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'The Scottish hate us more than the Muslims...': The North/South Divide? A Comparative Analysis of the Agenda, Activities and Development of the English and Scottish Defence Leagues

Ruari Shaw Sutherland[1], School of Applied Social Sciences, University of Strathclyde



There has been a recent resurgence in far-right politics in Britain, initiated not only by the British National Party (BNP) but by other, newer, organisations. The local face of the revival has been the development of the so-called 'Defence Leagues' of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These groups claim legitimacy as anti-terrorism campaigners but all too often display overt Islamophobia and indiscriminate racism. It is apparent that the movements have developed unevenly in terms of visibility, membership and impact in the Scottish and English contexts. This has manifested itself in a far lower membership of the SDL and drastically lower turnouts at 'major' SDL demonstrations. This article, drawing on interviews with individuals in the EDL and anti-racist organisations, explores this disparity, finding tensions between the two organisations along religious, cultural and nationalist lines.

Keywords: English Defence League, Scottish Defence League, Nationalism, Racism



To have common glories in the past, a common will in the present; to have accomplished great things together, to wish to do so again, that is the essential condition for being a nation.
(Renan, 1994 [1882]: 17)

National identity can neither be preserved like an antique piece of furniture nor discarded like an old piece of clothing, it needs to be constantly reassessed, adopted to changing circumstances and brought into harmony with our deeper self-understanding and ideals. To freeze it, to refuse to evaluate and change it, out of inertia, uncritical pride or a mood of nostalgia, is the surest way to subvert it.
(Parekh, 2011: 254)

There has been a recent resurgence in far-right politics in Britain, initiated not only by the British National Party (BNP) but by other, newer, organisations. The local face of the revival has been the development of the so-called 'Defence Leagues' of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These groups claim legitimacy as anti-terrorism campaigners but all too often display overt Islamophobia and indiscriminate racism. It is apparent that the movements have developed unevenly in terms of visibility, membership and impact in the Scottish and English contexts. This has manifested itself in a far lower membership of the SDL and drastically lower turnouts at 'major' SDL demonstrations (such as Glasgow, November 2009). This has allowed for a relatively successful Scottish counter-movement to organise itself, in the activities of Unite Against Fascism (UAF), Scotland United and the various city-specific Anti-Fascist Alliances. These organisations have also mobilised to oppose the EDL in various English cities (such as Luton, February 2011). This article, drawing on interviews with individuals from EDL and anti-racist organisations' leadership, explores this disparity by focusing on the historically divergent national identities of Scotland and England as well as their social, cultural, ethnic and political differences. All interviews were carried out overtly with fully informed consent and permission to publish responses.

In the context of this research, focusing on the Scottish and English branches, there is a need to understand at least three key elements:

  1. The historic relationship between Scotland and England, their pre-existing nationalisms and post-devolution politics.

  2. The cultural, ethnic, political, religious and socioeconomic differences both between and within Scotland and England.

  3. The level of support and opposition present in each case.

The ideological parallels with traditional fascism would suggest that this may be a fruitful starting point; however, there are a number of divergent elements and these make a crude characterisation of their politics impractical and misleading. A key tenet of fascist ideology is the assumption that there is a true "'ethnic' nation […] an exclusive 'club' for people of a certain birthright" (Davies and Lynch, 2002: 116). The Defence Leagues, whilst inherently xenophobic, have been careful to appear inclusive, even creating a Jewish division and a LGBT division (Moore, 2011; EDL LGBT Division, undated). This tendency towards 'inclusion' has been a core tactic of the Defence Leagues, recruiting 'floating groups' in order to draw in recruits from the widest possible constituency – from social groups who would not ordinarily self-associate with a street-fighting, 'extreme-right' organisation" (Copsey, 2010: 21). This strategy was, in fact, praised by Anders Behring Breivik in his manifesto, published prior to his massacre of 77 people in Norway in July 2011. Breivik states: "It is highly advisable to structure any street protest organisation after the English Defence League model as it is the only way to avoid paralyzing scrutiny and persecution" (2011: 3.11). It is worth noting that these factions often contain only one or two members and appear to be tokenistic and strategic in nature.

