What happened when FHM spent 48 hours with former EDL Leader Tommy Robinson
Part 2: When FHM met the EDL
Seven o’clock, Saturday morning. On any other weekend the men filling up Luton’s Sicilian café would be sleeping off their hangovers. But right now they’re lining their stomachs with £3.50 fry-ups and stocking up on tinnies for the long journey up the M62 to Rochdale. Some are dozing on tables, others still haven’t been to bed, including 25-year-old Johnny. “I joined the EDL ’cause we’ve had enough of the Asians taking over,” he says. Will today be violent? “Nah, today should be peaceful. Unless they try to start on us…”
Recently the EDL’s protests have been less savage, but seldom does a demonstration take place without a few arrests and black eyes. “Don’t get me wrong, you’ll have some lairy young lads,” says Tommy Robinson. “There are going to be some angry people there, but during our last 15, 20, probably more demonstrations there’s been no violence from the English Defence League.”
That said, when EDL protests turn nasty, they turn seriously nasty. In September 2009, 90 men were arrested following a protest in Birmingham. A year later, EDL members threw bricks and coins at police. In November 2011, 176 EDL supporters were cuffed in London; a month after, an EDL activist was jailed for 10 years for setting a mosque on fire. The list goes on and on.
With the subject of today’s march more sensitive than usual, nobody is really sure what to expect. But judging by Twitter, no one is totally safe, including FHM; an EDL splinter group, Casuals United, has issued a “fatwa” against the press, warning any media in attendance that they’ll be treated as “hostile”. Matt Goodwin, an Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham who has conducted major research projects on far right extremism, warns of the threat of bloodshed: “I think the English Defence League exerts a potential for violence, especially if they were openly attacked or felt under threat.”
Dan Hodges, of left-wing anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate agrees: “[EDL] demonstrations are usually accompanied by violence, of which the EDL are invariably the prime perpetrators. Violence and intimidation is associated with the EDL. Anyone who has gone to one of their demonstrations knows that they are not a peaceful organisation.”
As the bus sets off for Rochdale, the mood is jovial, but there’s an unmistakable air of tension wafting through the 64-seater, accompanying the stench of beer. Not that anything will stop Maddie and Claire, two die-hard EDL-ites, from making the most of a day out. At 8.45am the Smirnoff and OJ is flowing; by quarter past 10 the ’90s karaoke has begun. As Tommy patrols the bus leading choruses of “E-E-EDL” and “No surrender to the Taliban”, it’s clear to see what an icon he is to these followers. “I absolutely love Tommy Robinson, he’s my absolute hero. I think he’s the best bloke on the whole planet. And I mean that,” says Claire, as she plants a sloppy kiss on his cheek.
By 11.30am the party is in full swing. The beers are passed around the bus; there’s laughter, singing, dancing, chanting. It feels like a school away day – co-founder Kev O’Connell even hands sweeties round to those on best behaviour. But as the bus pulls into Rochdale’s city centre and the scale of the vast police presence becomes apparent, tipsy camaraderie turns to lagered-up aggression for some on-board.
Roused by the sight of dozens of St George’s flag-clad EDL supporters who’ve come from around the country, the chants get louder and more menacing, and you can’t help but feel that the mood is on a knife-edge – one act of provocation, one heavy-handed policeman, and this could all, in the words of Tommy Robinson, “kick right off”.
ON THE MARCH
As he steps off the bus, Robinson is mobbed by his adoring fans. He’s a celebrity and a role model to the EDL’s followers. Men, women and children of all ages clamour over each other to shake the hand of their leader; a father proudly parades his six-year-old son donning an EDL beanie, professing to Robinson that his boy is, “officially the youngest EDL supporter”. As we move into the first meeting point outside Yates’s, heavily flanked by police, the chants kick off again. “Keep St George in my heart, keep me English” this time, followed by “Muslim bombers off our streets” and “EDL till I die”.
Before long the march begins, and the 500-strong police force – who have literally shut down Rochdale’s entire town centre – block off all surrounding roads in an attempt to eliminate the threat of violence. But about 100 yards into the surprisingly short 15-minute march, there’s an eruption as an Asian man on the other side of the barriers reportedly provokes protesters from across the metal railing. There’s a frenzied rush from demonstrators to the barriers; beer cans fly, and fists and limbs launch through the air before a storm of coppers armed with teeth-baring dogs charge in to pull them off, stamping on a couple of shaven heads in the process.
