The English Defence League demonstrating alongside the neo-Nazis of the National Front
Today the internet has been buzzing with the news that Stephen Lennon (“Tommy Robinson”) and Kevin Carroll have resigned from the English Defence League. It even qualified for coverage on national TV.
The EDL leaders’ break with the organisation they helped to found was announced this morning in a press release from the Quilliam group (“Quilliam facilitates Tommy Robinson leaving the English Defence League”), which quotes Lennon as saying: “I have been considering this move for a long time because I recognise that, though street demonstrations have brought us to this point, they are no longer productive. I acknowledge the dangers of far-right extremism and the ongoing need to counter Islamist ideology not with violence but with better, democratic ideas.”
Lennon and Carroll will expand on their motives for leaving the EDL at a press conference this evening which has been organised by Quilliam.
Promoting itself as “the world’s first counter-extremism organisation”, Quilliam’s pitch is that it is ex-“extremists” like themselves (the organisation was launched by former Hizb ut-Tahrir members) who are best placed to oppose extremist ideology and win adherents of extremist groups back to mainstream society.
That’s the basis on which Quilliam appeal for funding. It’s an argument which persuaded the last Labour government to lavish huge sums of money on the organisation, but since 2010 the Tory-led coalition government has been less forthcoming, and at one point Quilliam was reduced to sending out begging letters.
Quilliam evidently thinks this latest media stunt with Lennon and Carroll is a real coup for the organisation, with chairman and co-founder Maajid Nawaz declaring that it “represents a huge success for community relations in the United Kingdom” and is “a very proud moment” for Quilliam. After all, what better proof could there be of Quilliam’s expertise in winning over former extremists than convincing Lennon and Carroll to give up on the EDL? Nawaz is no doubt rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of further financial support rolling in.
However, as Anindya Bhattacharyya has noted, this is not the first time we’ve been here. Back in 2011 Quilliam were equally proud to announce that two former EDL activists, Leighton Evans and Harry Burns (Andy Hughes), had broken with the organisation and repudiated extremism. Alas for Quilliam, it all came embarassingly unstuck when they arranged for Evans to do an interview with the Guardian, in the course of which he announced his admiration for the EDL and his continuing support for its ideology.
So what evidence is there that Lennon and Carroll have not only broken organisationally with the EDL but have also come to understand “the dangers of far-right extremism”? Just over a fortnight ago, the two EDL leaders both addressed an anti-mosque protest in Sheffield, so their speeches there presumably provide an accurate record of their current thinking.
In his speech Lennon announced: “We’re here because the Muslim community are raising funds to build yet another mosque in this area.” He said the purpose of the protest was to show the people of Sheffield that “there is now a defence against the Islamification of this great city”. He declared: “We don’t want any more mosques in this country.” Lennon promised that all planning applications for mosques would be opposed and “people will no longer sit by and watch their towns and cities taken over”. He also made the inflammatory claim that “English girls in Sheffield are being groomed and raped” by “members of the Islamic community” while the police refused to arrest the perpetrators.
Carroll’s speech continued in the same inflammatory vein, consisting of a classic far-right rant about the failure of the authorities to recognise the growing problem of “racial attacks on non-Muslims”. To shouts of anger from EDL supporters Carroll recounted the familiar fascist myth about how the 2004 murder of Glasgow teenager Kriss Donald was ignored by the media. Only one newspaper, which he named as the Daily Telegraph, reported the crime, an outraged Carroll assured the mob. (It is of course true that the Telegraph reported the murder, along with the Times, the Mail, the Sun, the BBC and every other news outlet in the country.) This is the sort of rhetoric about “anti-white racism” that could have come straight out of the mouth of Nick Griffin.
So, not much sign of a break from far-right extremism there, you might think.
It looks to me like Quilliam have been suckered again. There is every reason to suspect that this is a purely cynical manoeuvre on Lennon’s part. The EDL’s decline was temporarily arrested by the murder of Lee Rigby in May, and attendance at its protests briefly picked up again, but this recovery could only be short-lived. As the poor turnout at Tower Hamlets indicated, it wasn’t going to be long before EDL supporters once again got tired of travelling round the country shouting drunken abuse at Muslims and anti-fascists, and the movement gradually fizzled out. Lennon no doubt reasoned that it was time to move on.
The EDL was in any case always something of an anomaly within the international “counterjihad” network, most of whose component groups do not consist of violent street movements populated by football hooligans and neo-Nazis. It seems likely Lennon and Carroll want to reposition themselves as the leaders of a less overtly thuggish and fascist organisation that can take its place alongside the likes of Jihad Watch or Gates of Vienna. Perhaps, too, they hope to get their hands on some of the vast funding that fuels the Islamophobia industry.
This analysis of their aims is reinforced by Lennon and Carroll’s PA Hel Gower, who told International Business Times: “A new group, that isn’t street-based, is going to be formed. Tommy is definitely going to be in the new group, and Kevin will be in it too.”
Yes, that’s the same Hel Gower who is on record as declaring her support for both the British National Party and the neo-Nazi groupuscule the British First Party, and who joined a Facebook group calling for unity between the EDL and BNP. Quite how Lennon and Carroll hope to pretend they’ve broken with far-right extremism while publicly relying on the continued support of Gower is anybody’s guess.