Julian Richards. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism & Political Aggression. Volume 5, Issue 3. September 2013.
There seems little doubt that one of the processes experienced by the industrialized world in the post-Cold War era is that of a rise in Far Right movements and sentiments within political and social discourse. One of the issues around which many Far Right groups in Europe appear to be coalescing at the beginning of the twenty-first century is an antagonism towards Islam and Muslims within Europe (in some areas the Roma are more often the target of acrimony). In the UK, a new pressure-group emerged in 2009, the English Defence League (EDL), which has commenced a series of demonstrations across English cities, explicitly focused around an expressed opposition to the growth of ‘radical Islam’ within the UK. Most of these demonstrations have descended into street violence, often through clashes with the opposing Unite Against Fascism organization. This paper summarizes the results of some initial investigations into the EDL, and finds that, despite its protestations to the contrary, it conforms to many of the norms of a traditional Far Right movement.
The process of political evolution in the industrialized world in the post-Cold War era appears to be increasingly punctuated by a rise in Far Right movements and sentiments within political and social discourse. While this process varies in shape and nature between countries, most Western states are seeing a rise of such movements in some shape or form within their national polities. In Europe, this appears to be a development that spans the disappearing divide between West and former Communist Bloc countries to the East, whereby the electoral successes of movements such as Jobbik in Hungary have echoed the progress of the Front National in France and the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands.
Within this process, the canvas of movements and organizations is a multi-faceted and complex one. Groups on the Far Right range from small, pressure-group organizations or ‘groupuscules’, to fully fledged and organized political parties. Some of the smaller groups are interested in putting forward a political ideology, albeit usually around a fairly focused and niche set of issues, while others are only loosely interested in ideological issues beyond simplistic headline messages, and accrete around certain activities and pursuits, such as ‘white power music’, football, motor-biking and other ‘gangs’.
The English Defence League (EDL), which burst on to the British political scene in 2009, is one of the more intriguing developments on the Far Right in recent years. Claiming to be at the vanguard of a number of local and regional ‘defence leagues’, the EDL focuses on their supposedly race-agnostic membership, and explains that this sets them apart from more traditional Far Right parties and movements. Kitschelt has emphasized how economic and structural evolution in post-industrial democracies such as Europe has delivered fundamental transformations in the political landscape. Most notable is a postmodern development away from traditional left and right into a more complex arena of issues, perhaps better typified as being either libertarian or authoritarian, or sometimes a confusing mixture of the two. In this way, use of the term ‘Far Right’ can be seen to become problematic as many of the more recent movements have shown a deeper complexity of politics than their traditional ‘fascist’ forebears. As Swank and Betz suggest, perhaps better terminology for such movements would be Radical Right, or simply ‘populist’ (Zaslove), since the latter captures the complicated notion that some of the political issues of contention—such as opposition to globalization, for example—are contested both on the political right and on the left, to varying degrees. For this paper, however, I am going to stick to the term ‘Far Right’ as I wish to stress the similarities with other more traditional Far Right movements.
This paper explores the EDL’s own assertion that it is not a party of the Far Right at all, but a radical populist movement which has some new things to say to the populace. Through initial observations of the movement and its activities through the summer of 2009, I have conducted an initial test of this theory. In so doing, I focus on the nature and motivations of attendees at EDL’s rallies and demonstrations, and explore whether they share the ‘rainbow coalition’ narrative of the EDL’s leaders. The data analysis presented in this paper is placed within the context of both macro and micro factors that have been studied in relation to the rise of radical right and populist movements. In the case of the former, I examine the effects of the ‘ravages of globalization’ in local communities, on the back of which many Far Right movements and parties are mobilizing local people across Europe. A set of local and UK-specific factors may also be important, and notably those relating to the developments of a multicultural society and the way in which post-industrial security concerns have driven wedges between communities. In the UK, as in some other primarily northern European countries such as the Netherlands, the particular articulation of the EDL has been directed at the Muslim community. I will argue that this is not just in the sense of an anxiety about immigration from Muslim countries, but more generally concerning a perceived erosion of the European ‘way of life’ in the face of Islam and its practices. Additionally, I will also discuss how the security scene in Europe through the turn of the twenty-first century, in which Al Qaeda’s brand of international terrorism is supposedly rallying the ummah of Muslim believers, has played into local anxieties in Britain and allowed the likes of the EDL space for political mobilization. I examine these issues in the context of the rhetoric and symbolism of the EDL, and the extent to which its members and supporters share the narrative.
