Members of the English Defence League (EDL) marched in Cambridge, Plymouth and Halifax over the weekend in protests intended to 'defend [English] culture'. Counter-demonstrations took place in each of the towns, attacking the EDL as being 'racist', 'fascist' and divisive. More demonstrations are being planned in towns across the country over the summer. Regardless of what you think of the content of the demonstrations, a worrying new anti-EDL argument is emerging that any democrat should oppose: that the EDL's freedom to march is an unaffordable luxury in a tough economic climate.
This is a view most prominently expressed by Blackburn MP and former Labour Cabinet Minister, Jack Straw earlier this year, when he accused the EDL of an outrageous 'self-indulgence' for holding a protest in Blackburn. He's not alone. Councillor and Lancashire Police Authority member Tony Jones has argued that, like football clubs, the EDL should pay the local police force to oversee its marches. This sentiment has also been echoed during and after previous EDL demonstrations.
The cost of EDL demonstrations can be undoubtedly high. For their 'homecoming' demonstration in Luton in February this year, for example, many shops were boarded up and 1,500 officers policed the event, drawing staff from 28 other police forces across the country. The total bill was estimated to be almost £2 million.
Policing the demonstration often isn't only cost, either. When the EDL marched in Leicester, for example, the City Council decided to pay for activities for young people to, in the words of the council chief exec, 'divert them away from flashpoints on the day'. In addition, the council held a 'celebratory' event following the demo, deemed to be important, 'to kind of give people a real message of what Leicester was about'.
Whether such expenses are necessary, or even desirable, are highly questionable, as are melodramatic claims - typified by a council leader in Peterborough - that the extreme policing measures are important to ensure Peterborough 'wasn't a city running with blood'. Many of the measures seem risk averse and over the top. But, even if all the measures were necessary, pragmatic arguments about cost should not be used to argue against freedom of assembly for all.
Equally, however, the EDL is wrong to use the cost as a threat, as it did in a letter to councils last year, where it claimed unless they kept using the word 'Christmas' to describe winter festivities, the EDL would pay them a visit: 'The average cost to the council is £500,000 when the EDL demonstrates at any given location and it is hoped this will be avoided by your council keeping the word Christmas alive.'
Demonstrations should be used to try to engage in a political argument, not to try to force cash-strapped councils to abolish policies because of the costs they'll face otherwise. Not, it should be noted, that the EDL is often allowed close enough to members of the public to engage in such arguments on the tightly policed routes its members have to march down.
In a very dangerous trend, officials are already starting to make a distinction on the behalf of the public between what constitutes Real and False democratic activities. For example, in Birmingham last December, two people who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct at an EDL march were banned from engaging in EDL activities (including on the internet) and restricting them from attending any protests anywhere in the UK that weren't within a 10-mile radius of Birmingham until 2020. The judge reportedly didn't consider this to be compromising their democratic freedoms because, in his words, the EDL had 'no good reason' for demonstrating. He claimed: 'You each have a right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly', but 'I am persuaded that the only reason for [going on the protest] was to provoke, encourage and enjoy public disorder'.
It is a deeply worrying state of affairs when officials start to step in to determine on behalf of the public which protests are legitimate and which aren't. Equally it's of great concern when it's suggested some protests are worthy of public expenditure to police and some aren't. And the suggestion that you should be free to protest only if you can afford to foot the policing bill turns demonstrations into a privilege, rather than a fundamental freedom available to all. Even if you disagree with the EDL and loathe the idea of defending its members' freedom to protest, you should bear in mind that it could be an issue you are concerned about that officials might deem to be Unworthy next. Perhaps students will be forced to take out loans to finance their protests against tuition fees?
There are many issues to be debated as the EDL march in towns across the country. Whether their claims about the 'Islamification of England' are warranted, or what else may be motoring such concerns. Whether, as anti-fascist protesters claim, we are seeing the rise of a new extreme far-right movement. Or whether, as I have argued previously, the EDL largely emerged as a result of the white working classes being abandoned by institutions that previously acted as its mouthpiece, such as unions and the Labour party, and being led to feel like strangers in their own country due to New Labour's multiculturalist policies.
What shouldn't be on the table for debate, however, is whether in a recession-hit Britain, the financial cost of holding demonstrations is too expensive.