The decision of English Defence League (EDL) founder and leader Tommy Robinson to quit his post last week has prompted much debate. His justification is that the EDL’s street protests against Islamic extremism were ‘no longer productive’ - if, of course, they ever were.
In truth, the EDL has been a spent political force for a couple of years. In 2011, when it was at its peak, it could get together several thousand people for its demos; today, it is hard pushed to reach triple digits. In fact, you’ll find fewer EDL supporters than police officers on a typical EDL demo today, the police’s primary role being to keep the EDL away from the ranks of anti-fascist protesters that trail around after the EDL like aggressive groupies. The EDL doesn’t even have any real membership base to speak of, often referring to the number of ‘Likes’ on its Facebook page as evidence of its alleged popularity.
Given how personality-driven the EDL has been, the departure of the charismatic Robinson, alongside his deputy Kevin Carroll, is likely to prove terminal for the group. Attempts by relative unknowns to assume leadership, most notably former Lincolnshire councillor Elliott Fountain, have led to ridicule and bafflement among followers. A planned demo in Bradford last weekend went ahead and mobilised a few hundred, but it quickly petered out due to a lack of speakers.
It seems that the 30-year-old Robinson’s decision to quit was as much personal as political - he says his political activities were causing his young family problems. But there does seem to be another element to his decision, too. Announcing his departure at a press conference organised by the anti-extremist group the Quilliam Foundation – formed by reformed Islamists – Robinson said the EDL has been hijacked by ‘Nazis’. He has grown tired, it seems, of having to defend the actions of certain ‘extremist right-wing’ members of the EDL, singling out an individual in a press conference who recently sported a tattoo on his chest with a mosque being blown up. ‘I want to lead a revolution against Islamist ideology’, he said. ‘I don’t want to lead a revolution against Muslims.’
Robinson’s sudden self-rebranding as a moderate has been as much of a shock to anti-fascist protesters as it has been to his loyal ‘soldiers’ in the EDL. Having spent the past couple of years waving banners comparing Robinson to Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik – ‘different face, same evil’ – anti-fascist commentators are now absurdly claiming that Robinson’s latest move is part of a fascist conspiracy to gain mainstream acceptance.