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Who are the English Defence League, where do they come from, why do they exist and how to stop them in Scotland

Andy Bowden of Scottish Socialist Youth examines the origins of the latest addition to British fascism - The EDL/SDL and recounts the lessons from their recent defeat in Glasgow.

Within the past 10 years the far-right across the UK have transformed themselves from a movement of skinhead thugs associated with violent attacks on Blacks, Asians and other ethnic minorities into “respectable” politicians eager to condemn violence as counter-productive to their aims and ideas. They have united in the British National Party and under the leadership of Nick Griffin have “modernised” from a fringe party into one which can now command just under a million votes in the European Elections, electing 2 MEPs alongside dozens of councillors and one member of the GLA.With this success for “non-violent” fascism where do groups like the English Defence League, and their Welsh and Scottish counterparts fit into the wider far-right? Are the EDL the deniable street fighting wing of the BNP, or are they genuinely independent from the party and a threat to its focus on elections?

Origins of the English Defence League

The English Defence League takes its roots from a demo called by the “United Peoples of Luton”, an anti-Muslim group made up largely of football casuals. This demonstration was ostensibly in response to a protest made by members of the fundamentalist Islamic group Al Muhjahiroun who attacked British soldiers returning from Basra as murderers.

Despite the small size of Al-Muhjahirouns protest they managed to inflame the tabloid press and the far-right used it to attack all Muslims in the UK as fundamentalist and disloyal. The demonstration called by the “United Peoples of Luton” marched practically unopposed through the town and led to many Asians and Muslims with no connection to Al Muhjahiroun being attacked and abused. This ad hoc demo against Muslims served as a rallying point for a much wider audience of football casuals, united by a desire to protest against “Sharia law” and the “Islamisation” of the UK.

These networks of football hooligans united around a loose organisation which we now know as the English Defence League. The EDL does not exist as a political party like the National Front or the BNP, it does not have a political programme or policies bar opposition to the presence of Muslims in the UK. Nor does it do public activity even at the most basic level - such as leafletting or postering for their demonstrations. The EDL are a 21st century manifestation of the far-right, able to mobilise their supporters solely using social networking sites on the internet.

Since their original demonstration in Luton, they have marched (or attempted to) across many other cities across the UK - Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, and last year, Glasgow. Despite their public line being that they are only opposed to fundamentalist Muslims they have demonstrated outside Mosques with no history of support for any extremist or terrorist organisations. Their members have also been photographed making Nazi salutes, waving placards saying “No more Mosques”, and chanting “we hate Muslims”.

The background to the EDL’s rise

It would be easy to dismiss the EDL as a group of football hooligans but they are unfortunately a violent expression of a view which is much more widespread and treated far more respectably in society than the EDL itself. This view is that there is widespread support among British Muslims (and Muslims globally) for the enemies of the West, and to transforming all countries into Islamic Republics run by Sharia Law, and that Britain will one day become either an Islamic Republic or influenced by Islamic Law due to Muslim immigration.

This allegation is not confined to fringe internet sites, dusty pamphlets or the backrooms of pubs the same way other conspiracies about ethnic minorities (ie Jews, Catholics, Freemasons etc) dominating the world are - they regularly fill the pages of the mainstream press, both tabloid and “upmarket”. From the pages of the Daily Sport to the Spectator there is a growing industry of anti-Muslim bigots. To give one example of anti-Muslim bigotry in the tabloid press when Al Muhjahiroun decided to hold a demonstration in London to support the UK becoming a state run by Sharia law, the Daily Express ran the headline “Now Muslims Demand - give us full Sharia Law”. The Daily Express used a demonstration by a fringe group to attack all Muslims and in the end the demonstration itself did not even go ahead, most likely due to the fact that Al Muhjahiroun would be outnumbered 100 - 1 by EDL protesters.

An example of higher brow anti-Muslim propaganda came from the Orwellian named think tank “The Centre for Social Cohesion”. They released a poll alleging that one third of British Muslim students supported violence in the name of Islam. A closer look at the poll showed that the question was split into two parts. The first part asking if it was acceptable to kill for Islam “in order to preserve and promote that religion” which had only 4% of respondents saying yes. The second part asking if it was acceptable to kill for Islam “only if that religion is under attack” had 28% of respondents saying yes. The two parts of the question were shoved together, with no mention of the separation in order to catch headlines - and no doubt funding - for this “think tank”.

