On Saturday, busloads of English Defence League supporters arrived in an uncharacteristically sunny Manchester to brighten up the city that little bit more. Buoyed by the fact that their leader Tommy Robinson was recently released from prison, the group appeared in high spirits as they gathered outside the traditional jump-off point for any political march: the local Walkabout.
The turnout was better than it was for the march in Cambridge last week, which just 30 EDL devotees found their way to. Chants of "E-E-EDL!" and "Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!" began to fill the air. Given the array of St George's flags, novelty nationalistic clothing, spilled Fosters and misguided fear, it felt more like a stab at right-wing satire than anything genuinely threatening.
Across town, Unite Against Fascism, Anti-Capitalist Action, the English Disco Lovers and some other acronym-loving lefties were gathering with the intention of opposing the march. Filling the cold air with cheers of "Viva la revolution!" and recited poetry, a procession of groups took to the stage and told us how terrible the Nazis across the way were, suggesting we go off and "smash them". Ultimately though, no smashing took place – the day passed almost completely without incident.
After a false start when a couple of EDL members tried to escape the police cordon and started throwing some smoke grenades around, the group were led up to the town hall, where they met the oncoming counter-demonstrators. Both sides were then penned into pre-built enclosures that were laid out a bit like a World War One battlefield – trenches sandwiching an eerie no man's land, which presumably provided cheer to the EDL members and indulged their nostalgia for a golden age of British unity that never really existed.
The two groups grimaced at each other for about an hour and the counter-demonstrators shouted catchy stuff like, "Follow your leader, shoot yourself like Adolf Hitler," to eloquent replies of "Fuck off", before everyone was moved along in an effort to escape a full-scale war of nasty words and hurled ten-pence pieces.
The line from local politicians on the day could be summarised as, "Let's give them a good Mancunian response… ignore them." Which is what the majority of the city did, besides the few who happened to chance upon the demonstration and quickly go on ignoring it again. A few arrests were made for drug possession and people being drunk and disorderly, but the only real disruption was that you may have had to walk a little further to cross the road than you wanted to. Members of different factions of the EDL eventually started fighting with each other, but I suppose that's to be expected when you've been drinking yourself into an explosive rage all day and haven't been allowed to hit anyone.
The numbers might have been better, but what we learned from Cambridge's march and the past few miserable months for Britain's premier "indigenous" army hasn't changed: What was once a group of pissed-up idiots who were easy to ridicule is now just a bunch of very angry, lost men who nobody really gives a shit about.
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