The English Defence League

The English Defence League (EDL) is a racist organisation whose main activity is street demonstrations against the Muslim community. Although it claims only to oppose Islamic extremism it targets the entire Muslim community and its actions deliberately seek to whip up tensions and violence between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Many of its protests have resulted in violence and it taps into wider anti-Muslim feeling. What started as a loose network of football hooligans is developing into a new social movement.

The EDL emerged in Luton in March 2009 in the aftermath of a protest by a handful of Islamist extremists at the homecoming parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment through the town.

It now has thousands of supporters across the country. What began as a loose alliance of people around various social networking websites is increasingly turning into an organisation with a national, regional and local structure.

Between 2009-2011 the EDL was without doubt the largest social movement in the country, often holding councils and local authorities to ransom with its demands carrying the threat of up to 3000 EDL members descending on towns and cities and bringing them to a standstill.

In 2011 however, the wheels of the EDL juggernaut appeared to come off. The Norwegian racist killer Anders Breivik cited the EDL as an inspiration. Several high profile EDL activists were recorded admitting their support for Breivik's actions in killing 77 people in two terror attacks, many of them teenagers.

The EDL's leader Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) was later filmed seemingly admitting his admiration for the killer, though Lennon has denied he made these comments. Throughout 2011 a series of exposures in the national and international media exposed the heart of the EDL as part of an international network of extremists targeting Muslims around the world. This movement, the "Counter-Jihad" movement, had a number of small-time English businessmen and women at its heart, as well as the street army that is the EDL

The leadership even had a very short-lived foray into politics that ended in disarray and humiliation.

EDL descended in huge numbers on Newcastle in May 2013

EDL descended in huge numbers on Newcastle in May 2013

After the Breivik exposures and a series of other exposures that seemed to tear away the EDL's very thin veneer of not being a fascist or racist organisation, ordinary activists seemed to tire of the organisation and splits emerged. Some of the more damaging allegations included the engagement in paedophilia by one of its founding members.

Lennon, along with his co-leader and cousin Kevin Carroll are both natives of the town of Luton. They run the EDL and its lucrative merchandising arm ruthlessly. Those who show dissent are often violently removed from the organisation and as a result of this and growing frustration with the EDL's direction, the organisation has been in a near terminal decline for over a year.

In September 2012 the group suffered a massive humiliation when it was prevented by locals from marching in Walthamstow, east London. The fallout from which reopened a festering sore with the rival BNP, whose leader Nick Griffin described the EDL's leader as a "big girl's blouse" in an appeal for the EDL activist base to move to the BNP. Many EDL activists broke away to form their own groups or quit the movement entirely.

In January 2013, Lennon pleaded guilty to "possession of a false identity document with improper intention" at Southwark Crown Court. He was sentenced to ten months imprisonment, but was released on electronic tag in February. Lennon had used the false passport to gain entry into the United States in late 2012.

A career criminal, Lennon has a number of criminal convictions, including football violence related convictions. The EDL is a non-membership organisation and so has often been viewed by Lennon and Carroll as their own private army. It is estimated that there are 700 criminal convictions directly linked to the EDL and its supporter base. This includes fire-bombings and even murder. The EDL is always quick to distance itself from the more heinous of these crimes.

EDL demonstrations, even after Lennon's release from prison, dwindled to mere handfuls of alcohol-fuelled desperados' intent on drinking and fighting their way into prison.

The murder of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London, in May 2013 has been jumped upon by Lennon as a way of rebuilding the organisation. Until Rigby's death, Lennon had shown no real interest in further EDL activities, but found his way to Newcastle on the 25th of May 2013 to address over 1500 people at an already planned march and another 1000 at a hastily arranged demonstration in London some three days later.

A social media led organisation, many people judge the size of the EDL primarily on its Facebook page(s). The EDL certainly gained a massive spike to its numbers on social media sites in the immediate aftermath of Drummer Lee Rigby's murder, but building an accurate picture of its "membership" has also proved difficult. What is accurate to say is that few of those who physically engaged with EDL activities in the immediate aftermath of the Rigby murder were entirely new to the organisation or its surrounds. Many former activists and supporters simply “reactivated” with furious activism and shock, but very soon after slunk back into mainstream society once the EDL returned to a cycle of continuous bickering, internecine invective and almost pointless demonstrations.

An estimate would be that there are now between 300-500 people actively engaged in the day-to-day activities of the group. When its founder and perpetual martyr Stephen Lennon sensationally quit the organisation in October 2013, many thought that the EDL would wither and die. This has not been the case, though across Britain, the group’s “divisions” have one- by- one declared autonomy from the main organisation, which is now run by a committee of uninspiring individuals.

The EDL remains on top of a chain of competing and often antagonistic “Counter Jihad” groups that have sprung up since the EDL began to suffer internal difficulties in 2011 and 2012. Most of these groups remain unheard of by the wider public and seem little different to the naked eye from the EDL. But where the EDL has at least tried to fight off infiltration and the inevitable slippery slide towards outright Nazism, due to its combustible nature, The EDL still remains the greatest conduit for the journey towards smaller more extreme and more outright neo-Nazi groups.

2014 has started very badly for the group. Police in the West Midlands issued photographs of some sixty EDL activists wanted in connection with a violent demonstration in Birmingham in 2013 and a further 32 EDL activists were sent to jail for their part in disturbances in Walsall in 2012.

The EDL is led by a committee of individuals and shareholders. Hel Gower is now believed to be holding the EDL in some kind of limbo for Stephen Lennon:


Key Figures

Dave Bolton, Hel Gower, Roger Firth, Alan Spence, Gail Speight, Tim Abblitt (Chair)


Further reading


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