Despite its name, I would argue that the EDL does not reflect conditions peculiar to England or even to Britain at large, but reflects a general political process unfolding across Europe. In the post-Cold War period, some Far Right groups in Europe have begun to achieve impressive results, following years on the political margins. (For details of voting patterns for selected radical right parties in Europe up to 2009, see Art (p. 241).) The Freedom Party in Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Oesterreichs. FPŐ) first broke through into mainstream politics in the 1999 Austrian parliamentary elections, achieving 27% of the vote and forming a coalition government in 2000 with the People’s Party. Two years later, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National in France completed a mercurial rise to a point where Le Pen achieved a place in the second round of the 2002 French presidential elections. In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), headed by Geert Wilders, won just over 15% of the vote in the 2010 parliamentary elections, again forming part of a new coalition government as the third largest party. The PVV is particularly interesting in the context of the EDL, as it has made Islam a particular target of its policies. In Hungary, ‘Jobbik‘ (Movement for a Better Hungary—Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom) achieved nearly 17% of the vote in the 2010 parliamentary elections, gaining 47 seats, just short of the 59 won by the ruling Socialists, but missing out on a share in the new centre-right coalition government. Later in 2010, Sweden experienced a surge in support for the Far Right Sweden Democrats, which achieved 6% of the vote in the parliamentary elections, winning a place in negotiations around the formation of a coalition government. While all of these parties occupy different positions on the spectrum to the political right of centre, with some more ‘mainstream’ than others, it is fair to say that the first decade of the twenty-first century in Europe has seen the rise of Far Right politics as an electorally acceptable alternative, and I would argue that there are many similarities between them.
On the question of more local and regional conditions in the UK, two factors are important. Firstly, in terms of electoral politics, the UK has not yet seen the sorts of successes scored by radical right and populist parties in other parts of Europe, as described above. Since the heady days of Sir Oswald Mosley’s black-shirted British Union of Fascists in the 1930s (which modelled itself on Benito Mussolini’s movement in Italy and claimed to have 50,000 members at its height; Olechnowicz), Far Right politics remained firmly in the background until the emergence of the National Front (NF) in 1967. The NF was a white supremacist party, uniting various extreme patriotic and racist elements on the political right. The party grew in popularity during the 1970s among mostly working class voters on the heels of enhanced post-war immigration from parts of the former British colonial empire such as Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia (which was encouraged by the government to address labour shortages), to a point where the party was able to post significant shares of the vote in elections in some urban districts in London and the West Midlands, although it never quite managed to win a seat (Fielding). At the same time, the party’s main activity was to stage ‘demonstrations’ in various British towns, many of which descended into running street battles with supporters of the Anti Nazi League. In this way, the NF combined electoral aspirations with street violence and demonstration, and it is the latter that the EDL has mostly placed at the centre of its strategy so far.
The late 1970s saw the NF sink into obscurity, mainly because the mainstream Conservative party, under Margaret Thatcher, annexed some of its policies, such as concern about immigration, and brought these issues into mainstream political dialogue (Martinson). The British National Party (BNP) emerged from the remnants of the NF in 1982, and in 1993 it won its first seat in a council by-election in East London. (It subsequently lost it again a year later.) In 1999, Nick Griffin emerged as the new leader, and set about manoeuvring the BNP into a position where it could be taken seriously by larger parts of the electorate. By the early part of the twenty-first century, the BNP was starting to make electoral breakthroughs, mainly in local council elections (Rhodes). In 2006 it reached a peak of 33 council seats. Further electoral success came in 2008 and 2009, when the party won a seat in the London Assembly and two in the European Parliament, respectively. The 2010 parliamentary elections were a big test for the party, to see if it could continue its rise and capitalize on a deep sense of public disillusionment with mainstream parties following expenses scandals in parliament and a general fatigue with mainstream politics. In the event, the result was a mixed picture for the BNP. It continued to increase its share of the vote nationally, rising to a record 1.9% (up considerably from 0.7% in the 2005 elections), but still failed to win its first parliamentary seat. Despite this disappointment, the BNP is far and away the most successful Far Right political party in electoral terms ever seen in the UK (Daily Mail), particularly at the local level in certain urban constituencies, and it looks set to continue to broaden and deepen its appeal. In early by-elections in 2011, the BNP polled at an average of approximately 5.5%, in some cases beating the mainstream Liberal Democrats into last place.
In the year 2000, the British Freedom Party (BFP) broke away from the BNP on the grounds of wanting to move more towards a political mainstream that de-emphasized the race issue (British Freedom Party). The anti-establishment rhetoric of the BFP is very similar to other Far Right movements, claiming that the problems of ‘political correctness, multiculturalism and mass immigration’ have been ‘either encouraged by mainstream politicians, or completely ignored by them’ (British Freedom Party). The party models itself on other ‘Freedom parties’ across Europe, and notably that of Geert Wilders in The Netherlands. Unlike the Dutch Freedom Party, however, the BFP has not yet gained any political traction and failed to contest any seats at the last two parliamentary elections. It is unclear whether it currently operates much more than a website. That aside, the BFP’s attempts to move away from the more traditional racist roots of the BNP into a general protest party echo the sentiments of the EDL, although, as I will show, the latter has adopted a policy of mass action on the streets rather than formal political participation.
