The Royal Mile was closed yesterday by a huge police operation to prevent a violent confrontation between the far-right Scottish Defence League and anti-fascist protestors.
Hundreds of police took to the streets of Edinburgh amid concerns that large numbers of SDL supporters would converge on the city at the same time as a rally by Scotland United, a loose coalition of politicians, Christian and Islamic faith groups, and trade unionists.
But only about 40 supporters of the SDL turned up, and they found themselves corralled into a pub at the bottom of the Royal Mile for several hours. There were five arrests for public order offences but the Scotland United rally, attended by about 2,000 people, passed off peacefully in Princes Street Gardens, about half a mile away.
The SDL members congregated in Jenny Ha’s opposite the Scottish Parliament at about 11am yesterday, forcing police to erect two cordons on the Royal Mile, separating them from members of the Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Alliance.
While the majority of those in attendance – among them teenagers and women – said they refused to speak to the press for fear of being misquoted, others said they expected a considerable turnout from SDL supporters. “There’s people up from Leeds, Stockport, Wolverhampton, London, all over. We’re getting 3,000 bodies here,” said a member of the English Defence League. We’re coming in from everywhere – Spain, Gilbraltar, Bulgaria.”
The group unfurled banners with slogans such as “Say no to fundamentalist Muslims” and sporadically raised chants, including “We want our country back” and “Muslim bombers off our streets”. Despite attempts to break through the police cordon, they were contained in the pub, until two double-decker buses took them out of the city centre at about 4pm.
At the formal Scotland United rally, which included a march from Princes Street Gardens to the Meadows, speakers said the SDL had failed to gain support, but warned against complacency. Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill said: “Today is about making a stand against those who would seek to divide and saying to them that their views are not welcome.”
Osama Saeed, of the Scottish Islamic Foundation and an SNP candidate for Glasgow Central, said it was a “further humiliation” for the SDL. “They only got ten minutes in the rain last November in Glasgow. They didn’t even get that today.”
Update: The EDL reports that its “leadership team” were arrested on their way to the Edinburgh demonstration and their homes have been raided by the police. As a result, the planned EDL demonstration in Bradford on 30 May has been cancelled.
Further update: See Richard Bartholomew’s coverage of the EDL arrests at Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion, 22 February 2010