Nigel Copsey, The English Defence League: Challenging Our Country and Our Values of Social Inclusion, Fairness and Equality, Faith Matters 2010
I downloaded this pamphlet with high expectations. I’m not exactly a fan of Faith Matters and its director, John Ware admirer Fiyaz Mughal, but Nigel Copsey is the author of Contemporary British Fascism: The British National Party and the Quest for Legitimacy, which is an excellent account of the BNP’s origins and development. So I anticipated that this pamphlet would provide some useful insights into the character of the EDL. It turned out to be a major disappointment.
Copsey is a capable researcher and if you want a detailed and accurate summary of the origins and structure of the EDL you can find it here. But for some reason Copsey goes out of his way to downplay the far-right character of the organisation he is studying. While we can perhaps agree with Copsey that the EDL is “not an archetypal far-right organisation or movement” and that we should “avoid viewing it simply through the prism of the established far right” (emphasis added), the problem is that Copsey refuses to characterise the EDL as a far-right organisation in any sense at all. Rather, he argues, it is “best understood as an Islamophobic, new social movement, born of a particularly unattractive and intolerant strand of English nationalism”.
One way Copsey defends this position is by talking up the role of Alan Lake, the wealthy businessman who has supported and funded the EDL – Copsey refers to rumours that Lake has “bankrolled the EDL to the tune of millions of pounds”. An entire chapter is devoted to Lake, which serves Copsey’s purpose because Lake has no identifiable history of involvement in organised fascism. Copsey tells us that “it is important to note that the principal strategist that emerged as being behind the EDL was entirely unconnected with the BNP (or for that matter, other established far-right organisations, such as the NF)”. He argues that “politically Lake is closer to the likes of UKIP, especially after its recent embrace of anti-Islamic themes, than the BNP”. There are a couple of obvious flaws in this analysis.
First, Copsey almost certainly overestimates Lake’s importance within the EDL. As Copsey himself recognises, the EDL doesn’t publish a magazine or even a newsletter, and its main method of organisation is through its website and Facebook page, which costs very little. There are of course anti-Islam placards to be printed, coaches to be hired to transport gangs of hooligans up and down the country to threaten Muslim communities, and airline tickets to be purchased so EDL leaders can attend “counter-jihad” events abroad. However, while Lake’s money no doubt buys him influence in the EDL, these activities do not require the level of expenditure that would enable a millionaire benefactor to dominate the organisation through his control of the purse strings. In any case, Lake would appear to regard the EDL as just one of the vehicles through which he seeks to implement his rabidly Islamophobic agenda. So it seems unlikely that a study of Lake the individual can provide the key to understanding “the true nature of the EDL”, as Copsey claims.
Second, while Lake may have no known record of membership of a fascist organisation, his political views and sympathies are hardly mainstream, even in hardline right-wing terms. Copsey quotes extensively from Lake’s September 2009 presentation to a meeting in Malmö organised by the Sweden Democrats, a party that Copsey describes blandly as “right-wing populist” despite the fact that it was founded by people with a background in various fascist organisations including such outfits as the Nordic Reich Party. Admittedly, in recent years the Sweden Democrats have tried to distance themselves from their fascist past, ousting their most extreme elements and presenting a more respectable image in order to win votes, but this is a strategy that has been adopted by many European far-right parties, including the BNP.
For Copsey, the crucial lesson to be drawn from the Malmö presentation is that “it would be wrong to view Lake as a fascist”, because he failed to articulate a “fascist end-goal”. But Copsey then goes on to quote from a May 2010 article by Lake entitled “Treatment of traitors: leftist and liberal sympathisers and appeasers of Islamo-Fascism”, which featured a vitriolic attack on David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Rowan Williams. “In 20 or 30 years”, Lake wrote, “the UK will start to fragment into Islamic enclaves and non-Islamic areas around them. Its time we decided who will be allowed in the non-Islamic areas. These are the people we will force into the Islamic enclaves (and who we will execute if they sneak out).”
