Bursting onto television screens and newspapers in the wake of a racist provocation-turned-riot in Luton in May this year, the embryonic forces of what now constitute the English Defence League have maintained a steady presence in the media and on the streets. But who are the EDL?
The rise of the English Defence League (EDL) has in fact been a contradictory phenomenon. The media prominence is out of all proportion to the actual numbers involved in and on the periphery of the EDL. It is all the more surprising given that the organisation appears to be entirely internet-based.
Most accounts of the EDL maintain that it was forged in the wake of a tiny protest in Luton against Royal Anglian Regiment troops returning from Afghanistan. The story goes like this: in March this year a handful of supporters of the clerical-fascist Al-Muhajiroun organised a publicity stunt at the parade for returning troops; this outraged the local community who in turn organised their own protest denouncing “Muslim extremists”. The EDL snowballed from there.
In the real world the truth is very rarely as simple as this. The hastily formed “United People of Luton” (UPL) group, whose pro-troops demonstration descended into a riot, was not an organic response. At the core of this group and organisations like “March For England”, which readily supported UPL, are known supporters of the far-right and fascist groups. The important added ingredient to the real story is the central role played by Luton football hooligans — the “Men In Gear” or “MIGs” — and the networks they operate within.
The grouping which now calls itself the “English Defence League” makes many claims for itself. They continue to deny any links with the British National Party — claims reciprocated by Nick Griffin.
They claim to oppose the use of violence — despite facts to the contrary. They insist that they are non-racist, simply opposed to “extremists”. The widely reported facts demolish these claims. More important, for anti-racists and anti-fascists, is to understand exactly what the EDL represents, why they are so dangerous and what we do to stop their activity.
The mutually hostile exchanges between British National Party leaders and EDL spokespeople are hard to fathom. All the more so when it turns out that key members of the EDL are also BNP members.
Chris Renton, Davy Cooling and Matt Unsworth are all prominent EDL activists and listed BNP members. Renton has been visible at EDL actions in Birmingham, Cooling is known to have links with football hooliganism and Unsworth made special efforts to recruit racist musicians to EDL events.
Also a quick scan of the BNP's website will show you just how obsessed they are with Muslims and mosques. Along with adverts for “It’s Cool to be White” t-shirts, the website carries stories warning of the dangers of Pakistani immigration and the threat to free speech posed by Islam. The BNP uses anti-Muslim prejudice and racism to organise itself and attract new supporters. So does the EDL.
But the BNP’s current political strategy is at odds with the approach taken by the EDL. Where the BNP is happy set up stalls in town and city centres, petitioning against immigration or the building of a new mosque, the EDL is much happier staging a direct racist provocation outside said mosque. This is exactly what they attempted in Harrow last month when a handful of their members were humiliated by massive opposition.
Where the BNP will use images of burkha-clad women on election leaflets to garner racist support, the EDL plan to don burkha-style headgear at their upcoming Manchester action.
Both the BNP and EDL appeal to a pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment in society, and share the same racist impulses. But the BNP has shelved the street-level agitation and violently confrontational style adopted by the EDL, in favour of a bid for mainstream political positioning, to build mass support. In fact Griffin and the BNP envisage a future “civil war” for control of the country but characterise the current period as one of “quiet revolution”. The activities of the EDL are creating a bit too much noise for Griffin’s liking.
Griffin and his second-in-command Simon Darby have posted a number of discussions on BNP blogs and websites where they have criticised the EDL for being a “non-white” organisation, claimed EDL demonstrations are a provocation by state security forces, and, more recently, that they are were coordinated by “Zionists” They are working hard to discourage BNP members from becoming involved with the group.
The EDL works equally hard to distance itself from the BNP. At demonstrations in Luton and Birmingham, EDL supporters have carried placards stating “We are not BNP”. Alan Lake, a businessman who has offered to finance EDL activities and publicity, has demanded the group continues to distance itself from the BNP.
But what do these demands say about Alan Lake? Does his and the EDL’s hostility to the BNP make them any “better” than Britain’s largest fascist organisation?
According to reports in the Guardian, and on the “Hope Not Hate” website, Lake has attended meetings and conferences organised by the Swedish Democrats. The SD has its roots on the Swedish far-right, has worked closely and modelled itself on Le Pen’s Front National but has recently moved to distance itself from the more extreme elements, expelling some members. The SD remains a far-right, nationalist party.
At the conference, Lake spoke enthusiastically about the emergence of the EDL claiming: “We [the British far-right] have a problem with numbers. We have an army of bloggers but that’s not going to get things done. Football fans [sic] are a potential source of support. They are a hoi polloi that gets off their backsides and travels to a city and they are available before and after matches.” He spoke of the EDL as a “street army” in the coming battle against Islamisation.
Lake’s agenda — an agenda almost certainly shared by the core of the EDL — is to urgently prepare for and instigate racist confrontations. The BNP share the same ultimate goal but are engaged in a very different strategy. The direction of the EDL will appeal to those on the far-right who either disagree with Griffin’s “moderate” positioning or who have become frustrated with the results.