I would argue that the second key local issue in the story of the emergence of the EDL is that of the security picture in Europe through the turn of the twenty-first century. By 2004, the changing nature of the international terrorism threat, which had become apparent with the 9/11 attacks in the United States, was underlined when the British police launched the closing chapter of ‘Operation Crevice’. This saw the arrest of seven young Muslim men accused of being in the final stages of launching a series of major terrorist bombings against civilian targets in London and the southeast of England, an operation that became known as the ‘fertilizer bomb plot’ (Naughton). Just over a year after the Operation Crevice arrests, London experienced its own major Islamist terrorist attack, in July 2005 (the ‘7/7’ attacks), closely followed three weeks later by a further failed bombing attempt in the capital. The case of the first, successful, attacks in 2005 was particularly traumatic for the country, as it comprised suicide bombings by four British individuals, three of whom had lived in northern England from birth and worked in local British communities (Richards). In late 2006, the Director-General of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, said that her service was monitoring 30 active Islamist terror operations and approximately 1600 individuals who were ‘actively engaged in plotting, or facilitating, terrorist acts here and overseas’ (MI5).
By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, criticism was mounting over the government’s attempts to appease Islamist extremist ideologues and its failure to recognize them as such. As the political commentator Andrew Gilligan wrote, ‘we have been liberal when we should have been harsh, tolerating hate preachers and anointing fringe minority radicals as authentic, mainstream voices’. In early 2011, mainstream British political discourse is starting to speak in more robust terms about the importance of recognizing dangerous extremists both on the Far Right, and in the sector of political Islam, and to not be coy about doing so. The Prime Minister’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2011 confronted head-on the dangers of ‘Islamist extremism’ and used language that would have drawn sharp intakes of breath in the previous administration. He noted that:
when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious frankly—frankly, even fearful—to stand up to them. (Number10.gov.uk)
David Cameron also went on to explicitly identify ‘state multiculturalism’ as one of the main reasons why problems of inter-community tension and even terrorism had befallen UK society. The fact that such controversial issues are entering mainstream political discourse in the UK reflects a populist message that is concerned about inter-community cohesion from an explicitly securitized point of view.
In 2009, Jeff Marsh, a former member of a violent football supporters’ group following Cardiff City club in south Wales, proclaimed the formation of a pan-UK football supporters’ (and hooligans’) group called Casuals United (Jenkins). The spark, reputedly, was reaction to a demonstration in Luton by a group of Islamist radicals, which disrupted a homecoming parade of British soldiers returning from Iraq. In an interview with Wales on Sunday, Marsh explained that the coalition of football hooligan groups represented by Casuals United was to capitalize on ‘a ready-made army … against Muslim fundamentalists’. He went on to explain:
We are protesting against the preachers of hate who are actively encouraging young Muslims in this country to take part in a jihad against Britain. (Lewis).
This is the point at which the EDL also emerged on the scene, initially in response to the same event in Luton. The connection between the EDL and the Casuals is not clear, and the latter is sometimes careful to point out that the two are separate organizations, but it is clear that many people are affiliated with both and that there is generally a close relationship between them.
In August 2009, the EDL held its first major demonstration in the Midlands city of Birmingham. Over the ensuing year, 13 further demonstrations were held in a range of cities and towns across England, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north to Aylesbury in the south. Attendance at such events has varied from a few hundred to upwards of 2000 in Bolton (Bolton News), Dudley (Daily Mail) and Newcastle (Sunday Sun). Many of these events have dissolved into serious street violence, particularly in cases where large counter-demonstrations are staged by Unite Against Fascism (UAF), and where supporters from both sides can come into contact with one another. At the second demonstration, also in Birmingham in September 2009, 90 arrests were made, split equally between UAF and EDL supporters (BBC News). There is some evidence that the police have learnt from these earlier episodes by deploying increasing numbers at subsequent rallies and ensuring that counter-demonstrations are strictly segregated. Most of the subsequent events have seen much smaller numbers of arrests, but at the cost of heavy policing bills and considerable disruption to shops and businesses, many of which close and board themselves up on the day of the protest.
The key questions for the research presented in this paper are how and why the EDL emerged, who its supporters are, and how it projects its political platform. From this analysis we can start to test the movement’s theory that it is not a traditional Far Right organization, but offers something new and different that will strike a chord with the majority of the population.
Initial observations of demonstrations at Aylesbury (in May 2010), Newcastle (May 2010) and Dudley (July 2010), including semi-structured interviews with selected EDL demonstrators, have provided some data on the profile, attitudes and ideology of demonstrators at events. It should be noted that the sample size of interviewees in this initial study is relatively small, comprising 30 attendees of the demonstrations at Aylesbury and Newcastle during 2010. Questions asked of the interviewees established their age, employment status and region of origin, while gender and race were assessed through observation.
Additional data-gathering focused closely on the rhetoric and symbolism of EDL statements and media, both at the events themselves and in such areas as internet-based propaganda and communications. Close involvement with Thames Valley Police’s Independent Advisory Group meetings in the run-up to the EDL demonstration in Aylesbury in May 2010 (in the role of a local community representative) also provided some views of the local community’s concerns about such demonstrations, and the considerations taken into account by the police when developing a policing strategy for the event.
