An EDL member gives a Nazi salute at a demo on Whitehall in May 2013. Photo by Henry Langston.
On the 15th of March, 1994, the BNP held a press conference in Newham, at which they declared: “No more marches, no more meetings, no more punch-ups” – and at that point, it seemed as though the far-right’s battle to control the streets of England was over. Sound familiar?
Last week, history repeated itself when the leadership of the EDL deserted the organisation they had founded. Why? Tommy Robinson claimed it was because he had finally realised that the organisation is riddled with far-right extremists. It seems weird that he has only just accepted what people have been pointing out for four years – that many members of the EDL have more in common with Adolf Hitler than Richard Dawkins. Nevertheless, I thought it was a good opportunity to take a look at the different extremist groups and individuals that have come to be associated with the supposedly non-violent group since its inception.
The night Lee Rigby was killed, I watched Tommy stand – flanked by masked EDL members in a display of pseudo-paramilitary macho strength – warning the watching world that this was the last straw. To prove how serious he was, he marched three times over the next few weeks, drawing thousands back onto the streets with the EDL, who set up camp in central London, got drunk and threw Nazi salutes outside Whitehall.
Tommy Robinson in Woolwich after the murder of Lee Rigby. Photo by Mirror Image Photos.
As unedifying as all of that was, it was just the tip of a particularly violent, Islamophobic iceberg. Elsewhere, EDL members were setting out to attack mosques and take “revenge” against Muslims. Within a month of Rigby’s death scores of mosques had been vandalised and targeted in arson attacks. In Essex, worshipers were shocked as a smoke bomb smashed through the window of their mosque and a man rushed in carrying knives, screaming “Where is your Allah now?” That man was Geoffrey Ryan, an EDL member. He's now serving nine months in prison for the attack. You can't imagine it was too difficult for the cops to pin it on him.
The barbarians who burned down the Muswell Hill Mosque left EDL graffiti at the scene; in a similar attack a Muslim school in Kent was set alight with 130 children and staff inside. Despite the presence of EDL graffiti being found at the scene of many of these incidents, Tommy has been quick to brush them off as "false-flag" operations – attacks carried out by somebody who made it look like the EDL were responsible, in order to drag the racist street fighters' good name through the mud.
Can Tommy really be so sure that four years of Muslim baiting has nothing to do with attacks on Muslims, though? Would anyone really want to burn a mosque in order to discredit an already discredited organisation? It seems more likely that this is the legacy of the warning I watched Tommy give in Aldgate two years ago: “We have built a network from one end of the country to the other end... the Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League if we see any of our British citizens killed.” Did everyone at the rally really think that by "full force" Tommy meant, "even more street protests and banner waiving"?
The first person convicted during this surge in anti-Muslim violence was John Parkin, a former soldier who attacked a north Wales mosque. Again, he lacked the subtlety crucial for carrying off these kinds of things, telling cops, “I am a racist. I hate Muslims” and then confessing to being a member of the EDL. But Parkin wasn’t just an EDL activist; over the years the EDL has facilitated the creation of more hardline factions – some who've always been hostile to Tommy, others happy to operate inside the organisation.
Parkin was part of the Combined Ex Forces, a faction that comprised former soldiers, serving soldiers and people who have spent too much time buying military berets off eBay and watching Second World War films on Channel 5. They are not to be confused with the EDL Armed Forces Division and numerous other soldiers who've shown up to demos in uniform, or posted online about bringing their weapons onto the streets. After Rigby’s death, soldiers told me they were happy to march in the streets with the EDL, but it was Tommy’s charismatic leadership they said appealed – not nutters in berets.
Paul Pitt, leader of the South East Alliance, at a demo in Brighton, 2012. Photo by Henry Langston.
While, for the most part, Tommy has been able to keep his EDL troops in line, over the years he hasn't quite managed to suppress those elements who think he's nothing but a mug. For instance, the South East Alliance is a group of Essex hardline nationalists who have been operating independently of the EDL under the leadership of Paul Pitt. They're just as concerned with trying to beat up their hated left-wing foes as they are about stopping the impending take over of the UK by Sharia law. Then there's Casuals United, a group of football hooligans who threw in their lot with neo-Nazis in Swansea earlier this year when they backed the South Wales White Pride day. Extreme neo-Nazi groups have found the EDL and their fellow travellers to be a fertile recruiting ground and have managed to grow into double digits off the back of their anti-Muslim hysteria.
