When the far right English Defence League (EDL) decide to march on your hometown twice in two months, it’s difficult not to take it as a bit of an insult to where you live. But as the group prepare to return once again to Walthamstow, one of London’s most multicultural areas, I can reassure myself that beyond all the thuggery and petty criminality, the threat posed today by the EDL to our local communities is a minimal one.
The EDL are a street movement formed in 2009 who preach a fiercely Islamophobic message. Their official website declares that “radical Islam has a stranglehold on British Muslims”, proclaiming that “religiously-inspired intolerance and barbarity are thriving amongst certain sections of the Muslim population in Britain”. It all makes for some absolutely shocking reading, and contains rhetoric which has the potential to become a hugely destabilising force in the cities of multicultural Britain.
As local shops boarded themselves up for the EDL’s imminent arrival this September, the atmosphere was marked by tension. As the march unfolded, however, I was reminded how little we really have to fear from such an organisation. Despite widely promising a following of thousands, they barely mustered 300 followers, consisting of a core of supporters shipped in from across the country. This was in every respect an attack from outside, not a protest by local people – a fact fully acknowledged in the shouts of residents who came out to berate them.
At points, the rhetoric of the marchers descended into farce. There’s a somewhat tragic irony to watching a large number of balding men declaring en masse that worshippers in a Hindu temple they walked past were ‘Muslim paedophiles.’ It all smacks of the mob mentality of a football firm, (the EDL leader’s title ‘Tommy Robinson’ is in fact a pseudonym based on a famous Luton Town football hooligan after all) and highlights why the EDL have spent their entire existence very much as a fringe movement, even in the context of the far right.
For local people, the arrival of the EDL represented an attack on their community, and it initiated an impassioned response. A celebration of local diversity in the town square attracted thousands, and a mass sit-in protest successfully prevented the EDL from reaching their rallying point, rendering the march an abject failure. No stronger indictment of the group’s hateful message could have been achieved, as the marchers were left massively outnumbered by local people united by a communal sense of outrage. Whilst the EDL defend these incidents with flattering comparisons of themselves to Winston Churchill facing down an appeasement consensus, ultimately the image of a group causing division and conflict within local communities will win them few supporters, if any.
At their most dangerous, the EDL had threatened to become a modern day alternative to the football firm of 30 years ago. Sending recruiters onto the terraces of football grounds across the country, they sought to attract young men in with the allure of the football fan ‘away day’ lifestyle, complete with chanting, boozing and a guaranteed hostile reception, before later seeking to indoctrinate their political messages into their new followers. This, fortunately, was not the group that was on show in Walthamstow: any sign of youth support was noticeably absent in a group whose support base now seems, much like its ideas, firmly rooted in the past.
It’s not just events in Walthamstow that point to an organisation whose influence is in irreversible decline. Attendance at their events is falling, and the perceived failure of the September march has led to widespread calls within the group for heads to roll at the top. They also find themselves increasingly isolated on the far right, particularly following a bizarre war of words with Nick Griffin, who spectacularly claimed that the group are under the influence of ultra-Zionist terrorist sympathisers. Add in the possible extradition of their current leader to America, it all points to a movement in utter disarray. Whilst it would be wrong to take this as symptomatic of a decline in far right attitudes in Britain, this incarnation of the spectre of popular right wing extremism certainly appears to be on its last legs.