This study should be taken very much as an initial look at the EDL, providing a springboard for further research and particularly focusing on attitudes and perceptions of ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup’ members and supporters of the EDL and their opponents (using the typology of the Common Ingroup Identity Model; Gaertner, Dovidio, & Bachman).
By using a basic qualitative content analysis approach to the interview data (Mostyn), combined with analysis of data from more general observations of rallies and media outputs, the attendees of the EDL demonstrations that we observed were categorized into a suitable set of social and economic groupings. For this particular study, I have postulated that the categories presenting themselves as most appropriately fitting the range of attendees are threefold, namely:
- socio-economically marginalized, mostly but not exclusively young males;
- football hooligans and supporters;
- extremist ideologues, some of whom share EDL’s espoused grievances concerning ‘radical Islam’, and some of whom are traditional Far Right extremists and racists.
The first of these groups represents mostly young people who profess to feel a genuine anxiety about societal changes perceived to be detrimental to their position in the local community, and particularly about such issues as employment, access to social housing and the impact of immigration. Our results set suggests that the majority of attendees are either unemployed or engaged in low-skill manual occupations (over 80% of our sample), which are the very target groups likely to feel the greatest anxiety over the mismatch of their skills and prospects with the demands of the new globalized information economy.
The second group is the ‘Casuals’ element, which is represented by groups of football supporters and hooligan groups (whether or not explicitly following Casuals United). This is a critical element of EDL demonstrations both in nature and in size, often relating to the geographical location of each event and its proximity to major football clubs. The presence of this component at the demonstrations is clear in the banners, slogans, chants and songs, some of which refer specifically to certain football clubs, or to the England national football team. In terms of motivations for attendees from this section of EDL clientele, some will feel a genuine rapport with the central grievance of demonstrating against radical Islam, while some are clearly mostly interested in expressing machismo physicality and becoming involved in violence.
The third group overlaps the other two, in that it relates to the people who have thought about and who identify with the central message of the EDL about the perceived encroachment of radical Islam into British life, and the deleterious effects it supposedly will have. When asked why she was present at the demonstration in Dudley, one young woman said ‘it’s because I don’t want my daughters to grow up having to wear the burqa‘ (interview, Dudley, 17 July 2010). In this statement we can see that the motivation for attending for this particular individual appears to relate to a considered view on the way in which Islam may change British society in the future. We can also see a certain mythology building around specific emblematic issues, such as burqa-wearing, which are perceived to be both repressive and generally deleterious, and growing substantially to become the norm over a generation. How far perceptions of such issues match the reality, either in terms of rate of change or of effect, can usefully be the subject of deeper research.
Alongside the ideologues with a concern about Islam, EDL demonstrations also attract orthodox Far Right extremists and racists, judging by the occasional incidence of racist abuse being hurled at police or other bystanders, racist songs and slogans, and the occasional Nazi hand salute. In the July 2010 demonstration in Dudley, a rampaging EDL mob attacked a local Hindu temple, among other targets. This clearly reflects a more generally racist strand among the demonstration attendees (Stourbridge News). Whether or not the group thought the temple was a mosque, is unknown, and to a certain extent immaterial.
In terms of attendees, our observations also established that, while members of ethnic minorities are present at EDL rallies (including both Afro-Caribbeans and Asians), they are very much in the minority. Approximately 85% of our interviewees, who were randomly selected at the Aylesbury and Newcastle events, were of white British ethnicity.
As Blumer noted in his seminal work on prejudice, a sense of racially articulated grievance between communities is not just about perceived differences between them, but about a more complex notion of the relative positions and statuses of different groups in the community. In the context of immigration, ‘indigenous’ groups in a locality may feel their position threatened as others move in and impact on contested resources such as employment and housing. With globalization, the situation is arguably aggravated by a greater mobility of labour. Betz (p. 301) notes the importance of a perceived link in much of the academic literature concerning the rise of the Far Right with ‘global and structural change’. He further postulates that developments such as the information and communications revolution ‘tend to leave a significant number of people behind’, creating a ‘new unskilled and under-educated underclass’. These socio-economically marginalized sections of the population feel anxiety over their lack of relevant skills for the new information age, which ‘makes them particularly vulnerable to the discourse of resentment characteristic of the radical right’ (Betz, p. 302). Initial sampling and observation at EDL rallies during the summer of 2010 suggested that the majority of attendees are either unemployed or engaged in low-skill manual occupations, which are the very target groups likely to feel the greatest anxiety over the mismatch of their skills and prospects with the demands of the new information economy.
It is clear that the post-industrial and post-Soviet societies of modern Europe, where traditional manufacturing industries have increasingly been supplanted by services and the information economy, have seen huge structural transformations in their socio-economic profiles and processes. Many have typified the results of this globalizing process as one that delivers some winners and some losers (Kriesi and Lachat). I would postulate that the first group of attendees of EDL demonstrations may be typified as being economic losers in the process of globalization, and thus vulnerable to the lure of radical politics.
