Hsiao-Hung Pai: Angry White People
Coming Face-to-Face with the British Far Right
With a Foreword by Benjamin Zephaniah
Zed Books, London 2016
Angry White People: Coming Face-to-Face with the British Far Right by Hsiao-Hung Pai (Zed Press, 2016) is not quite the overview of contemporary UK fascism that its subtitle suggests. The familiar far-right brands of the British National Party, National Front, and their various offshoots barely figure. Instead, the main focus is on the phenomenon of the English Defence League, which seemed to have exploded out of nowhere in 2009 and over the next few years mobilised anti-Muslim street protests across England. The group still exists today, though it has lost much of its early momentum and some of its founding activists along the way.
Pai’s avowed aim is to try to understand ‘what personal and social circumstances are leading these men and women’ to join a movement ‘based on prejudices and myths’, bringing to the subject the ‘outsider’ perspective of a 1990s migrant from Taiwan who is not distracted by social niceties from asking direct and awkward questions. This includes displays of chutzpah or just plain cheek such as knocking on the door of a house flying an England flag and asking its inhabitant to explain himself and walking into the pub reputed to be the EDL’s favoured drinking hole and requesting to speak to its leader, ‘Tommy Robinson’ – real name Stephen Lennon. As a result she does secure what seem to be some fairly unguarded and revealing conversations with a number of EDL supporters, including a couple with Robinson himself.
The EDL’s carefully curated image of being a non-racist organisation simply opposed to ‘Islamic extremism’ is belied by racist remarks about Muslims in general, informed by an incoherent and paranoid world view that fears some kind of impending Muslim domination of the UK. Robinson tells her: ‘Wherever Islam is, there is a military operation to implement sharia law. This country will be exactly the same. Five per cent of the population is Muslim. When it becomes 20 per cent, that’s when there will be a war’.
Robinson struggles to explain why he feels English and not British, or to reconcile his politics with his part-Irish background. In addition to complaining about Muslims, he complains about immigration more generally and even about Welsh workers getting building work in his home town, while at the same time acknowledging that ‘Everyone in this town is an immigrant’, his family included. Meanwhile, a rank-and-file activist complains about ‘pakis’ while obsessing about his desires for ‘oriental’ women. So far, so stupid, but if the far right could be defeated by exposing their irrationality and logical inconsistency, they would have been vanquished long ago.
As Pai explains, the origins of the EDL were in the town of Luton in Bedfordshire, 30 miles north of London. It was here in 2009 that an Islamist-led protest against a parade by British troops was the spark for the so-called ‘United People of Luton’ and ‘Casuals United’ (consisting of right-wing football supporters from elsewhere) to come on to the streets for a couple of protests before giving birth to the English Defence League – though its leader Lennon/Robinson had been waiting for his moment, having organised a ‘Ban the Luton Taliban’ protest several years earlier.
It is to Luton then that the author turns her attention, where the early EDL leadership had intensely local associations with one part of the town in particular (Farley Hill) and indeed a specific kinship base, with founder Tommy Robinson’s cousin Kevin Carroll, as his deputy leader, and his uncle Darren Carroll, also an early activist.
I grew up in Luton and was involved in anti-fascist politics there when I was at school and occasionally since, so this added an additional interest to the book – as well as an informed perspective against which to judge some of its content. From a Lutonian point of view, the author gets off to a bad start by writing that ’Luton was a mystery to me. A predominantly white town… with some of the country’s worst ethnic tensions’. Thanks to the antics of the EDL and tiny groups of Jihadists, people in the town are used to it being portrayed as some kind of ‘race war’ frontline, when in fact the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants have nothing to do with either EDL or jihadists, and racism is no worse (or better) than in most places in the UK. It has been a multicultural town for many years; in fact, alongside white British people (actually only 45% of the population according to the 2011 Census), there are sizeable minorities with origins in Ireland, the Caribbean, Africa and Eastern Europe as well as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
There are some basic errors that could have been avoided if the book had been proof-read by somebody who knows the town and its history – it is simply not true, for instance, that in the notorious violence by Millwall fans at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road football ground in 1985 ‘a police officer was kicked to death’. Maybe none of that matters to people outside of Luton, but it does somewhat undermine the book’s credibility.
Pai does at least acknowledge that while she had expected to find Farley Hill ‘a rough, white estate plagued by far-right groups’, she doesn’t have any problems on the estate finding white people to tell her that the EDL are racist and that ‘Tommy Robinson is a wanker’. But there is a sense that she has gone to the town with her own prejudices about ‘rough, white’ working class people and their predisposition to racism.
