English Defence League

English Defence League
Abbreviation EDL
Motto In hoc signo vinces (in this sign you will conquer)
Formation 27 June 2009 (2009-06-27)
Type Far-right
Purpose Anti-Muslim,[1] anti-Islamism, anti-sharia law
  • Originated in Luton, England
Key people
Tim Ablitt, Chairman (since October 2013),[2] Alan Lake[3][4][5]
Website englishdefenceleague.org

The English Defence League (EDL) is a far-right[6][7][8][9][10] street protest movement which focuses on opposition to what it considers to be a spread of Islamism and Sharia in the United Kingdom.[11][12][13][14][15][16] The EDL has been described as Islamophobic,[8][17] and was until 2013 "the most significant counter-jihad movement in Europe" and considered by some academics to be "one of the more intriguing developments on the far right".[18] The group has faced confrontations with various groups, including Unite Against Fascism (UAF).[19] In October 2013 the group's co-founders, Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll, left the group, with Robinson citing concerns over the "dangers of far-right extremism".[20] He was replaced as leader by Tim Ablitt.[21]

Formation and aims

The EDL originated from a group known as the "United Peoples of Luton" (UPL). The UPL had been formed in response to a demonstration organised by the extremist Islamist organisation, Al-Muhajiroun, against the war in Afghanistan, held in March 2009 as the Royal Anglian Regiment marched through Luton after a tour of duty in the Helmand province campaign.[22] When the Luton counter-demonstration led to arrests, local football supporters, according to a BBC News report, "decided something should be done" and "found common cause with other 'soccer casuals' and 'firms' associated with major clubs. The chatter concluded that [Islamic extremism] was a national problem and they had to put aside club rivalries."[23] EDL's original leader, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known as 'Tommy Robinson' (taking his assumed name from the author of two books about the Luton Town MIGs football hooligan firm[24]), recalled that he had been prompted to found the organisation after he had read in a newspaper about a group of local Islamists attempting to recruit men outside a local bakery in Luton to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan: "I was like, they can't do that! In working class communities, we all know somebody in the armed forces. I've got a mate who lost his legs. And these lot were sending people to kill our boys."[25]

Although Robinson repeatedly insisted from the early days of the organisation that the EDL was "against the rise of radical Islam" and that its members "aren't against Islam", its rank-and-file were noted for including football hooligans and members who described themselves as anti-Muslim.[23][24] Robinson reportedly considered forming the EDL into a political party.[26] In November 2011, the EDL formed an alliance with an offshoot of the British National Party (BNP), known as the British Freedom Party (BFP), under which EDL members would be invited to join and stand as candidates in elections.[27] Another senior member is Alan Lake, who has been described as the EDL's chief financier, which Lake denies.[28] In January 2012, Tommy Robinson expressed a wish to expand the definition of the EDL to a wider European Defence League.[29]

Membership and support

EDL supporter and a police officer at an EDL march

The EDL evolved from the football casual subculture and is loosely organised around figures in hooligan firms.[12] There is no formal membership, and EDL membership figures are not clear. The think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011.[30][31]

The internet hacktivist group Anonymous has published personal details of EDL members as part of a campaign against the group.[32] History professor Nigel Copsey notes that "There is no official membership card, or fees/subs as such". This, he suggests, allows the advantage of not having a membership list to leak.[33] In October 2009, the EDL claimed to have thousands of members in scores of branches,[34] and the organisation's spokesman Trevor Kelway explained that about 300 active supporters attended demonstrations with support from Cardiff, Swansea, Luton and Portsmouth.[35][36] At the time "an analyst" claimed the group had between 300 and 500 active supporters that it could mobilise at any given time.[11][35] Researchers have suggested that the EDL is unusual among far-right groups, because it seeks to attract non-white support, but its discourse is seen as "one that reflects that of the BNP and others albeit tailored to be more inclusive and by consequence, more relevant to contemporary Britain's inherent diversity".[7][37] Some scholarly fieldwork into the group noted the anti-racist statements and efforts of EDL organisers but suggested that racism and Islamophobia "may well be more commonplace among the EDL's 'rank and file' than the group's leaders would publicly admit," and one of their marches was heavily promoted on the fascist and white supremacist website "Stormfront."[8]