One of the key points here is that the EDL offers a broad assembly of ideas and opportunity for vocal mobilization, which attracts a range of supporters and attendees, many of whom do not necessarily share opinions with each other on key issues such as attitudes towards ethnic minorities. Blee’s extensive work on extremist movements identifies that ‘people are drawn to far-right movements for a variety of reasons that have little connection to political ideology’ (Blee, p. 120). Analysis of such movements, she argues, needs to consider both ‘individual and collective’ identities and motivations. In their excellent study of individuals who followed Far Right movements in the Netherlands in the late 1990s, Linden and Klandermans developed a typology of four different ‘types’ within Far Right movements, with varying and sometimes overlapping motives for following such extreme movements. The types are ‘revolutionaries, wanderers, converts and compliants’. The typology picked up on earlier work by Klandermans which identified three fundamental motives for participating in social movements more generally, namely instrumentality (a desire to change something in society or politics), identity (a desire to engage with others of a similar view or belong to a community), and ideology (a desire to express a particular point of view). At first glance, the Klandermans model appears to have much resonance with the three groups of individuals who, from our early research presented here, have become associated with the EDL. The socio-economically aggrieved are likely to have a strong instrumentality motive (wanting to contest and change the socio-economic balance in their favour); the football hooligans may be driven by an identity motive (wanting to team up with others in pursuing violent activities, and cloaking their group identity in particular symbols and rhetoric); and the ideologues fit neatly into the ideology motivation.
Interestingly, the EDL likes to put some space between itself and the expressed motivations of some of its followers. In its official communications, the EDL makes a point of saying that it is not racist, for example, and distances itself from such organizations as the BNP, which is much less coy about its ‘whites only’ stance. At EDL demonstrations, stewards accompany the marches with the ostensible aim of ensuring that peaceful protest is maintained and that overtly racist and extremist messages (such as Nazi salutes) are suppressed. Observation suggests that stewarding is variable in its application, however, and that it may be enforced more rigorously when television cameras are in proximity and not much at other times.
In turning to the rhetoric and symbolism of the EDL, Betz reminds us of the importance of the internet to the organization and construction of a virtual community of Far Right movements at the turn of the century. At the same time, the choice of street demonstrations by the EDL as the primary activity in conveying its message and establishing its character, is significant. As Virchow (p. 156) noted in his study of the Far Right in contemporary Germany:
The performance of demonstrations by the extreme right encompasses an extensive and comprehensive world of political symbols that are highly relevant for the career of individuals inside the movement, for the cohesion of its organizations, and for the spread of the aura of the far right.
As with the profile of the event attendees, the EDL picture is a complex one involving a number of different stories and messages.
The EDL has been at pains to identify its ‘out-group’ adversary as—very specifically—militant Islam and its followers. In so doing, it is very keen to stress as often as possible that it is not a standard Far Right racist group directing itself at foreigners and immigrants generally, and thus seeks to put some distance between itself and groups and parties such as the BNP and former NF, which can be more easily dismissed by commentators and potential recruits as being extreme and generally unpalatable.
Mechanisms for making this distinction include highlighting the fact that the EDL claims to welcome supporters from all races and colours, as long as they share in the message of opposing militant Islam. (The EDL’s own website announces, in large letters: ‘Black and white unite: all races and religions are welcome in the EDL’; EDL). The group includes a ‘Jewish division’ (EuropeNews), launched in 2010 to confront the stereotypical anti-semitic accusation levelled at many European Far Right groups. Among other sections, the EDL also claims to have a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender division, emphasizing the supposedly homophobic elements of Islamic society (Taylor). The emblem of the EDL, usually rendered as a Crusader-style Cross of St George on a shield, is often displayed against a two-tone white and black background to stress the importance of ‘black and white in harmony’. As the EDL website explains (EDL):
Some organisations and media reports have branded the EDL as ‘racist,’ ‘fascist,’ ‘far-right,’ or even ‘Zionist.’ All of these accusations are flat out untrue. We take an actively anti-racist and anti-fascist stance. In addition, the EDL is non-political, taking no position on right-wing vs left-wing. 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.
From observation of the flags flown at EDL demonstrations, it is interesting to note the variety of colours present. In addition to English flags and British Union Jacks, frequent appearances are made by the flags of the USA, several European countries including the Netherlands and Poland, and the Israeli flag, to name a few. In the case of Israel, the anti-Muslim nature of the EDL may have a particular appeal, in addition to visibly challenging the anti-Semitic messages of many traditional Far Right movements.
One of the organization’s key leaders has been a British-born Sikh, Guramit Singh. Ironically, Singh has himself been implicated in anti-Muslim racism after appearing to be caught on film delivering a racist diatribe about Muslims at an EDL rally (Muslim Public Affairs Committee, UK). A small organization has grown up, called ‘Sikhs against the EDL’, which has branded Guramit Singh a ‘traitor’ for not opposing the ‘racism and fascism espoused by the EDL’ (Asian Image). This shows that this particular group of Sikhs assess the EDL as being a traditional Far Right movement, whose primary motivation is generally directed towards ethnic minorities. At the same time, a specific mobilization of rhetoric around opposing Muslims may actually attract a range of ethnic minority individuals to the EDL who themselves feel driven to expressing racist attitudes towards Muslims. In this way, the EDL does perhaps show itself to be slightly more complex than traditional anti-immigrant and xenophobic movements that characterize the Far Right, as Kitschelt observed in his suggestion that post-industrial populist political movements are increasingly moving away from traditional notions of left and right.
