When the leader of the English Defence League (EDL) announced he was quitting the far-right organisation a few weeks ago, even his closest supporters were completely taken by surprise.
Over the last four years Tommy Robinson had become the face of Britain’s white-nationalist movement, organising rallies across the country against – he claims – the growing influence of Muslim extremism. EDL rallies fuelled violence, terrified local communities and needed extensive police to maintain order. The EDL wasn’t a political party but a street movement that thrived on demonstrations and confrontations. And it wasn’t just the UK that he kept to: Robinson frequently invited far-right figures from across Europe and the United States to his rallies, and in turn spoke at their events.
As abruptly as the EDL exploded into public consciousness in 2009, it is now likely to collapse after Robinson’s departure. The far-right needs charismatic, savvy and strong leaders to get public support and Robinson was rare among his tribe in playing the necessary role. He took several key figures with him and there is no obvious successor.
A wolf in a suit
But the self-destruction of the EDL may not be worth celebrating if it gives rise to a far more dangerous opponent. On the day of his big move Robinson said he wanted to continue his fight against Sharia law and “Islamism”, while admitting that the activities of some EDL members had been racist. He added that he felt the street-based rallies were counter-productive to his goals. Notably, the former leader of the EDL was not the first to reach this conclusion.
All across Europe, far-right parties have come to the realisation that their old tactics were not working and they need new ways to win over public opinion. In the 1990s, the leader of Britain’s main racist political party – the British National Party (BNP) – declared an end to demonstrations because he said they did not help. They put on smart suits, stopped using crude, racist language and set out to gain respectability. The plan worked – the BNP gradually built support and by 2009 it attracted nearly a million votes, even managing to get two key members elected to the European Parliament. The same leader, Nick Griffin, even had the audacity to claim in an interview that year that his party was no longer racist.
One by one, far-right groups across Europe have followed suit and ditched their traditional tactics. Instead, they have latched on two enemies: immigrants and Muslims, using socially liberal language (defending women’s rights and gay rights) to attack both groups. In some cases they have also become economically populist by attacking mainstream parties for selling out people to bankers.
The far-right has become better at being populist and exploiting fears around immigration and al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism to win political support.
In 2011, The New York Times profiled Marine Le Pen, the new leader of France’s far-right National Front, as a “Kinder, Gentler Extremist”. The daughter of the virulently racist Jean-Marie Le Pen now “pretends to defend gays, Jews, women,” the NYT reported, and has re-orientated the National Front to be more economically left-wing. This has not only caught her opponents off-guard but also brought her new support from people who previoulsy would not go near the National Front.
Racism without borders
A similar story has unfolded in the Netherlands, as the far-right “movement” headed by Geert Wilders has championed gay rights, Judaism and feminism to make their politics more acceptable to Dutch voters. At the height of his popularity Wilders even issued a “10 point plan to save the West” that included calls on ethnic minorities in Western countries to sign a “legally binding contract of assimilation”, and to stop the building of all Mosques. He also said the right to religious freedom should not apply to Islam.
In the US, hate-bloggers such as Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller have achieved notoriety and success by focusing entirely on demonising Muslims. They were instrumental in generating paranoia about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” and turned it into a national controversy. Significantly, they have done this entirely using social media and blogging rather than traditional rallies, and maintain they aren’t racist or xenophobic.
Just a few months ago the far-right Austrian Freedom Party attracted a fifth of all votes as mainstream parties slumped further in the polls. Once again, they did this by focusing on immigrants, and exploiting anti-EU sentiments. But the language was soft and subtle, as the party went on a “Neighbourly Love Tour”.
In Switzerland, Scandinavia and southern Europe too the story is the same. The far-right has become better at being populist and exploiting fears around immigration and al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism to win political support.
In recent comments on Twitter, the EDL’s Robinson said, “Sharia legalises paedophilia” and that Islam was “fuelling” a “global war/Holocaust on Christians”. In a speech earlier this year he said: “There is a two-tier system, where Muslims are treated more favourably than non-Muslims.” So far he has not apologised for any of these comments. If Robinson follows in the footsteps of his allies across Europe, then he could become a far more formidable enemy than the EDL ever was.
A resurgence of the same old far-right, albeit dressed in new clothing, could have devastating consequences for Europe once again.
Sunny Hundal is the author of the recently released e-book, India Dishonoured: Behind a Nation’s War on Women and is a regular contributor to the Guardian and the New Statesman.