These are two examples, but they are a tiny peak on a very large iceberg. Muslims in the UK are now the only minority which can be attacked repeatedly in the press without much protest. It’s this environment - brought on largely by the war on terror - which is as much a boost to the BNP as fears around immigration are.

The role of the EDL on the far-Right

So whats the role of the English Defence League on the far-right? While they may have formed out of football casuals they do have political objectives and backers whose interests go beyond football violence. Their most prominent funder is a British businessman called Alan Lake who has a keen interest in fighting “Islamization”. In a speech on “Counterjihad Strategy” to Swedish Democrats Lake described the role the EDL could play,

“We have an army of bloggers but thats not going to get things done. Football fans are a potential source of support. They are a hoi polloi that gets off their backsides and travels to a city and they are available before and after matches”.

This “hoi polloi” is nonexistent in other anti-Muslim think tanks like “Stop the Islamisation of Europe”. SIOE has consistently attracted minuscule turn outs when it has called anti-Muslim demonstrations. They have now allied themselves with the EDL in the hope of attracting a wider audience - and an activist base - to their politics.

Put in simple terms, the EDL are the organised physical force to back up the anti-Muslim bigotry of elements of the racist middle class. Like Germany in the 30’s antisemitism found most of its adherents in the middle class and it needed an army to take it’s prejudice out of the salons and on to the streets. Like previous fascist movements anti-Muslim bigots today are found in the middle class and look toward “lumpen” - in this case football hooligans - elements to help put their ideas in the real world. Alan Lake is not an isolated case in recognising this. Former BNP leader John Tyndall commented that if fascism only found support in the middle class it would not achieve its aims.

What relationship do the EDL have with the united party of the far-right in the UK? The official line the BNP have regarding the EDL is denial of any links whatsoever between the two groups. The BNP have gone further and said that any member of theirs involved with the EDL will be expelled, and that the EDL is controlled by “Zionists”! However when anti-fascists joined the SDL facebook to obtain intelligence they were sent several friend requests from people who described themselves as members or supporters of the BNP. The leaked BNP membership list identifies a “Chris Renton” as one of their activists, it is he who has set up the EDL’s national website. The BNP have always been two faced in the image they present to the media in trying to hide their core politics. Is the BNPs denials of links to the EDL simply another fabrication?

The reality may be more complex. The BNP’s denunciation of the EDL as “Zionist” came from an internet radio broadcast aimed at the BNP’s members and supporters, not the mainstream media. The use of the word “Zionist” is well is not something most ordinary members of the public would be able to identify and here it is an obvious codeword for Jew. This is an insult which carries an obvious weight on the far-right that it doesn’t in the general public. We do not know the internal disputes of the BNP in great detail but in my opinion the most likely scenario is that the BNP leadership are apprehensive that any obvious connections between them and the EDL could damage their electoral success. Given Griffin now draws his paycheck from the European Parliament this is not an abstract concern. Griffin and the BNP leadership may be concerned that groups like the EDL will take their activists and draw them into violence instead of respectable electioneering - which has reaped a million times more benefits for the BNP than simple street thuggery.

The BNP shouldn’t be let off the hook however - it’s clear that there is vast sympathy for the EDL’s actions and aims among the partys ranks given the identifiable BNP supporters on EDL internet groups. It’s likely that a blind eye is being turned to BNP members in the EDL from the party’s leadership. Groups like the EDL will one day be necessary to achieve the BNP’s aims and objectives - as the BNP leadership recognise - and keeping clashes between the far-right and Muslims on British streets helps promote a “strategy of tension” that the BNP can benefit from in some quarters. This deniable relationship is the most likely scenario, one where the BNP can help organise anti-Muslim violence on the streets to keep the issue of Muslims in the UK “topical”, but have no explicit links to their party lest it damage their electoral gains.

