Taking to the streets in protest is a long and noble national tradition. On the 5th of February, 2011, the emphasis was on national rather than noble. It was a Saturday morning and protesters from all over the country had descended on Luton. As they paraded through the streets, penned in on all sides by lines of police officers in high-vis vests, they held aloft St George's flags and chanted anti-Muslim slogans.
The English Defence League (EDL) had begun life in Luton less than two years before. On that occasion, several hundred far-right activists had marched through the streets. Now, they were in their thousands. Support for the group had been steadily building, with demonstrations taking place every few weeks throughout 2010. Tommy Robinson, the group's leader, told the crowd they represented a "tidal wave of patriotism". The far-right had not seemed so emboldened in Britain since the 1970s. Who knew where the movement might lead?
Luton turned out to be a high-water mark for the EDL. The group survives today in splintered form on Facebook, but its reputation as a serious street movement is fading fast; its demonstrations regularly fail to attract more than a handful of activists. Anti-fascist campaign group Hope Not Hate describes this change in fortunes as a "lethargic and alcohol-fuelled almost comic collapse".
So what happened?
The EDL story began in June of 2009, when Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun protested a parade held by the Royal Anglian Regiment to mark its return from Afghanistan. A group calling itself the United Peoples of Luton called a counter-protest and persuaded hundreds of young white men to take to the streets. In the weeks that followed, the group formed loose alliances with firms of football casuals, rebranded as the English Defence League and began holding demonstrations in towns and cities across the country. They attracted hundreds of supporters who wanted to go on the piss, bait anti-fascists and shout about Muslims.
From the beginning, there was a contrast between the behaviour seen at demonstrations and the messages being issued by the group’s leadership. The EDL described itself as a "human rights organisation" and adopted the slogan: "Not racist, not violent, just no longer silent." It claimed to be standing up for the white working class and raising legitimate concerns about radical Islam.
For some EDL members, that may have been the case. But many supporters were simply old-fashioned racists: members of the BNP and the National Front marched under its banner, racist chants rang out at its rallies.
Despite this, some among the group's leadership believed they had a future in mainstream politics. In March of 2011, Robinson told the Independent he was considering launching a political party. "We know the support we've got from one end of the country to the other, because we talk sense," he said. "It's something we're seriously looking at."
Unfortunately for Robinson, the EDL was already beginning to break apart. In the beginning, the absence of any clear ideology meant the group could mobilise large numbers of supporters with a broad anti-Islam call to arms. But as time went on, disputes over the group's core beliefs and tactics became increasingly common.
Joel Busher is the author of The Making of Anti-Muslim Protest: Grassroots Activism in the English Defence League. He believes the EDL's political ambitions helped deepen cracks that were already starting to emerge. "They needed to clean up the image of the EDL, but other people in the organisation didn't want to go that way. That made it hard for the group to continue," he says.
In April of 2011, the EDL's North East division formed a splinter group, the Infidels, adopting an openly racist ideology. The two groups clashed at a protest in Blackburn later that month. "By mid-2011, I think the wheels were already coming off," says Busher.
The EDL held regular protests throughout 2012, with a few hundred supporters turning out in Leicester, Bristol and Walsall, but it struggled to achieve anything like its early notoriety. Then, in May of 2013, fusilier Lee Rigby was murdered by two Islamists in Woolwich. For a short time, this terrorist attack on the streets of London looked like it could drive a surge in support for the EDL. The group held a series of significant demonstrations, and gathered more than 1,000 supporters outside 10 Downing Street. But the momentum turned out to be short-lived.
In October of 2013, Robinson resigned as the group's leader. The announcement shocked both his supporters and critics, not least because he claimed his decision was prompted by concerns about the "danger of far-right extremism". Robinson went on to launch Pegida UK, an anti-Islamic organisation hoping to attract a different class of far-right activist, but has since taken to popping up at the scene of terrorist attacks and traffic accidents to stir up racial tension.
The EDL has never really recovered. Another recent leader, Ian Crossland, who stepped down recently, was largely unknown until he appeared as the scowling subject of a photo taken at an EDL protest in Birmingham. The photo, which quickly went viral, showed Crossland squaring up to a young woman, Saffiyah Khan, as she smiled back nonchalantly. It was clear where the power lay. The EDL was in the news again, but this time it was seen as a laughing stock. Last September, an EDL march in Essex also made headlines – after fewer than 10 people turned up.
It would be tempting to think the EDL's views have died, but it's more likely its members have simply gone their separate ways. Hilary Pilkington, author of Loud and Proud: Passion and Politics in the English Defence League, says the EDL has been squeezed on both sides by the likes of Britain First and the Football Lads Alliance (FLA).
"It's not clear whether either of these two movements will continue to flourish or eclipse the EDL altogether, but certainly at the moment, Britain First are proving a more effective force in terms of controlling the social media space, while the FLA have managed to get tens of thousands of feet on the street,” she says.
But there have also been other, more positive, legacies. An attempt to fight the EDL using SEO led to the formation of the English Disco Lovers in 2012 – and a group that began as a joke now hosts regular charity events and looks set to outlive the organisation it was set up to parody. "The success of English Disco Lovers is raising money for people affected by the English Defence League and other extremist groups," says Elaine, the group’s community organiser in Brighton.
The EDL lives on, but not as its founding members might have imagined.