These are the days of miracle and wonder. The Pope thinks atheists are chill bros who just see God differently, and gays are just ordinary bros who happen to love Lady Gaga more than average. The Iranian president thinks America’s probably just misunderstood and a little needy. All over the world, the lion is lying down with the lamb and leaving his mint sauce at home.
So yesterday's news about Tommy Robinson – and his second in command, Kev Carroll – quitting the EDL fits into a pattern. A pattern of people completely failing to conform to any pattern. A pattern of people waking up one morning determined to do the most atypical thing they can think of. Like hanging out with a (non-paedo) Muslim. Like abdicating the EDL throne. Like committing yourself to "working within the system" instead of bungling round town centres with your own personal barmy army of skinheads.
When the Coalition first emerged, Michael Portillo had a little riff he used to trot out about "politicians being in love with paradox", to describe the way the Tories and the Lib Dems increasingly tried to act like each other. Lib Dems competed with each other to express their long submerged fondness for free markets. Otherwise stern Tories became ever-more wet. There’s something very human about wanting to tell everyone that they were wrong about you. That you ain’t no 2-D cliche, you’re an original who can’t just be pigeonholed. Paradox is the ultimate cool. If life is constantly trying to put you in a box, in the right circumstances, a bit of volte face can instantly make you look sophisticated and interesting.
And Robinson, a man used to being roundly mocked by anyone capable of both raising and pointing their finger, is about to experience some of that heady sophistication: real praise from people with real power. Perhaps it will intoxicate him even more than leading his own private army did. The Establishment is velveteen. Give it a chance, and the Establishment co-opts only too well: it is the source of its power. If anything, you'd have to say that Robinson's prospects seem to have improved. A new life as a motivational speaker seems much more rosy than one as the gauleiter of a dwindling band of thugs.
In some ways, the roots of Robinson’s departure are obvious. There was always a sleepiness to him that seemed out of place within his own organisation, like it was never quite meant to come to this. We’ve all started daft Facebook groups in our time. That’s exactly how the EDL began: Robinson putting out an “I’m not ‘avin that” post against a small Islamist demo.
The difference is that a million people never "liked" your page, so you didn’t actually have to name your son Batman or cycle to Brighton naked. Tommy has been cycling to Brighton naked ever since, swept along by the momentum of something he’d made in an afternoon. He’s had a good time. True. After all, he got a free steak dinner from Selfridges for being the leader of an anti-Islam street gang just the other week. But a pudgy, openly metrosexual sunbed shopowner from Luton is not the kind of guy who could stand up to the mouth breathers the EDL attracts. And as their support has bled away over the past year, the party has been reduced to just a rump. Without more normals to camouflage them, that can’t be a pleasant sight. Just as at 3AM, your average house party is only the guy with the coke problem and the sex pest competing to land the girl who puked on her shoes, so too Tommy must have surveyed the rapidly thinning EDL, and wondered about when the last time he saw a sexually attractive human was. “God,” he must’ve thought. “Just look at these people. These are possibly the worst people in Britain. How is this my life?”
Now, he’s “realised the dangers of extremism”. True, perhaps he's realised this a little later than most, but apparently this change of heart's been brought on by his new patrons: the anti-extremist NGO, Quilliam, who have scored a sensational bullseye right up the jacksie of the Death Star. Now, Tommy tells us, he’s going legit. Fighting the good fight from within. Sure, be against the Muslim paedos all you like. But let’s be reasonable about it. If you’re going to complain about Muslim paedos, do so through the official channels. Rather than simply going out into the street and shouting about it, write a strongly worded letter to the local paper. Employ a PR consultancy to explain to journalists why gangs of Muslim paedos are not the answer to Britain’s problems. For all the rejoicing, there’s still a tang of double-edge to the words of his resignation statement: that the EDL’s methods are “no longer productive”. Perhaps he has just discovered more productive methods? Maybe he’s created a racism super-gun that will irradiate entire council blocks of benefit-slurping migrants? If this morning's GMTV appearance is to reveal that he has poisoned the Bradford water supply, I think the Nobel Peace Prize committee is going to be very disappointed.
Internally, Robinson’s ex-band have greeted their own decapitation with all five stages of grieving. Tommy English, who heads up the EDL’s LGBT division (yup), summed up the numbing sense of loss when he tweeted his ex-leader just after: “Tommy you can't quit! We need you!” Some have simply twisted their ongoing paranoia crises to incorporate his new position among the forces who are "out to get them", as best defined in this sublime koan of a Facebook post: “After taking their members money then the Jews money they've now decided to take the security services money. What do you expect from fenians ???!”
Others had already moved onto rebuilding: drawing an analogy with another successful political brand. “We just get a new leader. Did Islam stop because Mohammed got poisoned? No. It just carried on.” Except of course it also descended into civil war between Shias and Sunnis not dissimilar to the sort of never-ending wrangle the EDL is now primed for, as a dozen boozy slapheaded squires with a claim to the throne of an organisation with no organisational structure all attempt to duke it out for supremacy.
For Tommy, his new life is a hiding-in-plain-sight safe house from the monster he created. For Quilliam, it’s a killer coup. A piece of alchemy that’ll have think tanks and UN development bodies queueing round the block for their services. But was there ever a magic bullet? Perhaps the genius of Quilliam is just that they were the first people to ask. Everyone likes attention. Everyone enjoys a bit of flattery. For Robinson and co, the chance to talk to someone who didn’t just want to shout at them in some priggish, self-righteous RACISM IS WRONG way must’ve seemed quite seductive. Someone, somewhere on their big whiteboard headed “How to defeat the EDL?” – under “go on demos against them”, “organise concerts against them featuring The King Blues and Chipmunk” and “tweet the living fuck out of them” – had simply written “Talk to them?”
That, really, is the insight. That for all the "no platform" bullshit some are constantly huffing as they draw themselves up to the full height of their chronically inflamed conscience, the mark of civility, of civilisation, is as much to engage openly with those we might oppose the most. Let's not be dicks about this. The EDL is dead, its members in mourning. Hug a fascist today.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes
Image by Marta Parszeniew: @MartaParszeniew