Angry white men in the 1980s
Some of the book’s more interesting content comes from Pai’s conversations with Darren Carroll, who has moved from being a prominent member of the EDL at its foundation to becoming a firm opponent of the far right. He stresses his own, and to an extent the EDL’s back story in the world of football ‘hooligan’ firms, having been very involved with Luton Town’s own football gang, the Migs (Men in Gear) in the 1980s. As he recalls, that was a period in which the National Front was trying to win support on the terraces, including turning up in Luton with visiting away fans to cause trouble.
I remember in January 1981 spending my 18th birthday standing outside a Mosque in Luton, in the predominantly Asian Bury Park area near the town’s football ground. With local Muslims and a small group of Anti-Nazi League supporters, we were there to defend it from attack by visiting football fans, as a large group of Chelsea supporters had recently attacked the Mosque, throwing bricks and leaving people injured.
Those were violent times. I was a member of the Luton Youth Movement, an anti-racist group that organised community self-defence. In May of that year, our march against racist attacks in the town centre was charged by Sieg Heiling skinheads; on the same day, a similar group of Nazi boneheads (quite probably the same group), stormed the stage and smashed up a gig by Luton punk band UK Decay in nearby Bedford.
In July 1981, it was the presence of skinheads believed to be linked to the neo-Nazi British Movement in the town centre that brought hundreds of black, white and Asian youth on to the streets for two nights of rioting in which over 100 people were arrested. This was the summer of the riots that swept through England from Brixton to Toxteth (Liverpool) and beyond. One of the more surprizing revelations in the book is that Darren Carroll was involved in the crowd squaring up to the fascists that weekend. He mentions that a group of skinheads ‘entered a cafeteria in High Town’ in Luton and that a ‘British Indian man Darren knew at school picked up a brick and threw it through the window’. I was also in that group outside the café, we had gone looking for the rumoured skinhead incursion after the police had closed down the main indoor Arndale shopping centre and moved a crowd of us outside. So I can only assume that this future EDL activist was standing very close to me on that Saturday in July 1981!
So yes, Angry White Racists are nothing new in Luton. But whereas the most violent ones in the early 1980s were generally recognisable as members of a marginal right-wing skinhead subculture, those who smashed up Asian businesses and cars during the May 2009 Luton protests that gave birth to the EDL looked just like other white working class people. In the liberal mind, it’s all too easy to reverse this observation and assume that if the EDL are predominantly white working class, then white working class people are mostly pro-EDL or at least potentially so. But is this true?
Luton is a town of over 200,000 people, with a football team which regularly attracts 8000+ local fans. Yet even at its height in 2009, the proto-EDL only managed to get 500 or so people out on the streets of the town. It is true that in 2011 an EDL demonstration in Luton attracted around 1500 people, but this was a national mobilisation with contingents coming from all over the country and indeed from elsewhere in Europe. The departure of Tommy Robinson from the EDL in 2013 weakened it nationally as well as locally, and since then it has has never mobilised more than 500 anywhere in the country. Only 12 people attended an EDL protest against an Islamic conference in Luton in December 2014.
Wannabe paramilitaries Britain First, who have taken on the mantle of the EDL as the most visible face of the far right (at least on social media), has declared Luton a target town but it has also failed to mobilise large numbers. 250 attended its national demonstration in Luton in June 2015, and its subsequent actions there have involved a handful of activists mostly from elsewhere. Earlier this year 25 Britain First supporters staged a ludicrous ‘Christian Patrol’ in Luton’s Bury Park. Despite its online presence, it has also struggled to get significant numbers out on the streets anywhere since it was founded in 2011.
In addition to a quantitative decline in numbers, there has been a qualitative change in the make-up of far right protestors since the foundation of the EDL. The early protests in Luton did attract quite a few football fans but as Darren Carroll points out, ‘they soon left, after a couple of demos’. It has always been part of the far right fantasy that football hooligans could be mobilised as its stormtroopers, but while they have occasionally made inroads, most football fans just haven’t been interested in a long term involvement with the far right, whether in the 1980s with the NF or today with the EDL.
Casual culture vs. racism?
A lot of words have been spilt on why some white working class people come to support the far right, and this book spills a few more. But perhaps more attention should be paid to the opposite – what are the protective factors in British working class culture that has prevented the far right from mobilising more than tiny numbers onto the streets at any point in the last 40 years?
