The EDL: recognising the nature of the beast

Issue: 153

Paul Sillett

A review of Joel Busher, The Making of Anti-Muslim Protest: Grassroots Activism in the English Defence League (Routledge, 2015), £95

In The Making of Anti-Muslim Protest Joel Busher attempts to understand the growth of the fascist English Defence League (EDL) and how its influence took hold among people already attracted to “English nationalism”. His main focus is in analysing the EDL as a “social movement”, one that saw a period of growth after early setbacks at the hands of anti-fascists in 2009. He aims to show how, for some of its supporters, the ideology of the EDL became all-encompassing; how it attracted followers with its focus on upholding, and defending, supposed “British values, under attack from Islamists”.

Busher asserts that the rise in Islamophobia after 9/11, promoted by the likes of Samuel Huntington, who popularised the term “clash of civilisations”, informed the thinking behind the small business people and football hooligans who founded the EDL in 2009. The EDL was, of course, formed in a luxury London flat. What Busher doesn’t explore is the evident ideological weakness of the EDL, where political education was next to zero, and only a tiny minority of its members ever got beyond the Sun. Significantly, when it suffered defeats in Tower Hamlets and Walthamstow in 2011 and 2012, middle class elements fled the stage; the “hoi polloi” they wished to use as a street army were not up to scratch. Indeed, the middle class background of key EDL organisers is a feature common to the far-right. There is an element of continuity in proto-fascist organisations such as the EDL, where the disgruntled, petty bourgeoisie initially see their hopes lying with street fighters.

Busher spent six months alongside EDL members in 2010, when the group was a street force and not the rump it currently is. He had a lot of close contact with the organisation, witnessing EDL racism and violent hatred of all who oppose them first hand. But, as we will see, this did not benefit his analysis.

He rightly notes previous ill-fated efforts to form EDL-style formations among football hooligans. The latter’s drift away from the EDL, for many reasons, is also accurately chronicled. The chaotic command structure where EDL “divisions” were often unstable, and membership erratic, helped give rise to political splits between North and South and the emergence of openly Nazi “Infidels” groups. The attempt to model the EDL on military organisations—for example with “divisions”—was short-lived.

Crucial too in Busher’s analysis is how the EDL fed off the likes of David Cameron’s 2011 “Munich” speech, in which he criticised “state multiculturalism”. Busher observes how the EDL felt vindicated by Cameron and by the Islamophobia of papers such as the Daily Mail. Such state scapegoating reaffirmed the EDL’s racism and encouraged its activists. Busher correctly observes that EDL leader Tommy Robinson soon changed tack from attacking “militant Islam” to Muslims per se. But Robinson and his “deputy” Kevin Carroll also directed their rhetoric and assaults at other groups, such as the trade unions.

Embedding himself into EDL activities, Busher is able to provide some new insights into its delusions. As Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said: “if you study the disease, you have to live in the swamp.” Busher does highlight the contradictions that led to EDL splinters, including over-reliance on social media and an inability to stare reality in the face. It is also telling, as Busher says, that no town “welcomed” the EDL’s arrival—quite the reverse. References to the EDL being confronted by “mass ranks of anti-fascists” will also interest readers of this journal. Usefully summarised is the way the EDL became linked in people’s minds to the fascist British National Party as its associations with individual fascists were exposed. This was not accidental. The link was a key part of early propaganda from Unite against Fascism and connected with many. EDL claims of anti-racism suffered as a result. Its associations with fringe ultra-Zionists, which were designed to provoke Muslims, also backfired.

Robinson’s ill-fated escapades and tantrums are sketchily covered by Busher; his rants on social media and physical attacks on rivals were embarrassing to his own supporters. Amid other problems, the flop of the European Defence League protest in Amsterdam in 2010 saw his reputation further wilt. This was compounded when mass murderer Anders Breivik declared his support for the EDL. It would have been informative to learn more about the long history of fascist sympathies by particular families in West Yorkshire, given that some of these families’ support for fascism dates from Oswald Mosley’s time to the EDL today via involvement in the BNP in the 1990s.

What staggers though is that Busher could say that he “enjoyed” chats with EDL organisers, something not afforded to the subjects of the EDL’s violence or the Muslims it targeted. His accommodation to the EDL (thanking its members for their help) not only grates but also clouds his judgement. It leads him to argue that many EDL supporters “clung to non-racist identities”. But this goes against the facts. For example, a survey by the Demos think-tank in 2011 showed that a third of EDL supporters identified themselves as BNP voters—very “non-racist”! Busher swallows much of what EDL supporters tell him, arguing, with little evidence, that many “revised previous racism”. He also accepts the assertion by some that they were former Marxists and trade unionists, although he does little to look into this surprising revelation.

Busher appears blind to the fascist trajectory the EDL was taking. Robinson, and many of the EDL’s leaders were former BNP supporters. Incredibly though, for Busher “moderate” EDL followers exist. Though he witnessed violent racism, including vicious attacks on Muslims, Busher says that the majority of the EDL supporters he met were “rational” and “normal”. This won’t do; the EDL were driven by incendiary Islamophobia and the violence should have led him to realise the nature of the beast. Busher can’t seem to evaluate what’s before him. Poor research follows. Busher states that EDL violence peaked in 2010. But nearly 50 EDL supporters were jailed for violent disorder after rioting in Walsall in 2013. He doesn’t explain how the EDL’s actions and incitement to racism supposedly fail to fit into far-right categorisation.

There are references to anti-fascists in the book but absent is the critical role anti-fascist strategies played in undermining the EDL on the streets (and elsewhere). EDL leaders would whimper about anti-fascist opposition which frustrated their claim to be “purely patriotic”. Unending anti-fascist work, helped by the EDL’s subjective weaknesses, turned the tide at key moments. It has not recovered from such body blows. As Hitler said, fascism “turns worms into dragons”, but the EDL’s “worms” never became the “dragons” it so desired.

For the EDL, supposedly modelled on military formations, the “march and grow” tactic became a cul-de-sac. For most of its supporters political campaigning could never replace hyped, violent confrontations and, as the latter diminished, so did the EDL. Attempts to form a party went nowhere and became farcical when Carroll stood as a police commissioner and was arrested during the campaign.

As Busher notes, the EDL enjoyed a short-lived revival after the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013. But a combination of the following did for them; its recklessness, the Nazi salutes at the Cenotaph, condemnation of the far-right from the Rigby family and relentless anti-fascist mobilisations. In response to EDL efforts to regroup, UAF organised 28 counter-demonstrations on one Saturday and in some areas the EDL was seriously undercut. The sudden resignation of Robinson and Carroll that same year reflected the fact that they saw no direction home. But Busher is ignorant of this.

Those looking for deeper insights and analysis would do better to read Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Angry White People, which cuts to the core of what drove the EDL, and what can defeat such formations.

Paul Sillett is a national campaigner for Unite against Fascism.