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Young, British And Angry: What fuels the English Defence League?

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Ben Anderson Ben Anderson | 11:00 UK time, Thursday, 20 May 2010

One of the main reasons I have ended up doing what I now do - making documentaries from the less accessible and hospitable parts of the world - is that I have always been slightly desperate to escape small town English life.

I grew up in Bedford, but most of my family is from neighbouring Luton, which has won several "crap town" competitions. I went there often as a child. My first ever mugging happened there. But apart from a few Christmas dinners, I've never had much desire to go back.

But then slowly, over the last few years, Luton started getting national headlines - none of them good.

The 7/7 bombers set off from there, the infamous protest against British soldiers was there and there had been several street battles that looked eerily similar to the race riots of the 70s and 80s.

When a new movement, calling itself the English Defence League, or EDL, was launched there, and soon started to grow, attracting front page headlines every time it staged a demonstration, I started looking at Luton again much more seriously.

Close up of T shirt with motif 'No surrender to al-Qaeda'

The EDL is a fast emerging right-wing group which, over the last 11 months, has attracted thousands of predominantly young men to demonstrations around Britain.

I wanted to find out how powerful the EDL could become, what attracted so many young men to join - and whether, as they claimed, they were non-violent and non-racist, and genuinely dedicated to standing up to what it said was a serious threat from militant Islam.

Luton has had waves of immigration since my Dad was a child - Irish, Italian, African and Asian. It is often held up as a poster child for multicultural Britain.

For some, and especially for the EDL, this is a myth. They claim that not only is Luton not the happy melting pot it's often claimed to be - it's actually a town with tensions simmering so close to the surface that it won't take much for there to be a "civil war".

Did they have a point worth listening to? Some of my favourite writers had become dedicated to critiquing Islamism (very different to Islam) but others claimed that EDL were part of the problem, not the solution.

I first went to an EDL demo late last year, in Manchester. I'd spoken to several leaders on the phone, told them about my Luton connection, and that I was interested in making a film about them.

They were enthusiastic, and some were clearly obsessed with militant Islam - as they saw it, the enemy the EDL had been set up to combat. We had long chats about Sharia, terrorism and how the EDL had been formed.

I was even told that they'd decided it was stupid to be fighting each other on a Saturday afternoon at football matches, when they should all be uniting to fight Islamic extremism.

Presenter Ben Anderson

But in Manchester the leaders suddenly ignored my calls, and none of them were at the arranged meeting places. Instead, several other EDL supporters threatened to beat me up, saying that the BBC "supported Islamic extremism."

I'd just come back from Afghanistan, and made the point that I had been shot at many times by Islamic extremists, but the EDL weren't in the mood for a discussion.

Months later, myself and a colleague, Steve Grandison, managed to persuade a few EDL members, and one leader, to let us film with them.

The resulting programme, which took two months to make, was an open minded look at what was fuelling the EDL.

We came across so many examples of violence and racism, from EDL demos to EDL Facebook groups, that it was hard to resist the conclusions of so many other people - that the EDL were little different to the other far right groups that have come before them.

But equating them with the BNP, Combat 18, or the National Front is far too simplistic, as is dismissing them as racist thugs. They have black members, even a few Muslim members, and their main speaker is an Indian Sikh.

But - and this is perhaps where multicultural Britain is showing some cracks - there was regular and extreme racism against Muslims. Not extremist Muslims, terrorists or foreign fighters, but all Muslims.

One moment completed all the thoughts I had been having about the EDL throughout the making of this film.

I was in a Luton pub with two of the founding members of the EDL, who had been celebrating St George's Day.

Two childhood friends of theirs arrived, brothers, and African Muslims. One was practising, the other wasn't.

"We agree with you about Islamic extremism," they told their EDL friends.

"We'd be side by side with you at those demos, but there are just too many idiots there, we'd end up in fights."

This summed up perfectly the problem the EDL has - as long as you can hear and see racism and violence at its demos - as long as its main tactic remains organising what is essentially football awaydays - where hundreds, and sometimes thousands of young men get tanked up and march into town centres, looking and sounding like they want that civil war they have predicted, it's difficult for many people to take any political point seriously.

Hopefully the film will give a good sense of where they have come from - and we leave it up to viewers to decide what chance they think the EDL has of being taken seriously as a legitimate protest group.

Ben Anderson is the presenter of Young, British And Angry.