Tommy Robinson has previously issued an anti-Nazi statement and taken part in the burning of a Nazi flag in a warehouse in Luton, at a 2009 press conference.[38] The EDL expressed support for the monarchy by vowing to rally in support of the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, but later cancelled the event.[39]

The Guardian has reported conflict in the EDL between a primarily northern-based group called The Infidels, who hold more traditional far-right views, and members in the Midlands and South. The article suggested that the EDL and the British National Party cannot simultaneously survive for long but that right-wing populism will continue.[40]

In April 2013, the EDL leadership requested that members used tactical voting to benefit the UK Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP responded by distancing themselves from the EDL and its views.[41]


Since its foundation the principal activity of the EDL has been street demonstrations. In the main these have involved counter demonstrations, violence and frequent arrests.[42] The group makes vigorous attempts to influence public debate and opinion, but Tommy Robinson, who was also deputy leader of the British Freedom Party,[43] asserts that the EDL does not aspire to be a political party: "We know who our masters are. We just want them to do their job."[42]

The deputy leader of the EDL, Kevin Carroll, stood for the BFP in the 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner elections for Bedfordshire Police and polled 8,675 first round votes (10.6%) coming in fourth place[44] with a saved deposit. In January 2013, Carroll replaced Paul Weston as chairman of the BFP.[45]

Clint Bristow, who worked as a local organiser for the EDL in Doncaster, stood as an independent in the 2012 parliamentary by-election in Rotherham. He came last with 29 votes (0.1%).[46]

Association with violence

Video of damage being caused to a restaurant in Leicester. A supporter of the English Defence League was later convicted for his involvement in the attack, and admitted causing criminal damage worth £1500.[47]

The group says that its aim is to demonstrate peacefully in English, as well as Welsh, towns and cities,[34] but conflicts with Unite Against Fascism (UAF), local opposition and other opponents have led to street violence, anti-social behaviour and arrests. A proposed march in Luton in September 2009 was banned by the police, citing a threat to public safety.[48] There is normally heavy policing of these demonstrations, due to the likelihood of violence. The cost of policing these demonstrations has ranged from £300,000[49] to £1 million.[50] Journalists that have covered EDL marches have received death threats,[51] for instance journalist Jason N. Parkinson from The Guardian wrote about receiving a death threat by email from someone he described as an EDL organiser, as well as death threats sent to Marc Vallée, a fellow journalist.[52]

Four specialist national police units involved in policing hooliganism, extreme violence, and terrorism are investigating the EDL.[23] After their second demonstration in Birmingham Assistant Chief Constable Sharon Rowe of West Midlands Police: "Really, there was no intent to protest. I think they knew that the community was very much against them coming to the city, which... potentially would generate violence".[53] Before their Manchester demonstration of October 2009, the EDL held a press conference, during which they burned a Nazi flag and asserted that "There is no militant undertone. We will peacefully protest but we will not be scared into silence".[54] During the Manchester city centre demonstration Mat Trewern, from BBC Radio Manchester reported that "At one point, earlier on, when it became extremely tense, members of the UAF tried to break the police line between the two groups". Greater Manchester Police confirmed a man, believed to be heading to the protest, had earlier been arrested in Birmingham on suspicion of distributing racially aggravated material.[55] One week later, at a Welsh Defence League demonstration, supporters burnt an anti-Nazi flag and made Nazi salutes.[56]

In January 2010 in Stoke-on-Trent, EDL members broke through police lines; four police officers were injured and police vehicles were damaged.[57] In March 2010 in Bolton, 74 people were arrested in the demonstrations; at least 55 of the arrested were from the UAF and nine from the EDL.[58] Weyman Bennett, joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism, was arrested and charged with conspiracy to organise violent disorder,[59] Martin Smith, of Love Music Hate Racism, and Dr Moran, joint secretary of Greater Manchester UAF, were among those arrested on conspiracy charges.[60] Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan, from Greater Manchester Police (GMP), said that UAF protesters were responsible for most of the trouble and that they had turned up intending to cause trouble: "It is clear to me that a large number have attended with the sole intention of committing disorder and their actions have been wholly unacceptable."[59]

