How the EDL has exploited a murder

Daniel Trilling reports on the far-right rally at Downing Street on Bank Holiday Monday.

Beneath the rigid gaze of Viscount Alanbrooke, whose statue looks across Whitehall to Downing Street, a dozen English Defence League members face a shouting crowd of anti-fascist protesters. Kevin Carroll, a co-leader of the EDL, steps down towards the crowd and taunts them, arms outstretched, making little come-on-then gestures with his fingers. Dressed in a dark suit, he's smiling. It's the EDL's self-image in miniature: relishing the abuse, pretending to be the underdog, when in fact there are a thousand or so supporters around the corner whose islamophobia is nourished by a steady drip-feed from the right-wing press and the posturing of politicians.

Mouthing silently, Carroll mimics the taunts thrown at him. Racist scum? I'm a racist? You're the racists. It's a common refrain whenever the views or the actions of the EDL are challenged; its ideology sits on that fault line in our culture where islamophobia has flourished. How often we hear the question "how can this be racism? Islam is a religion not a race," even though race is not a scientific category but a discredited 19th century biologist's term, and seemingly ignorant of the racism that has been directed by whites, at whites - Irish, Jewish, eastern European - in this country's not-too distant history.

The trigger for the EDL's mobilisation is clear: the appalling murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, and the shock it caused, has breathed new life into their moribund movement. Since 22 May there has been a surge of interest in the EDL online. Most of this won't translate into physical support, but a demonstration in Newcastle on Saturday drew around 1,500 supporters, and a slightly smaller number have turned up on Downing Street this Bank Holiday Monday. It's been mirrored by a backlash against Muslims: the charity Faith Matters has reported a spike in violent and verbal abuse; at least ten mosques around the UK have been attacked, some with petrol bombs. In that sense, the many who argue that these two violent extremisms feed off one another are correct. But anti-Islam feeling is shared by more than just those on the far-right: a poll by YouGov, published in the Observer on Sunday, suggested that the percentage of people who believe Islam is a threat to democracy had risen to 34 per cent. It was already at 30 per cent the last time the poll was taken, in November 2012.

The smile disappears from Carroll's face as a group of anti-fascist protesters lift up a metal barrier he thought had been keeping him safe, and rush towards him. Carroll looks scared: it's a moment, an onlooker says to me later, when perhaps a thought flashes through Carroll's mind that this confrontation, this hatred, isn't worth it. He retreats, to the safety of Viscount Alanbrooke - the irony of a far-right extremist, however patriotic he might believe himself to be, sheltering beneath the statue of a Second World War commander, is not lost on some.

It's only a small victory for the anti-fascists - in fact, they are outnumbered by about two to one. Eventually the police will escort the EDL crowd to their rallying point on Whitehall, before allowing them to filter off into the West End. Nevertheless, the EDL remains as unpopular as ever with the general public, even if its supporters have found a new enthusiasm in the past week. Some 84 per cent polled by YouGov said they would "never join" the group - a 7-point increase from last November. Help for Heroes, the charity that provides aid to injured servicemen and women, has rejected donations from the EDL.

But the EDL's heavy symbolism - the St George's flags, the militarism, the often repeated claim that "there's one law for us and another for them" - and their use of violence and intimidation to elbow their way into the national media finds a resonance well beyond its size. How long before a demagogue like Nigel Farage - whose own party is experienced at playing on islamophobia when it suits - tells us to vote for him, to do something about Muslims who "won't integrate", in order to keep the EDL at bay? He's already made similar claims with regards to immigration and the BNP. How will mainstream politicians react if the disillusionment echoed by supporters of right-wing populist movements, whether they're street-based or election-focused, continues to deepen? Extremism of this sort is what fills a vacuum: when people feel ignored and that, for whatever reason, they have no political voice.

Later, the EDL's figurehead, "Tommy Robinson", a tanning-shop owner from Luton whose real name is Stephen Lennon, will give a speech to his elated supporters. "They've had their Arab Spring," he says, with only a touch of Alan Partridge about it. "Now let's have an English Spring." It's not particularly original - the French hard right have used something similar during their recent protests against gay marriage - but it's strikingly ambiguous. The Arab Spring, after all, was an uprising of people whose democratic rights had been denied. Could that at all be true in Britain? It's an urgent question. Without a doubt, though, the EDL is the wrong answer.

EDL supporters shout slogans at the rally. Photograph: Getty Images

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.