Young, British And Angry is available in BBC iPlayer until Wednesday, 26 May.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks for the programme Ben.I was intrigued by the presence of Scots on the EDL marches and the waving of Rangers football flags.The standard chant of the EDL with variations , was, " No Surrender".In the past there have been attempts by Fascist groups to articulate with loyalists in Scotland.I also noted that one of the key organisers on the marches was Northern Irish.
    This added, for me, another layer to the complexity of the ideology/ideologies of the EDL , the notion of Englishness and one which might have born investigation.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks for the programme.

    A few points.

    1. The EDL are connected to the BNP as their website founder/creator is a BNP member.

    2. Mr Singh is the one and only Sikh member which shows the Sikhs do not agree with his views.

    3. The EDL website forum is littered with racist remarks including violent threats against Muslims. If you register and try to have a debate with the EDL, you are banned. The public cannot even read their forum unless they register and then their views are sympathetic to the EDL's.

    4. The EDL fly the Israeli flag but none have ever stated why?

    5. The amount of money spent policing their demo's is huge. The EDL therefore should be made to foot the bill especially if they indulge in criminal damage.

    6. Police have a hard job but have failed to take action every time against those who commit race crimes.

  • Comment number 3.

    Having seen the film i came to the conclusion that the EDL wasnt racist or fascist. They are (for the most part) genuinely protesting against extremist islam which is seen as deeply threatening to British culture. Just as a minority of White working class men ARE violent racist thugs, so a minority of muslims ARE extremists looking to create an islamic state governed by sharia law.
    I found some of the presenters opinions "naive" in a sense.
    I dont feel that he really understood how the white working class work. Im from the NE of england and the vast majority of the people I live with would have been branded as racist by that film.
    They will regularly use "racist" language but its simply the language that everybody around them uses, to them they are just words.
    Read any Newcastle-Sunderland football messageboard or got to the match and they will be full of the "racist" chants in the film but with muslim replaced by Mackem. Yet anyone who lived there would know that Geordies dont hate Mackems(no matter how much they refuse to admit it).
    I would also appreciate it if you bore in mind that extremist muslim and pakistani require considerably more effort to work into your average football chant than simply muslim or the shortening of pakistani.(And that since the majority of Britains muslim immagrants are pakistani in most working class eyes the terms are interchangable).
    I thought it was unfair that the man who founded the EDL was accused of being a racist when he supported the BNP. His explanation seemed fair. To suggest that he should have known the BNP were racist because of what is in their constitution was laughable. When millions of people didnt know who Nick Clegg was before the debates and millions still dont, it is absurd to think that ordinary people would ever take the time to read the BNP constitution and as he says, the policies in their leaflets are crowd pleasing and hard for anyone to disagree with.

  • Comment number 4.

    That last comment is hilarious- methinks it's from an EDL member. So the reporter is naive (you should watch some of his other films on youtube) to find racist comments offensive, while the EDL member who was "tricked" into NOMINATING a BNP candidate, who he had no idea were a racist party, was fair enough. Now there's a rational argument. You don't have to read the BNP's entire constitution to know they're racist. You just need to look at the news once in a while, read the odd newspaper maybe? And if that's too much effort- you wouldn't then nominate someone you know nothing about. Please.

  • Comment number 5.