One splinter group singled out by Tommy this week as an extremist monster created was the North West Infidels, a group so racist that they hate other white people – they spend a lot of time goading the Irish community up north and are convinced the IRA are trying to march through Liverpool every weekend. The Infidels are happy to co-operate openly with the classic neo-Nazi outfits like the National Front and two weeks ago six members were sent down for a vicious attack on a guy heading to an anti-fascist benefit gig with his dad. They’re currently doing sentences ranging from ten to 17 months. Nice guys.
There are also the lone wolves to worry about. This week, EDL member Shaun Havelin was jailed for waving around an air rifle while shouting racial abuse at a Muslim family’s home. Shaun tried to smash up his mum’s car when he found out she was giving evidence against him; clutching his favourite EDL hoodie and bellowing – seriously – "I want to die in this!”
More worrying than a mummy’s boy with an airgun; the notebook of a 17-year-old boy on trial at the Old Bailey has revealed plans for “Operation New Columbine”. The defendant can’t be named, but it emerged in court he idolised Tommy Robinson and was a member of the EDL. And in 2010 a Tamworth teenager was found building bombs in his bedroom. You guessed it: he had English Defence League literature in his room, alongside the pipebombs.
At the start of the year, the EDL had around 600 arrests under their Union Jack belt buckles. To be fair, for a group of people who spend a large proportion of their time getting very drunk right next to lines of bored policeman, that's not too bad. But why has it taken the leadership until now to say anything about it? Perhaps it has something to do with that time Tommy was arrested with a group of thugs piled into the back of a lorry on the way to attack a mosque.
Sean Birchall wrote the book Beating the Fascists, detailing how the BNP were physically beaten off the streets in the early 90s. But he says the political vacuum that allows the far right to thrive will continue to throw up racist movements. “The underlying conditions that facilitated the BNP’s rise are still there," he explained, "disillusionment with the neo-liberal centre and a Labour party that has long turned its back on the working class.”
EDL placards at a demo in Bristol, 2012. Photo by Henry Langston.
“Ukip are now partially filling that vacuum in working class political representation... the neo-liberal right and the nationalist right over recent decades have dramatically out-thought the left in terms of political strategy. They have identified tactics, narratives and constituencies, while the left has succeeded in alienating its core constituency of the working class.
“The EDL was always in any case more symptom, not cause," he continued. "Rather than generating hostility it merely reflects antagonism. There is a counter-strategy however: for those radically opposed to fascism and neo-liberalism to get on the landings and take on the fascists there, by engaging with and responding to working class concerns.”
The organisation for now is in the hands of Tim Ablitt, a hardliner who spent time in the far-right British Freedom Party. In 2010, he was arrested by armed police who suspected he was involved in an EDL plot to blow up a Bournemouth mosque, and later released without charge. He hates the left and trade unions, has none of Tommy’s dubious charm and at best will get to manage the EDL's decline as their most hardline members get locked up and the vultures of the far-right circle ready to pick off the stragglers. Nevertheless, the game's not over and the desertion of one leader doesn't kill off the far right. To suggest that it does ignores the social and economic factors that create a need for scapegoats. I mean, come on, Tommy isn't that charismatic, is he? There must be some genuine disaffection for him to prey upon and that hasn't disappeared.
A hard won 15 years without a confident far-right street movement was broken by the EDL. Even though they seem to be in a trough, they haven't been defeated and racists can still march confidently in many areas across Britain. Despite Ukip mopping up much of the Sun reader's vote, there remains space between the BNP and EDL for the emergence of a new Euronationalist party that could make huge gains, like Jobbik in Hungary – merging street movements with thugs in suits. For now, it's the ineptitude of the far right, rather than the effectiveness of anti-fascist opposition that is keeping it from happening.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack
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