At the EDL's second Dudley protest, on 17 July 2010, there was widespread damage to local property. The local council estimated the bill to be over £500,000.[61] On 11 September 2010, police in Oldham received an advance call from the EDL. Around mid-day approximately 120 supporters had arrived in the town. A separate group of around 50 members attacked a police car with bottles. There were 8 arrests for public order offences.[62]

On 9 October 2010, a police officer and several civilians were injured during protests by the English Defence League and Unite Against Fascism in Leicester. A Sky News van was attacked by members of the English Defence League[63] who had earlier thrown fireworks, smokebombs and bricks at police[64] and smashed windows of the city's International Arts Centre.[65] There were also clashes between EDL supporters and local black and Asian youths as a group broke out of the EDL protest site at Humberstone Gate East and engaged with the locals. One man from Tyne and Wear was later convicted of causing criminal damage to the value of £1500 to a restaurant in this area of the city.[47] Riot police fought to maintain control over the sporadic fighting that ensued.[66] Thirteen people were arrested, one on suspicion of assaulting a police officer,[67] only one was from the city of Leicester[68] and the cost of policing the demonstration was put at £850,000.[69]

In February 2011, prior to an EDL march in Luton, national British newspapers ran headlines with expectations of violence.[70] The march, which was held on 5 February 2011, was concluded without major incident.[71]

On 10 August, during the 2011 England riots Acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner Tim Godwin expressed concern that the EDL and the BNP were seeking to exploit the situation after ninety EDL members joined vigilantes in Enfield claiming that their physical presence would discourage troublemakers.[72][73] The EDL also gathered in Eltham for the same purpose.[74] EDL officials claimed they were safeguarding local businesses, but it was reported that the EDL attacked a bus carrying black youths.[75]

On July 2011, the EDL "visited" Muslim MEP Sajjad Karim at his home with a gang of EDL members, which Karim said was an attempt at intimidation and threatening behaviour.[76] The EDL has been accused of spray-painting and attacking mosques.[77][78] Extremist members of the EDL have been involved in physical assaults against Muslims.[79][80]

EDL members have been reported attacking an anti-fascist concert in Yorkshire.[81] EDL members have been jailed for attacking staff at office buildings which had hosted anti-EDL meetings.[82] EDL members have also attacked a bookstall in Sandwell.[83]

Some news reports have shown pictures which depicted EDL members posing wearing paramilitary outfits, with guns and crossbows.[84][85]

On 7 December 2011, EDL activist Simon Beech was one of two men jailed for ten years for an arson attack on a mosque. Sentencing the men, Judge Mark Eades stated: "It seems to me your purpose was not to get at extremists, but to get at Muslims in general and your purpose can only have been to destabilise community relationships." Chief Superintendent Bernie O'Reilly, who heads Stoke-on-Trent policing division, said, "This was a planned attack to try to blow a mosque up in a residential area."[86]

In 2013, six Islamists pleaded guilty to plotting a bomb and gun attack on an EDL march in Dewsbury.[87] The EDL march and UAF/TUC counter demonstration had passed "peacefully, safely and without serious incident."[88]

Views and reactions

Street protest organised by the EDL in Newcastle, England. (The placard reads "Shut down the Mosque Command and Control Centre.")

The British press describes the EDL as far-right[89] or right-wing.[90]

Nick Lowles, a former editor of the anti-fascist Searchlight magazine and now director of the civil rights organisation HOPE not hate, has stated that the EDL poses two risks. One is the formation of a street army prepared to travel around the country to fight and provide organisational support. The other is the group's tactics of carrying placards and chanting in places that are potential flashpoints. Searchlight has said that not every leader of the EDL is a fascist or hardcore racist.[23] Meanwhile, on the BBC's Sunday morning Andrew Marr show on 13 December 2010, Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti described the EDL as "modern day blackshirts".[91] Other analysts have described the EDL as an anti-immigration group.[75]