If we’re looking for a “fascist end-goal”, some of us might be inclined to think we’ve found one here. The scenario outlined by Lake is at any rate indistinguishable from the sort of sick fantasy you would expect to find on a neo-Nazi website. But the most Copsey is prepared to concede is that “Lake does seem to possess some disturbing illiberal tendencies”! It may well be the case that Lake is “neither a white racial nationalist nor anti-Semite”, as Copsey states, but to describe his politics as anything other than far-right makes no sense.
When we turn to the actual leadership of the EDL we can identify not only ideological common ground with fascism but also clear organisational links. Searchlight has reported that EDL leader “Tommy Robinson” (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) joined the BNP in 2004 and observes that this revelation “destroys the protestations by the EDL leadership that ‘They aren’t the BNP and they aren’t Nazis’, made at their phoney press conference … where they unfurled a swastika flag and proceeded to try to set it alight for the cameras”. Three Counties Unity recently posted a photo of Lennon at a Luton BNP meeting in 2007 listening to a speech by Richard Edmonds, an unreconstructed neo-Nazi who still speaks approvingly of the “bravery and foresight of John Tyndall and Colin Jordan“.
There is also the example of Lennon’s cousin Kevin Carroll, who earlier this year was appointed joint leader of the EDL. “Since the start Kev has been there alongside myself”, Lennon assured EDL supporters, “and has been part of every meeting and decision that has been made.” Three Counties Unity reported that Carroll “has been an enthusiastic BNP supporter, living on the same estate as Luton BNP organiser Peter Fehr. He is well-known to local anti-fascists and was only dissuaded from standing as a candidate in the 2007 Luton Council elections by a last-minute plea from his partner, Mary Stevenson. He did, however, sign nomination papers along with Stevenson for the BNP candidate for Farley in that election – Robert Sheddock.” (Sheddock was himself an early EDL sympathiser – he tried to post a petition on the No.10 website proposing that the EDL’s original spokesman Paul “Lionheart” Ray should be put “in charge of planning permission for all new mosques in the UK”.)
Another of the EDL’s initial leaders was Chris Renton, who was responsible for setting up the EDL website. A BNP member from Weston-super-Mare, Renton was famously photographed at an EDL demonstration standing in front of a placard reading “We are not BNP and we are not racist”. (He has now left the EDL, though Copsey quotes Lennon’s revealing statement that “we never sacked him or even pushed him out”.) Only the other week the EDL held a protest at the site of a proposed Islamic school and cultural centre in Newcastle that was organised by Alan Spence, who stood as a BNP parliamentary and council candidate in the May 2010 elections. Indeed, prominent supporters of the EDL with links to the BNP, and to other fascist groups further to the right, are too numerous to mention. Copsey lists some of them in his pamphlet. However, he insists that the EDL merely functions as “a host for right-wing extremists of various hues” and refuses to accept that the EDL is itself part of the far right.
Copsey justifies this conclusion by equating the far right with white supremacist, antisemitic neo-Nazism. He then argues that as the EDL doesn’t fit into the latter category it cannot be a far-right organisation. From that standpoint, Copsey finds it significant that “from early on in its existence, members of the EDL could be seen brandishing an Israeli flag” and that Jews, Sikhs and gay men can be found in the EDL’s ranks. “The idea that a white racial nationalist, an NF-style organisation, would have an LGBT or Jewish division is absurd”, he writes. “To put it in the crude words of one white racial nationalist: ‘The EDL with its jew flag, nignog members, fag rainbow group, Sikh spokesman and sheeple attendees, are the antithesis of White Nationalism’.” (The quotation is from the white supremacist Stormfront website.)
