If you’ve been unfortunate enough to encounter the English Defence League (EDL) at one of their nationwide gatherings then you’ve probably already got a reasonably good idea of the type of thuggish, racist, antisocial and violent institution they are. Though their official far right political campaign of “counter Jihadism” and “resistance to Sharia law” is offensive enough to anyone informed enough to be able to see through such a thin disguise, the reality of the group is far, far worse.
To witness the EDL is to understand the horrors of ignorance. They march purposefully about, employing lookouts to keep an eye on the inevitable counter demonstrations in much the same way the football firms used to back in the days before the media decided to pick “hooligan” as the latest buzz word and encourage the police to clamp down on anyone who dared even look slightly angry within half a mile of a football ground. Fascist salutes, racist chanting and a deliberately created atmosphere of intimidation demonstrate the group’s true intentions; to spread a message of ultra nationalistic, xenophobic rhetoric through means of fear and, potentially, violence.
The core of the EDL appears to be made up of some of the finest nutters the far right has to offer and some of the most violent thugs of precisely the old football firms whose tactics the EDL have partially adopted. The ones that never cared that much about football in the first place, the ones that saw themselves in the media’s “hooligan” coverage and thought they were famous. The vast majority of the organisation, though, seems to be made up of ordinary men and women (though it must be said that it is an extremely male dominated institution) who’ve simply made the mistake of not educating themselves enough to be immune from the propaganda and bullshit fed to them by the kinds of people who form groups such as the EDL.
And this is where my dilemma emerges when it comes to the EDL. As I stood the other side of a police line at their demonstration, as they berated me for daring to oppose their Islamophobia with chants of “you’re not English anymore” and as I witnessed a young lad of about 17 hold his arm proudly aloft in a fascist salute while swigging from a can of Carling I was unable to simplify it down to simply the disgust and anger I felt towards them. I was dealing with a dichotomy that left me confronted with the simple fact that as much as I detested this demonstration and the ideology it promoted, I could not deny the other truth of what I was witnessing. A large group of predominantly working class lads marching through the street for something they believed in. I could not deny that unity, that sense of comradery and the fact that, for the most part, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. At that point I had to consider very seriously my “us versus them” attitude.
It’s partly for those reasons that whenever I am confronted with a youtube video or media report of a violent confrontation between the EDL and the police I am completely unable to respond with anything other than a feeling of allegiance to the misguided bastards with their ignorant placards. Orwell summed it up better than I ever could, perhaps, when in the fantastic account of his time in the Spanish Civil War, “Homage to Catalonia”, he declared:
“I have no particular love for the idealised ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.”
The EDL isn’t offering these people any real politics, it’s offering them a few empty slogans and some easily refutable, illogical arguments. Essentially that’s the sum total of everything the far right has to offer. But it’s also offering a day out, an us-against-the world away day with a guaranteed chance of a few beers and a sing song and a punch up if you’re lucky. It’s offering them exactly what the football used to before Murdoch and his moneyed mates came and turned it into a middle class pursuit, upping the corporate sponsorship along with the ticket prices that mean you’re more likely to hear a conversation on the FTSE’s latest fluctuations in some grounds nowadays than see a group of mates fighting to “take the home end”
So in recognising this dichotomy I recognised, perhaps, the single greatest failing of the progressive, radical, left (or whatever tag you want to give to that portion of society that believes passionately in, stands up and fights for things like human rights, tolerance, social justice and equality) in the UK today. The failure to engage with, learn from and fight alongside the working classes which we’re so quick to reference in a conceptual or academic context leaves the accusations levelled at various movements of “middle class trustifarians playing at politics” looking embarrassingly valid. Orwell’s reference to the ‘idealised’ worker perhaps rings as true today as it did in 1936.
In order to genuinely further progressive causes it is my firm belief that everybody within a society must be empowered to feel that they are part of a community that is able to make decisions on their own behalf and best placed to do so. Perhaps that’s another blog altogether, no doubt it won’t be too long before I bore anyone daft enough to read with a long piece on political ideology. While so many movements in this country continue to adopt a “we’re here if anyone wants to join” attitude rather than actively going out into the most deprived communities, the ones where people are most directly affected by the things we’re fighting against, and offering what the EDL offer, a chance to come together and fight for something, the chance to believe we can make a difference, then we’ll continue to leave a vacuum of hope that will at best be filled with increasing disillusion and detachment from any political or social processes and at worst will be filled by the kind of racist scum who set up groups like the EDL so that they can sell their lies to people who are justifiably pissed off and understandably eager to aim that anger somewhere.
This isn’t meant as some kind of scathing criticism of every social movement in the UK, many of which are made up of the people and communities I’ve been discussing. There is some fantastic stuff going on out there right now and that should be appreciated. Nor is it a fantastical statement releasing all members of the EDL from any guilt or blame from their actions. It’s more a plea to look again at that organisation and think about why it exists and who it recruits. I believe firmly that countering and resisting fascism at every turn is the responsibility of any sane minded individual, whatever form that resistance takes and I will continue to place myself steadfastly against the ideals and aims that inform the EDL and other proto-fascist organisations, but although it might be “us versus them” in battle, when it comes to the war we need to dig a little deeper.
N.B. As a side point it did occur to me that in order to research this piece I did find myself at one point on the EDL’s official website. If there is some intelligence or counter terrorism bod out there going through people’s internet histories that’s gonna throw them a curve ball!