In terms of football culture, one factor has been that black players have become a major part of the game. In the 1970s, black faces at a senior level were few and some hardcore racist fans jeered their own black players. Today it is hard to see how many supporters who cheer on their black heroes week in week out could seriously believe that kicking black people out of the country and reinstating some mythical ‘White Britain’ is a desirable prospect, let alone a feasible one.
At some clubs too, black fans have been an important factor, including in some of the ‘hooligan’ football firms in the 1980s and 1990s. This was certainly the case with the Migs and its youth wing, the BOLTS (Boys of Luton Town) both of which consisted of white and African-Caribbean Luton fans. In Angry White People, Darren Carroll claims that ‘The Casuals, multicultural and multiracial, took a foothold and defeated the NF’ on the terraces. If this is true, it was not so much because they were engaged in an organised anti-fascist initiative but because their very social composition was a refutation of the far right’s whites only focus. In Carrol’s account, stylistic differences also played a part. Casuals were all about wearing the correct clothes labels and attempts by far right activists to gain influence in 1980s football grounds fell short partly because they ‘didn’t quite cut the mustard with the wear, so it was a big giveaway…. It was all about who looked the smartest’.
Another feature of mainstream working class casual culture has been its engagement with black music. It is misleading to talk of ‘white working class’ culture, as many white working class people in Luton and elsewhere from the 1970s onwards were serious soul boys and girls, hanging out with black friends in clubs and holiday camp festivals (most famously the Caister Soul Weekender). Pai mentions 1980s Luton football casuals hanging out at ‘The Mad Hatters, a notoriously ‘rough’ nightclub’. This was a place I went to sometimes (later renamed Club M), and it would be wrong to see it as a spawning ground for far right activism. It was a racially mixed club playing soul/funk/r’n’b, later with an indie room upstairs.
From the early 1990s, it was the rave/free party scene that brought people together, including the Luton-based Exodus Collective who put on huge parties and festivals that tens of thousands of people took part in, dancing to reggae-infused drum’n’bass in particular. Exodus fell apart in 2001, but its successor Leviticus Sound System picked up the baton. I went to one of their parties in 2011 at the Carnival Arts Centre in Luton, where a crowd of White UK, African-Caribbean and Asian people partied together to reggae in one room and drum’n’bass in the other. The following year, Leviticus were at the heart of the ‘We are Luton’ demonstration, playing tunes at the start of the counter protest of around 1,000 people to the EDL’s 500 strong march in the town.
Liking black music is not a vaccine against racism, nor is cheering black footballers, but these factors, not to mention having black friends in clubs, at work, or on the terraces, do undermine the appeal of a ‘Whites Only UK’ traditionally pushed by the far right. Of course it could be argued that the presence of these factors shaped the precise form of anti-Muslim racism that emerged with the EDL. South Asian people were less involved in football and casual culture, so they were easier to frame as the threatening other in the post 9/11 world. In the early days of the EDL, much was made of the fact that a handful of black faces turned out on their protests, and ‘a black and white unite and fight the Muslims’ coalition is theoretically plausible. But even if some black people shared the British nationalist/pro-army/anti-Muslim ideology of the EDL, they were unlikely to hang around for very long in a scene with such a strong whiff of racism.
Perhaps more to the point, the obvious racism attached to the EDL (despite its claims to the contrary) discouraged many potentially sympathetic white people from getting actively involved. As Darren Carroll puts it, ‘You just couldn’t go on those demos and come back to tell your black mates all about it’.
Anti-fascists and Radical Islamists
Other than some discussion of football, Pai doesn’t really explore these musical/cultural factors at all, and in terms of opposition to the EDL, she relies more or less exclusively on reproducing statements from the Socialist Workers Party-led Unite Against Fascism. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because it ignores other approaches to combating the far right from broader-based local community initiatives to more militant anti-fascism as well as exaggerating the success and impact of the UAF. The latter have often been more successful at branding demos involving other groups with their placards than with mobilising large numbers in their own right (see for instance report of the anti-EDL demonstration in Tower Hamlets in 2013 in Datacide 13).
Pai also seems to share the SWP perspective of not criticising Islamist organisations and dismissing out of hand any parallels between the EDL and the pro-Jihadist fringe. If the EDL are to be rightly criticized for arguing that most Muslims in Britain share the views of radical Islamists, the author similarly fails to make this distinction clear. She meets Anjem Choudary, founder of Al-Muhajiroun and Islam4UK, and presents him as an entirely reasonable anti-war campaigner who has been maligned by ‘the British media’ as a ‘hate preacher’. This is a man long involved in groups associated with anti-Semitism, homophobia and the glorification of mass murderers like Islamic State and the 9/11 hijackers.
