Imagine Nick Griffin announcing he's leaving the BNP because he found out that some of his fellow travellers are a bit racist. It would sound ridiculous, given that hatred of non-whites has been the raison d'etre of the British National party. So what do we make of Tommy Robinson, the (former) leader of the English Defence League, quitting the group and saying its street demonstrations are "no longer productive"?
EDL street demonstrations are essentially a series of glorified pub crawls, but it has undoubtedly been the violence that made the EDL a prominent entity. Most of its supporters relished the idea of Brits taking on extremist Muslims on the streets. Robinson himself was a key proponent of threats, recently saying at a speech : "The Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League if we see any of our citizens killed, maimed or hurt on British soil ever again." The Guardian too revealed the violence inherent to the EDL's core years ago. And yet, Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, now says he has given it all up for "more democratic means". This seems questionable since he was trying to intimidate anti-fascists just days ago. He has neither denounced his previous views nor distanced himself from his thuggish activity of the past.
So if Robinson hasn't turned into Gandhi overnight, what is his plan? Sources close to him say he is setting up a new organisation with many of his old colleagues from the EDL. A staffer at the counter-extremism thinktank Quilliam Foundation, which helped him leave the EDL, said he wants to "adopt a mainstream, sensible way of countering extremism". Quilliam says it persuaded and worked with Robinson to leave the EDL as a means to counter and deflate extremism in the UK. It's a laudable aim but it may very well backfire for them, depending on what Robinson does next. This could involve setting up his own anti-extremism thinktank – although I doubt Robinson relishes doing extensive research and writing long reports that no one will bother reading. It would certainly bring joy to the rest of us if he spent the rest of his years doing that. More likely and more worryingly, he will form a detoxified version of the EDL without the street demonstrations or the name.
There are good reasons to be wary of his plans. Robinson has always generalised about Muslims, saying he wants to stop Muslims coming into the UK and singling them out for suspicion and scrutiny. Has he changed those views? It doesn't look like it. Will he campaign against the old EDL and their extremism? That also seems unlikely, though he probably won't have to since the EDL will almost certainly collapse after some infighting. Griffin must be popping champagne corks, since the rise of the EDL hit his rival organisation hard in terms of momentum and enthusiasm.
But there is one group that will almost certainly be breathing a sigh of relief today. Many neo-conservatives in the UK and the US found the EDL to be a bit of an embarrassment, since it said what they wanted to but gave those views an aura of far-right thuggishness. And there lies the biggest danger. Robinson has always been a publicity seeker and trouble-maker. He hasn't renounced his own views or activities, and he will be welcomed by the respectable wing of the "anti-jihadis" who will want to use him to join their xenophobic crusade against Muslims. There is a growing Islamophobia industry in the United States, and it's likely Robinson will join it. What was intended as a move to destroy extremism could end up making it stronger.
Sunny Hundal is editor of the political blog Liberal Conspiracy, which runs news, opinion and campaigns on leftwing issues. As a journalist and commentator, he has written for the Guardian, the Times, the Independent, Metro, Financial Times and New Statesman on national politics, the media, the environment and race relations. Twitter:@sunny_hundal
This piece first appeared in the Guardian