Many fascists will consider the election of a phalanx of councillors and two MEPs as steps forward for their movement, but yearn for more direct action against their enemies. This is what the EDL offers. It could very well become a centre for the re-grouping of Britain’s hard-core fascists, with a ready made “army”.
Individual football hooligans and the growing number of sympathetic “firms” are the EDL’s most important potential asset.
The Luton hooligan firm, the “MIGs”, were centrally involved in the first outburst of activity. Previously the “MIGs” has acted as foot-soldiers for the tiny local branch of the BNP.
In an effort to distance themselves from the negative “public image” of hooliganism — all too risky when you’re headed for the big time — the BNP leader banned the group from public meetings. This caused some disquiet amongst local BNP supporters.
Barry Taylor, a former BNP member claims in a leaked document that: “A lot of the activism and support in Luton was due to a group of friends known as the MIGs. When Nick Griffin made a visit to our area in February 2007 the MIGs were not invited. Subsequently they discovered that they had been excluded… These men had previously represented about 50% of the available workforce for Luton” (Searchlight, September 2009).
This is evidence that relations between football hooliganism and the organised far-right, fascists and racists endures.
The history of football hooliganism dates back to the 1800s. The first recorded example took place in Derby in 1846 where two troops of dragoons were called in to put down a riot. Since the 1880s, pitch invasions became commonplace.
These and most of the subsequent examples of hooliganism had no political motivation, did not involve racism and were not harnessed by wider political movements. Most sociologists consider football hooliganism to be one made up of two separate phenomena — “spontaneous” and low-level disruption caused by drunks or over-excited fans, and orchestrated stand-offs between organised gangs.
During the 1970s and 1980s there were many large-scale confrontations and the establishment of permanent organisations, or “firms” of hooligans. This period coincided with growing racial tensions and the formation of larger and more stable fascist organisations like the National Front. The National Front and its periphery, with their common commitment to racist street violence, forged connections.
At this time some degree of racial and effectively political differentiation opened up between fan bases. For instance, two clubs in the same city could have two very different bases of support — one overwhelmingly Catholic, the other Protestant. Obvious political/sectarian differences over Ireland were played out in exchanges of abusive chants and physical confrontations. Fans in a part of the country with a very low proportion of ethnic minority populations faced with a fan-base in a newly multicultural city would fight it out in a similar way. Such arenas were, and continue to be, attractive hunting grounds for organised racists and fascists.
Some of the newly formed “firms” were explicitly set up as “white-only” and with specific right-wing politics, often led by National Front supporters. Others had sympathies and affiliations to the anti-racist movement and even socialist organisations. In other words, hooliganism is not automatically associated with the extreme right and reaction.
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s organised groups of socialist football “hooligans” confronted NF supporters and attempted to stop them organising racist attacks before or after matches. Some of this activity is described in the book No Retreat by Dave Hann and Steve Tilzey.
The wave of football hooliganism, dubbed “the English disease”, was largely quashed in the wake of large-scale rioting and deaths. Increased policing and police intelligence work within the firms played a part, and the police continue to monitor and control rival crowds. If the EDL, which already has a number of firms affiliated to its “Casuals United” network, can attract more support or inspire new, sympathetic firms, then we could see a return to regular, large-scale clashes.
Two final aspects of the involvement of organised football hooligans.
Football matches and fixtures — especially where longstanding rivalries between fans exists — provide a convenient organisational timetable for activity. The mass following that football enjoys provides a ready-made recruitment ground.
"ANTI-EXTREMIST" OR RACIST?
The “official” EDL story, postings on various supporting blogs and websites, and the placards carried by supporters on demonstrations, insist that that “we are not racist”.
On their website they claim to want to put pressure on the government to act “against extremist Muslim preachers and organisations”.
Further, they state: “We have had enough of our Government ignoring both the problem itself and the cries for action from the majority of those in this country. Instead they promote a politically correct culture which panders to Jihadist preachers…
“We welcome members from all over the political spectrum, and with varying views on foreign policy, united against Islamic extremism and its influence on British life. Everyone from those whose ancestral roots are in pre-Roman Britain to immigrants just arrived yesterday will be welcomed into the EDL with open arms as long as they are willing to stand up with us for English values and against Islamist hate.
“Too many English are afraid to stand up and say ‘Enough!’ because of the fear of being branded ‘racist’. We hope to change this. So in short, we invite people of all races and faiths to join us in this campaign to awaken our sleeping Government to face up to and deal with the Jihad in our country, which threatens the very foundations of the freedoms won so dearly for us by past generations.”
What are we to make of these claims?
According the the EDL there are mass “cries for action” but instead the government “panders to Jihadis”. It is true that clerical-fascist or Islamist groups operate in this country. Some of them — very tiny numbers — do so with dangerous intent, such as the murderers who blew themselves up on London public transport.
Other organisations operate around certain mosques, recruiting young people to a version of Islam significantly at odds with the beliefs of most Muslims.
Others still have formed national organisations like the British Muslim Initiative (the British branch of the ‘soft’ clerical-fascist Muslim Brotherhood) or the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (which donated money to the legal defence of Holocaust denier David Irving). These groups pose as representative of all Muslims but in fact represent very little.
