Does the EDL have a right to march?
Padraig Reidy: Does the EDL have a right to march?
18 Aug 10

The Guardian reports that West Yorkshire police chief Sir Norman Bettison is to ask Home Secretary Theresa May to ban the English Defence League from marching through Bradford later this month, after 10,000 people in the town signed a petition against the march.

The key word here is “march”. The police are clear that they have no powers to stop the “anti-Muslim” EDL from holding a “static demonstration” — i.e. the boring standing around bit, which one doubts appeals to the average EDL supporter.

One could, open and shut, say that this is the end of the argument, free-expression wise: the EDL aren’t being stopped from speaking, they’re just being stopped from moving and speaking.

Of course, that’s disingenuous on two counts. Firstly, the EDL march would be aimed at the city’s Asian neighbourhoods — part provocation, part harassment of the Muslims of the city.

Secondly, can we truly say that the right to free expression is adequately protected if police and politicians control where and when we can exercise it in the public sphere?

Provocative marches are, of course, nothing new to these islands. The most frequently cited example is Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts’ attempt to march through the then-predominantly Jewish East End — the “Battle of Cable Street“. That ended in rioting, and is widely remembered as a defeat for the British Union of Fascists.

When I last cited this incident myself, I asked if the locals had actually been wrong to block the march.

The Times’s Oliver Kamm responded, suggesting that yes, they probably had been:

Yes, those who tried to stop the British Union of Fascists from marching in the East End in October 1936 were wrong. The BUF had a democratic right to march in peacetime, and the attempt to stop them did them a power of good. Mosley was looking for a way to call it off anyway, so that he could get to Berlin and secretly marry Diana Mitford Guinness in Goebbels’s drawing room (which he managed to do two days later). Support for Mosley in the East End increased after the Battle of Cable Street, as did antisemitic violence. Thugs attacked Jews and their properties, in the so-called Pogrom of Mile End, a week later.

This is an interesting answer, but it perhaps implies that the people who attempted to block the BUF’s march were more tactically incorrect than morally wrong.

More recently, last weekend saw the annual Apprentice Boys’ Parade in Derry pass without incident. Northern Ireland’s parade season has proved a flashpoint for many years now, most infamously at Drumcree yet no one has ever seriously suggested banning marches. There is, of course, arbitration and negotiation on routes, insignia and the like. Could the Parades Commission model be applied to groups such as Islam4UK and the English Defence League?

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.