Politicians are always going on about ‘the voiceless’. By which they usually mean poor and working-class people. People who have been shunted from public life and never get to air their concerns. At the Conservative party conference Theresa May styled herself ‘voice of the voiceless’ (before, too ironically, becoming voiceless herself). Impeccably bred Corbynistas, all bleeding-heart ABC1s, dream of giving a leg-up to the little people and having more working-class voices in politics. Which makes it odd, then, that on Saturday, London hosted one of the largest working-class demonstrations of recent years and these weepers for the voiceless said nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Ah, but these were the wrong kind of working-class people. They were the Football Lads Alliance (FLA), a fascinating grassroots movement founded earlier this year to protest against terrorism and the ideologies that fuel it. These Football Lads had their first demo on 24 June. Thousands descended on London Bridge, site of an Islamist massacre just three weeks earlier, and held a traffic-stopping demo against extremism. On Saturday they had their second gathering. An estimated 10,000 fans brought Park Lane to a standstill. Rival fans, from Spurs, West Ham, Leeds and other teams, rubbed shoulders, held wreaths in the colours of their clubs, and listened peacefully as speakers railed against hateful extremism and slammed the branding of people who criticise Islamism as ‘Islamophobic’.
It was a very rare thing in the 21st century: a march organised by working-class people and attended by working-class people. Thousands of them. Most marches these days are packed with public-sector types, plummy anti-fascists, and Guardian columnists who must maintain their rad cred by occasionally traipsing through the streets with people holding dusty trade-union banners. But the two FLA marches have been different. They have been cries from below. And they’ve been all but ignored. Sure, there has been media coverage, but it has been perfunctory. Despite being big, stirring and novel — people in football shirts gathering in their thousands to confront the ideology of terror! — the demos haven’t trended online or attracted much attention from the ‘voice for the voiceless’ brigade. They don’t want to hear those voices.
Modern politicos, of both the Maybot and Corbynista variety, like ‘the voiceless’ when they’re hard-up mums having to visit food banks or out-of-work young people who feel let down by the world. When they’re people who need a therapeutic pat and a handout. But working blokes who spend their Saturdays on the terraces and whose political beef is with the rise of a murderous ideology that has claimed 34 lives in Britain this year? They have no interest in them. They’re scared of them, in fact. They’d prefer it those voiceless people, those ruffians, those oiks with strong views, stayed voiceless.
There’s a presumption among some observers that the people who support FLA, being white and working-class and passionate about football, must be racist scum. All those sorts of people are racist scum, right? So it was that Matt Broomfield, a reporter at the Independent, branded Saturday’s thousands of marchers ‘fash pricks’ and suggested people should take a ‘baseball bat’ into central London. Yeah, beat up the white trash. Pummel these lower orders. That’ll teach them not to get ideas above their station. The protesting of the FLA is frequently met by such poisonous middle-class prejudices, by this view of assertive, anti-extremist working-class people as an ugly throng to be managed and ideally silenced.
Are there questionable elements on FLA demos? No doubt. There are on all political marches. Former members of the English Defence League attend FLA events. Tommy Robinson, the EDL founder, was at Saturday’s march, in his capacity as a video reporter. There will be other hard-right types too. But shouldn’t we take the founders of the FLA at their word? They insist they are against racism. FLA leader John Meighan has instructed far right groups to ‘stay away’ from the marches. ‘Our motto is no racism, no violence’, he says. FLA says it is open to people of all backgrounds and beliefs who share its concern about extremism. On Saturday’s demo there was a group called Veterans Against Terrorism, and Gurkhas too.
It remains to be seen what direction the FLA will go in. But it strikes me that this new working-class movement is trying to do something the supposedly intellectual classes have flat-out refused to do: make an issue, a national fuss, of terror. It is defying the post-terror diktat from on high that says we should respond to Islamist attacks sheepishly, by laying a flower, singing ‘Imagine’ and going home again; the FLA suggests we talk about terror, debate it, confront it. Where our supine political class seeks to shush concern about the ideology of terror, and to cultivate a passive response to violence, the FLA encourages us to be concerned. Where observers tell us it is ‘Islamophobic’ to criticise Islamist thinking, the FLA challenges such sly censoriousness and calls for open, robust and, yes, difficult debate.
This is the situation we have reached: where the political class has so thoroughly abandoned the task of discussing and getting angry about terrorism that footie fans are having to step in and do it for them, and us. Let’s see how they get on.