The Sunday Times Magazine features a lengthy report by Camilla Long on the English Defence League. The pitch is that it’s a study of the EDL after the loss of its old leadership, but most of the research was evidently carried out before the recent departure of Stephen Lennon and Kevin Carroll.
You do get a sense of the drunken racism and far-right views underpinning EDL protests, which the author clearly finds repellent. But the article is written by someone who doesn’t know a lot about the subject (Long is an interviewer and film critic). The original stated aim of the EDL may have been to “oppose the practices and effects of Islamic extremism”, but it very quickly revealed itself as a movement that was openly directed against Islam as a whole – and, by extension, against the entire Muslim community.
Long also gives some credence to the EDL’s Islamophobia, which is depicted as having some basis in reality. We’re told: “Nearly everyone in the EDL lives in what they describe as Muslim ghettos, places of no money and broken schools, where white people are the object of religious hate.” Not only that, but in Islam “there is some uncertainty on the matter of underage sex”.
There’s even a spin-off article by Long in the Sunday Times itself, based on an interview with an individual named Martin Sculpher that she did for the magazine feature, entitled “Hero of 7/7 bombings joins English Defence League”. Readers are told: “He denied that the EDL incited racial hatred and blamed ‘the media interpretation of what we are. From the start we have opposed radical Islam’, he said. ‘It is not racist to challenge a radical ideology of Islam.'”
I’ve reproduced Long’s Sunday Times Magazine article here for information, because it’s hidden behind Murdoch’s paywall.
‘It’s not the colour of their skin, it’s the culture’
By Camilla Long
Angry, violent and alienated, the English Defence League wants to drive radical Islam and sharia out of Britain. Now that its leader, Tommy Robinson, has quit, who is left?
There is a man next to me with 60 tattoos. He has a dragon up one side of his body and a snake and skull on his chest. There’s the donkey from Shrek on his buttocks — “I love everything the donkey does,” he coos — and a bar code on the back of his head. The code doesn’t scan. “We tried in Tesco,” he says. Above the bar code, three big Gothic letters do scan. They curl up the back of his head: EDL.
The English Defence League is our angriest, drunkest protest group. Dave Bolton, 53, is one of the rock eaters in front of The Queen pub in Bradford, where supporters are gathering for speeches and a demonstration. He is wearing a filthy high-vis jacket and has a mouth full of tiny hippo teeth.
He is a steward at every meeting, but this one is different. Four days ago, the EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, tearfully announced that he was leaving. He was fed up with the Nazis and “morons”, and was joining the smoothies at Quilliam, a think-tank run by Muslims, where he hoped they would find a more moderate path to combatting Islamic extremism. Robinson is a “traitor”, says Dave. He is a “grass”. He has betrayed the movement and stamped on the supporters. His next tattoo will be “Quilliam”, he says. He gives a huge munching laugh. “Down the inside of my arse.”
Something else has changed too. After six weeks interviewing the leaders and members of our most extreme right-wing movement, I am no longer welcome. A rough middle-aged blonde named Gail Speight, joint head of the women’s branch of the group, the EDL Angels, who later gets up to scream “this is the proudest, patriotest people ever”, says I am upsetting the protestors and spontaneously imposes a “media ban”. There is no evidence that Speight has any idea what a “media ban” is, but for some reason the police obey her. Unless I leave, I will be kicked in and/or arrested for breach of the peace. “We’ve asked you nicely,” says an officer, shoving me in the back. “Leave now.”
As I am dragged out of the least likely VIP area in the world, past the paddy wagons and police in stab vests and stab shoes and riot horses (in stab hooves?), the only thing that surprises me is that this hasn’t happened before. The EDL really don’t like outsiders. They don’t like anything that’s foreign. They say “gurkhas” instead of “burqas” and “Jewishes” instead of “Jews”, chant “Allah is a paedo” and “I’m going to chuck a sausage in a mosque (poor sausage)”. They mistake places like the Brighton Pavilion for a mosque.
