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The vested interests of the UK’s Yellow Vests
France’s Yellow Vest movement began as a spontaneous rejection of the government’s economic policies, without a specific political programme. In Britain, the emblematic vest has appeared in recent weeks comes with a more precise agenda of channelling growing tension ahead of the country’s departure from the European Union.
Protesters wearing yellow vests began appearing in London in mid-December, around the Houses of Parliament, which has seen an increase of demonstrations by pro-EU and pro-Brexit groups leading up to the country’s departure from the bloc on 29 March.
After about a hundred people wearing the high visibility reflective vests tagged with pro-Brexit slogans blocked the nearby Westminster Bridge on 14 December, a smaller group calling themselves “Yellow Vests UK” has been stalking public figures around the area.
In operations seemingly conceived for sharing on social media, these activists have followed MPs, journalists and campaigners, calling out taunts and accusations while filming the scenes with mobile phones.
The incidents began gathering more attention on Monday, when the group targeted Anna Soubry, a pro-European MP in the Conservative party who has called for a second referendum on Brexit.
Protesters chanted “Anna Soubry is a Nazi” during a BBC interview outside Westminster Palace and then bombarded the MP with questions and accusations of being a “fascist” and “full of lies” as she attempted to re-enter the building.
After the thugs chanted Nazi at Anna Soubry while she was on BBC, I went to check on her. But she had company... pic.twitter.com/II7nIdqMoFFemi (@Femi_Sorry) January 7, 2019
Links to far right
A large part of the coverage of this and previous incidents has focused on the “Yellow Vests UK” members’ alleged current or past links with far-right groups including the English Defence League, Britain First and the anti-Islam Pegida movement.
James Goddard, one of the more visible demonstrators, who shouted, “You want a war, I’ll give you a war,” spoke last year at a rally in support of the prominent far-right activist Tommy Robinson.
Here's footage of Far Right 'Yellow Vest' leader James Goddard telling people (police?) they're 'fair game' and threatening 'war'. When is enough going to be enough? When someone's hurt? Killed? (via @dunc_saboteur) pic.twitter.com/yUkjCZSPHTMike Stuchbery💀🍷 (@MikeStuchbery_) January 7, 2019
On Tuesday, some 55 MPs from both Remain and Leave camps and across different political parties signed a letter that highlighted such approximations, in an appeal to police to rein in the protesters.
“An ugly element of individuals with strong far-right and extreme-right connections […] have increasingly engaged in intimidatory and potentially criminal acts targeting members of parliament, journalists, activists and members of the public,” the letter read.
By Wednesday morning, Facebook and Paypal had shut down pages that Goddard was using to promote and raise funds for his activities.
Police also promised to respond to further incidents and the number of officers in the area also reportedly increased.
Outside the Houses of Parliament, other members of the group told The Guardian newspaper they were not wearing the yellow vests to avoid attracting police attention, but said they would “put them on when there’s more of us”.
Using Brexit to reach new audiences
Observers of far-right groups say it is clear what the use of the yellow vest and the shouting-down scenes are designed to do.
“Far-right groups […] are now using smokescreens of civil liberties or Brexit as a means by which to mobilise, to garner support and to tap into new audiences,” says Chris Allen, associate professor at the University of Leicester and a senior fellow with the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
“The overt ideology of the far right is maybe hidden behind something which appeals to the ordinary person or the ordinary citizen much more readily.”
Britain remains as divided on the question of membership in the EU as it was in June 2016, when just under 52 percent of voters decided to leave the bloc in a referendum.
A departure date approaching at the end of March, an exit deal that satisfies virtually no one and lingering calls for a second referendum appear to be reinforcing the polarisation that has characterised the Brexit debate from the beginning.
The uncertainty about the future along with events in neighbouring France appear to be inspiring the “Yellow Vests UK” to use the image in hope of reaching beyond their usual support base.
But for now, it is playing out in a way that emphasises rather than blurs the differences in the origins of the use of the yellow vest on each side of the Channel.
“In France, this was very much a grassroots movement organised online, something where ordinary people were seen to be coming together,” says Allen.
“What we’ve got in the UK is the façade that this is what’s happening, but actually these are very specific groups mobilising their support in terms of trying to present themselves as being an uprising of ordinary people.”