Who Are the English Defence League? And Are They Fascist?

In the last thirteen months, a totally new political phenomenon has taken to the political stage in the UK. The English Defence League (EDL), along with its offshoots in Wales and Scotland (the Welsh and Scottish Defence Leagues) appeared in the spring of 2009. Its marches mobilize thousands of people but it has no clear agenda, apart from disliking Islam and defiant patriotism.

Despite the completely novel nature of the EDL, its opponents have little trouble in understanding it through the prism of the longer standing and more conventionally far right British National Party (BNP). Organizations like Unite Against Fascism have demonstrated against the EDL, calling it a fascist or Nazi organization. More recently, there has been some controversy on the Left when a Jewish Division of the EDL was alleged to have supported a Zionist Federation demonstration of solidarity with Israel in the wake of the Gaza flotilla events. The occasional brandishing of the Israeli flag alongside the flag of England?s Palestinian patron saint, George, has caused consternation among anti-fascists. So, what is the EDL? Is it fascist? And what?s with the Israeli flags?

The EDL is a somewhat unstable organization ideologically, because it brings together two very different trajectories, each one internally quite heterogeneous. One trajectory–let?s call it the suited wing of the EDL–draws from the growing and complex web of what I think of as ?clash of civilization? organizations. These are the aggressively pro-Western anti-Islamic anti-multicultural currents which are flourishing in Western Europe and North America, operating at a reasonably high intellectual level compared to the traditional far Right, best represented by the EDL-linked Stop the Islamisation of Europe (SIOE). Many of these groups exist more in cyberspace than in the real world, and a number of websites, such as Gates of Vienna, have played a key role–but there have been plenty of real world manifestations too, such as the Pro-Koln movement in Cologne.

These currents are generally fairly middle- or even upper-class, and combine traditional patriotism with varying degrees of pan-European or pan-Western consciousness. They tend not to be interested in race and ethnicity, but focus entirely on culture and especially religion. They are diverse: they range from fairly conservative to fairly liberal and libertarian, between those with a strong commitment to traditional Christian (or Judeo-Christian) values and the militantly secular, and finally from a more moral majority type outlook to a strong defense of gay rights and women?s rights. There is also fairly strong support for Israel, and probably some Jewish people; Israel is seen as an outpost of Western civilization on the front line against Islam.

It would be wrong to call this diverse current fascist. It is broadly speaking on the Right, but lacks most of the key features that define fascism–for example, it is not particularly authoritarian, it has little or no interest in race, it is not drawn to elaborate conspiracy theories, to charismatic leaders, to uniforms or to bizarre mystical thinking, and, of course, it is not antisemitic.

In Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is probably the closest political force to this current, although anti-Islamic and pro-Western themes are not really top UKIP agenda items, and UKIP?s defining hostility to Europe marks it off from others in the Gates of Vienna milieu. But the members of the House of Lords who hosted Geert Wilders take the UKIP whip, and it is significant that Alan Lake, the suited, middle-class EDL activist featured in a Guardian exposé, left the EDL for UKIP.

The second trajectory that feeds into the EDL–let?s call it the EDL?s booted wing–is football hooliganism. Football hooligans are generally ultra-patriotic, and Ulster Loyalism, one of the EDL?s main inspirations, has a fairly strong base among football hooligans. Many hooligans are casually racist, but long-term involvement of black people in the scene tempers this. (The common appearance of black faces on EDL marches bears this out.) Anti-foreign and anti-immigrant sentiment and old-fashioned xenophobia (popular sentiments in the hooligan milieu) are far more prevalent than anti-black racism. And there may be casual antisemitism, but no strong commitment to it. If these people have an opinion on Israel, it is more likely to be admiring of Israel?s military prowess rather than any particular view of Zionism, apart from among Loyalists, who have almost tribal links to Israel. The strong hostility to Muslims is a fairly new phenomenon, post-9/11 and especially post-2003, as this current is strongly supportive of the armed forces, who are mainly of course serving in Muslim countries and being killed by Islamist combatants. (It was Islamist contempt for returning soldiers in Luton that kickstarted the EDL.) In this context, the Israeli flag is a good way of winding up Muslims, rather than an indicator of a commitment to Zionist philosophy.