A recent survey showed that we are truly global leaders at crap Nazis, with the greatest numbers of fascist parties, defunct or otherwise, of any country on the planet. Of these, the EDL is the best of the worst. I have been breathed on, shouted at, pushed, prodded, groped and pissed on. I have witnessed fights over vodka; tasted weed on the air; lost count of the number of times I have been asked: “What’s your name? Oh, that’s fine, that’s English.” I am a blackbelt in crap tattoos.
I have also met people like Martin Sculpher, 52. He never thought twice about Muslims until he was involved in the 7/7 bombings. He is a quiet man with kind eyes, trying to roll a cigarette while I interview him round the back of the pub in Bradford, where he is on duty as the EDL medic. (He mostly deals with head injuries from truncheons and dehydration from drink.) Born in East Ham, Sculpher says he worked for 19 years “on the railways”, eventually becoming head of the emergency response unit on the London Underground. He was responsible for making the Tube safe and restoring service after fires or suicides. He dealt with “one or two” suicides a week. He would jack up the trains, help the fire brigade clear the damage and sledgehammer the carriages back together afterwards.
One day in July 2005, he received a call about an incident on the lines. He formed a response team and led a unit to Edgware Road station, where the ringleader of the bombers, Mohammad Siddique Khan, had detonated his bomb and killed seven people. The first thing he sensed was an unpleasant “cordite-y smell” in the station. The next thing he saw were three body bags and a priest on the platform. The experience was “surreal”, he says. The scene inside the carriage reminded him of “an abattoir”. There was “hair and body fat on the ceiling”. One man was lying inside the hull in a high-vis vest with his arms crossed, “and I said, he looked so peaceful. And they said, yeah, he was alive when we got here.” They had given him CPR, before they saw that his bottom half had been completely detached from his torso and that his legs were next to him in the Tube carriage. “They just gave him morphine and moved on,” he says.
He dealt with that body, and then someone asked him to attend a body that he later discovered belonged to Siddique Khan. The force of the bomb had blown him through the floor. “He’d gone down and wrapped round the road wheel on the train,” he says. “All that was left was a spine and a bit of mush.” He paid respect to the body, something he later regretted. Otherwise, they said nothing, working in silence. “You could have heard a pin drop.” He coped by “looking at it in 2D, don’t go into it in 3D, because if you go in 3D, you get the emotional side”. He spent a month lifting remains out of the Tube and removing the carriages for forensic evidence.
When he returned to work, however, something was wrong. He started having panic attacks. He couldn’t sleep. He lost three stone. If he smelt burning meat, he vomited. If he saw anything about the bombings on television, he started crying. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2007 and spent two weeks in a psychiatric unit, followed by six months’ psychotherapy, during which he was told by his therapist to read the Koran in order to understand the culture. “He said to me, you’ve got to understand the culture. It’s not the colour of their skin, it’s the culture.”
He was horrified by what he read. He thought some of the scriptures “promoted violence towards nonbelievers”. He says he felt the hadiths, which are interpretations of the prophet Muhammad’s sayings, sanctioned “female genital mutilation [FGM], underage marriage and underage sex. So they can take quotes out of the Koran [sic] and say, this is my justification for what I’ve done.” (Some hadiths, which are not universally accepted by all branches of the faith, can be taken to sanction FGM, but there is some uncertainty on the matter of underage sex. Most Muslims, of course, condemn the practice.)
“I had a lot of hate at the time,” says Sculpher. He found he couldn’t control his drinking. He split from his wife and by 2009 he was living in a homeless hostel in Luton, sleeping “with four other blokes in one bedroom”, when he found out about a group called the United People of Luton while he was “skulking around on the internet”. In the face of his experiences, he felt Tommy Robinson, who set up the original group, had a point. The Blair era, which saw a net immigration between 1997 and 2010 of around 3.4m people who had been born outside Britain, had “opened the doors”, he claims, “and you get the wrong people slipping through the loopholes.
Nearly everyone in the EDL lives in what they describe as Muslim ghettos, places of no money and broken schools, where white people are the object of religious hate. One woman from Birmingham claimed she had arranged a charity walk in mankinis for her husband and brother, and ended up having to call the police when they were stoned. Tommy Robinson is regularly attacked in the street. He is punched in the face in Luton town centre just days after he announces he is leaving.
