Sunday, 1 May 2016

The English Defence League. Served hot and cold

The English Defence League. Who are they? What are they defending? Are they “terrible people”, as David Cameron said? And whatever they are, what do they tell us about modern England? Two new books try to tell us – in very different ways

It’s a sunny spring day in 2011 and Joel Busher is at an English Defence League demonstration in Chadwell Heath, Essex. The activists meet in a pub, where beer is drunk. When they’re told to form up, a lot of them slip to the toilet first. As they march in protest at the building of a Muslim community centre, there’s singing and chanting. An Asian man gets yelled at. Someone hands out leaflets while wearing a pig’s-head mask.  Then, says Busher: “...small groups of women from black and minority ethnic communities looked on with concern etched on their faces, and a family of Asian origin peered nervously from behind net curtains as a group of young EDL activists pointed and chanted at them until a local EDL organiser intervened: ‘No! No! Stop! They’re Sikhs! We like Sikhs!’”

Banner at demo in Newcastle, May 2010 (Gavin Lynn/Creative Commons)
Do they? Was there something about the EDL that no-one quite spotted at the time?

The EDL came to prominence from 2009 onwards, chiefly as a group demonstrating against what they saw as creeping Islamicisation. It wasn’t an attractive picture, conjuring up images of shaven-headed thugs in blouson jackets, waving cans of Special Brew and yelling threats. Was that the reality? And if so, was it the whole reality? Or was there something more complex going on? And if so, what does it tell us about modern Britain (and perhaps Europe)?  

Busher wasn’t a demonstrator. He was, and is, a researcher. I happen to know him; we did our PhDs together at UEA in Norwich in the 2000s. At that time, he was working on community-based approaches to HIV in Namibia. After that, he says, “I needed a job.” He found himself working in the civil service looking at post-conflict stabilization programmes and radical protest movements. This led him back into academia (in fact, to Coventry University), where he works on the dynamics of contemporary anti-minority activism – not just in Britain; he has also been working with colleagues in South Africa.

To try to understand the EDL, Busher spent much of 2011 and part of 2012 attending EDL meetings and demonstrations, interviewing activists and joining them on social media. The Making of Anti-Muslim Protest: Grassroots Activism in the English Defence League sets out to understand who the EDL were, how their members came into the movement and how they interacted with each other once there. The book isn’t journalism. Anyone reading this for a “frank exposé” with lots of racist violence will be disappointed. So will anyone seeking to have their prejudices confirmed about the white working class. This is a serious research work, and is shrewd and illuminating.

Hsiao-Hung Pai, however, is a journalist. Her own new book, Angry White People: Coming Face-to-Face with the British Far Right was published a few weeks after Busher’s. It is very different. And according to columnist Rodd Liddle, it’s crap. Early in 2016 he penned a piece in the Spectator titled: What makes the white working class angry? Twits like Hsiao-Hung Pai.

Pai, who sometimes writes for The Guardian, had been in Luton and elsewhere talking to members of the anti-Muslim English Defence League (EDL), trying to find out what had driven them to towards this controversial group – why, in fact, they were ‘angry’. Her efforts did not impress Liddle, who decided that Pai was the worst kind of ‘liberal’ – anti-English, patronising, with a closed mind. The reason why white working people were angry, he said, was because of people like Pai: “bone-headed, arrogant, absolutist liberals who insist to them — contrary to the evidence — that their fears are utterly baseless and should not be taken seriously.” 

I’ve got some serious concerns of my own about Angry White People, of which more below. But Pai is not a “bone-headed, arrogant, absolutist liberal”, and in general this is a much better book than Liddle would have you believe. It is not unbiased; this isn’t a dispassionate approach like Busher’s.  However,  it raises different and equally important questions. Between them these two books should have any thoughtful reader pondering England’s future, not happily.


Busher is a sociologist, and approached his work with an academic framework. Two pillars of this seem to be of special importance. The first was to look at the EDL in terms of ‘world-building’. The latter is a concept developed by American researcher Deborah Gould in a much-praised 2009 work on AIDS activism in the US. Crudely stated, it analyses how activists come together behind a single, possibly quite narrow, cause, and together proceed to construct a broader worldview and social networks, the one reinforcing the other. This concept is of great interest in looking at how social movements in general construct themselves.