Although the Defence Leagues operate under the same umbrella grouping there are a number of key differences between them. This article will explore in greater depth three key divisions between the Scottish and English Defence Leagues with reference to relevant literature and personal interviews carried out with leading members of the EDL and anti-racist organisations.



As a relatively new phenomenon, there is fairly little published research on the Defence Leagues of England, Northern Ireland (Ulster), Wales and Scotland. So far, the sum total of academic coverage of the Scottish Defence League amounts to a few lines in an article on the EDL which states that "[a] major issue that has frustrated attempts to build larger Defence Leagues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has been sectarian divisions" (Copsey, 2010: 19-20). While it is clear that there are other issues at play this is a plausible barrier to growth in Scotland.

There is an ongoing debate about the decline in relevance, and even the potential "myth", of Scottish sectarianism, focusing particularly on economic and material discrimination (see Murray, 2000: Ch. 14; Bruce et al., 2004; Rosie, 2004; Bruce et al., 2006). "Scotland's shame" (McConnell in Bruce et al., 2004: vii) is, however, still considered an issue in Scottish football (Scottish Executive, 2006: 6-9) and, within the context of the SDL, still provides a profound obstacle to consolidation and growth within the traditional football casuals' movement (Briggs, 2010). Racist and fascist organisations have a particularly poor track record, in this respect, in Scotland with the National Front, and Moseley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) before them, also struggling to overcome sectarian divisions and build support (Fielding, 1981:41; Cullen, 2008: 323-26). With the vast majority of EDL and SDL support drawn from the ranks of football casuals groups, the sectarian divisions between Glasgow clubs – Catholic/Republican-aligned Celtic and Protestant/Unionist-aligned Rangers – have proven unassailable. A leading member of the EDL was keen to explain that anyone who opposes Islam is welcome to join the Defence Leagues, even if certain groups dominate:

In the SDL it's predominantly Protestant and there's no ill feeling, there's no bad blood because they have the intelligence enough to realise that this Sharia, this Islam, this ideology does not care whether you're Protestant, Catholic, Jew or Sikh; if you are infidel or non Muslim, you are Kefur [sic], you are a non-believer.
(EDL1, Personal Interview)

Although the majority of SDL supporters appear to come from the loyalist-aligned Glasgow Rangers and Heart of Midlothian football clubs, they have struggled to consolidate mass support within these teams and in more respectable loyalist organisations such as the Orange Order. Interviewed as part of this research, one of the leading figures in the Glasgow Anti Fascist Alliance argued:

When you look at Scotland it's difficult to avoid sectarianism and the whole Orange Order thing. Obviously it's empowering wearing a uniform and going on demonstrations [...] if you are from a loyalist background it's already a fairly respectable organisation in which you can go out on the street and sing racist songs.
(GAFA1, Personal Interview)

The 'legitimacy' of the right-aligned Orange Order, in other words, may draw support away from the more controversial SDL.

While sectarian divisions present a clear problem for the Defence Leagues, a more fundamental tension exists. As a populist nationalist grouping the English Defence League has struggled to overcome the existing Scottish sub-national identity which is often articulated in contrast to England.