Robinson created Ban the Luton Taliban in 2004 after he saw fundamentalists recruiting outside his local bakery. He gave a speech and was “attacked” and “persecuted”, he says, but resurrected the movement as the United People of Luton in 2009, after the Royal Anglian Regiment were booed by Muslims when they came home from Iraq. In September 2009, they rebranded as the English Defence League. In one of their many failed attempts to prove they weren’t fascists, they held a press conference in an abandoned warehouse where 30 men burnt a swastika.
The point of the movement was simple: to oppose the practices and effects of Islamic extremism. They broadcast their views in the form of street protests, as part of their “inalienable” right to oppose sharia, which they claim allows Muslims to carry out female genital mutilation and honour killings and groom young girls for sex (one EDL splinter group is Women against Grooming. They call themselves Wags). They see themselves more as a human-rights organisation than a political party, a “single issue” pressure group organised on Facebook and Twitter. They have no funding and no official policies; they welcome Labour and Conservative voters, liberals, hooligans and gays (the EDL transsexual is called Jane).
Robinson himself is a hooligan more than anything. He is a former plumber turned tanning-shop owner whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon; he took the Robinson name from a thug who belonged to the Luton Town FC firm Men in Gear (possibly the gayest name of any group ever). He claims he has never taken any money from the EDL, partly because there’s no money to take. The most anyone can donate seems to be about £10. Robinson’s own money remains mysterious. He says he earned £200,000 a year from plumbing and as a landlord of seven properties, as well as a tanning shop, now shut down. At the time of going to press, his assets remain frozen by police ahead of a court appearance for tax evasion, and yet he still manages to frequent Selfridges. He is “addicted” to Stone Island, an expensive brand of clothing also known as “the imperial robes of ladwear”. He was casually licking the £800 Puffas in the Selfridges concession when a friend was recently refused service.
None of this is helped by the fact that he wore a mask for a year and has used at least four different aliases, including Wayne King, which he chose for his first interview as leader of the United People of Luton because he wanted to get the BBC presenter Victoria Derbyshire to say “wanking” on air. He would lead fights in the early days of campaigning, once inciting a 100-man brawl. He says he behaved like this because he is “passionate” about Luton, a place of “complete segregation”, he says, with “white playgrounds and black playgrounds” and separate schools. Twelve years of Labour has “destroyed” the white working class. People turn on the television and see Ed Miliband, “a little rich kid” and think “how is he representative of me?”.
He claims that Tony Blair left people like him feeling “disillusioned” because they “pandered to ethnic minorities”. He has never voted and neither have his friends. He set up the EDL in the hope that middle England would “listen to the speeches and get in contact”, but far from hearing their “cry for help”, middle England was disgusted by their naked racism and street fights and the fact that Robinson had been a member of the BNP.
It is true that there is more than a whiff of nationalism at the first EDL march I attend in early September. Robinson looks like a stressed testicle, surrounded by tank-sized bouncers. He is shiny and blank, as neat as a pork chop. He is wearing the world’s smallest pair of combat trousers, an expensive navy-blue sports jacket, and has a picture of the Queen on his mobile phone, which gives the impression that the Queen is calling him all the time. He has decided to stage the protest close to the London borough of Tower Hamlets, which the EDL claim is subject to sharia.
The plan is to walk over Tower Hill to Aldgate Tube station, where the police’s only task is to keep the 2,000 EDL supporters from killing 5,000 Muslims and anti-fascist protestors, and vice versa. The look is 1992’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, styled by a pound store in Hull. There are St George’s flags and face masks (snatched off by officers) and a black man dressed as a depressed Uther Pendragon. A man in mirrored sunglasses, who looks like a dementor crossed with one of the Village people, is a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender wing of the group. Under sharia, he says, “I’d be strung up on Tower Bridge.” A scaffolder gabbles: “Obviously there are Christian paedos but the Koran says it’s OK to have sex with children.” His friend, a warehouse worker, says: “We don’t want to chuck ’em all out. Just the ones who are gonna blow us up.” His niece is one of only three white children in her class in a town near Leeds. There’s a warm splashing on my foot. Someone is pissing on my leg. I look up to see that the ground is covered with rivers of urine, the grim result of breakfast beers and being kettled for two hours.
