The EDL In 2014: Has Tommy Robinson's Departure Spelt The End?

Was 2013 The Year The EDL Died?

If the future of the EDL looked grim in January 2013, with its founder Tommy Robinson jailed for immigration offences, and its co-leader Kevin Carroll arrested on racial hatred allegations, 2014 is looking even bleaker.

Twelve months on, both men have left the beleaguered organisation, in a highly-publicised departure with the facilitation of the Quilliam Foundation and a BBC documentary. But the organisation's demise could have come sooner, had it not been for one key factor, the brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich.

The killing, in broad daylight near Rigby's army barracks, gave Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, a new impetus. In dire financial straits and concerned about neo-Nazi elements in his midst, the EDL leader had wanted a way out for some time, say those close to matter.

Tommy Robinson made a high-profile exit from the group this year

Matthew Collins, an activist with anti-fascists Hope Not Hate, and a former member of the National Front, says he has never been convinced by Robinson's "road to Damascus' moment. And he should know.

"Prior to Lee Rigby's murder, the EDL was finished. It was physically dead. Lennon had absolutely no interest, he was worried about going to prison.

"The EDL had radicalised people, however, people who thought they had no way of expressing what they didn't like. So 2,500 people came out in Newcastle after Lee Rigby's murder.

"There was no such response to 7/7. But neither was there much of a response from the Muslim community. Now, within minutes of the murder, there was a coherent, strong voice from the Muslim community condemning the murder. People were more aware that the far-right, EDL would try and capitalise on it," Collins says.

Robinson, who is believed to have met Quilliam employees twice before announcing his departure from the EDL, has yet to convince many he has changed. "It takes absolutely ages to truly change, even if you fall out of love with everything you believe, all the hatred, all the violence, all the stupidity, everything that goes with the far right," Collins says.

"There's the kids cartoon character, Mr Benn, who goes in the wardrobe and comes out as a new character every day. Well, it doesn't work like that in real life. You still feel knee-jerk reactions. I spent a very long time considering my options."

The group has insisted it will continue despite Robinson and Carroll's departure

Since Robinson's departure, the group insist it will continue, and has held a handful of demonstrations. But most far-right experts believe this is the end of the line for the group in its present form, and that 2014 will see something new take its place.

"I think extra-parliamentary street groups will remain a minor irritant. The EDL will struggle to sustain public interest, because it was, from the outset, tied so closely to the brand of Tommy Robinson," says the University of Nottingham's Matthew Goodwin, one of the country's foremost academics studying the far-right.

"With all of these organisations, once you lose the figurehead, it is difficult to find a new niche".

But with the EDL in tatters, the ideology is not. In September 2013, a survey found more than a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds in Britain do not trust Muslims.

Of the 1,000 young people questioned in the BBC survey, 28% said Britain would be better off with fewer Muslims, while 44% said Muslims did not share the same values as the rest of the population. Some 60% thought the British public had a negative image of Muslims.

"EDL was significant not because of what it was, but because it essentially radicalised 2-3,000 young working class men into the counter-jihad subculture. The legacy is the most interesting part. What happens to these guys?

"Do they just walk away, or remain active in small, disperate street organisations, do they join other movements like the BNP? That is yet to be played out," Goodwin remarks.

There are many potential future sparks which could ignite another street movement like the EDL, says Nick Ryan, a journalist who has authored a book, Homeland, on the far-right.

"My general take is that the street movements will fragment, as was already happening with the EDL anyway. Look at the Infidels, Casuals United, South East Alliance, Combined Ex-Forces, etc.

"They will go back into neo-Nazi-violent fringes of the past - groups similar to Combat 18.

"As, or if, economic prosperity gathers apace, most voters drawn to the "far right" will probably prefer the 'respectable' image of UKIP to that of a tattooed thug.

"Still, if that economic growth does not trickle down into all areas of society; if there is repeated media and social media focus/repeat on the lines that all Muslims fail to integrate, are alien, "other", then that too can feed into narratives of hate. With the Woolwich trial, events in Kenya [Westgate mall attack] and other flashpoints still occurring, and Tommy Robinson's apparent defection into something that appears to still resemble a "counter-jihad" organisation, there are many flashpoints remaining."

Collins agrees: "They will always exist. If you look at the National Front in the 1980s, it split into 3 different organisations, then split again, and fractured more and more.

"Say there are 1,000 people now, which is very unlikely, in the counter-jihad street movements, between three or four groups. Soon there will be 500 people between 8 groups and then 200 between 20 groups. It fractures all the time."

The EDL did achieve one very dangerous thing during its brief life, Collins points out. It radicalised "hundreds of more young Muslim men, who saw the EDL as a symptom, correctly so, of a hugely Islamaphobic society".

Its other legacy is that it has made the British far-right more "unpredictable", says Goodwin. "There is not one cohesive organisation. It may well be messy, there will be disputes within the movements, fighting to dominate the scene.

"This is back to where we were in the early 1990s. The far-right is now leaderless. Nick Griffin is no longer credible.

"The British far right has always been handicapped by amateurism, since the demise of Oswald Moseley. We have never had a cohesive far right movement. It exists in Austria, Scandinavia, France.

"They needed a leader to unite them and there has never been one. It looked like it could be Nick Griffin, but he couldn't do it. Tommy Robinson was in some ways more successful. And even at their peaks, they never proved able to connect with a wider audience.

"But it is also to do with British political culture, a very entrenched barrier to extremism. In 2005, in a survey with Britons asked make someone British, second most popular answer was Britain's defeat of Nazism. We have a tradition of anti-fascism and anti-extremism. The British public have increasingly shown themselves not to buy attempts to repackage that political agenda."

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