But it is the second concept that I found of special interest. This is the way Busher has teased out why his interviewees became involved in the EDL. He could of course just have asked them, and sometimes did.  But motives, he says, “are often furnished ‘after the act’. groups such as the EDL, justifying their participation becomes part of their day-to-day lives [and this] makes it particularly difficult to explore ... motivations post hoc.” He adds later that “when asked directly about why they had become involved in the EDL, they usually reeled off various lengthy commentaries about what they saw as the cultural and security threats posed to their country, culture or way of life ...or about how ‘ordinary English people’ were being ignored by the political elite. ...However, once I started asking activists to narrate their journeys into the EDL step by step, a more complex picture began to emerge.”

Thus he interviews Terry, who “was a staunch anti-royalist, loved and played blues music, and often dipped into Marxist economic and social theories when explaining his arguments about the global diffusion and threat of Islam. ...He had been involved in revolutionary socialist politics during his early adult life – something he had fallen into when, after going to listen to Tony Benn speaking at Brixton Town Hall.” Busher brackets Terry with a whole group that had “swerved” across to the EDL, having often been involved with anti-fascist and anti-racist groups (involvements that they used to refute suggestions that they and the EDL were racist or fascist). Busher thinks that about 5% of the EDL activists were of this type. He adds that another 25-30% were people who had been involved in some other form of social activism, such as support to veterans’ charities, but also animal welfare groups or union activism, which seem like less likely precursors to EDL activity.

Busher is struck that there is a more complex picture than one might suppose. Some people even tell him they have joined the EDL because they can thus oppose militant Islam without getting mixed up with right-wing thugs. (It should be said that, since Busher did his research, links between the EDL and the conventional far right have been strengthened.) Also, the EDL for a long time had a Jewish group, not something one associates with fascists. Busher records an especially bizarre occasion when EDL leader Tommy Robinson was supposed not to attend a demonstration as he was subject to a banning order. He attended anyway, disguised as a rabbi.


Hsiao-Hung Pai paints a less nuanced picture.

Pai was born in Taiwan but moved to England in 1991, in her early 20s. She has written several books, including Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour (2012) and Invisible: Britain's Migrant Sex Workers (2013), working undercover in order to research both. This must have taken some quite serious balls. She began her research for Angry White People in Luton, where the EDL emerged in 2009 as a response to a demonstration there by an Islamic organization led by preacher Anjem Choudary, who wishes to see Shari’a law in the UK. The demonstration was aimed at the Royal Anglian Regiment’s homecoming parade after service in Helmand Province. Choudary’s demonstration gave offence to many; locally, a number of football supporters formed the United Peoples of Luton, which developed into the EDL.

Pai meets Choudary, which infuriates Liddle. In fact, she seems to meet him only briefly; she records that he is polite and beyond that says little. It’s the angry white people she wants to talk to. Her main contact seems to have been Darren, a relative of EDL organizers Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll. Darren was once involved in the EDL; he regrets it. Pai devotes a lot of space to tracing Darren’s upbringing, his social milieu and how he was led (mainly via football) into the EDL. She does it well, and was clearly listening. She also tries to talk to white people on the Luton estates and understand their views. Here she’s only partially successful; not everyone really wants to talk. But bit by bit she starts to build up a picture of them.  They seem to her to be bitterly disadvantaged, their traditional jobs at the Vauxhall plant gone; what work there is to be had, they tell her, is being funnelled to outsiders. They are wary of other communities (including Muslims), who they say do not “integrate”.

