The English Defence League and the new far-right

A street demo against "Islamisation" shows the potential for the English far-right to regain lost momentum.

Hsiao-Hung Pai
17 February 2015

Britain's political far-right is in its weakest position for twenty years, according to a report by the campaigning anti-racism movement Hope Not Hate. That may seems obvious to anyone looking at the condition of two recently high-profile far-right groups, the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). The former suffered an electoral wipe-out in the European elections of May 2014, the latter splintered and weakened after its leader Tommy Robinson’s departure in autumn 2013. But against these trends, there are now worrying signs of resumed momentum on the far-right. 

In the west midlands town of Dudley over the weekend of 7 February, for instance, more than 1,200 were present at the EDL’s street movement. That's back to the level of the two demos it held here in 2010, and represents its first surge since the stagnation caused by Robinson’s departure. A depressed town abandoned by manufacturing industries, Dudley offers fertile ground for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment to breed. In the early 1960s, British Afro-Caribbean residents were the primary target of racism in such areas; since the 1990s, racism's focus has shifted to British Asians, particularly Muslims.

This time, the angry EDL demonstrators - most of them from England's midlands and north-east, where the movement is strongest - were here to oppose the building of a mosque. They see this as symbolising the taking-over of their culture and demographic landscape, although the 2011 census finds that of Dudley metropolitan borough's population of over 300,000 (including 80,000 in the town itself), only 4.1% are Muslims. The EDL also talks of “Islamification”, though by far the most numerous religious group in the borough, at 63.5%, identify as Christians.

Matters haven’t been helped by sensationalist media reporting of the mosque issue, nor by the fact that UKIP’s Bill Etheridge, MEP for the area, has also opposed it being built. The local Express & Star published a cropped image of the proposed mosque without showing the entire plan of the complex. This includes an enterprise and education centre, a community centre, a sports centre and a 120-space two-storey car park. None of the EDL demonstrators consulted had any idea about the full plan for the building.

Many on this demo were optimistic about their future street presence. The EDL’s street movement has benefited from the events of 2014 and early 2015: the Trojan Horse investigation into Birmingham's schools, the Rotherham sex-grooming scandal, and new terrorism threats in Europe (highlighted by the Paris and Copenhagen attacks). The coverage of these events in the mainstream media and the political discourse around them has enabled ideas that were propagated by the EDL to become increasingly acceptable in society. The “clash of civilisations” argument, for instance, has dominated mainstream coverage of the Charlie Hebdo debate, and the "religion-radicalisation" narrative is also the norm (as in the BBC Panorama programme on "The Battle for British Islam" in January 2015). These fitted well with the EDL activists in Dudley, who claim that Islam itself is the problem.

A movement of splinters

Tommy Robinson told me: “When we were talking about these issues since five years ago, we were shunned and called racists. Now, in the last twelve to eighteen months, they, the politicians and media, are all talking about the same issues…My speech at Oxford Union was very well received… These ideas become more mainstream. People are listening to us now. We’ve been proved right.”

Robinson has been confident in asserting that the EDL is “a force that isn’t going away”, though he himself publicly quit the group to look for a more respectable platform. Many on the Dudley demo also envisage the street movement growing across the country. An EDL activist from Crewe said he would be interested to see what Pegida UK - taking its name from the German "anti-Islamisation" movement - is doing, and sees the potential of EDL and Pegida UK joining forces. Many like him, many in the EDL see themselves as part of an anti-Muslim movement across Europe in which mainstream political discourse has contributed to reinforcing ideologies propagated by the far-right.

Pegida UK was set up just a week before EDL’s Dudley march. Ideologically it’s a UK extension of the German far-right movement, based in Dresden where its rallies drew around 25,000 people. However, organisationally there’s no direct connection between the two. A day after the Dudley demo, Pegida UK’s representative Matthew Pope published an online video to explain what the group is about - and so far his is the only face of the group. It plans to hold its first rally in Newcastle on 28 February, with similar events to follow in Birmingham and London. Its Facebook post says: "All are welcome to attend. Let’s show the Islamists we show no fear."

Tommy Robinson said that the core of the group is “ordinary men and women” who are opposed to “Islamification”, just like the EDL. But behind the façade, EDL activists reveal that some of the splinter groups from the EDL have been organising Pegida UK. In particular, Northwest Infidels and Northeast Infidels, consisting of Loyalists and white supremacists, were formed by regional organisers kicked out by Tommy Robinson. They are now pulling football fans into their ranks, to become Pegida’s foot soldiers.  Other splinter groups like the English Volunteer Force and South East Alliance are also getting involved.

“They’re basically providing the venue for people to flock to”, a London-based EDL activist said. “A lot of them are neo-Nazis. They’re fed up with Muslims and they are against all Muslims. But to be honest, their ideas, a lot of them, are respected by mainstream society…”

“As white Europeans, they’re joining in the Europe-wide movement against Islamification”, he said. “It’s easier for English anti-jihadists to go to work in Germany because they don’t have cameras on every street corner like we do…That’s why Pegida UK organisers have been operating underground, and they’ll remain off the radar. All by Facebook and PO box.”

It looks like Pegida UK will be a loose aggregate of far-right sympathisers, EDL’s splinter groups and remnants of white-power groups. Tommy Robinson has seen the growth of these nuclei in the past two years. “Since I left, these splinter groups are very active and have developed…,” he said, “There are young kids who come through the EDL and get radicalised in these further right groups. I see the splinter groups as a problem. They’re around the EDL and they are trying to pull people out, to their side.” He showed me a picture of a young boy with a Nazi salute. He knew this boy three years ago - he has joined Northwest Infidels after hanging around them for all that time.

The mushrooming of these splinters continues to challenge the EDL. “The divide within the EDL is to do with regions…It’s to do with the regional organisers”, said Robinson. “For instance, Paul Pitt, from South East Alliance, he was the regional organiser for Essex. When I kicked him out, some of the people went with him which gave him a support base. The same is happening with Yorkshire…They’re kicking out the organiser for what she said and done [a reference to Gail Speight, found guilty of charity theft]…but the loyal friends and people she’s had around her for four-five years will stay with her. Then what she’ll do is join the local splinter group, Northwest Infidels, bringing her people and bringing up their number. You say EDL are anti-Muslim. Their rhetoric is anti-non-white.”

The real face of Pegida UK remains to be unveiled. But the estimated few hundred are organising and aiming to draw thousands into its new movement, and they will bring fear and violence to communities wherever they visit.

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