    MannyP Im afraid you completely wrong about me. Im a 19 yearold oxbridge student and a member of the liberal party, born and raised on what was until recently the largest council estate in europe.
    Mabye naive was the wrong word but i deliberately chose to use qoutation marks to highlight that i was uncomfortable about the word i chose. It is somewhere around uneducated/biased (but not deliberately so).
    For the BNP nomination question. I think you fail to realise how little the white working class as a whole understand about politics (see Nick Clegg in previous comment) many dont bother to read a paper let alone watch the news. When they do buy a paper it is likely to be the sun/star/mirror/sport which have relatively little political coverage and they are most likely to buy a paper on sundays for the sports section. In 2007 the BNP would only have appeared in a small number of the 300 odd editions of the paper and when the nomination was made it was still perfectly possible that the man had never heard of the BNP.
    (Also bear in mind I never said tricked. I was complaining that the presenter seemed to assume before the question that he had read the BNP constitution). As for nominating someone you know nothing about im afraid this is a part of their culture that most people dont understand. Ever heard a comedian from the North saying that the south (usually London) isnt friendly? Get on a Newcastle metro and the chances are youll find yourself in a conversation. On one conversation most people will then class you as a mate if they enjoyed it and youll always do your mate a favour. Thats what being mates is all about. So based on a decent decent conversation and a crowd pleasing leaflet Id estimate the majority of my neighbours would do something as simple as sign a peice of paper.(The film said he was one of the ten signatures needed and im afraid im not completely sure of the procedure if you are one of the two nominees rather than simply one of the 8 signatures so Im not really sure if my arguement would apply in that case)
    Secondly the "racist" chanting. Id like to cast your mind back to the 2008/9 premier league season in which Newcastle United were fined for chanting "Mido the P###o" (I dont know if that needs starring but ill stay on the safe side). Newcastle fans would knew that he wasnt engaged in child abuse and it certainly wasnt a racial attack but the words rhyme . Therefore it makes a funny football song. People I know will cause each other p###o`s because they think its funny. Its the puerile humour of much of Britains youth but scaled up for the white working class. To them it is not truly offensive (in that it is an insult but they wouldnt get angry about their mates using it). Most of the chanting was of this sort. Its seen as fun and its not truly racist although someone used to football chants (Man Utd and some london clubs work differently) would have understood this. The film showed members singing on the trains with their mates and having a drink. I assure you that this wasnt just for the film but a regular part of the average fans fun even on non-match days. Therefore to make the songs better and more fun to sing extremist is dropped and simply muslim used. (There is an element of racists obviously but the vast majority arent).
    Im afraid that a dearth of white working class people in the media and upper echelons of society means that those outside the group dont truly understand their mindset.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hmmm extn.Let's all play the "white working class" card then.I also grew up in a hard,all white working class environment.In Scotland not England. I go to support my local football team.Never heard a racist chant yet.Last time someone started that nonsense he was rapidly silenced.
    Whilst supposedly standing up for the "white working class" you have succeeded in being patronising to explain away our ignorance on all matters political and social and downright insulting to the vast majority who do not have any truck with racism in whichever form it disguises itself.
    You have accused the maker of the documentary of naivety.Whilst accepting that the piece was not perfect( see my earlier post) may I suggest that you "cast out the beam in your own eye" first.As an "Oxbridge" man yourself I would hope that you recognise the source of the quote and its meaning.

  • Comment number 7.

    p for paddy. I can see im out numbered and Ive made most of my points and so im going to finish with this.
    Ive already explained naive is wrong and Im still not happy with my description from my last comment. But I refuse to sit back and let people tar my friends, family and neighbours with a racist brush. Pretty much everybody I know would have been tarred by this film but they are not racist.
    As for being patronising my description may not ring true for your home town but it certainly does with large areas of mine.
    I have never heard a racist football chant either. But i believe these chants are not racist as I have tried to explain.
    Every time I have mentioned that there are some racist people and there are violent people both in the films and at home but they are in a minority yet in the film i recognised people i know (not literally)who were branded by this film.
    Mabye its because im not used to doing this but although i can see your point i find the comments that have been made unfair. Ive been branded as hypocritical and of trying to defend racism by you and as ignorant by a previous commenter. I have tried to be fair (although I accept you mightnt see it that way) and I recognise that some of my phrasing isnt how I would have liked it to appear but Ive been met with absolute condemnation. Even if you disagree with me I hope you will agree that there is at least an element of truth in what I am trying to say.

  • Comment number 8.

    "I have never heard a racist football chant either. But i believe these chants are not racist as I have tried to explain."

    By "these chants" I mean most of the chants at the edl rallies not similar chants during football matches, in which case they would be racist. The context of the protest is important.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    I feel that the read is missing the larger picture; I live in an affluent, middle class area of a "norther town" and many of the views raised by the EDF are expressed by people in our local. These are not the rabid, white "under class" youth portrayed in the film, but middle aged family people who are mindful of our nation's historical background and are aware of its multi cultural heritage and proud of their country, whether from birth or by choice; however they are all concerned by the perception of Islamisation in our city. These people represent a diverse range of political backgrounds, however they all state the same basic fears that the cultural face of Britain is changing, and that many of the rights and freedoms, won by the people of Britain over centuries, are being eroded, both directly and indirectly, due to the increasing influence of Islam in the UK. As a lifelong Socialist I find this worrying and I feel that if the views of "middle England" are not recognised, then there is a real fear that parties like the EDF will become a voice for those who consider themselves to be the silent majority.

  • Comment number 11.

