This report examines the development of the English Defence League (EDL). It argues that the EDL is best viewed as a movement gravitating around what this report calls ‘new far right’ ideology. This is a very loose set of views, yet one that presents a clearly politicised approach to social issues by combining ultra-patriotism, a critique of mainstream politics, and an aggressive, anti-Muslim agenda. Addressing these points, the following are the report’s key findings:
First: The English Defence League is most usefully understood as a social movement. It has a limited central organisational structure (a Social Movement Organisation, or SMO), which offers a level of coherent organisation, and a broad party line, to a wider set of networked followers. However, it is also heavily reliant upon grass-roots networks, such as the Casuals United organisation, and the initiative of local and regional leaders, to develop its division-based activism.
Second: The EDL has updated and modernised an older far right strategy called ‘march and grow’. Marches and protests offer EDL supporters a series of high profile, rousing demonstrations that garner media coverage, allowing the movement to gain more support. Attendance at such protests can also boost morale through shows of unity. Arguably, the EDL’s most important innovation is the introduction of new media such as Facebook in order articulate a ‘new far right’ ideology. As such, limiting the movement’s ability to march would likely impact negatively on its fortunes.
Third: The English Defence League’s ‘new far right’ activism is largely driven by a single issue, namely a potent anti-Muslim agenda. In the wake of 9/11 and 7/7, this prejudice has been strong within British culture, and resonates troublingly amongst elements within the wider public today. To a significant degree, this anti-Muslim attitude is dependent upon negative media representations. The presence of a wider culture of anti-Muslim prejudice is crucial to the EDL’s on-going viability. Should anti-Muslim sentiment significantly decline in the UK, it is likely that any wider support for the EDL, in its current form, would also decline.
Fourth: Although anti-Muslim sentiment is commonplace within the EDL, emergent psychological research into the movement stresses that such views are often expressions of more general frustration with society amongst angry young men. The EDL’s anti-Muslim rhetoric centres upon a scapegoat figure, a target to air a more generalised disconnection from modern Britain. Responding to a sense of powerlessness by ‘performing’ an empowered, male identity through street protests and violence, however, is an ultimately unfulfilling channel for such frustrations. For some followers, this has the potential to develop into a cycle of criminality and violence. Given the wider social movement’s ability to give licence, either actively or tacitly, to various forms of extremism, tackling the EDL and other ‘new far right’ groups needs to become a core component of the Prevent Strategy.
Fifth: Britain’s economic circumstances broadly impact upon the fortunes of domestic far right movements. Yet this needs to be understood in relation to specific localities, not only nationally. Without addressing underlying economic and social tensions within areas identified with EDL and ‘new far right’ support, it is likely that the movement will continue to find fertile conditions in more deprived pockets across the country. This has been the tendency with the history of the BNP, for example, which is now failing largely because of internal issues. To combat this, a relevant and empowering local politics is crucial to tackling support for extreme forms of ultra-patriotism and ultra-nationalism.
Sixth: The English Defence League is able to appeal to people wishing to register more general discontent with mainstream politics. As the other major vehicle for this type of protest politics, the BNP, continues to decline, some of its supporters may look to the EDL as an outlet. Potentially, this pressure could even lead to the EDL becoming a political party, although the leadership continues to deny any such ambitions. As a vehicle for populist, direct-action protest, the energies of the EDL may also be superseded by a more respectable ‘new far right’ party, such as the English Democrats (which is also currently accommodating former BNP supporters). Such a party could offer a clearly non-violent voice to those who feel disenfranchised by mainstream politicians. Many latent ‘new far right’ supporters are ultimately seeking just such a non-violent form of ‘new far-right’ politics.
Seventh: There are a number of other potential outcomes at this juncture for the future of the English Defence League. The leadership could continue to maintain its control over a large part of the movement, as it has done to date. This suggests that the EDL could well continue in its current form for some time. Contrastingly, an unpredictable leadership crisis could easily lead to further fragmentation of the EDL. One risk here is that such fragmentation will also lead to further radicalisation among some of its more hardened followers, as is already evident in the case of the ‘Infidel’ splinter groups.
Radicalism and New Media
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