Who are the English Defence League?

It was announced today by the Quilliam Foundation that Tommy Robinson - aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon - has decided to leave the English Defence League (EDL), a far-right anti-Muslim street group he co-founded.

It was announced today by the Quilliam Foundation that Tommy Robinson – aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – has decided to leave the English Defence League (EDL), a far-right anti-Muslim street group that he co-founded.

A statement from Tommy Robinson read:

“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 on-going need to counter Islamist ideology not with violence but with better, democratic ideas.”

The media have jumped on the news with relish – both print and broadcast outlets have been obsessed with Robinson and the EDL ever since they burst on to the scene in 2009.

But just who are the English Defence League, and why all the fuss?

The EDL was formed after a protest by a handful of Islamic extremists in Luton in March 2009 at the homecoming parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment, in which extremist protesters had waved placards celebrating the deaths of British troops.

Growing rapidly, the EDL became known for its street demonstrations, which were characterised by drunkenness, racist chanting and scuffles with anti-fascist demonstrators and the police.

The rise of the EDL was rapid. According to Hope Not Hate, between 2009-2011 the group was the largest social movement in the country, with thousands of EDL supporters bringing towns and cities to a standstill on the weekend.

The movement also won plaudits from the mainstream, with Spectator columnist Douglas Murray saying that “If you were ever going to have a grassroots response from non-Muslims to Islamism that [the EDL] would be how you would want it, surely. But of course we all know there have been awkward things around this; there have been exposed links from the EDL to far-right organisations.”

The Daily Star newspaper also gave a glowing endorsement of proposed EDL plans to enter mainstream politics.

Like most far-right groups, however, it didn’t take long for the EDL to implode, with the movement splintering into various factions and as a consequence being unable to bring as many out onto the streets as had been possible in the early days.

Yet the rise and fall of the EDL appears mainly to have been down to organisational failure, with the swamp of anti-Muslim sentiment which the movement fed off continuing to flourish both in Britain and abroad, with a rapid growth in far-right activity across Europe during recent years. A far-right demonstration in Warsaw in 2012 saw 10,000 march through the city.

The rise of the EDL in England coincided with ‘mainstream’ far-right movements such as the British National Party (BNP) losing influence. As a result of the BNP’s failure to make significant electoral inroads, many considered the formation of a street army as the only alternative to grow the movement. According to Channel 4 News, other more hardline groups later abandoned the EDL’s populist stance in order to co-operate with activists from neo-Nazi groups and ex members of the National Front.

Research reported in January of this year found that 11 per cent of people who were aware of the EDL would consider joining the group, with older working class men most likely to support them.

Quilliam will be hosting a press conference for Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll’s departure from the EDL at an undisclosed location in London this evening.

Judging by the sorts of things Tommy Robinson was posting on Twitter until very recently, we remain sceptical.

Tommy Robinson

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