But neo-Nazi groupings are a marginal force within the British far right, which in recent years has been overwhelmingly dominated by the BNP. As Copsey himself demonstrated in his book Contemporary British Fascism, since taking over the leadership of the BNP from John Tyndall in 1999 Nick Griffin has implemented a sophisticated “modernisation” strategy aimed at prettifying the party’s public image. The tactics adopted by the EDL to deflect accusations of racism and fascism were in fact pioneered by the BNP itself. Griffin may balk at organising an LGBT section of the BNP but he has certainly done his best to attract support from Sikhs, Jews and other non-Muslim minorities on the basis of Islamophobia, just as the EDL has done.
In March this year, following a change in the BNP membership rules, an extreme right-wing Sikh named Rajinder Singh was welcomed as “the first ethnic member” of the BNP and subsequently appointed “special advisor on Islamic extremism” to Griffin. Singh has a long history of support for the BNP, writing for its paper Voice of Freedom and appearing in a 2004 election broadcast in which he appealed to voters to back the BNP as the only party that is resisting the Islamification of Britain.
The rule change that allowed Singh to become a full member came about because of a court decision declaring the old BNP constitution unlawful, but Griffin had been pushing for such a reform for years. Back in 2002 Searchlight reported that he was “contemplating ripping up the party rulebook, which at present disqualifies those without direct British or European ancestry from party membership”. Griffin had told the Birmingham Sunday Mercury: “I can see a time when black and brown faces will be admitted into the BNP fold but we would have to be careful that we do not get to the stage where they outnumber the indigenous white members.”
Searchlight also noted that “Griffin continues to court rogue figures within the Sikh and Hindu communities in a bid to isolate Muslims and portray the BNP in a more respectable light” and that the Sunday Mercury report “followed the release of an anti-Islam audiocassette by the BNP. Entitled Islam – A threat to us all, the tape contains speeches by Griffin, a Hindu and a Sikh”. The similarities with the tactics adopted by the EDL leaders don’t need spelling out.
Turning to the Stormfront Britain forum for the views of neo-Nazis on Griffin’s tactical orientation towards non-Muslim minorities, we find comments such as the following: “Maybe some Griffin apologist can tell me why Raj born Raghead Singh is ‘British'”, and “Nationalism is about protecting the rights, heritage, customs, culture and blood stock of the native, indigenous people and the land to which they belong. Where do Sikhs or Hindus come into that?” It is difficult to seen how this differs from attacks on the EDL from the same source.
As for the argument that the EDL cannot be part of the far right because it has Jewish supporters and the Israeli flag is regularly waved at EDL demonstrations, it should be pointed out that the BNP has also renounced public manifestations of antisemitism and recruited Jews, and that some of its members, like those of the EDL, are enthusiastic supporters of Israel.
In 2005 the right-wing Zionist website Think-Israel published an interview with Griffin in which he publicly rejected “the old fantasies about Learned Elders of Zion controlling the world, and the rabid anti-Semitism that they reflect and incite”. The following year a BNP representative wrote to the Jewish Chronicle to assure its readers that “our repudiation of antisemitism is genuine” and he appealed for support from the Jewish community on the basis that the BNP is “the only party in Britain that is truly serious about fighting the Islamofascist threat”.
During Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006, the BNP’s then legal adviser Lee Barnes wrote: “As a Nationalist I can say that I support Israel 100% in their dispute with Hezbollah. In fact, I hope they wipe Hezbollah off the Lebanese map and bomb them until they leave large greasy craters in the cities where their Islamic extremist cantons of terror once stood.” In 2009, during the Israeli assault on Gaza, the Thurrock BNP website displayed a blue Star of David against a white background, i.e. the centrepiece of the Israeli flag, accompanied by the slogan “We support Israel”.
The BNP has also made much of the fact that Patricia Richardson, a BNP councillor in Epping Forest, is of Jewish origin. Again, this has resulted in the same kind of denunciations from orthodox neo-Nazis to which the EDL has been subjected. “She is not British, or European and she has no business in a party that, supposedly, fights for the survival of the white race in this country”, was one angry comment posted on Stormfront. Another comment read: “A Jew just can’t join an organisation and be an ordinary member, it is not in the Jewish racial makeup. They want control, they need control its part of being a Jew.”
