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.

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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?

Face-off

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.