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A Magazine for Sheffield

“I started 2020 as a lefty socialist and finished as a conservative”: 2023 in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire

Sam Baker takes a look at the changing nature of protesters in Sheffield, speaking to an eclectic mix of demonstrators in the city centre. 

Lots of people and banners on the steps of Sheffield City Hall

A demonstration in Barkers Pool


On a mild February morning in Sheffield city centre, Caroline stood outside Barclays, Palestinian pin badge on full display and a fistful of pamphlets.

She had joined a group of around a dozen Palestine activists to “tell people that Israel is an apartheid state,” as they do on the first Saturday of every month, accusing Barclays of playing “a specific role in financing Israeli weapons”.

Born in 1949, Caroline is just a year younger than the state of Israel itself and has campaigned for Palestinian rights for years. Many of her fellow activists outside Barclays are veterans of the South African boycott movement.

A woman standing in front of Barclays Bank with a leaflet

Protester Caroline

Sam Baker

They bellow messages through a megaphone, competing with chants from Wednesday fans ahead of their big game against Plymouth. The scene is a staple of Saturday mornings in Sheffield. The cultural heart of the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’, Sheffield has historically been seen as a major hub for UK leftism. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, meanwhile, remains an archetypal movement for British leftists.

However, British political traditions have somewhat begun to fracture in recent years.

One middle-aged man, standing at a large-ish demonstration merely 100 yards away, made an extreme rightward turn during the pandemic. “I started 2020 as a lefty socialist and finished as a conservative,” grins Dylan - “but not the political party,” he quickly points out, remembering his youth in Sheffield during the 80s and 90s when Tory governments “decimated this area.”

Dylan made his transition to the alt-right throughout Covid when he began protesting against lockdown measures. He was polite and respectful to me and beamed throughout most of our conversation.

Today, he has joined dozens of others to protest against the Clean Air Zone (CAZ) that will be implemented across Sheffield city centre on 27 February. The scheme will charge taxis, buses, and the most heavily polluting lorries and vans for driving on the ring road and in the city centre. Private cars will be exempt.

“Clean air is a good thing”, Dylan says, recalling the thick smog that suffocated Sheffield during his boyhood. Nowadays, he says, the air is fresh and crisp - he gestures at the day’s weather as contradictory evidence to any climate catastrophe - although it still exceeds legal pollution limits in some parts of the city. The CAZ proposal, Dylan insists, is about something much bigger than air quality. “It’s about control,” he says.

On the surface, the anti-CAZ demo is not ideological. Most attendees simply think the council’s plans to charge vehicles for using city centre roads is a bad idea. Dylan, on the other hand, is adamant that external forces are at work.

It is the World Economic Forum, he believes, who insidiously conspire to control populations around the globe, one Clean Air Zone at a time.

I ask him how he knows this. Because they said so themselves. Explicitly? Well, not explicitly.

He didn’t have many concrete answers - including when I asked who actually organised the anti-CAZ protest that morning, which gained traction in a Facebook group partly administered by Bradford residents who set up a similar campaign in their city.

So, who exactly is so eager to control the half million people in Sheffield, most of whom won’t be directly impacted by CAZ charges? Tony Blair, George Soros and other “globalists”.

At the mention of Soros I brace slightly. The Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire is often the pantomime villain of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about shady cabals controlling the world. The Blofeld-esque image of Soros is promoted by Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, as well as influential personalities on the American far-right.

A group of mostly men stand near the Peace Gardens

Anti-Clean Air Zone demo

Sam Baker

Indeed, Dylan tells me he gets most of his news from far-right publications with a reputation for misinformation.

Dylan’s mood turned when I told him I thought it was anti-Semitic to invoke Soros. His beam disappeared and he got defensive, pointing out that it was me that raised the J-word in the first place. Flustered, I confessed to being Jewish and that I simply recognised the haphazard mention of Soros as a dog whistle for anti-Semitism. He then began to climb down.

Back outside the Town Hall, a group of students have set up a strike solidarity stand next to the anti-CAZ crowd. They’re so close it’s hard to distinguish the two groups at first.

Jack, staffing the stand with several petitions - as he does every weekend - tells me that the anti-CAZ demo has improved their public engagement. “Lots of people are supporting what we’re saying,” he says. “They support nurses getting better pay and they see the impact of the Tories. We might disagree about some things about the environment, but we actually have a lot to agree on, particularly on public transport, which everyone agrees is underfunded.”

Despite their moderate image, however, the anti-CAZ demo has attracted a strong showing from The Light distributors, an anti-vax newspaper. They add some diversity to the mix of Palestine pamphlets, Socialist Worker papers and support-the-strikes stickers that will come to litter the city centre streets by the end of the day.

Yet the various factions of activists, while cautious of each other, seem pleased to see so many people enthusiastically exercising their precarious right to protest. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, passed in 2022, gave police greater powers to dismantle non-violent demonstrations. Further restrictions are planned in the Public Order bill, currently making its way through parliament.

I tell Jack that I’ve never seen such an eclectic mix of activists before.

“You should come into town more often,” he says.

More Democracy & Activism

More Democracy & Activism