From this she constructs her thesis: that white working-class people have been fooled into blaming migrants and Muslims for their troubles instead of the real culprits, the Tories and the rich. This argument might not impress Liddle, but I think she puts it well. As Benjamin Zephaniah says in his introduction to Angry White People: “I have to agree  ...that the political elite has neglected the white working class. ...[T]hey live in terrible housing conditions, their traditional industries have been destroyed,  ...and governments of all colours have been ignoring their cries for help for decades.”  In London, Pai talks to a Jewish Cockney who tells her, “If you look around here, you’ll see everyone’s angry ... These days, a lot of white people around here ... support  ...groups like the EDL ...because they direct their anger the wrong way.” He is a hospital porter and says that if he loses his job he’s on benefits but if his bosses do, they’ll get a massive payout.  Pai’s view (and Zephaniah’s) is that struggling working people of all backgrounds, including white ones, need to confront their real enemies, not each other. I think she’s right.

However, Pai weakens her case with some sloppy research and quotation. She says that 83 percent of Muslims are “proud to be British” and that 77 percent of Muslims identify strongly with Britain while only 50 percent of the wider population do. She says these figures come from “a research paper entitled Understanding Society, by the University of Essex”. Actually Understanding Society is not a paper but a large research programme with multiple outputs (including papers) over a period of years, and I can’t trace this one. That doesn’t mean the figures are wrong. But since Angry White People was published in early 2016, a Channel 4 poll has appeared that is said to demonstrate that Muslims do not feel they belong in Britain, and do not share its values. This poll has been bitterly refuted by some, possibly with good reason. We are on contested ground, and Pai should have quoted her source properly. She also gives figures for the different types and numbers of Roma/Traveller people in Britain, but does not say where she got them – and they appear to be way out.

More seriously, Pai seems to have gone into her research already armed with a basic thesis; the rich are dividing us; we must forget race and religion, and act together. As I have said, I agree with this.  But it’s only part of the picture, and Pai doesn’t talk about the other part: the way the right (including the “moderate” right) exploits an unsure sense of identity.

Pai talks to a single mother on a Luton estate who tells her that she has no problem with her Muslim neighbours, and isn’t an EDL supporter. But she adds that since a mosque and school were recently built, “there’s been many more Turkish people ...and Pakistani people around here. Also, there’s quite a few Polish people coming in ...I don’t know any of them. Each group is separate from each other.” A chip-shop owner, himself originally from Cyprus, tells Pai that the Muslims don’t want to integrate (others echo this message). Pai asks him how they can be expected to, when the EDL wants to close down mosques. She does not record his reply. Neither does she ask him how he would like them to integrate. Could it be that this man wants to know these people better? In Hampshire, Pai meets a middle-aged man who has had long stretches of unemployment. Recently he has managed to get some agency work. “When I went into the common room to have my sandwich, not a word of English was being spoken in there ...They were all Polish.” He does not feel intimidated, but does feel uncomfortable, and goes to eat somewhere else.

None of these people tell Pai that they dislike Muslims, or Poles. What they hate is feeling like strangers in their own land. But she does not get to grips with this. In fact, she calls one of her chapters “Defending the imaginary nation”, the implication being that there isn’t, in her view, an English identity. At one point she challenges former EDL leader Tommy Robinson to define it. He doesn’t do it well – but would a German or a French person do any better with theirs?

Does Pai simply not like the English? After all, many English-born middle-class liberals don’t, despising the food and weather and wishing they were Italian. But they are just class snobs. Pai, I think, is someone more interesting, and more honest. Towards the end of the book she says she is uncomfortable with having a Chinese ‘identity’, not least because of what she has seen of Chinese treatment of the Uighurs. My guess is that Pai’s intellectual convictions simply reject the concept of nationality. This is an honourable position. But it may be not be helpful. Globalization, migration and refugee movements have reduced people’s feeling of being “at home” in their own countries, and brought identity politics to life across Europe. The last time they were this strong was after the dislocation of 1919, and it did not end well.

For his part, Busher’s findings suggest a sentimental attachment to English identity that is as important to some activists as any form of anti-Muslim bigotry.  Thus one older activist described having had an interest in English heritage and local history and was one of several who, says Busher, wanted  “to claim and celebrate [their] national identity.”  The perception that this English identity is patronised or denigrated by a liberal establishment seems to be key to the growth of the new right. One suspects that these are feelings that are often not articulated by the majority, or are usually expressed through (for example) a love of classic Jaguars or steam trains. When they do achieve political expression, it can be negative.