The National Front and, early in its life, the BNP attempted to recruit from the hooligan scene. The aggressive nationalism, the strong forms of networked organization, the ability to mobilize bodies in the street and the zest for violence make this scene a prime target for the far right. Although there were some in-roads, especially around teams with the strongest connections to Loyalism, there was nothing on a big scale. Again, though, it would be completely wrong to view this formation as fascist, although there might be an argument for seeing it as proto-fascist.

It is precisely this milieu?s strong forms of networked organization (greatly enhanced by internet forums and mobile technologies), its ability to mobilize bodies in the street and its zest for violence that make the EDL such a powerful political force. On the other hand, it is precisely these features that could be a liability if the EDL made any attempt to move beyond street mobilizations or to link up with any kind of electorally oriented force. The violence and the impatience with ideas would be an embarrassment for any emerging British Geert Wilders.

The unity of these two very disparate trajectories means that the EDL may not be sustainable as a political movement. However, there are at least three ways it may become significant. With the BNP going through an internal crisis, large chunks of it might realign with the EDL?its Euro-nationalist modernizers orienting towards the suited milieu, its fascist hardcore orienting towards the hooligan element. This in turn would radicalize the EDL, and pull it in a fascist direction.

Second, with or without BNP fragments and with or without its street fighters, the suited wing of the EDL could play a key role in the emergence of new form of right-wing electoral politics in the UK, along the lines of European parties like Holland?s Party for Freedom, Austria?s Freedom Party or the Denmark?s People?s Party, positioned outside mainstream conservatism but not classically fascist. Factor in the half million voters prepared to vote BNP in the last elections, the million UKIP voters, the growing discontent we?re likely to see with mainstream politics as the Con-Dems? austerity kicks in, and a referendum on some form of proportional representation?and we have quite a grim scenario.

Third, the street activities of the booted wing of the EDL are themselves disastrous for Britain?s communities, as they have a very real effect in spreading violence, fear and intimidation, making life unbearable for many. There have been spikes in racist attacks in towns where EDL marches have taken place. Violence breeds violence, and the EDL are likely to contribute to the radicalization of Muslim youth and to the recruiting powers of the most aggressively posturing of Islamist groups.

To conclude, what is the implication of all of this? It means we need to challenge the EDL, but we need to challenge it smartly. But how? On the one hand, both the suited and booted wings of the EDL are adept at portraying themselves as the victims of the liberal elite, and hand-wringing moralistic opposition based on anti-racist or multicultural pieties will feed this discourse, as will calling for bans on their marches or for tougher policing. Similarly, chanting ?Nazi? at them will have no purchase, although pointing out their fascist connections might serve to scare off a few of the UKIP types attracted to them.

On the other hand, the clumsy application of a ?militant? or physical response is likely to be counter-productive. If the EDL win on the street, this will heavily contribute to its glamour. Socialist Workers Party students playing at being street fighters behind police lines or Muslim kids playing up to a script of extremist youth?this will only feed the EDL narrative.

A class- and community-based strategy which might work against the BNP?moving into the political vacuum they attempt to fill in white working class communities?will not work with the EDL either, because its constituencies are geographically and socially dispersed.

I genuinely have no suggestions then about the best way to respond to the EDL in the short term, but the nature of the EDL seems to me to have clear implications about how to defeat them in the long term. In the long term, we need a politics that mounts a robust defense of the best elements of the Western enlightenment tradition against the genuine threat posed by Islamism. If we leave this defense to arch-reactionaries, we?ve failed in advance. One aspect of this is surely to engage with those forces within the communities targeted by the EDL who also care about Western democratic values, which is why campaigns like One Law for All and grassroots organizations like Southall Black Sisters are so important.

Second, we need to foster an ethics of hospitality and solidarity, so that the communities which the EDL seeks to inflame and divide are immunized against their provocations. This means we need to actually make the arguments for the value of immigration, cultural diversity, and religious tolerance. Since 2001 we have generally failed in this. Within Guardian-reading enclaves these values are just taken for granted, while in local and national politics the mainstream Left has been reticent about defending them to the point of silence. The absence of a debate has enabled the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim Right to dominate the discourse while claiming an underdog status in relation to the liberal elite. People who are concerned about the impact of migration in their areas or about the threat Islam might pose are made to feel vaguely ashamed (as with Gillian Duffy, confronted with the prime minister calling her a bigot), but the counter-arguments are simply not articulated. The moment to articulate them is now long overdue.

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