Fascists have been organising weekly demonstrations in a small Scottish town. rs21 member Daire Nevis explains who they are and outlines how antifascists are organising to beat them.
Anti-fascist protest in Erskine – photo by author.
Erskine, a working-class town of 15,000 people on the south bank of the Clyde, an hour’s travel from Glasgow, has become the Sunday outing of choice for fascists in Scotland since 5 February this year. They are targeting the Muthu Glasgow River Hotel, which is housing refugees from the war in Syria.
There was no public consultation before refugees arrived in the hotel, and in an area that’s already struggling, there were fears about whether the new arrivals would affect the provision of public services, as well as some ill-guided anger that refugees were benefiting from a hotel now closed to local people. The Home Office contractor who runs the detainment is Mears Group, who were responsible for the notoriously low-grade hotel detentions in Glasgow during the Covid pandemic. Lack of information from the company led to local frustration about being kept out of the loop, prompting the creation of a community Facebook group to air concerns.
If Mears Group or the government were interested in doing so, these concerns would be easy to dispel. The refugees do not have access to the hotel’s health facilities – the gym, swimming pool and spa are not functioning. Through organising to give the refugees a mobile phone, it was discovered that Mears Group switched off the hotel wifi too. The refugees receive just £9.10 a week from the state and are not allowed to work.
The Nazi group Patriotic Alternative (PA) first reared its head in Erskine when their National Admin officer, Kenny Smith, joined the community Facebook group and offered to help them protest against the hotel. Locals and PA co-organised a protest outside the hotel for Sunday 5 February, although many local people pulled out once they realised who PA were.
The protest pulled 100 people to demonstrate against the hotel, a mixture of PA fascists from Scotland and England, and local people whose beliefs vary in rigidity. Across rows of police, 150 antifascists demonstrated against them. So began the showdowns and shouting matches which have continued every Sunday since then. Antifascists would rather see the refugees housed in better conditions, with the right to work and integrate, but for now we have to defend their current accommodation.
The fascist spin on migration
With Suella Braverman obsessing over dreams of a front page of The Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, how much worse could fascists be? The homepage of PA’s website makes it clear, with a live timer counting down until ‘The Great Replacement’, a crackpot notion imported from the USA about white people becoming a minority.
But that’s not what connects with Erskine locals. Those who are aligning with PA are more likely to buy into scare stories about the ‘200 unvetted fighting age migrant males’ in the hotel, who are ‘economic migrants’ and ‘potential rapists’. This inflates the actual number of refugees (there are about 50), denies the fact that they are refugees, and tries to establish PA as protectors of the ‘white purity’ of women. Of course, at the heart of fascism lies misogyny and the real threat to women is posed by these neo-Nazis.
In Scotland, PA have ditched all other activities to focus on the Erskine hotel. In Ireland and England too, fascists are gravitating toward hotels detaining refugees. Why has this become their go-to tactic? The dynamic generated by hotel detainment creates the ideal conditions for them to fuel racist hatred. Like many semi-rural areas in Scotland, Erskine is 98% white. The presence of a newly arrived ethnic minority who are cordoned off and denied the ability to form relationships there, allows fascists to spin up scare stories which are harder to disprove given the refugees’ inability to participate in the discussion. Of course, most Erskine people have the good sense to clock PA’s toxicity and steer clear, but PA have got a fair few disaffected local people onside by this point.
By scapegoating refugees, fascists offer the disenfranchised a way to express self-righteous victimhood. This feeling is drawing some locals into the fascist and racist ideology, as is the provision of community, albeit warped, within the PA organisation. There are two fronts on which the fascists are fighting for dominance in Erskine, and on both counts they’re being met with an increasingly organised resistance.
Opposing the fascists
For every fascist protest at the Muthu Glasgow River Hotel, there has been an antifascist counterprotest. Paisley and District Trades Union Council have been the most consistent presence, with members of EIS, Unison and PCS there with flags. Members of the Young Communist League (YCL) are there most weeks too, with masks and more agitational behaviour. On three occasions, Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) has also called a counterprotest and brought a coachload of demonstrators from Glasgow. Disparate anarchists, climate activists, rs21 members and Erskine locals take part as well. Antifascists won the battle of numbers the first day, but the balance has oscillated since. Numbers now are between 20 and 50 per side.