Leicester, May 2012 (Matt Neale/Creative Commons)
This does not mean that the EDL are a bunch of Trots and steam enthusiasts. Busher did his fieldwork mainly in the south of England and is aware that activists in the north would have been different. He is also clear that, even in the south, many EDL activists had come in through their association with football hooliganism. (This is traced in more detail in Angry White People.)  Busher thinks about 30-40% of EDL activists, including their leadership at the beginning, came from the football violence scene. It may also be that the nastier members of the movement avoided him. He did sometimes see the shaven-headed thugs on demonstrations.

Neither does Busher evade the fact that there was a certain casual bigotry about some members of the EDL. He describes, for example, heading home from a march with a bunch of demonstrators. “We pulled into a pub/truck stop, the activists all clad in their EDL hoodies, only to find that it was run by a Muslim family. There was much debate ...One activist opined that he preferred not to [eat] because he suspected that they would spit in the food, another argued that people shouldn’t buy food from them because it was ‘like giving money to the enemy’, but most people, keen to ...soak up the alcohol, ignored them both and got stuck into [the] burgers.”  Busher is also frank about some of the prejudices of some of the EDL members and their effect on him: “Some activists said and did things that I found deeply unpleasant and sometimes disturbing – miming shooting at Muslim women, slipping into racist caricatures about ‘muzz-rats’, chanting defamatory slogans about Allah and so on and so forth,” he says. Yet he was able to put aside his own concern and, by listening, unravel the roots of EDL activism in a remarkable way – not least because he formed relationships with some activists that were at least cordial, even if he did not share their views. (He tells me that funding bodies were skeptical about his research because it would be “dangerous”, and it would be hard to meet EDL activists. In fact, he says, he found it quite easy.)

Pai doesn’t seem to have been as good at this, and although she is clearly not the snotty liberal Liddle thinks she is, I do sometimes sense prejudice. At one point she attempts to meet a possible EDL sympathiser, but he cancels by text – and she reproduces the text and all its spelling mistakes. This is pointless unless she wants to tell us what an ignorant git he is. When one (rather weird) activist tells her he thinks it’s “illegal to be English”, she writes “I couldn’t help sneering at the idea”. I hope not. If you really want to know how people think and feel, you do not sneer at them. Ever.  I also wondered if she (and other writers and researchers) should zero in on the white working class quite so much. At one point, she comments that Tommy Robinson sounds more Daily Mail than traditional far-right. Indeed. If she wants to meet hardcore bigots, she’ll find as many in suburban golf clubs and saloon bars as she will in working-class Luton. Is English racism really the preserve of the working class, or are they just a handy target for middle-class liberals?

Busher does think they are an easy target. “I keep getting invited to talk on panels etc. about the white working-class, but a lot of these anxieties are shared across classes, and I think there’s an element of demonization going on,” he said when I spoke to him recently. (He was not reacting to Pai’s book, which he had then not yet read.) He cites Owen Jones’s 2011 book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, in which Jones singles out class hatred as an acceptable form of prejudice amongst “liberals” who would never dare express racism or sexism but seem to think it’s OK to despise members of their own society on class grounds.

Is Pai guilty of this? Rod Liddle clearly thinks so. As I have said, I think Pai is more interesting and honest than that. But she does seem to link right-wing views with class and stupidity too easily, and too simply. In so doing, she risks underestimating the link between racism and mainstream political and media discourse. A very interesting area that Busher considers is the use of social media and how activists swap links and news on (say) Facebook. When an activist says that they are “doing their research”, they are looking at a variety of sources that may include nasty right-wing militant sites or blogs, but also include mainstream media – papers like the Daily Mail, to be sure, but also relatively radical writers (such as Christopher Hitchens) who have attacked what they see as Islamofascism. Busher thinks it is a mistake to see the mainstream media discourse as irrelevant to anti-Muslim prejudice. This is not about white working people. It’s about everybody.