Conversely, in more traditional Far Right ways, much of the EDL’s antagonistic rhetoric is focused on the UAF coalition that confronts the EDL both intellectually and physically on the streets where it can. This echoes the way in which the NF used to expend much of its energy battling the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s and 1980s, and with whom it undertook a major street battle in London in 1977 which became known as the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ (echoing the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ that had been pivotal in the public consciousness of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s).
Just as importantly, the EDL also demonstrates similarities with many Far Right groups by frequently identifying the political establishment and the ‘authorities’ as a key target for its concerns. In the example of Germany again, Virchow noted a frequent focus in Far Right narratives of a ‘distrust of the police and state authorities’, who are perceived to be in the pockets of a Jewish conspiracy. Mény and Surel argue that globalization and declining levels of trust in the authorities are linked, and that this erosion of trust is manifested in the perceived inability of the government to be able to deal effectively with the challenges of globalization, such as a loss of economic sovereignty and the increase in both legitimate and illegal immigration. Zaslove (p. 326) further notes that populist Far Right parties will tend to claim to represent the honest, hard-working citizen, who have become ‘victims of political elites and special interests groups’. In Britain, the BNP have picked up on the ‘conspiracy’ of the Labour administration in the late 1990s to conceal the rapidly rising levels of immigration to the country.
For the EDL, this distrust is manifested in two ways: firstly, there is the general everyday question of allocation of resources and facilities at the local level, and the suggestion that Muslims (including immigrants) are receiving a more favourable share of the pie. In a documentary aired on the BBC about the EDL in May (BBC,), the reporter Ben Anderson interviewed some of the founding members of the organization in the town of Luton. One of the key issues raised by them was a perception that those districts within Luton that are peopled more heavily by Muslims gain better access to social housing, and to other facilities such as new play facilities for children. The accusations are strongly refuted by the local authorities in Luton, who claim that these perceptions are not borne out by the reality of resource allocation (BBC). Secondly, the EDL claims to be stepping into the breach of halting the influence of militant Islam, because the government and political establishment has failed to do so. On the ‘about us’ section of its website, the EDL explains:
If it were not for the inaction of the government in dealing properly with this form of Islamic fascism, there would be no need for groups such as The English Defence League, Welsh Defence League, Scottish Defence League and Ulster Defence League to counter this threat on the streets and on-line … Our movement is purely set up to pressure whatever government we have in power to deal with this menace and undo all the damage caused by apathy and appeasement. (EDL)
On both of these issues, the organization promises to tap into sentiments and anxieties at the local level about allocation of resources and the impact on them of immigration, and about the effects that immigration and social change are having on local communities. On occasion, emotive symbols of traditional British (and Christian) life are evoked in expressing anxiety about such social change. In February 2010, the EDL website claimed that ‘we will protest against any council or other local government organization that seeks to tamper with traditional English celebrations, from Christmas to St George’s Day’ (EDL). Again, stories of such incidents are enthusiastically picked up by the popular press on occasion (see for example the Daily Mail), stoking public anxiety that a traditional British way of life is being eroded and suppressed, and that the government is standing by and letting it happen. There is no doubt that such anxieties are being felt—and being picked up—by political parties across Europe, who stand outside of the centrist mainstream and can capitalize on feelings in the electorate that the main parties are failing to grapple with difficult issues such as immigration and its effect on local communities.
In terms of visual symbolism, the EDL uses a mirror-imaging of radical Islamist symbolism by making heavy use of ‘Crusader’ imagery. On the one hand, this is probably a deliberate counter-tactic to the rhetoric and symbolism of the likes of Al Qaeda (who speak repeatedly of the ‘Crusaders in the White House’ and their allies). The St George Cross obviously refers to England as St George is the Patron Saint of England, but has a particular connection to the Crusader knights more generally, who are believed to have popularized the emblem during their campaigns in the Holy Land. Online media of the EDL, such as YouTube videos and other web pages frequently depict Crusader knights in chain-mail and bearing swords, under such slogans as ‘defending our country from radical Islam’. In this way, the EDL plays on the notion of a Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilizations’ between East and West, in some ways supporting Al Qaeda’s rhetoric about an existential clash between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.
The Crusader imagery fits well with the ‘defence’ symbolism of the EDL, captured in the very name of the organization. As befits the ‘Blitz’ component of British national identity that Brown and Hoskins described, the EDL claims to be defending the nation (in place of the government, who are accused of being unwilling or incapable of doing the job) against a swamping radical Islam, which threatens to challenge the very fabric of British society. The slogan ‘No surrender to Al Qaeda’, which adorns much of the apparel and merchandise of the EDL, is interesting both in terms of defensive and militaristic symbolism, but also echoes the very same language that was used in the 1970s and 1980s with respect to the IRA and its terrorist campaign against the British state. Many, including the author, will remember hearing at that time occasional spontaneous renditions in certain public houses of the simple but direct chant:
No surrender, No surrender, No surrender to the I-R-A!