In modern multicultural Britain, the far right comes in many forms. While the white right pose the most immediate threat in terms of racism on the streets, radical Islamists or for that matter extreme Hindu nationalist groups share the classic fascist tropes of obsession with militarism, social purity and the nation (or in the case of radical Muslims, the surpra-national caliphate). In places where these groups have more influence they pose a violent threat to religious, ethnic and sexual minorities, and to secular/leftist dissenters – as witnessed most recently in the assassination of secularist bloggers in Bangladesh.
Within the UK these groups are less of a threat, other than the not insignificant threat posed by some of their supporters plotting to bomb trains, planes, and nightclubs. But to the extent that they are able to attract disenfranchised and disenchanted (mostly) young people, they function in exactly the same way as the EDL in channeling discontent with the status quo into the reactionary dead end of right wing communalist politics. In a different context, Choudary and co. could no doubt find common ground with the likes of Paul Golding, leader of Britain First, who sounds just like a ‘hate preacher’ when he says ‘We don’t want to live in a filthy, immoral society’ (as quoted in the book).
EDL and fascism
One question that is touched on in the book, if not fully explored, is the relationship between the EDL and groups with roots in the more established neo-nazi scene. Throughout its short history, the EDL has been subject to conflicts internal and external with factions such as the North West Infidels, the South East Alliance and the Racial Volunteer Force, as well as with the British National Party.
If this has been in part a tactical question of not wanting to be seen associating with out-and-out Nazis, it is also true that the EDL and perhaps Britain First do represent an attempt to steer the far right in a new direction. Groups like the NF and BNP have their origins in the Mosleyite pro-Hitler/fascist milieu of the 1930s and 1940s. A large component of this is a racialized hyper-nationalism with a strong thread of white supremacism and anti-Semitism.
For reasons discussed above, a pure-white British nationalism is unlikely to be viable in the 21st century, but there is clearly plenty of scope for a right-wing, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim movement that stops short of calling for the ‘repatriation’ of all black people, most of whom were born here anyway. This is the political ground that the EDL has tried to occupy along with its allies, such as the British Freedom Party – a short lived split from the BNP which sought to position itself as the political wing of the EDL’s street mobilisations.
This is where the alignment with the ‘Counter-Jihad’ far right comes in. Pushing an agenda of defending western civilisation from Islamic takeover, these fantasists imagine they are refighting the crusades – one of the movement’s key blogs ‘Gates of Vienna’ takes its name from the defeat of Muslim Ottoman empire forces at the siege of Vienna in 1683 and claims ‘We are in a new phase of a very old war’. In this worldview, Muslims rather than Jews are the main enemy and there can even be space for supporting Israel as an outpost of Western values (though in some versions, the Jews still get the blame for bringing in the Muslims as part of a conspiracy to impose multiculturalism!). While plainly racist in their depiction of Muslims, the issue of race per se is downplayed in favour of an emphasis on Christian cultural identity.
In the early days of the EDL, much was made of the role of wealthy banker Alan Lake (real name Alan Ayling), who was accused of bankrolling the EDL and pulling some of its ideological strings. Pai gives a bizarre account of this episode, stating that ‘Lake is known as a Zionist’ for whom ‘the nascent growth of an anti-Islamic street movement in Luton gave him hope that he could develop his own pro-Israel agenda’. As Pai acknowledges, this is also the charge laid against the EDL by Nick Griffin of the BNP – that it is controlled by Zionists (which in this context effectively means Jews). It is troubling, to say the least, that the author reproduces this highly dubious claim. Israel is a powerful state with supportive allies in the British and US governments and hardly needs a few hundred EDL types on the streets to defend its interests. What Lake and others like him no doubt saw in the EDL were kindred spirits who wanted to build the far right beyond its old school neo-Nazi base. Support for the Israeli state might be part of that new far right package, but it is hardly its organising principle.
One of the problems with debating whether the EDL and other ‘Counter-Jihadists’ are fascists is that it involves measuring the contemporary far right against a template of 1930s and 40s high fascism in Italy and Germany. In the longer term, we can see that violent, racialized nationalism comes in many forms which vary over time – the modern equivalent of the NSDAP may not arrive dressed in black uniforms and swastikas.