Jon Cruddas MP, writing in The Guardian, described the EDL as "a dangerous cocktail of football hooligans, far-right activists and pub racists... a bigger threat than the BNP... providing a new white nationalist identity through which they can understand an increasingly complex and alienating world. In a similar way to how football hooligans once coalesced around support for Ulster loyalism and hatred of the IRA, the followers of the EDL genuinely believe they are "defending" their Britain against the threat of Islam. What makes the EDL much more dangerous is how it reflects a wider political and cultural war."[92]

The EDL's leaders say they are opposed to racism and that the EDL is a "multi-ethnic, multi-religious movement and we are proud of that".[93] Trevor Kelway, a spokesman for the EDL, has denied that the group is racist. He said he had taken over as spokesman because the previous spokesman was Islamophobic. "We would march alongside Muslims and Jews who are against militant Islam," he said. "There were none on Saturday and an all-white group doesn't look good. But they can join the EDL as long as they accept an English way of life. It is the people who threaten with bombs and violence and threaten and bomb our troops – they don't belong here."[35][94]

In October 2013, the EDL founder Tommy Robinson announced that he was leaving the organisation because it had become too extreme.[95][96]

Government, local government and police

British Prime Minister David Cameron stated in the 2010 election campaign, "The EDL are terrible people, we would always keep these groups under review and if we needed to ban them, we would ban them or any groups which incite hatred."[97] Former Home Office minister Phil Woolas stated of the organisation's tactics, "This is a deliberate attempt by the EDL at division and provocation, to try and push young Muslims into the hands of extremists, in order to perpetuate the divide. It is dangerous."[98] John Denham, the then UK Communities Secretary, has condemned the EDL, saying its tactics are similar to those of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, although he stressed that they did not present anything like the same "potency, organisation or threat". He was commenting after clashes between different groups at a new London mosque, during a demo by the group Stop Islamisation of Europe. He singled out the EDL in particular: "If you look at the types of demonstrations they have organised, the language used and the targets chosen, it looks pretty clear that it's a tactic designed to provoke, to get a response and create violence".[99][100]

The leader of Dudley Council, Anne Milward, stated after the second EDL demonstration in her town, "We are extremely saddened that Dudley has again been targeted by the English Defence League. Yet again this group of outside extremists have shown they are incapable of demonstrating peacefully and have brought public disorder and violence to our town."[101]

The response from British police has been negative. Det Supt John Larkin of West Midland's Counter Terrorism Unit has previously expressed concerns that the EDL's Islamophobia fuels extremism and undermines counter-radicalisation efforts.[102][103] Dr. Robert Lambert, co-director of the European Muslim Research Centre (EMRC) at the University of Exeter and previously head of the Muslim Contact Unit (MCU) in the Metropolitan Police, has written that the EDL has undermined efforts by British Muslims to tackle terrorism and extremism.[104] Adrian Tudway, National Co-ordinator for Domestic Extremism, has written that "In terms of the position with EDL, the original stance stands, they are not extreme right wing as a group, indeed if you look at their published material on their web-site, they are actively moving away from the right and violence with their mission statement etc",[105] also writing they were a threat to community cohesion.[106]

A Tory party councillor was suspended after attending an EDL rally in Southend. During the Southend gathering, Tommy Robinson expressed links with the local Tory councillor, Blaine Robin, stating, "I am proud that the first politician I have ever met who actually represents his constituents is a man outside, a black man, who is a local politician in Southend".[107]

In 2013, some members of Parliament wrote to the London police calling for the EDL's march to Tower Hamlets, which has a large Muslim population, to be banned, fearing that violence could break out.[108]

Academic analysis

Matthew Goodwin, an academic who specialises in the study of far-right extremism, has argued that the press are more sympathetic to the Islamophobia of the EDL than they were to the anti-Semitism of the National Front in the 1970s:

The reason why the EDL's adoption of Islamophobia is particularly significant is that unlike the 1970s, when the National Front was embracing antisemitism, there are now sections of the media and the British establishment that are relatively sympathetic towards Islamophobia. It is not difficult to look through the media and find quite hostile views towards Islam and Muslims. That is fundamentally different to the 1970s, when very few newspapers or politicians were endorsing the NF's antisemitic message.