There is one area to which both writers pay too little attention. This is the democratic deficit in modern Britain (and especially modern England).  Pai is aware of it; she quotes someone as saying “elections don’t do nothing for you” and quotes other writers as saying that many blue-collar voters have been left behind as political parties chase middle-class swing votes. Yet she mentions all this only in passing. In fact, it’s crucial in Britain, where the skewed electoral system means that the current government has an absolute majority with only 24 percent of the electorate’s votes. Is it surprising that real politics gets pushed outside the system? Busher, too, does not say much about this. Asked about it, he says he doesn’t see the electoral system as a big factor. But he does say that the activists he met seemed to have little opportunity for civic engagement.

Waiting for the EDL, Newcastle, May 2010 (Lionheart Photography/Creative Commons)
The latter might be a key to an important part of Busher’s approach: his analysis of “world-building”.  A recurrent theme through the book is the way in which activists’ beliefs, lifestyles and relationship reinforce another.  If one wants to look at how people get involved with groups like the EDL, he argues, one needs not to focus just on “anger, hatred, resentment and indignation”. We may learn more from looking at the social interactions within the group; how they feel pride and shame in having (for example) looked after each other on a demonstration, or made sacrifices to go leafletting in the evening.  These interactions also extend to the way EDL members share information.

What is important for Busher, however, is the way these interactions, and the web of common assumptions they create – “world-making” – tells us more about the EDL than “simply pathologising activists as angry, white, damaged and vulnerable men seeking to protect their social status and reassert their compromised masculinity... [or seeing] such groups as somehow springing forth from generalised anxieties about how the country is changing, perceptions of declining economic and cultural opportunities, declining trust in the political elite and so forth.”

Is he right about this? That distrust of the elite, and anxiety about unasked-for cultural change, are both clearly drivers for anti-minority activism. There is plenty of evidence for that in this book (the nostalgia some activists have for an older England, the horror of mosques springing up, their fury at Cameron’s 2011 attacks on the EDL). Even so, the “world-building” approach is an interesting slant, and suggests that activists are finding, within the EDL, precisely that social and civic engagement that eludes them elsewhere. If so, the implications are fascinating.  In 2008 Vernon Bogdanor pointed out that when Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 it had a membership of about 1.5 million; 30 years later it was down to 145,000.Labour underwent a similar decline between 1996 and 2008, from 400,000 to 150,000. In the 1950s one Briton in 11 had belonged to a political party; by 2008 just one in 88 did. I think there is something here that we need to understand.


Do these two books help us understand anti-Muslim, and by extension right-wing, activism?

Both writers have gone out to talk to real people. This is surely more useful than writing editorials for the Spectator (or New Statesman). Beyond that, they’re very different books. Busher’s is (burgers apart) firmly rooted in academic discourse; this may put some readers off. It shouldn’t, because Busher writes well and although the general reader isn’t the intended audience, they’ll find it perfectly readable. What they may baulk at is the book’s cover price. This is a pity, because this excellent book is very timely. Busher presents the movement and its members without preconceptions, and this is essential; it must be understood if its influence is to be challenged.

The Daily Mail, January 1934
Pai does have preconceptions. Most seriously, she is wrong to underestimate people’s feelings about their identity. In these two areas, Busher’s is the better book. I also disliked Pai’s careless use of figures.

That said, Pai has done well to trace the roots of the EDL, and has made valuable points about the way the disadvantaged are being “divided and ruled” in modern Britain. What she does that Busher does not, is ask in whose interest it is to divide people from each other. This was outside Busher’s remit; he is a sociologist, and was not seeking to impose a political view of his own on his findings. Yet it is important.

And if Pai is not always dispassionate, perhaps we shouldn’t ask her to be. In his introduction to Angry White People, Zephaniah describes how, as a child, he was clobbered from behind with a brick just for being black. As he says, racism is personal. In the book, Pai describes how she visits Wolverhampton to see an EDL activist, and passing youths yell “Mail-order bride” at her. One wonders how it feels to be a woman with multiple degrees and several books to your credit, and to know that because your face is just a little different, some people will still always see you as nothing. There must have been times when she wondered why she was bothering to understand angry white people at all. One reads Busher’s book to understand the EDL. One reads Pai’s to understand why we have to.

Mike Robbins’s novel, The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail, 2014), is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK). Enquiries (including requests for review copies) should be sent to

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