    I am a working class, fully employed, English male. I have just watched your thought-provoking program.

    So, "What fuels the English Defence League?"

    I think the main thing is ignorance and poor education.
    A lot of the people I noticed were not even English. They should change their name to the, British Defence League. In fact they should not even go with that name. As, "peaceful protesters" the name, "Defence League" sounds kind of aggressive?

    My next point is terminology. To be English is to have a ethnic trait. It is not simply where you were born. There are many factors including geographic and cultural. But now because of the fact that terminology in this country has gone so out of hand due to lack of education and being to scared to say anything in case it offends anyone I have to tread very carefully because I am under threat of being called a racist when I AM NOT! Here goes... English people are white. It’s silly that I have to go through all that at the start to state a fact. That’s why they are not the, "English (?) Defence League" as they have members from all British ethnic backgrounds, and rightly so.

    So, terminology by the English Defence league was wrong. Who else? Well the program and Ben Anderson are very wrong too. To be against someone because they are Muslim IS NOT RACIST! Islam is not a race! Quite a big deal there Ben! Islam is a religion. This is very important.

    Im tired of hearing about how if someone is against Islam or immigration has undertones of racism. On that basis, everything has undertones of racism!

    The EDF do not represent the true English people and I feel ashamed that they think they represent modern Britain!
    Terminology; if everyone is singing off the same song sheet then there is no room for mistakes like hating Muslims is racist. Terminology ties is with Education. Education is very important to get rid of ignorance. It seems the EDF just guessed the ethnic make up of areas and made ludicrous assumptions on what was happening there.

    I conclude; lack of education, Islamic extremist and old wife’s tales “fuels the English Defence League.” Also I read a story recently about how London Black cab drivers were, PERMITTED to fly the St George flag because of the looming world cup. John Kennedy, chair of the RMT London Taxi branch, said: “At last, TfL have listened to taxi drivers who want to support the England team.
    “We all want to win at the World Cup and there's nothing wrong with displaying a George Cross in your cab for the right reasons rather than some of the more negative aspects of the flag that you sometimes hear about.“
    Negative aspects!? What negative aspects? So there is a environment of being scared to be patriotic that fuels the EDF because people get angry. Again that all ties in with education.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    Wow, It is amazing to everyone's view on the EDL.

    I frankly was disgusted at the programme. Pure BIAS. The documentary failed to show just how the UAF are as just as bad. (With the leader getting arrested for violent misconduct). The last EDL march went swiftly with no arrests. Ofcourse you will get racist remarks but those are from the people who are neglecting to see the point of the EDL. They were formed when a group of extremists gate crashed the homewarming parade in luton calling our armed forces rapists etc. Wouldn't you be disgusted? Someone had to stand up to make a point that extremists are not wanted in this country. & as for the comment at the top? The founder being BNP? no-one in the leadership is supportive of the BNP.
    & also one of the leaders being sikh being the only one? You should attend the demos. There are plenty of races there. Just this documentary failed to show that other than 1 black young individual and then the Irish muslim. There are plenty more who come along.

    The EDL are not racists or fascists. They just want the threat of extremists and extreme islam from being introduced into this country. I'm sure you've heard the news of the terroist who has been cleared of deportation on the grounds that he fears he may die should he return to his ocuntry. Well woopy doo. SHouldn't try killing innocent people in this ocuntry. I do however sypathise that he may die but should have thought of that before commiting the worst crime I believe there is. I speak to represent this as I lost my uncle in 9/11. Something has to be done to stop extremism in this ocuntry. That's what the EDL WANT to do. Don't label the group just because of youths on a day out looking to cause trouble.

    Peace :)

  • Comment number 14.

    A Persons nomination of a candidate and a persons vote for a candidate are two different things!

    This poor fellow years back signed a nomination paper for a BNP candidate who appeared on his doorstep.

    It is shocking to see somebody derided by Ben and the BBC for what is a simply nomination of a candidate to stand in an election.

    What happens as the BBC know full well (but preferred to imply this fellow is racist instead) is a simple doorknock from the candidate. Every candidate who wishes to stand has to ask 10 people for a signature on a clipboard. The candidate has to convince the nominee only that he offers a democratic choice to appear on the ballot paper. Not that they should vote for him or support his politics!

    The BBC spin the fellow was giving the candidates party his support, is utter rubbish.

    I have nominated party candidates I hate and would never support with a vote like the Greens, because I support the democratic process!


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