Tommy Robinson’s resignation from the EDL: a cautious welcome

There are gradations of extremism, and degrees of strategy. Let it not be forgotten that violent extremism is of a markedly different character to its non-violent counterpart.

Dominic Ashton is a political researcher and writer, with a particular interest in issues of extremism

Tommy Robinson’s departure from the English Defence League (EDL), orchestrated by the counter-extremist Quilliam think-tank, has proven itself to be one of the most striking political developments of recent weeks.

Emerging from the social media morass are divided reflections, with optimism understandably restrained by the knowledge that the renunciation of extreme means does not imply the rejection of extremist ideology.

As has been previously discussed, the EDL’s decidedly narrow base of support owes much to its toxic image, and less to its anti-Muslim platform. Robinson’s resignation, therefore, represents an opportunity for the EDL’s former leadership to build a more effective vehicle for what critics will maintain is broadly the same ideology.

This scepticism is entirely warranted. Extremism of all kinds is indeed contained within ideas, and not in the strategy employed to put them into practice. There is scant evidence to suggest that Robinson has undertaken the kind of transformation necessary to conclude that he no longer holds extreme views, as a cursory examination of twitter activity would testify.

The subsequent, and perhaps unsurprising, news that Robinson intends to involve himself in the formation of a new movement apparently confirmed fears that the ‘mainstreaming’ of a controversial figure is underway. Subsequently, several commentators have expressed reservations concerning the threat Robinson poses from a more mainstream position.

It is difficult to contest such well-informed analysis, except to posit that the counter-extremist agenda appears occasionally apt to lose sight of the importance of liberal democratic principles, and pursue the battle against extremism on rather consequentialist foundations.

It is disconcerting to witness such fear that the process of contesting views within the bounds of liberal democracy is insufficient for producing the ‘correct’ result. That the means at our disposal- of free speech, of robust civil society- are inadequate for combatting the views of populist extremists, who will seduce a gullible electorate with poisonous views given the advantage of a respectable veneer.

Understandably, few would wish a radical-right movement with the reach of the French Front National or Austrian FPO on the UK; but the corollary of such reservation is both a lack of trust in the wider population and a Manichean outlook that permits no shades of difference between extremists.

There are gradations of extremism, and degrees of strategy. Let it not be forgotten that violent extremism is of a markedly different character to its non-violent counterpart.

Whilst it falls someway short of being a terrorist organisation, few would argue that the EDL’s street demonstrations are non-violent. On frequent occasions violent behaviour is openly engaged in; on an even greater number of occasions an extremely confrontational, provocative and abusive atmosphere pervades.  It seems unpalatable to not recognise progress in the organisation’s only well-known figurehead rejecting these methods, and taking steps in a less violent direction.

Crippling as the EDL’s toxic image may be to its goal of amassing wider support, street demonstrations of the variety employed were harmful in themselves. Doubtless those on the receiving end of abuse would have gained little succour from the notion that their suffering was in service of the greater cause of preventing the emergence of a larger far-right movement.

A further significant point is that engagement is not a one-time process. The collision of Robinson with Quilliam has had some effect, however modest, and no one possesses the right to essentialise an individual with indelible, irredeemable characteristics. No one is beyond redemption or destined to suffer under the delusion of permanent extremism, and meaningful change is more likely to emerge from engagement than ostracisation.

On balance, weighing the potential for Robinson to garner greater support for his still radical views against his renunciation of confrontational tactics, this news should be given a cautious but genuine welcome. No liberal democracy worthy of the name should recoil from the ongoing process of contestation between different views – some of which invariably stray into the territory of offence – nor should it dare to imagine that some views are so unpalatable as to be better off on the streets.

Lest any political commentators imagine this is the case, they should remember the instances where ideology- central though it is to our understanding of the world – was the furthest thing from the mind of those on the receiving end of psychological, and occasionally physical, abuse. EDL activity will remain a danger beyond Robinson, but the loss of leadership will greatly hinder their capacity for large demonstrations.

Robinson’s potential ‘mainstreaming’ presents different challenges, but they are of the kind that liberal democracy is built for. Though the effort involved is greater as the luxury of outsourcing unwelcome views to fringe demonstrations is lost, it is incumbent on us – the tolerant majority- to hear Robinson’s views in their most favourable light, on the most level playing field, and reject them through force of argument should they remain intransigent.

For those reasons, I venture that Quilliam’s announcement is to be well-received, and that scepticism be moderated by acceptance that the general principle at work is valid: engagement with all extremists and alliance with none.

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