The most significant external promoters of these groups has not always been the government (their stance on “moderate” Islamism has varied) but also sections of the left who, in the same way as the EDL, present the BMI and MPAC as “the Muslim community”. Most of the “cries for action” have not come from the great mass of society but from the attempts of tabloid newspapers to exploit deep-seated racist prejudice. The EDL is attempting to harness this sentiment for its own violent ends.
The EDL wants support “from all over the political spectrum”. They don’t care what you think about foreign policy or the NHS. They are “non-political”, or so they claim. But with their first statement the EDL has already erected a determining condition for membership or support: hostility towards a government that “panders to Jihadis”. So as long as you accept this hostility and are willing to swallow their racism, you can join the protests.
This sort of “minimum platform” — hostility to established powers and laying the blame on minority ethnic groupings — has all the hallmarks of the anti-semitic populist movements which helped foster the growth of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.
Another similarity is the way in which they seek to unite the “little man”, regardless of national or ethnic origin, against the all-powerful elites… so long as these people accept “English values”. Note that they don’t define what these values are. The trajectory of previous populist movements shows that it takes very little time for this pretence to shatter.
The overwhelming impression left by the EDL’s self description is one of paranoia.
They describe a “sleeping government” and “real threats”. The EDL clearly has some special knowledge of an imminent and dastardly plot, it wants to share this knowledge, it wants everyone to join the movement. Of course this is a rhetorical device designed to exploit already existing racism and harness it into a racist street movement.
The EDL does not differentiate between Muslims and Islamist clerical-fascists. The implication of their conspiracism is that the great mass of Muslims are involved in a “plot”. Even without the positive proof given by the racist rioting in Luton, it is clear from their own words that the EDL is founded on anti-Muslim prejudice.
STOPPING THE EDL
To date the main responses to provocations by the EDL have had an overwhelmingly communal character.
There are two organisational factors which have influenced the nature of the counter-demonstrations: 1. The popular frontism of the Socialist Workers Party and its Unite Against Fascism front group and 2. the entirely natural organic impulses of a group under attack.
UAF and its predecessor organisations aim to “unite” anti-fascist sentiment.
The problem is that the basis on which UAF unites people is not based on working class politics. When dealing with the BNP, the UAF is crippled by an inability to propose an alternative politics. They simply implore people not to vote “Nazi” and continually repeat Nick Griffin’s criminal record.
It’s important to expose the BNP and other fascists, but there are limits. Add to this approach the recent trajectory of the SWP and the problems of the popular front are compounded.
Throughout the invasion, war and occupation of Iraq, the SWP promoted political Islamist organisations and in so doing misrepresented Muslims. They were able to side-step the hard work of consistently trying to win people — in this case Muslims — to socialist ideas but still maintain the impression that “Muslims are on our side”. They did this by putting members of the Muslim Association of Britain on anti-war platforms and asking imams to announce demonstrations from the front of a mosque.
There is some evidence to suggest that, through UAF, the SWP are pulling the same manoeuvre. Reports from the Birmingham anti-EDL mobilisation suggest that although UAF were present at the start of the counter-demonstration, the main chants and organisational drive came from members of MPAC. The crowd was composed mainly of Muslim youth. When trade unionists carrying the Birmingham Trades Council banner approached, they were mistaken for EDL supporters and had stones thrown at them.
The result of this “franchising out” of political responsibility to a group like MPAC is that the EDL were faced with a crowd of angry Pakistani youth. Not only did this scenario reinforce all of the racist thinking of the EDL supporters — something echoed by the press — but also reinforced the damaging view that “Muslims are isolated”. MPAC will have gained some credit and prestige on the day because nobody was united against anything, no matter what the placards said.
The Pakistani youth who turned out to face the EDL should have our support. So too the thousand or more who turned out to defend the Harrow mosque where the EDL proposed to demonstrate. At the same time, an effective campaign against the racists cannot simply tail the most militant sounding or effective looking “leaders” or organisations from the community under attack.
This was the mistake made by many socialist and communist groups in America during the civil rights struggles, where the dominant but ultimately conservative National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was at turns embraced or rejected in favour of the more militant Nation of Islam and other extreme separatist groups. By contracting out the political leadership and organisational work against the EDL to similar groups today, the SWP and those who go along with it are making the same mistakes. More generally the role of the labour movement in representing all workers and defending their interests — not just in the workplace but in society more generally — is brought into question. Without the active participation of socialists as part of the leadership against the racists of the EDL it is unlikely that significant sections of the labour movement will get involved. Without consistent efforts to mobilise politically, on a class basis, against racist prejudice the labour movement will not represent the entire working class.
The challenge posed by the EDL is of fundamental importance. First, because physically confronting them and forcing them from the streets is a necessary act of defence against racism. Second, because to mobilise effectively is to mobilise the labour movement, to make it inclusive and truly representative of our class. Third, because questions about the health and future direction of the socialist left are posed as sharply around these counter-mobilisations as they were around the anti-war movement. Only a consistent independent working-class politics can unite these three necessities.