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Thuggery is an unfortunate drawback of any democratic society. If you’re in a culture which tolerates freedom of speech and expression, it stands to reason that you’ll eventually get speech and expression which is sometimes potentially harmful. However, it’s a point in our favour that we live in a country which is comfortable enough in its own democratic, multicultural skin that it allows demagogues a platform to voice their crazy opinions. We simply don’t think they are convincing enough for a significant amount of people to really accept them. But we accord defence to peaceful expression, and extremist activism is not known for its peaceful docility.
In the past year, the far-right activism in Britain has taken a worryingly violent turn. One group, the English Defence League was subject to a recent Guardian report and a BBC documentary, which detailed the group’s rise in support. Only to call it a ‘group’ in any unified sense of the word would perhaps be disingenuous. What becomes increasingly apparent when examining the EDL is that there is no real common theme, and the demographics of its ‘demonstrations’ (which frequently become riots) range from misguided and overly patriotic teenagers to political hooligans who turn up to do nothing more than cause trouble and spew racist bile.
It’s perhaps too easy to focus on the racist elements of the EDL, although they are repugnant to anyone that can even spell the word ‘morality’. The EDL needs to be distinguished from some other far-right groups such as the British National Party as a separate and distinct form of extremism. The BNP is a political party attempting to infiltrate British democracy by trying and thankfully failing to appear credible, whereas the EDL is a fairly disparate organisation with no real concern as of yet regarding political credibility, and few common themes amongst its members.
One common theme that does seem to run throughout the EDL, however, is desperation. In the BBC documentary, a member of the Stoke-on-Trent branch of the EDL named ‘Gaz’ is interviewed. In reflecting upon his career as a mechanic, he says that he dreamt of some kind of financial stability after his training, but that now he’s “no better off than someone on the dole.” When people are down and out they look for people who can provide answers. Very often, however, those answers are wrong ones and it is a failure of the major political parties that they have not provided working class people with the answers they desire and need, to the point where people begin uniting in favour of nihilistic causes.
It’s this kind of spawn of poverty that seems to permeate throughout the histories of groups such as the EDL. After all, there are few white nationalists in Notting Hill or amongst the Chelsea socialite crowds. But on the other side of the tracks, people forced into poverty begin to seek answers to the question of their problems, and frequently stumble upon the wrong ones. Originally, the EDL was a much smaller organisation called the ‘United Peoples of Luton’, which was formed in response to a relatively small protest made by some Islamic extremists against a parade of troops returning home from Afghanistan. The crowd became hostile. “It was a murderous atmosphere”, said one onlooker. And the bitterness and anger that day eventually evolved into a political organisation.
Consider the demographics of Luton, for a second. Hardly the most prosperous town in the UK, it boasts a 25.1% child poverty level (4% above the national average, placing it 47th out of 48th amongst East of England towns in terms of child well-being) and an environment in which full-time workers are often paid over £1,200 less than the national average. Hard-working people struggle to find jobs and in the midst of economic recession and those with jobs are finding it tougher to keep them. During the last recession, it was named the ‘repossession capital of Britain’.
The major political parties have failed to provide answers to people affected by economic instability in places like Luton for a long time. There is, of course, no kind of defense for racism and intolerance of people based their race or religion. But it must be acknowledged that the EDL do not exist in a vacuum and they should be properly seen as a distressing demographic phenomenon borne out of decades of poverty, and from that as a problem that needs seriously addressing. If we make some effort to understand what we’re fighting, we stand a greater chance of winning.