In many ways, the EDL can be seen as the latest incarnation of a home-grown current of British loyalism to king and country that includes the early 20th century British Brothers League (who campaigned against Jewish immigration), the Anti-German League that disrupted peace meetings in the First World War and the ‘Church and King’ mobs that attacked political and religious dissenters in the late 18th century. If this is a kind of fascism, it is not a foreign ideological import but something with a long domestic history.
Brexit and the racist mainstream
The current position of the EDL and other would-be street-fighting British nationalists is fragmented and weak. Tommy Robertson’s most recent initiative was to launch Pegida UK, a British branch of the German movement ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’. It attracted only around 200 people to its first march, held in Birmingham in February 2016. Clearly Robertson has failed to learn the first lesson of far right failures in Britain – don’t be seen as German! Even at its 1970s peak, the old National Front never really escaped the charge that it was at heart unpatriotic due to its association with the ideology of Britain’s second world war military enemy.
We can certainly take some comfort in the failure to mobilise a large ongoing street presence, even if this fragmentation has its own dangers as lone wolf terrorists act out their race war fantasies. This was seen with deadly effect in the assassination of pro-migrant Labour MP Jo Cox in Leeds at the height of the EU referendum campaign in June 2016. The man charged with her murder replied “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”, when asked to give his name in court.
However organisationally weak the far right may be, the fact is that many of its ideas have moved into the mainstream of British politics. The pro-Brexit referendum vote was plainly underpinned by hostility to immigration and a diffuse sense of ‘we want our country back’. Policies associated with the EDL, the UK Independence Party and the BNP are now espoused by Government ministers. At the October 2016 Conservative Party conference, for instance, the Home Secretary discussed new anti-immigration measures including requiring companies to declare how many ‘foreign’ workers they are employing. Employers, landlords and banks are all being compelled to become immigration police, with landlords now facing prosecution for renting out homes to ‘undocumented migrants’. The Prime Minister spoke of people finding ‘themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration’ and evoked earlier anti-cosmopolitan prejudice with her statement that ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’.
Meanwhile on the streets, even the police acknowledge that there has been a large increase in racist incidents since the start of the Brexit campaign (‘Police log fivefold rise in race-hate complaints since Brexit result’, The Guardian, 30 June 2016). In the forward to Pai’s book, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah recalls being victim of a violent racist attack on the streets of Birmingham as an eight-year-old. Now it seems those days are not behind us – to give just one example, a recent report in the Luton News (21 September 2016) told of a boy walking along the road being attacked by a group of girls ‘shouting racist remarks, spitting at him and throwing stones’.
Without indulging in too much hyperbole about incipient British fascism, these are dangerous times. Clearly there is an economic dimension to all this. In a town like Luton for instance, Vauxhall motors and other engineering firms once pulled in workers ‘from Ireland, Asia and the West Indies’ as well as from across the UK, creating ‘a multicultural workforce, which reflected the ethnic composition of the town’ (Pai). The demise of such industries has taken away some of the places where workers from different backgrounds shared a common condition as well as paving the way for increasingly insecure and casualised employment conditions. Pai is right that ‘The far right… point to migration and migrants as the cause of the problem, when in fact migrants have also found themselves victims of a restructured economy and job market’.
Blaming this all on the media or the bosses is too easy – in Britain racism is deeply embedded in a culture of what Paul Gilroy has termed ‘postcolonial melancholia’, an often unspoken nostalgia for the days of ‘British greatness’, imperial prowess and apparent racial, cultural and gender certainties. It’s not hard to find white people on working class estates voicing such concerns, as Pai does, but focusing on them perhaps misses how widespread this sentiment is in other parts of society. No doubt much the same could be found in suburban golf clubs after a few drinks, but few writers and journalists venture there.
Angry White People contains some useful material, but it is a flawed account of the contemporary far right. The author poses the right questions of ‘how can these racist ideologies be challenged? If merely countering that we should celebrate cultural diversity cannot provide an effective solution, what are the possibilities for change’? But she offers little in the way of analysis or answers. Why, for instance, in the present period in Europe is so much social discontent finding expression through the radical right rather than the radical left? It is not as if left wing ideas are hidden or hard to find. Is the way some of the left operates part of the problem in its inability to relate to actual working class people rather than just the idea of them? Responding to the present period to develop an effective opposition to the far right is going to require self-critical reflection as well as action.
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