After the compere who is waiting on stage pleads with the marchers not to incite any more violence, the rest of the protest is relatively peaceful (there are 11 arrests in total). But as Tommy Robinson takes to the platform to give his speech, you feel like a mass brawl isn’t far away. In his left hand is the Qur’an, in his right a giant novelty-sized lighter. If there’s one thing Robinson knows how to do, it’s get a crowd frothy at the mouth; he’s mastered the art of channelling frustration and apathy from a disenfranchised audience into full-blooded hate. “Burn it, burn it” comes the cry from the crowd, while police wait on tenterhooks for Robinson to commit the criminal offence of burning a religious text.
In spite of the chants, the Qur’an remains in one piece, but that doesn’t stop the hooded and masked crowd charging to the police barriers for some posturing and chanting to the surveillance cameras.
In the aftermath of Robinson’s lengthy speech, there’s some more singing, some more drinking and then a long trip home for many of these supporters who’ve come from far and wide.
Looking around as the crowds disperse, perhaps the most significant observation isn’t what people are doing or saying or wearing, but how few of them there are. Over the past two years the EDL has been touted as the powerful new force of the far-right, and a year ago anywhere between one and two thousand supporters attended every protest. This year they’ve not managed to muster more than four to five hundred; today’s demonstration is attended by less than 350.
It’s not a figure that suggests the EDL are as close to a revolution as Robinson might think. Sabby Dhalu, of Unite Against Fascism, thinks that the movement is firmly on its way down. “I think already support for their street demonstrations is declining and I think it is difficult for them to gain momentum. They don’t seem to have a strategic way forward; the only tactic they have is street demonstrations, and that’s it. It doesn’t really fit into a wider programme.”
So what does the future hold for the EDL? There are plans to pursue more political paths – they’ve already joined forces with the British Freedom Party, of which Tommy Robinson is now Deputy Leader. Their mission statement is less extreme than the EDL’s in the hope of recruiting more followers from the middle; their aim is “to defend and restore the freedoms, traditions, unity, identity, democracy and independence of the British people”.
But there’s widespread opinion that despite this, the EDL’s violent past and its leader’s reputation scare off new recruits. Dan Hodges, of Hope Not Hate, argues that the EDL’s failure to capitalise on early momentum is down to that fact that “people like Tommy Robinson, try as they might, cannot hide their aggressive and violent agenda – the prejudice that comes through their organisation".
Associate Professor Matt Goodwin also sees Robinson as a barrier to progress. “I don’t think he is the credible, legitimate figure that an organisation like the EDL would need to convince larger numbers of people to support it,” he says. And there are concerns from within, too. Is the man who has done pretty serious jail time, including 12 months for assaulting an off-duty police officer who was breaking up a domestic between Robinson and his partner, the right man to take the EDL forward?
Perhaps more pressing is the question of where exactly the EDL wants to go. Matt Goodwin thinks it has reached a crossroads: “There are some within the movement who want to see it go to the next level, and whether that’s through elections or whether it’s through violence, there is clearly a push. The movement’s gone through its adolescence and its early years and I think people are now saying: ‘Where is the organisation going?’”
For Robinson, it’s one day at a time. When pushed on the future of the EDL he speaks positively about the union with the British Freedom Party (“we’re pulling the strings, it’s our ideology”), but there’s no escaping the fact that he and his group face more challenges than ever before.
There’s also the uncomfortable reality that the threats to the party are matched in severity by the persistent threats to the safety of Robinson and his family. “Will I still be alive in five years’ time?” Robinson asks before we bid farewell. “Honestly… I don’t know, there’s a lot of Muslims out there who want me dead. I’ve had three Osman warnings from the police – that’s an official warning that you’re going to get killed. So I think it’s only a matter of time.”
Whether Robinson and his party live or die, only time will tell, but one thing’s for certain: whatever struggles they face, the EDL won’t go down without a fight.
Words by Dan Jude
Photography by Adam Hinton
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