Existing National Identities/Projects

If we take as our definition of a nation Renan's quote at the beginning of this article, it becomes difficult to resolve Great Britain's nationhood with the sub-nationalisms of its constituent parts. The idea of "Common glories in the past" and "a common will in the present" (Renan, 1994 [1882]: 17) is not exactly concomitant, for example, with the Anglo-Scots relationship historically. Robert Ford argues that these different and "distinctive" ways in which the different British nations expressed their nationalism "has an important effect on how they view minorities" (2008: 38). Ford avers, analysing the 2003 British Social Attitudes Survey data, that those who identify with English or Welsh identity tend to display "significantly chauvinistic and ethnically nationalist" traits (ibid.). Miles argues that this is borne out of an English proclivity to define the criteria of inclusion "around the ability to sustain pride in bloodshed and colonial exploitation" (1987: 39). This view is shared by Perryman who argues that "English patriotism is shaped by the imperial and the martial more than most" (2009: 42). This is divergent, according to Ford, with Scottish identity which has been grounded in "distinct political and civic institutions [and] does not show this xenophobic tendency" (Ford, 2008: 38) focusing instead, Miles avers, on the "disadvantages of union" (Miles, 1987: 40). As one leading member of Unite Against Fascism asserts, the complexities of sub-national identity have been largely ignored by the EDL, to the detriment of their growth north of the border:

Initially when they came to Scotland they called themselves the English Defence League, they arrived on Princes Street to demand that you call yourself English [...] [people were thinking] "who are you to tell us we should be English?" [...] The breadth of [Scottish] nationalism hasn't been very conducive to the EDL because what the EDL want to do is to say the English are better than the Scottish. When they say it's equal, they mean 'empire equal', 'union equal'.
(UAF1, Personal Interview)

If, as Gellner argues, "Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness" but rather the invention of nations "where they do not exist" (1983: 168) then perhaps a lack of Scottish support for the EDL or the SDL should be contextualised in the EDL's very Anglo-British rhetoric. Their construction of 'Britishness' is predicated on a particularly English historic cultural identity:

You can practice your faith but don't attack the host nation's faith, don't attack their traditions/cultures, don't try and impose your traditions and your faiths upon the British people, the English people, the Christian people... they don't want it, you know?
(EDL1, Personal Interview)

According Bechhofer and McCrone, in 2005 64% of Scots defined themselves as "predominantly Scottish" (2007: 255).

The EDL's construction of Englishness tends toward what Appadurai calls a "predatory identity" whereby majority identities "successfully mobilise […] the anxiety of incompleteness about their sovereignty […]. Incompleteness, in this sense, is not only about effective control or practical sovereignty but more importantly about purity and its relationship to identity" (2006: 52-53). The point of departure from traditional racism organisations is this shift from a fixation on biological 'racial' differences, to one based on cultural and religious "threats":

I got no problem with Muslims; I've got a problem with the ideology of Islam and their behaviour [sic]. They're trying to impose themselves on the rest of society and change our ways, our cultures, our culture, our traditions... to theirs.
(EDL1, Personal Interview)

This is part of what Barker calls "the new racism" (1981), a racism that focuses less on "racial" inferiority and more on cultural difference. It is exactly this "new" racism which informed the rhetoric of Thatcher when she stated in 1978 that "people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture" (Margaret Thatcher Foundation, undated). The tacit racism and xenophobia of Thatcher's words, unfortunately, is not a historical anomaly. It has survived well into contemporary popular and elite discourse.

Thus the British elite have sometimes been guilty of covertly invoking an "exclusive account of Britishness" through a disavowal of that which is "not British" (Meer et al., 2010: 105). This has had the effect, Meer et al. argue, of "juxtaposing British national identity with multiculturalism", thereby implying that "Britishness is not multicultural" (2010: 94-105). Historian David Starkey's comments on the BBC recently highlighted this racialisation of British identity. In response to disturbances in London Starkey exclaimed that "the whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion" adding that a "Jamaican patois […] has intruded in England" (O'Carroll, 2011 – emphasis added). Starkey juxtaposes this "patois", apparently indicative of a savage culture, with the success of some black citizens arguing that "If you turn the screen off, so you were listening to [David Lammy MP] on radio, you would think he was white" (ibid). this deracination of Lammy according to accent and education is an implies that his ethnicity is both "conceived as foreignness and otherness" but also "something that one can willingly shed in exchange for legitimate citizenship" (Fortier, 2005: 574). This dialectical process, avers Fortier, re-naturalises the hegemony of "British-as-whiteness […] through the re-affirmation of the legitimacy and belonging of the unmarked subjects" (ibid.). David Cameron' s speech to the Munich security conference in 2011 reaffirmed just this point. After denigrating what he called the "doctrine of state multiculturalism" he went on to say that we are far too tolerant of segregated communities "behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values" (2011). It is just this sort of rhetoric which has been seized by the far right as a legitimation of their ideology and activities.

