Anti-fascists, including large numbers of local people, gathered outside a hotel in Newquay this morning to stand up to a far-right campaign that’s stirring up fear and hatred of asylum-seekers. Tom Scott reports from the scene.
It was a lovely, fresh spring morning in Cornwall today, more than making up the hour of lost sleep with the clocks going forward. And perhaps it helped put a spring in the step of the anti-fascists who gathered at 9.30 in front of the Beresford Hotel above Tolcarne Beach in Newquay, which is currently housing around 200 asylum-seekers while the Home Secretary attempts to progress her cruel and illegal scheme to deport them to Rwanda.
I recognised many faces in the crowd of several hundred – people I know in Newquay, representatives of several trade unions and from several political parties in Cornwall.
Other faces were harder to recognise – a group of hardcore anti-fascists organised by Cornwall Resists (originally formed to protest at the G7 in 2021) were clad in black and wearing masks. This might sound threatening, but (as a friend pointed out) these people have been targeted by violent extremists in the past and are understandably not keen to make themselves easily recognisable to potential assailants.
At any event, spirits were high and the mood in the crowd was convivial, helped by a small but energetic samba band and a lively variety of home-made placards, banners and Cornish flags. The black-clad anti-fascists had brought a banner that pointed out, very aptly, that Cornwall’s patron saint, Saint Piran, was himself a refugee.
We were there to protest against a planned demonstration by the far-right, who have been busily ramping up a campaign against the asylum-seekers lodged in the hotel. This follows another such demonstration in February, the principal organiser of both being one Phillip Milo Gregory, a man with a string of convictions for fraud, assault against a woman and driving under the influence of cocaine.
There was some concern that the far right might arrive in greater strength than before. In the last week or two, they’d been calling for extremists from outside Cornwall to rally to their cause, and social media had been flooded with posts about an alleged rape in Newquay that they claimed had been committed by one of the hotel’s residents (the man charged with this offence was not in fact an asylum seeker and was not living at the hotel).
But when they finally showed up, they turned out to be a motley crew of two or three dozen, far outnumbered by the counter-protesters. Unlike the last time, though, they’d come equipped with what looked like professionally produced placards, which sought to link the presence of “illegal migrants” with the housing crisis in Cornwall.
As many in the crowd of counter-protesters pointed out, their ire would have been better directed at government policies that have allowed so much of Cornwall’s housing to be snapped up as second homes and Airbnb lets. But second home-owners and Airbnb landlords tend not to have dark skins.
Among those stirring up resentment against asylum seekers in Newquay has been a former Conservative councillor in the town, Angie Rayner, who is now a member of Richard Tice’s Reform UK party.
Ms Rayner’s Facebook page, as well as promoting all the usual far-right conspiracy theories about the ‘Great Reset’, vaccines, Bill Gates and so on, is full of incendiary invective against asylum-seekers, including a reference to “Christian’s [sic] being hunted down and murdered in their own country by the likes of those in the Beresford hotel”. She has also posted about the violent riots in France, which she claims “have been going on since their government introduced mandatory covid injections”, and she seems to look forward to similar violence in this country, justified by her perception that “there are dark forces at work targeting local people who dare to speak out”.
On 18 March Rayner posted: “Today we are waking up to an asylum seeker/migrant possibly staying at the Beresford hotel having been charged for the rape of a woman in Newquay.” She has failed to correct this, despite the man having been shown to have no connection with the hotel. Nor does she appear to see the irony in the demonstrations she supports being organised by a serial criminal with a conviction for violence against a woman.
Contrary to some press reports, and perhaps to the disappointment of Ms Rayner, the face-off between the two groups gathered in front of the hotel was mostly peaceful. There was already a large police presence by the time the far right arrived, and more police vans soon showed up to reinforce a barrier between the opposing groups. Chants and speeches by members of the far-right group were easily drowned out by chants from the anti-fascists.
One scuffle between members of the opposing groups resulted in the arrest of two of the counter-protesters, and two others were issued with antisocial behaviour dispersal notices.
As Gary Lineker quite rightly pointed out, vicious rhetoric directed against migrants and asylum seekers has consequences. Here in Cornwall, Suella Braverman’s characterisation of the people crossing the channel in small boats as “illegals” engaged in an “invasion” has been picked up and amplified by extremists, and used to promote racism and resentment within our local communities.
These extremists need to be resisted, loudly and publicly. But like most of us outside the Beresford Hotel today, I was very glad that things didn’t kick off into more general mayhem. Escalation and violence can only play into the hands of the fascists.
Instead, people from many different groups in Cornwall came together peacefully today to deliver a very clear message to the peddlers of hatred and fear:
“From the Tamar to the sea, Cornwall will be fascist-free!”