When ‘extremists’ come to your city …

William Allchorn, Anti-Islamic Protest in the UK: policy responses to the far-right, Routledge / Routledge Studies in Extremism and Democracy, Abingdon, 2019, pp. x and 189.

The books published by Routledge in the series titled ‘Extremism and Democracy’ are making available a great deal of important information and analysis. Titles so far cover the far-right in Italy, Poland and many other countries, as well as Britain; analysis of the character and dynamics of populism; and more theoretical consideration of the ‘scope of tolerance’ and the issues involved in balancing ‘free speech’ with the proper protection of the rights of those against whom antipathetic and hateful speech might be directed.

This new book by William Allchorn, based on his doctoral thesis, is a thorough exploration of the ‘varied and diverse’ ways that ‘policy practitioners’ – local councils, the police, mainstream politicians and community organisations – have responded to recent demonstrations and other forms of street activism by two far-right organisations in Britain, the English Defence League and Britain First.

Allchorn states that most of the academic work on such organisations has been about describing their ideology, operations and culture: ‘few researchers have explored the effects [they] have had on community tensions, public order, racially or religiously motivated hate crime, or the mobilisation of radical Islamist groups’ [p3].

A contextual first chapter traces the emergence of specifically ‘anti-Islamic’ protest within the movements and organisations making up the British far-right. This theme was part of the British National Party’s pitch during its relatively successful foray into electoral politics under Nick Griffin. Allchorn evidences how anti-Islamic themes have become much more prominent ‘since the BNP’s implosion’ around the 2010 general election and the far-right’s subsequent ‘process of fragmentation and re-orientation back towards a more direct action, “vigilante-style” form of politics’ [p10].

This is a local expression of a wider ‘counter-jihad’ movement across Europe and North America. Allchorn highlights ‘predominant discourses’ in this movement, which are ‘echoed’ in different forms by the EDL and Britain First: the assertion of a ‘Christian identity’ which is ‘under threat’; shifts within the far-right to self-styled ‘pro-Jewish’ and ‘pro-Israeli’ positions; and efforts to repose within a far-right / anti-Islamic world-view some broad themes which have previously been mainly promoted by leftist, ecological and feminist campaigners (for example through the assertions that the practice of Muslim women wearing head scarves is a form of female oppression, and that halal butchery is a particularly egregious form of cruelty to animals).

A second chapter thoughtfully surveys the broad responses and tactics which politicians have taken to far-right activity over the last decade, and sets out a useful framework for categorising these. ‘Exclusionary’ responses include ‘hard’ approaches such as bans on marches (using Section 13 of the 1986 Public Order Act), adopting a ‘no platform’ stance to deny the ‘extremists’ any ‘oxygen of publicity’, and confrontational counter-demonstrations. There are also ‘soft’ versions which express opposition to far-right presence in an area through petitions, motions and public statements.

In contrast, ‘inclusionary responses towards anti-Islamic protest’ range from short-term initiatives to defuse tense situations, and collaborative engagement with the organisers of far-right demonstrations so as to strike agreements about their scope and character, to long-term work which attempts to ‘immunise’ local communities against the appeal of the far-right.

Allchorn highlights the value of ‘interaction’ strategies based on ‘the social scientific notion of “intergroup contact” theory’. These aim ‘to break down barriers of estrangement and hostility’ [p32]. He notes that these approaches can at first glance appear costly: ‘fostering co-operation and interaction is … a time- and resource- intensive activity. It requires substantial “buy-in” from local councils and [participating] individuals’ [p33].

He lists some of the necessary conditions which need to be in place if ‘intergroup contact’ is to have a chance of succeeding – and ‘even then it is not guaranteed to work’ [p33]. Nevertheless, Allchorn argues persuasively that such approaches can be effective and sustainable, and that ‘it would be beneficial to see more’ engagement in such projects by leading councillors, officials, business people and members of all sections of the community [p179].

Readers should note that Allchorn does not identify all the important issues which need to be considered in commissioning and running effective ‘interaction’ programmes. Indeed, he risks compounding the suspicions which some potential participants might hold about the benefits of joining in, when he states that the case for such programmes is that they could ‘help rob the EDL and Britain First of … prejudicial barbs [and] help to immunise communities against anti-Islamic politics and racist politics more generally’ [p179].

