The UK’s anti-Islam English Defence League – Still Yesterday’s news on the UK’s radical right scene?

I’m currently (slowly) converting my PhD thesis into a book which will explore how the addition of “right wing extremism” to the scope of the Prevent Strategy impacted on local responses to the English Defence League.

A few fellow researchers have asked why I’m bothering to write a book about the anti-Islam street protest movement. “Surely they’re yesterday’s news?” I’m told. Well, the online and offline events precipitated by the recent imprisonment of the group’s former leader, Tommy Robinson, would indicate otherwise. The 15,000 strong “Free Tommy Robinson” movement that protested on the 9thof June highlights how this constituency of protestors is still very much alive. And they weren’t all necessarily marching under the banner of the EDL. Labels don’t matter to them, they saw an injustice and they protested. They were labelled extremists, racists, Islamophobes, the “far-right”. But they don’t conform to the stereotypes and neat pigeon-holes of the media, a media they no longer trust to give them the truth.

Strip back these issues and you’ll find that this most recent protest activity is driven by one thing. People are angry because they perceive the rules of the game are not being applied equally. That the system is rigged to silence ordinary people is a common theme of the radical right.

This is not an indication of a return to the streets. Those that passionately believe in rejecting the ballot box in favour of street mobilisation never went away. Until now they just haven’t had an issue that has stirred such passion as to draw them from their armchairs where they’d otherwise be shouting abuse at the television or angrily punching at a keyboard over the state of their country, a country where they increasingly feel marginalised.

And how ironic that it is Tommy Robinson who has proved to be that lightning rod to the aggrieved, the ignored, the politically disengaged, the left behind. He left the EDL in 2013 citing his concerns that the movement was being infiltrated by far-right elements. And yet, he has remained a feature on the UK radical right landscape, garnering an international following. Notably his most vociferous supporters on the day of his arrest were based in the U.S. (largely due to reporting restrictions in the U.K.)

I’ve been watching with interest to see who would take the mantle of the EDL, post-Tommy. Clearly, he still has a lot of resonance with this broad church of people and is very much the credible, charismatic and influential leader that the UK radical right requires. And, just like it has been established you can’t have UKIP without Nigel Farage at the helm, it may be the case that the EDL and Tommy Robinson need each other.

But I find myself indulging in what ifs: What if an individual untainted by membership or affiliation with a radical right group were to enter the scene and could galvanise broad public support and was able to articulate their opposition to Islamist extremism whilst also not being anti-Islamic? This is something Tommy and others have failed to achieve time and time again. Such a person would enjoy a broad base of support for speaking on behalf of those that feel disenfranchised in contemporary Britain in a way that politicians have failed to do.

It is entirely likely that when Tommy emerges from prison he will have gained more notoriety and credibility having been the victim once again of the state’s politically correct machine. When I was a serving police officer in the Counter Terrorism Command I saw the same thing happen with members of Islamist extremist groups. In these circles prison time gives you pedigree. But the only way of breaking down this victim narrative is to have something compelling to say on those topics that sit squarely in Tommy’s wheelhouse. If central and local governments stepped up to have the difficult conversations that need to be had, this would go some way to starving him and others of the oxygen their flame needs to burn.

Why does Tommy continue to endure? Because he has a point. He is shining a light on difficult issues such as poorly formed integration policies, the results of uncontrolled immigration, the cultural shifts and challenges in our towns, so called “grooming gangs” that no-one really wants to talk about openly. I remember the Connecting Communities programme led by John Denham MP back in 2010, which was intended to support frontline council workers with having these difficult conversations. This hit the cutting room floor when the UK Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government took office and we now badly need something to fill this vacuum. Even to distribute key statistics and messages that debunk some of most pervasive narratives at the local government level would be a start. And yet, there is very little confidence or even political will to do this, which hands a moral victory to anyone with a microphone and an opinion.

The important thing to remember here is that there has been no victory against the EDL. The latent support for the narratives synonymous with the movement continues because the issues that underpin these narratives are as alive today as they were during the zenith of the EDL’s activity in 2011. It is time to stop allowing others to define the rules of the game and for central and local governments to show some leadership and proactivity in building stronger, more cohesive communities.

Dr Craig McCann is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Principal at Moonshoot CVE, a boutique start-up specialising in countering violent extremism. See his profile here.

© Craig McCann. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).