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A picture of the EDL might have gone viral, but the white nationalist group is fading away

After it lost most of its leadership in 2013, the EDL has struggled to find a place in Britain's political culture.

It is undoubtedly an arresting picture. A young British Asian woman smiles serenely at a member of the EDL at a rally in Birmingham. She is a picture of cool composure – her hands in her pockets, her posture relaxed – while he is curled forwards in rage. 

Since the image went viral on Saturday – boosted by Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips holding up the woman as an example of a “real Brummy” – thousands have tried to unpick its meaning. 

The EDL accuses the woman, Saffiyah Khan, of breaking a minute’s silence during its demonstration; both Khan and witnesses claim that she was defending a woman in a hijab surrounded by EDL supporters. (Perhaps surprisingly, her version of events was supported by the former EDL leader Tommy Robinson, who said that a friend of his was at the demonstration). 

The photograph has provoked an outpouring of support for Khan. But it is also an important insight into the English Defence League – and how it’s struggling in the current political climate. The man in the photo is the group's current leader, Ian Crossland. (Robinson left the EDL in 2013 and is now associated with the British branch of the “anti-Islamification” group Pegida.)

The EDL – which is often described as a white, working-class English nationalist movement – emerged in 2009 as a response to anti-war demonstrators protesting troops returning from Afghanistan in Luton. But eight years on, its popularity and influence appears to be waning. Why?


At previous EDL rallies, the police have rarely allowed counter-protesters to get close to EDL supporters. Usually they close off the route of the demonstration.

The fact that Khan was able to walk up to the EDL – and that its members were allegedly able to harangue a woman in a hijab – suggests that policing tactics have changed.

Riot police on horses at an EDL demo in London, 2011. Photos: Getty

“One of the things that was really striking on Saturday was a completely different police approach,” says Professor Hilary Pilkington of the University of Manchester, who was present. From 2012 onwards, she spent more than three years with grassroots activists to write an ethnography of the EDL, Loud and Proud: Passion and Politics in the English Defence League, which has just won BBC Radio 4's Thinking Allowed ethnography award.

As part of her research, she also attended a rally the EDL held in Birmingham four years ago. “In 2013, they [police] wore riot gear and batons . . . The police have always said that the EDL isn’t a terrorist threat, but it’s a public order threat,” she says. “But my feeling was on Saturday is that they don’t even see it as a public order threat now. There were police but nothing like before. The demonstrators weren’t separated off.”

A rare image

The fact that this picture was taken at all suggests the EDL’s dwindling influence. “It doesn’t surprise me that it happened this time and that we haven’t had these pictures before,” says Professor Pilkington. “Because normally, once you’re in that square, everything is completely sealed off – and this time that just didn’t happen. People were walking across the demonstration at will.”

It is difficult to calculate how big the EDL is because it doesn’t have a formal membership. The organisation itself claims around 100,000, but its current Facebook page has around 20,000 Likes, and a Demos study in 2011 based on Facebook users estimated “at least” 25,000-30,000 active members, according to Professor Pilkington.

An EDL supporter.

She recalls that there were around 1,500 supporters present at 2013’s demo compared with Saturday’s 100-150. “So the trajectory is quite clear,” she says.

“All of the recent demos I’ve seen [online and on the news] have been between 50 and 150 people, so it’s not in any way the threat that it used to be,” she says. “I think they [the police] think it’s not a public order threat in the same way. The police actually have a pretty good understanding of who the EDL are and they present a danger in as much as they sow seeds of social division, and lack of cohesion, rather than being a real threat of violence.

“So I think it’s really a combination of those two things. There are less of them, less of a threat, and the policing strategy gets altered in response to that.”

The leader losing it

Ian Crossland’s behaviour in the photo and following its circulation also tells a story about the movement. He commented that Khan is “lucky she got any teeth left” and the EDL backed him up in its official statement on the photo.

Although the EDL has long been characterised as far-right and thuggish, its former leadership became frustrated with this image. The former leader Tommy Robinson, who led the EDL from 2009, left the organisation in 2013 for the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam. His co-leader Kevin Carroll and ten other senior figures left around the same time.

Former EDL leader Tommy Robinson.

This left a leaderless hiatus from October 2013 to December 2015, when Ian Crossland took over. Since then, he has been trying to put his own stamp on the movement. The group issued a new mission statement in January 2016 – oddly, this was the first time one of these documents mentioned immigration.

“[It] was quite different from anything that was there during the fieldwork that I did, so that was very clearly him [Crossland] putting his hand on where the EDL was going to go,” says Professor Pilkington. “Before becoming leader, Crossland was well-known in the movement for leading the local EDL protest at the failure of Rotherham council to prosecute grooming-gang activity in the town. In this capacity, he gave a number of speeches at demonstrations, some of which appeared to pay lip-service only to claims of non-racism.”

One of Professor Pilkington’s fieldwork diary entries from 10 May 2014 in Loud and Proud outlines Crossland’s style:

At a demonstration in Rotherham in May 2014, Ian Crossland paused his speech in front of massed EDL demonstrators to respond to a shout from someone in the crowd of ‘dirty Paki bastards’ to chide the demonstrator for using the term ‘Paki’ because that is racist and ‘we are not racist’.

The object of his anger is not ‘Pakistani gangs’, he says, but ‘Muslim gangs’. Not only is this a clear example of ‘cultural racism’ that produces a racist effect while denying that this effect is the result of racism but within minutes, when recounting a story about a white girl ‘used’ by a Pakistani lad and then dumped and subsequently murdered, he attributes the problem to what is clearly inferred to be a ‘backward’ culture, in which elders will not allow relationships with white girls. Crudely mocking a local Pakistani accent, he says ‘they have to marry a cousin in Pakistan innit’.

Out in the open

Another significant shift from Robinson’s days as leader is dropping the distinction between what the EDL officially used to call “militant” Islam and “ordinary” or “moderate” Islam.

“That was really clear in the speech from Saturday,” reflects Professor Pilkington. “Instead of making clear it’s just an interpretation or particular use of Islam that they object to, it’s now very clearly: ‘There is a problem with Islam, full stop.’”

This “new” approach (ie. no longer pretending to find any form of Islam acceptable) is a factor in the EDL’s falling support. With Islamophobia becoming ubiquitous, why join a fringe street movement to express it? Such casual Islamophobia is now mainstream, as Sayeeda Warsi told me recently when discussing Donald Trump and the British government’s shifting attitude towards Muslims. “[Current] political discourse has greenlighted a lot of the bigots,” she said. “The election of Trump has almost given Islamophobia an air of respectability . . . it’s when the reasonable and respectable rationalise racism when we get into a really dangerous space.”

An EDL supporter with anti-Islam banners.

“[Now] you could hear things that are much more extreme in mainstream discourse, you can hear the President of the United States say it,” says Pilkington. “So I think it’s part of the issue.”

She echoes Warsi’s comment about the growing “respectability” of such views, saying that the EDL has lost support to organisations which are seen as less extreme such as Britain First or Pegida UK. “I know a few people who had formerly been in the EDL went to their demonstrations, and thought of it as more ‘acceptable’, more ‘respectable’,” she says. “It doesn't mean [the EDL] will go away or the sentiments will go away, but the large protest movement looks like it’s fading.”

Loud and Proud: Passion and Politics in the English Defence League by Hilary Pilkington is published by Manchester University Press. The book won BBC Radio 4's British Sociological Association/Thinking Allowed Ethnography Award 2017​. Listen to the special programme.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/
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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.