Such a reason for approving of ‘interaction programmes’ is consistent with Allchorn’s concern about ‘the clearly disruptive nature’ of the far-right groups he is studying, ‘and their dynamic of provocation’ [p22]. But it needs to be emphasised that, in order to be effective, ‘interaction’ programmes should be run by people who act with a certain ‘independence’, and who have genuine curiosity and interest about the views, values and motivations of all of those who are involved in contested and disputed issues – including those who are influenced by, supporters of, and even members of controversial and ‘extreme’ groups.

The particular value of Allchorn’s book consists in its detailed and well-structured case studies of five local authority areas where local politicians, the police and council officials needed to respond to EDL and Britain First demonstrations and protests. His PhD research involved carrying out nearly fifty in-depth interviews with councillors and public servants who have been directly responsible for managing the resulting issues, and his book makes good use of their ‘insights and accounts’.

The EDL first emerged in Luton, through the coalescence and organisation of anger provoked by the now-banned group Al-Muhajiroun. These Islamist extremists held a protest against an official 2009 homecoming parade by local solders who had served in the British army in Iraq. The town then became the location for a series of large EDL demonstrations between 2011 and 2014, and was later ‘chosen’ by Britain First as a place for them to carry out provocative ‘Mosque invasions’ and ‘Christian patrols’.

This risked the area being cast as a ‘hotbed of extremism’, and local political leaders and officials worked hard to affirm and promote Luton’s positive reputation, focussing on the need to support local businesses and reassure all sections of the community. Allchorn’s judgement is that initiatives and choices taken by the council and police have been ‘effective’, but that they also raise civil liberty ‘questions’ about whether they ‘infringe upon people’s right to peacefully assemble’ [p62].

Allchorn’s account of the evolution of policy in response to EDL demonstrations in Birmingham initially appears to suggest that politicians and police moved in opposite directions: local MPs shifted from being ‘anti-ban’ to ‘pro-ban’ within a couple of years, or from ‘merely being pro-ban’ to advocating levying costs on EDL demonstrators. In contrast to such increasingly ‘hard exclusionary’ positions, ‘West Midlands Police moved from a more confrontational style of public-order policing in 2009 towards a less confrontational, more inclusive and lower-level … response at subsequent anti-Islam demonstrations’ [p89].

The author does move towards a more layered understanding with his observation that these apparently ‘competing strategies’ did not in fact reflect any lack of communication or co-ordination between the police, the council and the MPs. Instead they resulted from the different ways in which different organisations and representatives, with their different roles and accountabilities, judged that they needed to respond to ‘external stimuli’. Nevertheless, this is one section of the book where Allchorn’s ‘academic’ position is apparent: his commentary does not always convey real sympathy with or feeling for the pressing dilemmas and difficult practical choices faced by local government workers, police officers and elected politicians on the ‘front line’ of a live situation.

Discussion of responses to EDL and Britain First actions in Bradford includes references to significant community responses, including a 2015 vigil by Bradford Women for Peace. This was explicitly not a ‘counter-demonstration’, and in fact took place the afternoon before an EDL demonstration, bringing together local people, politicians and religious leaders in an expression of unity. Notice is also taken of how the then council leader David Green explicitly ‘attempt[ed] to shift the terms of the debate towards community rights … and actually engage with the concerns of white working-class constituents’ [p116].

Other chapters cover Leicester – ‘an important location for studying anti-Islamic protest and policy responses to it’ and Tower Hamlets in London’s East End.

Allchorn concludes by arguing for specific policy shifts ‘from exclusion towards more dynamic forms of inclusion … in order to address the EDL, Britain First and other … groups that have become a lightning rod for white working-class disaffection over recent years’ [p7]. He recommends ‘more engagement by the government and politicians with the concerns of communities who have a weak sense of belonging or feel “left behind”’ [p179]. On policing, Allchorn notes that ‘forceful containment tactics’ can ‘end up unifying large crowds against the police and therefore lead to mass disorder. On the other hand, more consensual, low-key approaches which engage in negotiations with protestors and communities … have seen disorder drop dramatically’ [p179].

Overall, Allchorn’s book is stimulating and worthwhile. It provides useful summaries of fraught episodes in a range of locales, evidencing the institutional learning that took place, and drawing out many relevant policy issues.

Furthermore, by sensitively presenting insights and comments from police officers and local government officials, as well as local politicians, Allchorn has given a platform to some of those professionals who are working ‘behind the scenes’ to maintain positive community relations and safety in our towns and cities on a day-to-day basis, but whose views and understandings are not heard often enough.


Review published January 2019