In a move that took watchers of the British far right by surprise last week, Tommy Robinson, the leader of the English Defence League (EDL) announced his departure from the group.
On its own, such a move would not necessarily be newsworthy – right-wing groups, which have been growing in both vigour and popularity for years, often see splits and defections. But this move was different for two main reasons.
The first was the fact that Mr Robinson made this move in coordination with a lobby group led by Muslims – members of a population that Mr Robinson’s EDL had targeted for years. The second reason was that Mr Robinson quit not only the EDL but, it was claimed, hardline right-wing politics in general.
The move was presented as a weakening of the far right. But many are rightfully sceptical. A weaker extreme right would be welcomed by those hoping for deeper, wider community cohesion in the UK. Britons have for years been trying to grapple with an increasingly diverse population, a challenge that few countries in Europe in the 20th and 21st centuries have been able to meet without difficulty. British political parties’ failure to address the issue comprehensively and properly has led to the far right increasing in number. As a result, the British political spectrum, keen to keep the extremists of the far right out of the centres of power, has shifted to the right.
Some of the ideas of the far right have slowly become part of mainstream political discourse, while politicians associated with those ideas have stayed out of the mainstream. In other countries, it’s worse: both the politicians and their ideas have become tolerable. Norway’s far right produced Anders Breivik, who killed dozens of people in 2011. Just this past week, the French far-right National Front won a by-election.
While anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK is not violent or that politically powerful, it is still shared by many in the country’s intelligentsia. What, then, to make of Mr Robinson’s departure? He did leave the group, and to much fanfare by the British media. But what are the repercussions for the far right in the UK? Is a more troubling group about to emerge, as Mr Robinson seems to want to stay in the public eye? Is the mainstream going to be stronger against far-right wing extremism?
Most prefer to wait and see but the early signs are not promising. While Mr Robinson has said he’s “sorry” for some of his previous views, the extent of this change remains to be seen. In the space of only a few days, supporters of his changed perspective indicated he’d made something of a monumental shift in attitude. His detractors, on the other hand, see the move as a tactic, a way to bring far-right-wing perspectives deeper into mainstream political discourse by leveraging the connection with a Muslim lobby group and simultaneously disavowing the extremism of the EDL.
There is evidence for both. Just before his departure, Mr Robinson spoke with an even more radical exemplar of this far-right-wing approach, Pamela Geller, an American blogger, leading people to think that he might join another far-right group. If he is really undergoing a massive rethink of his extremist views, that tone would not be likely.
On the other hand, it may very well be that Mr Robinson had been simply unprepared for the world of far-right extremism in which he found himself. And as the costs to him increased, his willingness to stay within it diminished.
Will Mr Robinson use his media capital now to push back the far-right narrative in the UK and Europe, repairing some of the damage the groups he promoted have done and continue to do? He’s declared his intention to start a new group to set up another kind of “movement”, but what will that entail?
Also, will this episode remind the British political establishment of their own responsibility? The EDL is not their creation by commission, but their dereliction of duty in not addressing the genuine concerns of a segment of the British population, as well as their inability to ensure that the far-right narrative does not become normalised in the country, are failures that need to be considered.
It is not a matter of ensuring that the ideas of the English Defence League do not find a voice in mainstream political life, but that their ideas should be proactively combated.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, Brookings and ISPU
On Twitter: @Hahellyer