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
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.