It is always tempting, when contemplating two uncompromising groups hell bent on mayhem, to recall George Orwell’s famous quote about outsiders looking from pig to man, and being unable to spot the difference. The nationalist marchers who descended on Brighton last Sunday and those who turned out to oppose them shared an unshakeable confidence that they were right and an equally steadfast conviction that the other lot must be shut up at all costs.
But the similarities are superficial. Among those opposing the March for England, I spotted the current MP for Brighton Pavilion, at least one former mayor, and the chief executive of Brighton Housing Trust. Whatever you think of their political stripes, these are not hot-headed people who normally choose to give up a Sunday afternoon in search of a pointless ruck. They are part of a broad church of socially committed citizens who have made the city synonymous with a spirit of free thinking which if often mocked is also widely envied. They lined the seafront because they sincerely believe the views of the March for England supporters are too obnoxious to be heard on the city’s streets.
They are wrong. The right to free speech is indivisible and any defence of democracy should involve tolerating views which you find wholly repugnant. Neither side of this debate ought to be allowed to claim possession of a sacred truth. Both should approach the issues with clearer heads.
But if the march is justifiable on philosophical grounds, it is deeply questionable in economic terms.
It cost at least £500,000 to police, there were running battles in the streets around the main march and 27 people were arrested. Businesses lost tens of thousands of pounds worth of trade.
The members of the city’s Tourism Alliance are right to call for the organisers to foot the bill.
I bumped into Councillor Ben Duncan on the drizzly seafront just after the march had finished. He told me that the council had put in a request to the police for the event to be held at the racecourse. He said it had been turned down with no reason given. It is a safe bet that the racecourse managers would take a dim view of 200 nationalists and far more opponents tearing up their carefully managed turf.
But there is one policy that is easy to put into practice. A ban on the sale of alcohol before, during, and after the march would remove much of the heat – and the attraction – from the event.
Some publicans (not many in my guess) will complain that they will lose custom. If it puts an end to the violent and frightening scenes witnessed on Sunday, it would be a price worth paying.