By train, coach and car, they came. To Luton, birthplace of the English Defence League. A journey home.
As they travelled, they were buoyed by words of acclamation from none other than their own Prime Minister. Speaking in Germany, a nation historically renowned for its unique take on muscular liberalism, David Cameron reached out. “Passive tolerance” had created a monster. Islamic extremism. Terrorism. An alien disregard for democracy, equal rights and freedom of speech.
The EDL leader, a good English Tommy (though his real name is Steven), could not contain his delight: “He’s now saying what we’re saying. He knows his base.”
That base was now encamped in Luton town centre. Here the flower of English youth, or rather, the bramble bush of English middle age, fanned the debate on multiculturalism the country has been denied for so long: “We’ve fucked all of Allah’s wives,” they sang with gusto. Strangely, the people of Luton did not seem overly keen to participate in this dialogue, voting with their feet, and in many instances with plyboard and hammers, as the city-centre shops lay shuttered and deserted.
Others wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The Swedish Defence League had arrived the night before, slumming it in the nearby Hilton. Muttering darkly about “revenge” for the actions of the Stockholm suicide bomber Taimur Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, they were on what appeared to be a sort of extremist’s busman’s holiday.
The German Hanover Division, by contrast, acted like typical tourists, posing happily for photographs while watching with a connoisseur’s disdain the half-hearted attempts by local EDL activists to sieg heil. They were certainly happier than the coachload of Polish pensioners who were mistakenly pulled off the motorway by the police and forced to form part of an EDL convoy.
Back in the town centre, tempers began to fray as members of the Scottish Defence League – who, in solidarity with their German brothers, like to refer to themselves as the SS-DL – began taunting their English counterparts. Then, just as it seemed that British monoculturalism was facing its first schism, a frisson of excitement ran through the crowd.
Two of the “star guests” had arrived: Rabbi Nachum Shifren, the self-styled “surfing rabbi”, from California, with links to Sarah Palin’s Tea Party movement; and Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, an Austrian political activist currently facing prosecution under “hate speech” laws. Within the admittedly niche circle of international Islamophobe speakers, these constituted A-list arrivals.
Then the march was under way, stuttering, jostling and meandering its way towards the reclamation of a nation and its identity. There were a couple of minor interruptions, the first when Rabbi Shifren suffered a panic attack, the second caused by an attempt at reorganisation so that the women, of whom there were a handful, were strategically positioned at the front. According to the EDL, this was to demonstrate the “peaceful” nature of the march, though the gesture was slightly undermined by the fact that your average EDL woman appears far tougher and more aggressive than her male counterpart.
On they marched, generating if not a carnival atmosphere, certainly a vociferous one. Many of those in attendance were clearly on their first demonstration, hence the confusion over the relatively novel chant “No surrender to the Taliban”, and its rapid replacement with the reassuringly familiar “No surrender to the IRA”. To the untrained ear, this created the spectacle of burly, tattooed men pledging with their dying breath never to surrender their tiaras.
Meanwhile, the police maintained a keen but restrained vigil, clearly relieved to be facing a crowd of hardened anti-Islamic extremists, rather than Oxbridge undergraduates.
Then suddenly, they were at the square, surging, pouring triumphantly forward. For an instant it seemed a Burberry bomb had exploded in the centre of Luton. One man rushed ahead, gesticulating exultantly, challenging someone to “come on, have a go!”. But it was fake bravado. He was talking to the wall of an adjacent shopping centre. A second sprinted to the front, unfurling a giant banner of St George. Sadly, it was too large for even this son of Albion – he tripped, tumbled and lay prone for several seconds, wrapped literally in the flag, like a fallen sailor awaiting burial at sea.
There were speeches. Tommy Robinson, an EDL founder, insisted bellicosely that “there are no racial divisions in Luton”, while Sabaditsch-Wolff – slightly misjudging her audience – chose to recite Tennyson. They were met with cheers, and chants of “E-E-EDL!”. But I recognised those cheers. They were like the first 15 minutes that follows another English defeat on penalties. The voice of the defiant, rather than the victorious.
And then they were gone. The surfing rabbi and the Viennese aristocracy, the Hanoverians, the Polish tourists, Swedish busman and Scottish Nazis were no more. Like a surreal, anti-Islamist Carry On film, the march on Luton was over.
Only Tommy Robinson, and the small band of his followers who actually live in the town, remained. They retreated to a local pub to regroup and relive the day. They had made their point. Though what that point was, only they really knew. Maybe they felt had simply stood tall, raged against the dying of the light.
The faint, faltering light of Little England.