Garland & Treadwell (2010) argue that while the group differs from other British far-right groups such as the British National Party or the National Front by publicly promoting an image of multi-ethnicity, inclusion, and liberal values of tolerance, its affinities with other right-wing groups, its Islamophobia, and the outspoken racism of its membership tend to belie this image.[8]

Paul Jackson in his study[110] describes the EDL as part of the ‘new far right’ of European politics. While "genuinely" anti-Nazi it nevertheless “remains in conflict with liberal democratic principles.” He argues that the EDL uses the essential English principles of tolerance, liberalism, democracy, and enlightenment as ‘cultural markers of identity’ to brand as alien opposing principles of Islam. The latter is described as a backward 7th century intolerant totalitarian creed. Rather than expulsion, favoured by the ‘old far right,’ the ‘new far right’ seeks assimilation to liberal English culture. But by considering the culture of Britain’s Muslims as monolithic, the EDL exploits the “language of liberalism for inherently anti‐liberal agendas.”

Public opinion

Public opinion of the EDL is generally negative. In a 2012 study, 74% of those polled stated they believed the EDL was racist. 85% also stated they would never join the group.[111][112] 69% of people also stated they do not agree with the EDL's values or methods. A 2013 poll in the aftermath of the murder of Lee Rigby found 61% believed the EDL makes terrorist attacks more likely; just 14% disagreed.[113]

Offshoots and divisions

Logo of the English Volunteer Force

The EDL has separate Jewish,[114] youth,[115] women's (EDL Angels),[116][117] and LGBT divisions,[9][118] and claims to also have a Pakistani Christian division.[9]

In 2010, the EDL's LGBT division had 115 members.[118] On 23 July 2011, the division planned to pass leaflets on Canal Street, in the gay village of Manchester, in support of the Norwegian Defence League, but the event was called off when the division realised opposition to its presence would be too great.[119] On 5 June 2012, it issued a statement saying "Gay people in Britain have far more to fear from Islam than they do from the EDL," and citing opinion polls "that reported that British Muslims have zero tolerance for homosexuality."[120]

The creation of the EDL's tiny "Jewish division" in June 2010 was condemned by all the main organisations of the UK Jewish community.[121][122][123] Roberta Moore, leader of the Jewish division of the EDL, resigned over the presence of alleged "Nazi elements" within the EDL although she said the EDL was "doing a fantastic job" and she hoped its leaders would have the "strength to squash the Nazis within".[124] In September 2011, a new leadership of the division was selected and the EDL reiterated its support for Israel "in the larger struggle against radical Islam."[114]

A sub-group of the European Defence League, the Scottish Defence League (SDL) is an offshoot division of the English Defence League. In 2009, the Sunday Herald revealed links between the SDL and the BNP though both groups have publicly tried to distance themselves from each other, with the BNP claiming it would expel members found to be active in the SDL and its English counterpart, the EDL.[125] The Welsh offshoot of the EDL, the Welsh Defence League, is reportedly defunct.[126][127][128][129]

The English Volunteer Force is a small right-wing street protest movement[130] based in the United Kingdom, which Joe Mulhall considers to be an English Defence League splinter group.[131] Created by John Sheridan and Jason Lock in July 2012, the group calls for the halting of all Muslim immigration, prohibitions on the building of mosques and the sale of halal meat, the rejection of multiculturalism, and a rejection of what they term the 'Islamification' of Great Britain. The group plans to "Unite the Right". The group held its first demonstration in Birmingham in January 2013 which passed peacefully.[130] On 9 March 2013 the EVF held a demonstration in Stanmore, London, against the radical preacher Abu Qatada's continued presence in Great Britain. The group also conducted an online interview with a blog called "Terrorscope".[132]

Co-founders Robinson and Carroll leave EDL

On 8 October 2013 it was announced that Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll, who had had meetings with the think tank Quilliam, were to leave the EDL. Robinson said that street protests were “no longer effective” and “acknowledged the dangers of far-right extremism”. He stated his intention to continue to combat extremism by forming a new party. Both Robinson and Carroll had been taking lessons in Islam from a Quilliam member, Usama Hasan, and intend to train in lobbying institutions.[95][96][133]

International activities and support

EDL flags and banners at a demonstration.