Applying Copsey’s reasoning that neo-Nazi condemnations of the EDL for having welcomed Jews and Sikhs into its ranks demonstrate that it is not a far-right organisation, you’d be forced to conclude that the BNP is not part of the far right either.
It is true that the BNP hasn’t won any significant support within the Jewish or Sikh communities, but then neither has the EDL. Although the much-publicised EDL Jewish Division has over 1200 followers on its Facebook page, I suspect that very few of them are actually English Jews. As for Sikh support, Copsey points out that even those Sikhs who share the EDL’s virulent Islamophobia are reluctant to join an organisation whose rank and file are so thick they are incapable of distinguishing a Sikh from a Muslim and regularly abuse all people of South Asian origin as “Pakis”. But this is of little concern to either the BNP or the EDL leaderships. Their aim is restricted to recruiting a handful of individuals from minority communities in an attempt to obscure the fact that the memberships of both organisations consist largely of white racists.
The BNP leadership for its part is extremely hostile to the EDL and has imposed a formal ban on its members joining EDL protests (as Copsey notes, though, there is no evidence that any BNP member has been disciplined over this issue). Partly this antagonism is to be explained by the BNP’s resentment towards a rival far-right organisation that has attracted forces who might otherwise be recruited to the BNP. But it is also because the BNP, having adopted a “suits not boots” strategy in the interests of acquiring electoral respectability, has dissociated itself from the old NF image of skinhead thugs engaging in aggressive street protests and doesn’t want its members undermining that strategy by getting arrested for violent disorder during EDL demonstrations.
Here of course we can see another parallel between the EDL’s methods and those of the traditional far right. With its mobilisation of racist football hooligans in an attempt to cow and intimidate minority communities by asserting physical control of the streets, the EDL clearly imitates the methods of the National Front during its 1970s heyday. Although the EDL has generally been banned from holding marches and has instead been coralled in “static protests” in city centres, on some occasions its supporters have managed overcome this restriction by breaking through police cordons and rampaging through Muslim areas, smashing shop windows and assaulting brown-skinned individuals who they take to be Muslims. More recently the EDL has adopted the tactic of organising “flash mobs” in order to evade the Public Order Act.
There is no question that the EDL is a novel development on the racist far right that requires careful analysis, and we can agree with Copsey in rejecting the simplistic characterisation of the movement as the “street-fighting wing of the BNP”. To summarise, what we face here is an organisation led by two former BNPers, with a membership consisting predominantly of white racists, which has adopted and extended the BNP’s strategy of countering charges of racism by trying to win token support among non-Muslim minorities, but has combined this with a return to the boot-boy street politics of the 1970s NF that the modern “respectable” BNP has rejected.
Where the EDL differs from earlier far-right formations like the NF or the BNP is that it is not a party but a single-issue protest movement directed specifically against the Muslim community. It has yet to develop a wider political programme and its commitment to the myth of national rebirth, which academic theory holds to be central to fascism’s character as a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism, is at present limited to chanting “We want our country back” to the tune of Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay. Nevertheless, it is clear that the continuities and similarities between the EDL and older fascist organisations are as notable as the discontinuities and differences.
Copsey’s pamphlet is not intended as a whitewash of the EDL. He is quite clear that that this is a violent, racist organisation which poses a threat to public order and social cohesion. But Copsey obstinately refuses to categorise the EDL as part of the far right. In circumstances where the new National Coordinator for Domestic Extremism, Detective Chief Superintendent Adrian Tudway, has been reported as stating that he does not regard the EDL as an extreme right-wing group, it is far from helpful to have a leading academic specialist in fascism giving credibility to this inaccurate and irresponsible view.