On a blazing Sunday afternoon, drag queen Vanity von Glow addressed the crowd at the "Day for Freedom" on Whitehall, speaking out against a terrifying authoritarian apparatus clamping down on free speech: Gay Twitter.
After singing the Queen classic "The Show Must Go On", Vanity addressed the thorny issues of politics. She was there, she said, because pop star and gay icon Shania Twain said in a Guardian interview that, if she wasn't a Canadian living in Switzerland, she might have voted for Donald Trump in the US election: "And so gay Twitter was ablaze, saying, 'Shania Twain is cancelled' … Her hypothetical scenario was deemed so unacceptable that the gays have abandoned her. Well, I haven't abandoned her."
Vanity then launched into a rendition of "That Don't Impress Me Much", to a mixed response. Some attendees clearly weren't much impressed, heading to the pub instead of sticking around. Long before Vanity's performance, Twain had already apologised for her "awkward" comment and clarified that "I do not hold any common moral beliefs with the current president."
The event, Day For Freedom, was a pro-free speech rally organised by Steven Yaxley-Lennon – the real name of former EDL leader Tommy Robinson – and his crew, in response to some far-right figures being denied entry to the UK recently, and the fact he was recently banned from Twitter.
Basically, it was a long day of speeches in which some of the far-right figures couched Islamophobia in the language of free expression, occasionally making way for less controversial speakers, who provided them with some plausible deniability.
If Vanity von Glow had been attempting an over-the-top, campy satire of the facile conservative argument about free speech, defiantly sharing a stage with the former leader of the EDL and the current leader of UKIP because Shania got #cancelled for an opinion she had already disavowed would have been the perfect way to do it. Unfortunately, there's no evidence she was taking the piss, and we must assume she really does think people criticising cultural icons on Twitter is a dangerous attack on the right to free expression.
Of course, there is no crackdown on pop stars having stupid opinions: Kanye is a free man; Gay-Twitter doesn’t have carceral powers. But this wasn’t so much a rally in favour of free speech as the whining of a bunch of grown-up children who refuse to believe that their words have consequences, or that free speech includes the right to tell someone they ought to shut up.
The whole day was very ridiculous. It was a mixed crowd: a mesh of Tommy Robinson acolytes who might have been on a Football Lads Alliance demo another weekend; 4chan politics types with Kekistan flags; and people who have clearly been down one-too-many political YouTube rabbit holes. There were soldiers, lager lads, dreadlocked hippies whose trips went the wrong way, Ukippers, Generation Identity members, and more than one "feminism is cancer" T-shirt. It was like a Glastonbury for bigots.
There's something very odd about seeing people repeat again and again that there is no free speech in this country, speaking freely on a stage with a big sound system, next to Downing Street, surrounded by police facilitating the event.
Selected lowlights included UKIP leader Gerard Batten drearily reading out the law on hate crime verbatim; ex-Muslim Shazia Hobbs inexplicably blaming "Sadiq Khan’s London" for decisions made by the Home Office about who can and cannot enter the country; Breitbart's London editor Raheem Kassam talking apparently without irony about "the free pursuit of intelligence"; and Milo Yiannopoulos doing his clapped Euro-trash playboy shtick, making jokes about how rich he is to an audience there for Tommy Robinson’s I’m-an-honest-working-class-lad vibe ("I've had some financial difficulties… it’s been awful, we’ve had to put a deposit down on the cheap Lamborghini. The Huracán, can you imagine it?! Eugh!" Nobody laughed).
Ali Dawah, an orthodox Muslim YouTuber who is critical of Robinson, asked the organisers to be allowed to speak. He was invited (they believe in free speech after all), and duly attacked by racist thugs before his turn. (When I asked event organiser Lucy Brown about the event she called it "successful" and said "the whole line up of speakers seemed to have a good time". When I asked if that included Ali Dawah incident she said "no comment". I will defend to the death her right to not say anything.)
Then there was Michael Meehan – AKA Count Dankula, the YouTuber who got fined £800 for teaching his girlfriend’s pug to give a Nazi salute when he said "gas the Jews", for a joke. He said freedom of speech "is a right that we all must protect because it belongs to all of us. Free speech isn’t owned by the right, it isn’t owned by the left, it isn’t owned by an organisation and it certainly isn’t owned by the fucking government." He warned the left that a potential far-right government could use free-speech laws against them. That might have been a good point in another time, at another place. Unfortunately – as he insists when he defends his shit Nazi pug joke – context is important.
Because while Meehan specifically complained that he had been unfairly cast as far-right, the context here was Tommy Robinson and the milieu around him using an argument about free speech as a Trojan horse for their toxic bullshit, with the help of some useful idiots. The ex-EDL leader closed the day with an Islamophobic rant which he seemed at times to screech rather than speak. For all the fine words about the principle of free speech, it had been building up to a man who so badly needs to shut up.
Bizarrely, for someone who has spent years demanding tougher action on potential terrorists, he spent a lot of time complaining about the government’s Prevent anti-terror programme being too onerous, but only when it came to those telling "the truth" about Islam. I guess some people's rights are more inalienable than others'.
Otherwise, it was another opportunity for Robinson to sound off about Muslims, to say that "no one cares anymore with being labelled as a racist", to hype his strange journalism career and to cement his place as the de facto leader of this Islamophobic, far-right milieu. The chants of Robinson’s name, and the alphabet soup of far-right groups attending his event, suggest that it was working.
"What is 'hate speech'?" he asked. This is a man who "no doubt" contributed to the radicalisation of the Finsbury Park attacker Darren Osborne, according to Mark Rowley, the former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – something Robinson does not accept responsibility for and is completely unrepentant about.
That’s what the "classical liberals" like bloviating Chris Hitchens impersonator Sargon of Akkad were there providing cover for with their presence, even if they are not themselves racists. If you shut Nazis up, "You don’t give people any knowledge of what it is they’re actually opposing, so they don’t even know. So when a Nazi says something that’s not crazy… it gives them a step in and a foot through the door," said the YouTuber at the event, apparently completely oblivious to how, at the Day for Freedom, free speech was being used to potentially open the door to racism. In his speech, he said that "freedom means nothing if it does not include the freedom to be left alone. To be left alone to one's own devices so long as they don’t interfere with others." He may want to consider whether Robinson's behaviour measures up to that standard.
Vanity von Glow released a lengthy statement explaining her performance, saying, "A lack of understanding is what fuels all prejudice, and we'll only understand one another better if we can talk openly about our experiences."
The suggestion that she could lose bookings for her stand with Shania is of course being taken as further proof of a wider attack on free speech, rather than evidence that clubs can chose who they book.