American talk radio host Michael Savage became the first popular media figure to publicly announce support for the EDL, stating, "How does England take the Islamofascists spitting on their war dead, without letting the English Defence League wade into them with pipes and beer bottles, I'll never understand".[134] Erick Stakelbeck, a commentator for Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, also expressed support for the EDL and compared its members to the members of the American Tea Party movement.[135]

In 2010 the EDL was reported to be developing links with right-wing elements within America.[136]

Gainesville, Florida pastor Terry Jones, whose calls to burn the Qur'an provoked violence that resulted in numerous deaths, was invited to a rally in Luton in February 2011 "to share his views on Islamic extremism." The Home Secretary had Jones banned from entering the UK.[137][138]

In October 2010, American Tea Party activist Rabbi Nachum Shifren, travelled to England to speak at a rally.[122][136][139][140][141] In his speech, he called Muslims "dogs" and told the EDL that "history will be recorded that on this day, read by our children for eternity, one group lit the spark to liberate us from the oppressors of our two governments and the leftist, fifth column, quisling press, and that it was the EDL which started the liberation of England from evil."[142]

The Canadian Jewish Defense League has held a demonstration in support of the EDL,[143] saying that the two groups will "take a stand against the forces of political Islam". The Canadian Jewish Congress has opposed the alliance.[144]

The EDL has established links to the Danish Defence League. The latter has established 10 chapters within its first year of operation.[145] However recent attempts to establish a presence in Denmark and the Netherlands have failed to attract support and were respectively described as "a humiliation" and as "a damp squib".[146]

The Norwegian Defence League (NDL) is a sister organisation of the EDL. There are strong connections between the two organisations, and the leadership of the EDL is also actively involved in the leadership of NDL.[147] Members of the NDL have on several occasions travelled to England to participate in EDL protests.[148][149]

According to The Daily Telegraph, Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, perpetrator of the 2011 Norway attacks has claimed to have hundreds of EDL members as Facebook friends. The newspaper also quoted an anonymous senior EDL member that Breivik had extensive links with senior members of the EDL.[150] Also according to The Telegraph, Breivik wrote online about how he attended an EDL Bradford demonstration.[151] In his April 2012 trial testimony, however, Breivik denied having had any contact with the EDL, although he admitted having used EDL-linked forums and having messaged an EDL member in one of them. He also contrasted the EDL with the Knights Templar organisation which he claimed he was part of, saying "The EDL is an anti-violent organisation supporting democracy and [opposing] Sharia and Islamisation and they have nothing to do with KT at all. You cannot even compare them."[152] Some EDL members have subsequently been associated with praise for Breivik following his conviction in the Norwegian courts.[153]

On 31 July 2011, Interpol requested Maltese police to investigate Paul Ray, former member and co-founder[154] of the English Defence League, who blogs under the name "Lionheart". Ray conceded that he may have been the inspiration for the Norwegian mass murderer, but deplored his actions.[155][156] On 26 July 2011, the EDL leader Tommy Robinson denied any official links with Breivik and said that acts of terrorism are unacceptable.[157] Lauren Collins quotes Breivik: “The EDL, although having noble intentions are in fact dangerously naïve. ... we are miles apart ideologically AND organisationally ...” She nevertheless maintains that the EDL created an inflammatory environment in which people like Breivik can find "reinforcement".[158]

The former EDL leader, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a. Tommy Robinson) is banned from entering the US, due to his criminal record for assault, drugs and public order offences. In September 2011, travelling to meet American EDL supporters in New York, he was stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport when officials noticed he was attempting to use someone else's passport. Asked to attend a second interview, he left the airport, entering the US illegally, and flew back to Britain the next day. In January 2013, he pleaded guilty at Southwark Crown Court to possession of a false identity document with improper intention, contrary to the Identity Documents Act 2010, and was jailed for 10 months.[25][159]

See also


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