Re-examining the EDL
It is almost four years since the English Defence League burst onto Britain’s streets and made their mark on Britain’s political discourse. Recent turn of events has seen the movement start to implode, but were the seeds of destruction present from its formation? Demos’ Jamie Bartlett interviewed the EDL’s notorious leader, Tommy Robinson, in October 2010. Here is the previously unpublished article:
It is customary to send the person you interview a copy of the article they will be appearing in. But ‘Tommy Robinson’ (the name is a moniker) couldn’t access the internet, because Special Branch has apparently seized his computer. Tommy is the unofficial leader of the English Defence League.
The EDL is the newest, and biggest, right-wing street movement in a generation. As Jon Cruddas said recently, the group is a greater threat to social cohesion than the BNP, because its modus operandi is the street demo. They have held dozens in the last 12 months, consisting of hundreds of young men swarming into a town chanting songs like ‘we all hate Muslims’, and ‘Allah is a paedo’. Hundreds more counter-protest, and things have a tendency to turn nasty and divisive. But its growing number of members feel they aren't getting heard and the group is on the brink of ending its policy of working with the police, moving to coordinated 'flash-mobs' which would spark mayhem. Unless a solution is found, the government's plan for a more cohesive, tolerant society will be derailed.
So who are they? Tommy denies the standard portrayal as a far-right rag-tag of former football hooligans that hate Islam. We are, he protests, ‘a peaceful organisation’ fighting only militant Islam. But the Guardian journalist Matthew Taylor ran an expose on the group earlier this year and found casual racism, rampant Islamophobia, and violence ever present. Critical voices receive anonymous threatening phone calls. Photos of unsympathetic journalists have recently been put on their menacing forum. Claims of close relationships between members of the EDL and far-right splinter groups and football firms have been widely documented by Searchlight, the anti-Fascist magazine.
Islamophobia holds the group together, but according to far-right expert Matthew Goodwin, the EDL is a lightning rod for a number of grievances.
Yet members are a mixed bag. Some are known football hooligans. Some mask Islamophobia behind the haughty language of defending the Enlightenment. Others feel mainstream politicians don’t care about the white working class. Some do have a genuine desire to march against Islamic fascism. In fact, some early members have recently formed a breakaway group called the ‘Nice Ones UK’ because they want to fight Islamic extremism on the streets but think the EDL has attracted the wrong people.
Tommy knows the group's official line - not always heard at its marches - has popular appeal, because it is ostentatiously about defending freedom. Most of his vitriol is not directed at the Muslim community, but at a government ‘that panders to Jihadis'. He defends the rights of gays and lesbians from Sharia law. He repeats the EDL's official non-racist, non-fascist policy. ‘The National Front turned up to our second demonstration thinking they would be welcomed, but we kicked them out of town.' Why? ‘We [Luton] are a multicultural town.’
Tommy says he left the BNP when they wouldn’t let a couple of his black mates into a meeting. ‘In Luton, you won’t find a white man without black friends!’ Above all he hates political correctness and double standards: renaming Christmas ‘winter illuminations’, and not being allowed to fly the flag of St George in school for fear of offending. Some of these stories are exaggerated. But he is tapping into something when he says that ‘everyone is pissed off but no one does anything about it. We are the voice for that.’
Though bullish, Tommy is torn in a way Nick Griffin once was, between seeking respectability and representing his members. He admits some of the EDL’s legitimate concerns aren’t heard over the beer-fuelled chants, and that is hurting the cause. As a result the group is trying to become more respectable. Tommy says he wants to hold conferences instead of marches, getting members off the streets and talking to politicians, ‘because we go on the street and nobody hears what we're talking about'. More surprisingly, the EDL has started education classes: ‘we've got ex-Islamic scholars teaching us about Islam. We are going to explain the difference between moderate Muslims and extremists’. Not everyone is convinced. Anas Altikriti, CEO of The Cordoba Foundation thinks this is just ‘a gimmick’.
They are becoming more organised, too. The EDL emerged in 2009 from the United Peoples of Luton, which Tommy formed when an Islamist group protested the Royal Anglican Regiment's return from duty in Afghanistan. In the first few weeks, ‘it was snowballing out of control’ says Tommy. It was just a loose network of people. Now, it is formally structured. 'Each region has a regional leader, then deputies. Instead of going out to the whole country, I now speak to them'. They are responsible for arranging events, meetings, and leafleting. At the same time, Tommy has been forging international links. He was turned away at JFK airport en route to meet influential members of the Tea Party on the anniversary of 9/11. This is the tip of the iceberg. 'We’re spread from England to Belgium to Holland to France, we’ve been to Paris to meet the French Defence League, we’re going to Amsterdam to meet the Dutch and German Defence League'.
According to Catherine Fieschi, an expert on European far-right movements, nationalism has historically scuppered far-right internationalism, but this time could be different: 'it is defined by a shared vision of defending Western values and anger against anyone seen to be trampling on them’.
But this drive for respectability is constrained by Tommy’s responsibility to represent this new community. He defends the EDL members recently arrested for burning the Quran, ‘they were driven to do it’ by people like Anjem Choudary burning the Union Jack: ‘our flag is like their holy book’. His members seem to want to march every week, in every city; he has to contain them. He needs results because things might turn nasty: ‘I believe you will have English lads blowing themselves up in five or ten years in this country. We don’t want to blow things up, we want to go down the right route but the government has to start listening to what the people want.’
He has had some small victories. When Rochdale put squat toilets in the shopping centre, Tommy phoned them: ‘I told them “If you don’t get rid of them toilets, then I'll promise you we’ll target your shopping centre' (with protests). The centre relented. Tommy justifies by adding: ‘I realised this could be used. We can do what Islam does: threaten.’ Doesn’t using threats bother him? ‘If I see English or Christian culture is being eroded in a disgusting way, I will use that’.
How to deal with organisations like the EDL? Tommy says one thing; on the streets members often do another. The current approach is localised containment. Constabularies – with the Home Secretary’s approval – are banning its marches, but allowing ‘static protest’ meaning they can protest kettled inside a pre-defined area. Tommy sees this as ‘a real “fuck you” from the police’. He says the EDL ‘is sick of being caged in like animals' and is on the verge of abandoning its policy of working with the police before its protests, holding unannounced demos instead. Tommy says ‘if I wanted I could bring 50 coaches full of people to Luton without telling the police because we don’t need to anymore’. This is the nightmare scenario: the EDL hitting multiple locations simultaneously, with weekly street battles with counter-demonstrators before the police can get there. We would see a spiralling, self-reinforcing anger on all sides.
The way to avoid this is to take the EDL at its word, let them march in a limited way, listen and engage, while cracking down on anyone who breaks the law. It is self-satisfying to label them as neo-Nazis and shut our eyes and ears, but in the long run that stifles free debate because it excuses us from taking on what they have to say. If the police allowed them just one proper demonstration every eight weeks, would Tommy respect that and end the threat of flash-mobs?
‘Absolutely! We just want to be heard.' Every time a march is banned, we make Geert Wilders of them all: free speech martyrs. Letting them speak would deny them this luxury, and expose weaknesses in their arguments. Those just looking for a fight would drift away or be sidelined by a leadership needing to appear moderate. This is the least-bad option and probably the cheapest to police, which is not insignificant.
Tommy's overriding feelings are urgency and frustration: 'something has got to give. If nothing happens, something drastic might happen. I don’t know what it might be'. One way or another they will be heard. Even though we will almost certainly disagree, we should probably start listening.