No one is under the illusion that the Sunday counter demos can drive the fascists out, not least because some people living in Erskine now subscribe to fascist beliefs, whether or not they’re paid-up members of PA. However, most feel that the counter demos are an essential part of the struggle. Because not all locals against the hotel are fascists, one of the most useful outcomes of the Sunday counter demos has been dialogue – conducted by megaphone across police lines.
Andrew Hardie*, an antifascist and trade unionist from nearby Paisley, recounts inviting locals on the fascist side to ask for any information they wanted about the refugees.
A woman came up and asked, just wanted to know information about the guys [in the hotel]. Julie’s [a local antifascist] met them in a bit more detail and actually spoke to them. And she gave them more information that they’ve come from Syria, and the majority of their families have been killed in the war. And she didn’t like this idea, but after a time she came round to it. And there’s a good conversation going and then we’re asking some more questions like “does it matter which country they come from?” and things like this. At that point, Simon Crane, who’s the Scottish organiser for PA, he came and took the microphone off her, and said, “it’d be better if you had a private chat, ladies.” Any time there’s any genuine dialogue, they tend to try and step in, and try and stop it.
The past few weeks have seen less dialogue, and the Sunday demos seem to be stabilising into two camps vying to make their presence heard. Antifascist chants and speeches usefully label PA as fascists and Nazis, and emphasise that fascists are opposed to working class organisations and trade unions. It’s difficult to know the proportion of local people on their side, but on 9 April there were ten known PA members from outside Erskine and ten locals. Fifty antifascists attended for what felt like the most successful counterprotest yet.
Organising in the community
Erskine locals tend to make up a quarter or less of the antifascist contingent weekly. Door-knocking efforts in Erskine have found that many locals are against fascism but think it is unsafe to join the counter protests. PA drive around town after the protests, and some believe they’re also looking for antifascists to beat up. They’ve begun to publish profiles of the antifascists prominent at the demos and no one wants to risk being physically attacked. Given these risks, the more crucial battle for the people of Erskine takes place outside the aggravated atmosphere of the protests.
Erskine has 3,000 trade union members. Its main employers are Rolls Royce, a shopping centre with a Morrisons and Asda, Royal Mail, smaller manufacturing firms and medical practices. As well as aiding the counter protests, Paisley and District Trades Union Council are leading an effort to create antifascist organisational channels for locals through the trade union network. They organised a community meeting for 11 March for local people to come together and discuss the situation at the hotel.
Unfortunately, the meeting was infiltrated by PA. The fascists hurled abuse at the organisers and distributed printed materials describing crimes supposedly committed by migrants. Local politicians showed up and demoralised everyone with their lack of a plan. There was a strong sense that local people had lost patience both with PA and the politicians. The main grievance was the lack of community engagement from the decision-makers around the hotel. Most local people welcome the refugees, and feel that they should be housed in better conditions.
Another public meeting is in the works, for people in Erskine to begin to self-organise against the fascists who are growing among them.
On 11 March, Mark Cousins’ new film about Mussolini, March on Rome, screened at the Glasgow Film Festival to a packed out cinema. The film emphasised the tiny numbers of Blackshirts that actually turned out for fascist demos before they gained power in 1922. They looked so ridiculous that nobody thought they were a threat. There are significant similarities between Italy 1922 and Britain 2023 – a massive cost of living crisis, escalating fuel prices and rising unemployment. And tiny but energetic groups of fascists.
It was only after Italy’s 1920 strikewave was defeated that fascists started carrying out more emboldened attacks. The confidence and self-organisation of the working class is what will drive PA off the streets. There are also arguments to be won around the issues of migration and refugees which currently fuel PA’s propaganda.
As Andrew Hardie says, ‘it’s important to recognise the real threat that this group poses. If they win this battle, that will embolden them to try in other places.’ But the antifascist fight in Scotland is getting more organised. Security-conscious antifa groups are building connections across Glasgow and Edinburgh, and travelling to counterprotest wherever fascists appear. While the far-right builds links with transphobes, Scotland’s activists and socialists are also strengthening our organisation against transphobia, in resistance to the entire right-wing project of gender-based oppression.
More locally, Erskine community organisers are creating structures for discussion within their own community. Some have created the online resource, Patriotic Alternative – Exposed, to raise awareness of who these fascists are. Useful information is also gathered by researchers at Hope Not Hate and The Ferret. Crucial to the overall picture is the current wave of workers strikes for better pay, conditions and services, and the strike solidarity networks that help sustain their morale. The ineptitude of both Westminster and Holyrood have created a crisis which the centre cannot hold, and it is up to the left to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
* name changed to protect identity