The Scottish Defence League forms

Scotland had its first taste of the EDL last November in Glasgow, in the first attempt to mobilise the far-right in Scotland for years if not decades. Taking the name of the “Scottish Defence League” they were conclusively beaten in their attempt to march through the city, but they have now declared they will be organising a second demo on February the 20th in Edinburgh. Seeing the SDL off for a second time could be the nail in their coffin and an important blow against a larger attempt by the far right in Scotland to organise (for example the Glasgow North East by-election, and the BNP’s declaration they will stand in 23 Scottish seats in the next General Election).

So how do we do it? In my opinion beating the SDL for a second time requires looking at how we saw them off the first time in Glasgow. There the SDL were convincingly thrashed - they had only 80 demonstrators, kettled outside a pub, unable to march with over a thousand anti-fascists marching through the city in what were in many cases effectively illegal demonstrations.

The most important factor in that victory were the broad and open meetings we had to plan against the SDL. These were originally called by the Glasgow University Left Society, a broad left group at the university with members from the SSP, Socialist Appeal and the SWP involved in organising. These meetings regularly attracted over 50 people at each turn, and about half a dozen of them were held from October till the SDL’s demo in November. At these meetings no group or organisation was able to pack them, or dominate discussion. Everyone had the ability to make their points and decisions were taken by the meeting themselves, not a smaller elected committee etc. The meetings consistently and overwhelmingly voted that it was necessary to physically stop the SDL from being able to demonstrate in Glasgow.

This view was not shared by all of those opposing the SDL however. In the run up to November a group called “Scotland United” organised by many leaders of faith groups, trade unions and political parties to oppose the SDL. Scotland United called for a demonstration to be held in Glasgow Green at midday on the date of the SDL mobilisation. This drew a lot of criticism from the open meetings organised at the university, given that most of our intelligence on the SDL pointed to them being in the city for 11 at the latest, with an aim of demonstrating in the city centre. At this point various assembly locations for the SDL were being touted - Glasgow Central Mosque, George Square, and even the statue of La Pasionara! That Scotland United had decided to call a fixed march and demo that was not flexible to go out to confront the SDL was seen by the majority of people at the open meetings as politically unacceptable. There was also widespread concern at the lack of democracy involved in calling an anti-SDL demo without discussing the wider tactics with many of the people who had been organising to stop the fascists.

These concerns led to an alternative demo being called for 10 am at St Enochs subway, on the day of the SDL mobilisation with the aim of stopping them from marching. This demo was politically “neutral” - it was called by no organisation and was able to attract hundreds of people who were committed to stopping the SDL. It was this willingness and ability to mobilise hundreds of anti-fascist demonstrators that forced the police to kettle the SDL outside a pub and deny them the ability to march. This is what must be repeated in Edinburgh and everywhere else the SDL try to organise.

Role played by UAF

The anti-SDL mobilisations were not just a resounding success in stopping them from marching, they have also led to the formation of broad, open and democratic anti-fascist organisations in Scotland. In Glasgow, the open anti-SDL meetings have evolved into Glasgow Anti-Fascist Alliance and in Edinburgh, an Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Alliance has been formed in preparation for the SDL’s attempt to demonstrate there in February.

These organisations were formed largely because in Scotland, Unite Against Fascism does not hold the same position as it does in England and Wales. In England it would be natural for UAF to be the first port of call for anti-fascist demonstrators, able to hold all the planning meetings, call and steward anti-fascist demonstrations. In Scotland this authority does not exist largely because UAF is not as large in England or Wales, which itself is a reflection of the BNP’s weakness in Scotland. People did not join the UAF in large numbers because the BNP were nowhere in Scotland, and the left was in a position where it did not have to fight a battle against fascism - it was able to ignore them because of their irrelevance. The Left in Scotland was able fight to promote Socialism and Socialist ideas in an environment that was hospitable to them. Fighting the BNP was not seen as necessary and in most cases north of the border, it wasn’t.

That is not the situation now however, with the far-right making an offensive to try and “break” the Scottish political scene as the SDL and the BNP. In response to this attempt it is broad and open meetings, unaffiliated to any political party that are able to attract anti-fascist activists, not just UAF meetings alone.