The very same chant can now be heard at EDL demonstrations, and occasionally in other places such as in football grounds, sung by the next generation of young men (mostly), but with ‘the IRA’ replaced somewhat awkwardly with ‘Al Qae-da’ This is interesting in that it suggests a certain historical continuity of grass-roots English sentiment, especially in such milieu as certain drinking establishments and football gatherings, whereby perceived existential threats to the British state are confronted robustly by a popular sense of organization and ‘patriotism’ (a word used frequently by Far Right groups). Now, the IRA has been eclipsed as the main terrorist threat to the state by Al Qaeda and its supporters in popular threat perception, but the articulation of the need for the defence of the state is the same. Blumer (p. 5), again, emphasized the significance of a notion of ‘defence’ in race prejudice, observing that:
Race prejudice is a defensive reaction to … challenging of the sense of group position. It consists of the disturbed feelings, usually of marked hostility, that are thereby aroused. As such, race prejudice is a protective device.
In other ways, the EDL makes ironic use of Islamic symbolism in defining itself as the non-Muslim ‘other’, most notably in the way in which individual regional sections often describe themselves as ‘infidels’, a terminology frequently seen on red-and-white St George Cross flags (both at EDL rallies and at football matches). The other critical and complex area in which this applies is in the question of gender. I would argue that an analysis of the treatment of gender in the case of the EDL is a significant component of the story, because of the way in which the movement defines its out-group adversary as Islam and Muslims, and the particular opportunities this offers the EDL to define such community difference in terms of gender representations. As Pagani noted, the degree of difference between communities in a cross-cultural context can engender hostility by definition unless a degree of empathy is established.
The EDL approaches the issue of gender in a complex way. A useful typology to use when considering the role of women in the EDL is one that involves two roles: ‘slut’ and ‘angel’. In the first role (‘slut’), a woman is perceived to be ‘one of the lads’, and equal to the male participants of marches and rallies in all areas, including in their capacity to drink substantial amounts of alcohol, shout aggressive and offensive slogans, and become involved in street violence. In this sort of brutalized equality, women are perceived to be just as extreme in their general habits and attitudes on the day of an event (or indeed at other times), if not more so, than any of the men. In so doing, women will revel in conforming to stereotypes of non-Muslim British women held in certain quarters, as being debauched and generally lacking in moral values. Both polar extremes on the Muslim-to-non-Muslim spectrum of views on the role and suggested behaviour of British women become mutually reinforcing, and ever more extreme. While the likes of Hizb-ut Tahrir express defensive outrage (shared by many across all British communities) at the excesses of ‘binge-drinking women’ (Hizb-ut Tahrir UK), some women attending EDL events, from our observation, appear happy to conform to the stereotype.
The second female role under this typology is that of ‘angel’, as expressed by a whole division of the organization called the ‘EDL Angels’ (essentially the women’s division of the EDL). At one level, the Angels are a mechanism to reinforce the otherness of Western women when placed against stereotypical views of burqa-clad Muslim women. As a YouTube video about the EDL Angels proclaims, ‘EDL Angel’s [sic] stand beside their men, not behind them’ (EDL). Such a reference to perceived female subservience in Islamic culture at once takes a swipe at Muslim values, and at the same time reinforces a statement about the contrasting freedom and equality enjoyed by British women. The video goes on to depict a range of images of ‘EDL Angels’, mostly comprising thinly clad women with angel wings, which fluctuate between fine art and soft pornography. The overt sexuality of many of the images is in direct and deliberate contrast to the all-enveloping burqa and general notion of hijab (meaning ‘covering’). English women, it is suggested, are entitled to wear as much or as little as they wish, unlike their subjugated counterparts in the Muslim community.
There has been much written in the social sciences about changing attitudes to women’s dress and pornography, particularly in the post-feminism era (McRobbie), and they will not be explored further here. The particular political articulation in this case, and especially where it concerns acting as a deliberate counterpoint to Islamic culture and the woman’s place in it, is a fascinating and complex area worthy of further research. In the mean time, the problematic situation for the EDL is that, despite a certain focus in some of the organization’s rhetoric and symbolism on the supposed emancipation of women, the real position of women in the organization is somewhat ambivalent. Observation of participation in demonstrations and analysis of the leadership of the organization both suggest that women play a minority role in the organization, and that men are very much at the forefront. Interestingly, the fact that the EDL has a ‘women’s division’ at all (ironically echoing the way in which Islamist organizations tend to be structured, rather than mainstream Western political parties) suggests a certain patriarchal dominance in the organization.
