The Christmas break forced the reality of Theresa May’s endless "kick the can down the road strategy" into the forefront of our minds. In December, when she delayed the meaningful vote, it didn't seem great, but the lights were up on Oxford Street and everyone was placated by Chris Rea and mulled wine. Now that the last of the Terry’s Chocolate Orange segments have been snaffled, however, it's become all too clear that there are… wait a minute… LESS THAN THREE MONTHS until a potential no deal Brexit.
The government is war-gaming lorry traffic jams in Dover and supermarkets are stockpiling tinned food, but really only one man could shake us out of post-Christmas catatonia. James Goddard – the far-right's latest IRL troll – hit the headlines this week after he aggressively heckled tory-Remainer MP Anna Soubry. Goddard and a bunch of pals chanted "Soubry is a Nazi" as she attempted to give an interview to Sky News on College Green. As she walked back to Parliament, they surrounded her and called her a fascist. Journalist and commentator Owen Jones tweeted a video of himself getting the same treatment by Goddard and his cronies.
It seemed the perfect visualisation of the acrimonious state of the nation. Over 50 MPs called on the police to do something. And so, on Tuesday, the BBC's World at One news bulletin sternly told us that "police officers operating near Parliament have been told to intervene if they suspect the law is being broken", which is a bit like breaking the news that fire fighters are being encouraged to put out fires, or that doctors are being newly advised to heal the sick. There's a definite rancour in the air, but there's no law against rancour.
More specifically, there's no law against heckling politicians, for good reason. Demanding courtesy is a bit rich from the people who brought us things like the "hostile environment" policies which hound people back to countries that they never came from in the first place, or haven't seen in years.
And yet, this abuse seem new, and – to stop being so glib for a moment – bad. Why?
Goddard appears to be the latest narcissist following the Tommy Robinson playbook, which goes something like this: buy a smartphone; set yourself up with social media pages calling yourself an "activist"; set up an account on gofundme/patreon, etc; film yourself doing attention-seeking "activism" and then encourage people to donate to support your "work".
Before Goddard's Patreon page was placed under review, a mere $100 (£78) would have got you dinner with him and a signed Union Jack. This is a guy who gave up his job in November in order "to focus on highlighting the hypocrisies of our so-called representatives" (and he's only asking for a hundred pounds?). In other words, he's a very 2019 kind of political actor – the logical end-point of a politics filtered through apps that atomise people, turn them into self-absorbed arseholes and nudge them into confirmation bias feedback loops.
In this case, the crappy dynamic was applied to the current news cycle, which has three notable characteristics:
1) It's very important
2) It's very repetitive
3) It's all centred around Westminster
So, in Brexit Britain's febrile political conversation, where there's a desperate need for human characters to illustrate a dry technical issue, it doesn’t take much to make yourself the centre of attention. Simply be in the right place at the right time, shout abuse at the right people and you can command the headlines.
Throughout the week, we learned more about the kind of guy Goddard is. He kicked off his activism career with a post on a website called Proactive Patriots, in which he called for bans on halal meat, Muslim immigration, the building of mosques and "all literature on Mohammed in public buildings". Pictures emerged of him with Tommy Robinson and UKIP leader Gerrard Batten. A video of him shouting "you're not even fucking British" at an Asian police officer surfaced. On Wednesday, video was posted of Goddard saying he would "get rid" of the UK's 2,000 mosques, and that he wanted to "ban Islam from the West".
So, you know, he's a charmer with no real agenda besides calling out the "hypocrisies of our so-called representatives".
Goddard also seems to be one of the far-right activists co-opting the yellow vest – a cynical attempt to use the image of the anti-Macron protests in France. While the protests in France are fairly broad-based and, to some extent, have a radical left-wing politics, the UK ones are an attempt by far-right Brexiteers to capitalise on the anti-establishment image that the yellow vests have created.*
You might not realise it from a lot of the coverage, but the right-wing yellow vesters have not confined their anger to outside Parliament. On the weekend, the RMT union called for people to turn out in defence of their pickets, after one in Manchester was attacked by yellow-vesters. And so, shouting-gate seems to fit into a wider pattern of an emboldened far-right, which is another notch or two further up the concern-ometer than simply a national conversation in poor health.
On Tuesday, Goddard’s accounts on PayPal and Patreon were shut, and his Facebook page was suspended.
"Do you actually think you’re going to stop me! I take great offence at being called far right and fascist!” he tweeted, his avi showing him wearing duct-tape as a gag, mimicking Tommy Robinson, in front of a Union Jack. He surely won’t stop. Who could resist all this attention? Certainly not someone who has desperately courted it.
The abuse of Soubry and Jones echoed similar incidents before Christmas, when protesters in yellow jackets shouted misogynist stuff at Sky News presenter Kay Burley, and that her colleague Faisal Islam was "not British" and "a rapist".
On Tuesday, Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay used the incident to show how divisive Brexit has been, and why we shouldn’t have a second vote, which is kind of like the inverse of how Toby Blair ignored a million people in the streets to stop the invasion of Iraq. Ed Miliband was pelted with eggs on the campaign trail in 2013. It made the news, but it didn’t signal a national crisis, because it seemed altogether less sinister – slapstick, even. But now it’s 2019 and there’s a different feeling in the air. David Cameron’s failed promise to end "Punch and Judy politics" looks all the more ridiculous now. His hubristic referendum has laid fertile ground for something more seriously stupid. We're already at panic stations. All it takes is a man with a smartphone who has read the entry for "politics" on Wikipedia to send us into full-blown meltdown.
*Confusingly, some on the left are also trying to adopt that image. In Belfast, there’s one Yellow Vest protest promoted by some Occupy types that lists its aims as equal marriage rights, ending fracking and abolishing zero hour contracts – a wish list for cuddly liberals everywhere. Another is promoting itself, according to the Belfast Telegraph, with an image of "a figure with a hammer attacking the star and crescent symbol often associated with the Islamic world, alongside the words 'Smash Islam'". Yikes.