It's a little known fact that every year on Remembrance Sunday, just after the Queen, the Prime Minister and other members of the British establishment and military have finished remembering their war dead, a bunch of neo-Nazis march past the Cenotaph to pay their own respects to "our glorious dead", many of whom died fighting the Nazis.
The extreme-right National Front's (NF) Remembrance Day parade is the climax of the white nationalist calendar every year. Suits are dug out of cupboards, boots get polished and members of the NF try their best to look like respectable members of the public. It's an opportunity for them to hide their racist ultra-nationalism in plain sight – behind the general patriotism on one of one of the few days of the year you can march down the street carrying loads of union jacks without looking like a racist street gang.
The theme for their event is "no more brother's wars" – they're anti-war, but only when it involves white people killing other white people. Basically it's an annual attempt to sneak some more overt racism into an event rooted in British nationalism.
Usually the NF are held back and made to march behind all the other marches that take place on the day, long after the crowds have gone home. This year it was a little different. "We're going to be looked at by a lot of people this year because we're not the last one[s] to march. Normally when we march, the streets are empty, but this time they are going to be thick with people," said Simon Biggs at the NF's recent annual general meeting.
This is presumably due to a split in the NF. Some of the Nazis have fallen out with each other, meaning that there are now not one but two National Fronts (hooray). The factions are vying for control of the party. This created the need to accommodate two competing racist marches instead of one, which seems to have meant it was logistically easier to let those groups march in closer proximity to normal, non-racist marches. The Metropolitan Police didn't tell me why the two groups were being kept apart when I asked.
I was in Westminster on Sunday a few hours after the main Remembrance event had been broadcast to the nation. People were still ambling about – there were clinking and glinting medals stuck to veterans' chests, regimental berets worn by men with beer bellies in ill-fitting suits, smartly dressed poppy wearers, soldiers in full dress uniform and tourists.
Down the road from the crowds, the NF started to form up. There was a steady trickle of supporters but many fewer than the 300 that attended last year. The number included members of the South East Alliance, an EDL spin off which seems to think it's patriotic to march with Nazis. There were also a handful of skinheads – regulars at the neo-Nazi Blood & Honour shows which used to fund Combat 18 – in probably the only time they'll take to the streets all year.
When they finally moved off, I counted just under 130 on the march, followed by five or six police vans. The NF march was led by two drummers, followed by chairman Kevin Bryan, described by one anti-extremist body as "a loud middle aged street thug", and Dave McDonald, the NF's Scotland organiser, who allegedly quit the BNP because it wasn't right-wing enough. The NF were marching in rows of three or four, with nearly 60-odd flags at the front.
In the run up to the march, head of security for the event, Simon Biggs, expressed his concern about people turning up in tracksuit bottoms or not holding flags straight. He told members at the NF annual general meeting, "We must be on our strictest behaviour here. This is a very dignified and proud moment for nationalists." At the same event, London NF organiser Tess "Nazi nan" Culnane expressed her fear that the police were looking for any excuse to ban the march ever happening again, warning members not to respond to any provocation and remain as dignified as it's possible to be whilst attending a Nazi rally.
As the march approached Westminster Abbey it started to encounter crowds of bemused onlookers. When it reached the Abbey there appeared to be a large group of veterans holding a silence in the Field of Remembrance. The drums stopped beating momentarily while the march continued silently.
After passing the Abbey they entered Parliament Square. There were still crowds, filming whoever went past, taking selfies with dozens of fascists in the background. At one point I saw an Orthodox Jew filming the NF on their mobile – I'm not sure he knew who they were. I don't think many people did at this point. Apart from the police presence, NF tattoos and obvious neo-Nazi types, the only things to indicate this was an NF march were the name on the side of the drum and on the back of stewards vests.
This changed as they approached the Cenotaph where the streets were heaving with onlookers. As they formed up by the Cenotaph and get ready to lay their wreaths, I overheard two women talking on my right. "You know who it is?" one asked. "The National Front, I know, I know" the other replied as they walked away.
The crowd appeared to be upset by the fascist presence and people muttered things under their breath but nobody was up for breaking the solemn atmosphere with full-on heckling. "What are they doing though?" In the few minutes they spent at Cenotaph I saw several families leaving, whispering in disgust to each other.
Then they reached the Monument to the Women of World War II, and Culnane gave a reading. As they announced the conclusion of their act of remembrance, a poppy wearing man in the crowd shouted "Nazis!" at them. I asked him to expand on his comment, but he said, "Listen man you've heard everything".
The march reached its conclusion on Whitehall Place. They then trooped into Whitehall Gardens where they listened to further speeches from Bryan, Culnane and veteran South London-based fascist Richard Edmonds.
I decided to ditch them at this point, and head to the other National Front march. Watching two racist marches in one day was a real treat. The second was basically the same as the first but even smaller.
It was led by Ian Edward. Edward was former chairman of the unified NF who resigned, decided he had not in fact resigned and then declared the meeting which elected the new chairman Kevin Bryan unconstitutional – causing the split.
Edward had been happy to answer my questions over email in the run up to the march. He optimistically told me he was expecting anything up to 500 fellow nationalists to join him and reiterated that the point of the march was to say, "no more brothers' wars" – ones in which white people slaughter white people. Then for some reason he told me that the first two British fatalities of World War II were members of Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists.
I counted 46 fascists on the second march and recognised several familiar faces from the London far-right scene – and not only from the NF. This included people with links to the Chelsea Headhunters and the bizarre group who burn crosses in the woods. People on Bryan's side of the split claim ten of those on the second march were from the Racial Volunteer Force – a Combat 18 split the members of which have been arrested in the past for distributing a race hate magazine with instructions on how to make a bomb.
As this mob started going up Whitehall and near the Cenotaph, four or five guys started clapping, but they looked like they might have been planted there. A passing black guy was less impressed. "Fuck the National Front", he shouted as he walked past. The drum kept beating and the fascists carried on up Whitehall to finish their march.
Overall, the event seems to be simultaneously everything that they love and hate about modern Britain – on the one hand, it's a day glorifying war and militarism. On the other hand, some of the attending people were not white, and the war that defeated Hitler is one of those being remembered. Still, presumably the gaggle of washed-up Hitler worshipers will be back next year to tag along, assuming they haven't all fallen out so badly that they can no longer organise a walk.