This is a situation which should be welcomed by anti-fascists, as the likelihood is without the open meetings in Glasgow the SDL would have been able to demonstrate in some form. It was these meetings which called the vital 10am demonstration against the SDL in Glasgow. UAF had officially backed the Scotland United demo - which didn’t assemble until 12 in Glasgow Green. UAF eventually came round to supporting the 10am mobilisation but it was not until two days before the SDL’s demo. It is therefore very unlikely they could have mobilised the forces to take on the SDL if the UAF had called it alone, with two days notice.

It was clear in many of the meetings that there was differences of opinion and confusion among UAF members as to what their organisation was doing. When the UAF were noted as one of the signatories to the Scotland United demo many UAF members in the open meetings expressed confusion as they had previously voted to hold a counter demo against the SDL as close as possible to them. They were clear divides among UAF members between those who supported the 10am mobilisation from the beginning and those who believed the Scotland United demo should be backed and that the 10 am mobilisation was squadist. It’s important to recognise however that UAF has a national profile unmatched by any other anti-fascist organisation across the UK, and many people will have joined them to be active against the BNP and the EDL, and will support a militant counter demo against these forces.

What should the SSP do?

SSP members - particularly at Glasgow University - played a key role in organising anti SDL activity, particularly calling for the 10 a.m. assembly on the day. There is however clear room for improvement in how the party relates to anti-SDL work in the future. The SSP members who organised against the SDL in Glasgow did so mainly as individuals, but without direction from the party itself. This is understandable given the activities the party was involved in at the time - GNE By-Election, Afghanistan and postal strike work. This meant however that there was no meeting in the SSP internally to discuss the SDL and what we wanted our members to do on the day of the SDL demo, which led to some confusion on the day as to where to march, whether to stay outside the Cambridge Bar etc. Most organisation of SSP members against the SDL was done by SSY through text, email and our new website.

In the future the role of the SSP and SSY in anti-SDL mobilisations must be to support broad anti-fascist organisations united around the one aim of physically stopping the SDL from marching.

Present in Glasgow Anti Fascist Alliance (and now Edinburgh Anti Fascist Alliance) were concerns about trying to physically stop the SDL. Suggestions were made that this is “what the SDL wanted” and that it would show us up as “fascists”. SSP members should make it clear that the SDL as an organisation has the aim of displaying a show of force through all areas in Scotland where there is a presence, however tiny, of Muslims. Stopping them from being able to do this is not “what the SDL wants”, it is in fact the polar opposite. If the all the SDL’s future “marches” are confined to the road outside a pub their group will quickly fizzle out. If the Left was unable to march freely, organise meetings, campaigns, etc how quickly would we hold on to new members? People would come to the conclusion that any involvement with us is pointless and ineffective.

The same conclusion will be reached by new SDL recruits if we can strangle their ability to operate from birth. This means SSP members should be open about arguing for demonstrations which are flexible, neutral enough to attract hundreds of anti-fascists, and have the aim of stopping the SDL from marching. There will always be a constituency of people who are opposed to everything the SDL stand for but won’t be in a position to confront them due to family commitments etc, which means that the SSP shouldn’t directly oppose non-confrontational rallies like the Scotland United one. We have to be clear however that the SDL need to be confronted and stopped from marching, not out of a macho love for violence, but because it is politically necessary in order to stop them from existing permanently, for the reasons outlined above. Any non-confrontational demos that are called should be organised in a way that does not stop or hinder the ability of anti-fascists to go out and stop the SDL from marching.

SSP members have just over 2 months at the time of writing till the SDL’s next declared demo in Edinburgh on February the 20th. There is already an Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Alliance that has been formed with the aim of stopping them from being able to march anywhere in the city, which has involvement from Edinburgh SSY comrades already. The party can play a crucial role not just in providing manpower to mobilise against the fascists, but to engage with hundreds of young people who are opposed to the growth of the far-right across the UK and are willing to do something about it. In the past these people would naturally have gravitated to us without the party needing to do much work, today we will have to put the effort in to attract young people to the Left, which for better or worse still remains the only force which has the potential to halt the far-right and their ideas.