s support services in the region – leaving women and girls with nowhere to go when they experience abuse.
However, the far right do not care about sexual violence. They care about weaponising the understandable and necessary outrage we all feel when reading about abuse to mainstream their ideas and position themselves as legitimate participants in the political sphere. Not only are the ranks of the far right teeming with perpetrators of sexual violence, but they have no interest in building the kind of society in which women are safe and empowered.
Crucially, their framing of CSE as a problem of race and religion, rather than structural misogyny, does nothing to help the survivors of child abuse they claim to be defending. In short, the narrative the far right have built – that CSE is exclusively perpetrated by Asian men who target white girls out of racial hatred, and that this was covered up by authorities for fear of seeming ‘politically incorrect’ – is a myth. The main in-depth investigation into CSE scandals in towns like Rotherham and Rochdale – the 2014 Jay Report – actively went looking for evidence to support such claims, because of how entrenched these far right explanations became.
Instead, the investigation told a far more familiar story: survivors of sexual violence not being taken seriously by institutions that are allegedly supposed to protect them, particularly the police. The report noted the kind of language used by police and social services to describe the affected girls, many of whom were working class and/or in social care: “asking for it,” “risk-fuelled,” “drawn to it” and “prostituting herself.” This is the story of most women and girls who have found themselves in the unfortunate situation of seeking institutional help when they have experienced violence: outright dismissal. The perception that if you were seen to gain anything from the abuse – be it an iPhone or the security of marriage – then you deserved what you got and could not be helped. This is intensified by the class position of the girls in question, which not only left them more vulnerable to abuse, but made them much easier to ignore when they came forward.
This reality is inconvenient for Robinson and his new cadre in Ukip – who of course have no interest in making the kinds of feminist structural changes that could actually resist sexual violence. They would much rather use CSE victims as political footballs in their quest for credibility and clout. They want us to believe that CSE is a brown man’s crime – or at least that CSE perpetrated by brown men is somehow worse than abuse perpetrated by white men. They want us to believe that there are no BME victims of CSE, and that brown and black men are running riot in a country governed by a nanny-state afraid of being seen as racist; both fantastical claims given that children of colour are the most vulnerable to child abuse, and that brown and black men are the most heavily policed demographics in the UK.
The centrality of sexuality and gender in the far right’s vision of gaining political power cannot be understated – it is evident in the fact that Robinson’s entry into party politics is through the angle of ‘grooming gangs.’ Furthermore, the bringing together of ideas around the ‘Brexit betrayal’ and grooming gangs through Robinson’s ‘rape of Britain’ framing shows this is a bid for mainstream power well beyond any specific cases of sexual violence. We must expose this strategy for what it is, and make it clear that fighting sexual violence is our ground as feminists and anti-racists, and not that of the fascist right. We must be bold in our vision for a world without gender-based violence and without racism. The fight against Robinson and his fascist politics must have feminism at its heart.
Join the ‘No the Tommy Robinson, No to Fortress Britain’ counter-demo on 9 December.