When considering the EDL in the context of Far Right politics, the first thing to note is that the movement itself disputes that it is on the political Far Right at all. It takes a lot of time and trouble to explain and reiterate that it is neither ‘fascist’, as its detractors in the UAF claim, nor racist. Much is made in EDL rhetoric and symbolism of the fact that the organization welcomes supporters of all races and creeds, and that there is a multitude of ‘divisions’ and wings in the organization representing everyone from women, gays and lesbians, to Jewish people.
The aim of the organization in stressing these messages seems to be a political calculation that it is more likely to appeal to a wider cross-section of the population if it keeps its message simple and focused (around the issue of ‘radical Islam’) and distances itself from the established Far Right in Britain, which too easily aligns itself with politically extreme views on white supremacy, forced repatriation of ethnic minorities and violence, which most people in the UK find politically obnoxious. By tapping into popular sentiment and anxiety about the changes that have happened to local communities over recent years with the macro socio-economic effects of globalization, the EDL appears to be touching on a political nerve which has catapulted many movements on the political Far Right into significantly enhanced positions of power across Europe. In the UK, the BNP has increased its vote considerably in recent years, but has not yet broken through politically in any major way (this may have as much to do with the majoritarian electoral system in Britain as any other factors). In other European countries, notably the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary and Sweden, Far Right parties campaigning primarily around anti-immigrant policies have achieved such gains in popularity that they are starting to hold the balance of power, and even to gain positions at the table of governing coalitions. (In some of these cases, the target communities in question are Roma rather than Muslims, but the process and popular sentiments are the same.)
At the same time, the EDL supports Blee’s assertion (p. 122) that, while expressed ideology on the Far Right can be ‘fairly uniform’, the motivations and back-stories of supporters of the Far Right can be quite diverse. I would argue that, while the EDL’s focus on Islam and Muslims as the out-group is very different from more ‘traditional’ anti-Semitic or white supremacist movements elsewhere in Europe or indeed in the UK in earlier years, it does conform to a general process underway in European civil society which is clearly on the far right of the political spectrum, despite its local variations in form and colour.
Coupled with these pan-European political processes, the EDL has also capitalized on social and cultural developments within the UK itself, and particularly the rise of the Islamist terror threat and the complications this (and reaction to it) have cast over community relations in the country. When coupled with anxiety around the economic and social impacts of enhanced immigration, differential rates of demography and access to local resources (whether the risks of such issues are real or mythical), a general anxiety over increases in Muslim militancy in some sections of the population coupled with a general dissatisfaction with the way in which the government and political class have tackled these difficult questions, the outcome is a heady brew with which the likes of the BNP and EDL can make considerable gains at the expense of mainstream political parties. In the case of the EDL, these anxieties are expressed not so much as economic or political problems (although those are factors in the narrative), but more particularly as threats to a British (or indeed English) ‘way of life’.
One of the key questions is what the EDL does next. In some ways, it is imprisoned within its own limitations as a pressure-group rather than a political party. By projecting itself as an ‘English’ rather than ‘British’ defence league, furthermore, the group betrays the naturally fissiparous and exclusivist tendencies that characterize many Far Right movements and which often lead to failures to reach out across wider sections of the population. Often these difficulties lead to the splintering and disintegration of the movement altogether. Kitschelt (p. 20) notes that parties and alliances which coordinate around ‘single, isolated issues’ are generally ‘doomed to failure’, since they cannot mobilize the population beyond this one issue and offer a holistic political alternative.
At the moment, the EDL likes to stress that it has no direct political aspirations, again partly in order to distance itself from the BNP and other parties that have attracted some opprobrium (although stories frequently circulate that most of the key leaders and members of the EDL are also paid-up members of the BNP). Even as a pressure group, its power appears to be limited at the moment. The ‘summer of discontent’ that the EDL and media alike were predicting for 2010 did not really materialize, probably in part because the police committed a great deal of resources to managing EDL demonstrations, and learnt from mistakes made in the early events when the EDL and UAF came into direct and violent confrontation with one another. At some stage, the EDL will need to think about how it evolves and takes the message to the next level, if it is not to die on its feet like so many extremist movements before it.
Despite its protestations to the contrary, therefore, it can reasonably be argued that the EDL conforms with many of the characteristics of a group on the political Far Right. One of the ways in which it does this is to display a disconnect between the official statements of the organization, which are politically cautious and designed to suggest a movement with a broad base and appeal to a wide section of the population, and the characteristics and behaviours of many of the individuals who attend EDL demonstrations and follow it generally. Blee noted (p. 122) ‘how far the external, public face of the far right can diverge from its internal operations’. There is no doubt that a considerable number of people with basic Far Right sentiments, including a general dislike of foreigners and ethnic minorities and a sympathy for Nazi movements and ideas can be found in and around the EDL. A criticism of ‘radical Islam’ quickly bleeds across into a general dislike and contempt for all Muslims in general. This, in turn, threatens to polarize communities, perpetuate antagonistic stereotypes about ‘out-group’ communities and encourage disintegration and mutual hostility within British society. These are developments about which we all need to be concerned, not just in Britain but across the globalizing Western world in general.