They lurch over Tower Bridge and up to Aldgate station, where Robinson gives a speech next to an armoured car. He says that “two thousand girls had their clits cut off last year because they’re not allowed to have sex. Six hundred and forty were brought into Birmingham hospital. How many arrests? Nun,” he screams. “David Cameron is a wank-ahr.” Someone in the crowd dismisses talking about FGM as “National Front tactics”. There is no difference between EDL’s appropriation of FGM, he explains, and the neo-Fascist group using black-on-white muggings as political tinder in the late 1970s. The EDL is simply an extension of our long history of “white backlash” — whites turning on ethnic minorities in times of economic gloom.
It is no coincidence that the group was founded less than a year after the credit crunch. It is no coincidence, either, that their obsession with British values and traditions feels like an extension of White Pride or the British Freedom Party, a branch of the BNP. It is certainly no coincidence that today they are protesting in exactly the same area of London where Oswald Mosley and the blackshirts marched nearly 70 years ago, sparking the Cable Street riots.
But do they have a point? Robinson doesn’t always get the figures right: the correct number for cases of FGM at Birmingham Heartlands hospital is 700 over the past two years and three months, and the number of arrests stands at 11 (although no charges brought). Nobody seems able to corroborate the figure of 2,000, but that seems like a mere detail when the truth is far worse. According to a survey by the Royal College of Midwives last year, the number of women affected by FGM in this country, where it is illegal, could be as high as 66,000. Nearly a third of midwives said they had cared for a victim of FGM.
But then many of Robinson’s followers seem most worried about FGM not because they particularly love women, but because they viscerally hate Muslims. They boil and churn when a Muslim appears outside an office block flicking V-signs during the march, before he is hurried away by police like Madonna at Heathrow, under a hail of bottles. Some older members of the EDL say that Muslims simply make them feel “threatened”.
Sue (not her real name), a small, sulphuric blonde in a leather jacket and black trousers, tells me that when she walks down the street in Hackney she feels “uncomfortable”. She says she joined the EDL four years ago when the Royal Anglian Regiment were “vilified” in Luton. She was furious when they “spat on them and called them baby killers”. Robinson “was the only person to try and stop them”, she says. When Lee Rigby was murdered she laid flowers in Woolwich and “cried for his family”. She is doing the walk for her son, a soldier who died from an overdose after returning from Iraq five years ago. She spoke to the policeman at his inquest, who told her that drink, drugs and homelessness “happen to so many ex-army lads”. She still can’t talk about him much. I see tears in her eyes.
She says the EDL has given her something to focus on in the face of confusion and sorrow, a movement where everyone passionately supports the troops. Its religion, if there is any, is “the lads”. Sometimes it feels like the entire thing is just a symptom of the war, just what happens if you spend 20 years telling people to kill Muslims. I email Sue later about Robinson’s decision to leave. She seems disappointed but says he has done the right thing. She was angry when Quilliam said they had “decapitated” the EDL, but the likelihood is that the group will disappear. Fascism is nothing without a strong (small, coiffed, overdressed) leader. Robinson, for his part, wants to start a working-class think tank. The Quilliam boys have promised to introduce him to some senior politicians at the House of Lords. He seems agitated and cast adrift when I speak to him, just like the “disenchanted young indigenous English boys” Sue said she saw on the Bradford march. “Maybe Tommy gave these young people a pathway,” she says. “A country that is not entirely lost.”
Update: Long’s interview with Martin Sculpher has also been taken up by the Daily Mail, under the headline “Hero Tube worker who pulled victims from the wreckage on 7/7 joins the EDL because he feels let down by ministers”.
Update 2: The Daily Express too has been promoting Sculpher as the “7/7 hero” who joined the EDL.