By Andrew DISMORE. London Assembly member, Camden and Barnet.
It was in 1998, after a visit to Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust, that I asked myself the rhetorical question: “What can I do to prevent this happening again?”
Soon after, I proposed my Private Member’s Bill in Parliament to establish Holocaust Memorial Day. The idea was taken up by the Government and has become an important part of our national calendar. But little did I think then that, just 16 years later, I would be demonstrating with hundreds of others to see off real fascists on the streets of London.
Because if anything brings home the immediacy of the relevance of Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) it is that Gabor Vona, leader of the Hungarian far-right Jobbik Party and founder of the now outlawed Magyar Gárda Mozgalom paramilitary guard, planned an event in London the day before HMD, on Sunday, 26 January.
This was surely no coincidence.
Why would the leader of Jobbik come to London at precisely such a sensitive time in an attempt to garner a few dozen extremist overseas votes for the forthcoming Hungarian elections, from those who presumably sympathise with his extreme views anyway?
Surely any normal politician would be campaigning for the thousands of votes he’d hope to win back home.
The parallels between the ambitions of Hungary’s Jobbik Party and Nazi Germany in the early 1930s are chilling, given Jobbik’s profoundly anti-Semitic views and hostility towards Roma people.
A Jobbik MP’s proposal to compile a list of prominent Jews seen as a “threat to national security” is one step away from demanding the wearing of a yellow star.
Their paramilitary uniformed parades are as intimidating as the Nazi brownshirt marches leading to Kristallnacht. Jobbik’s plans to segregate and ghettoise the Roma reminds us that they were also Holocaust victims alongside 500,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered.
The apparent impotence of the mainstream political parties to confront Jobbik, as it has- gained electoral support to become the third largest party there, with 43 Hungarian MPs and three MEPs, is yet more déjà vu, when we remember that Hitler and the Nazis never secured a majority in the Reichstag before he burned it down after taking power as a minority Government.
Freedom of speech is vital to our democracy, but it is not an unfettered right. Hate speech is a criminal offence and has no place in our tolerant country. That is why I started the campaign to call for Vona’s exclusion.
Regrettably, the Home Secretary did not reply to my two letters asking her to use her powers to ban him from the United Kingdom. Nor did she respond to the Hope Not Hate petition we delivered to the Home Office with more than 14,000 names collected in just 24 hours.
Nor to the many Jewish community organisations that also wrote to her.
Nor to the Roma community that backed the call, or to the MPs who raised the issue in the annual Commons debate to mark HMD.
So it was down to street action to stop them. The “Battle of High Holborn” became a smaller and thankfully non-violent repeat of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 – this time with good co-operation between protesters and police.
Our huge crowd of anti-fascist protesters peacefully prevented Jobbik and Vona leaving Holborn Tube Station.
A Labour councillor found the meeting hall they had booked under false pretences, ensured the hall was locked and the Jobbik rally was cancelled at the last minute.
Transport for London rightly refused to let Jobbik hold a meeting in the station. The party was prevented by the peaceful demonstration from moving to Covent Garden, where its members planned to go.
In the end they scuttled off, ending up with their tails between their legs as a rather sorry looking huddle of a few dozen rain-sodden, droopy flag-waving blackshirts in Hyde Park – also eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of the Battle of Cable Street, where Mosley’s fascists went after they were unable to march through the East End.
This episode was a salutary lesson to us all. The far-right is on the march, whether it is Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Front National in France or BNP and EDL at home.
This is why we need Holocaust Memorial Day more than ever.
Its key message is not just to remember the past, but to warn us to look to what the future might bring if we fail to be vigilant and to stand up to be counted.