Bikhu Parekh terms this the "paradox of national identity" (2011: 255). On one hand, there is a proclivity toward shared identity in every political community; on the other, an exclusive tendency to "demean those outsiders who constitute its acknowledged or unacknowledged point of reference" (ibid.). As Miles argues, this paradox is contingent upon the essentialised cultural traits of ethnic majorities as well as minorities, in a process which constructs both the in group and the "other" (1987: 26-27). The EDL is a leading protagonist in this discourse. Their mission statement states: "the EDL stands opposed to the creeping Islamisation [sic] of our country, because intimately related to the spread of Islamic religion is the political desire to implement an undemocratic alternative to our cherished way of life: the sharia" (EDL, 2010).

Seymour avers that what was once an "aggressive global white supremacism" has been replaced by "defensive white nationalism" somewhat protected by the "alibi" of a shifted focus from colour to creed (Seymour, 2010). The EDL claim to be an anti-racist organisation opposed only to radical Islam but, as Garland and Treadwell argue, "this veneer of respectability is rather thin" (2010: 32).

It would seem, then, that there is not as much space politically for the far right to develop in Scotland. This has encouraged numerous members of the Scottish elite to publicly denounce the EDL and SDL vis-a-vis Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill's claim that "there is no traction in Scotland for [the SDL's] foul and evil views." (MacAskill in Hamill, 2010). This political response is praised by a leading member of the UAF:

I think there's a genuine attempt to be a multicultural society in Scotland […] they're comfortable with somebody coming from Pakistan and being Scottish whereas in England, there's an attempt to make it… it's led from the government as well… it's quite complicated [...] It's almost as if there's no space for them to grow [in Scotland] a sense that 'you're not needed', whereas in England, actually, concessions are given to them.
(UAF1, Personal Interview)

The existing national identities and projects found in Scotland are clearly not entirely convergent, then, with the ideology and rhetoric of the EDL. This is not to say, of course, that racism does not exist in Scotland; rather that there is little support for the EDL's particular brand. The final contributing factor to the divergent growth of the two Defence Leagues discussed here is in some ways an extension of these sub-nationalisms; where articulated in contrast or opposition to English national identity Scottish nationalism can tend towards Anglophobia.



The historic relationship between Scotland and England is predicated upon a particularly fractious history between the North and South. Scotland's subjugation to centralised rule from Westminster has long been a contentious issue for many and the drive for independence, Williamson argues, has created a "unique sense of Scottish identity" (2009: 53). In the 1979 and 1983 elections less than 10% of Conservative MPs came from Scottish seats and modern Conservatism "spoke overwhelmingly with a Southern English voice" (McCrone, 1992: 173). Thatcher's time in power served to polarise the British public and has led, according to Colley, to "the re-emergence of a right-wing Little Englandism […] encourage[ing] some English scholars to view the [...] Scots as the other in a more deliberate fashion than before, and vice versa" (Colley, 1992: 313).

This trend towards Little Englandism has continued to some extent in the wake of devolution with the proliferation of an English (over British) nationalism, "largely", as Modood avers, "as a consequence of a Scottish disavowal of British" (Modood, 2005: 295). This is summed up in the title quote of this article, found on an EDL discussion forum, where an EDL member proclaims that "The Scottish hate us [the English] more than the Muslims". While English national identity is historically situated in the power relations of colonialism and the associated discourse of national and racial superiority, Scottish national identity is, in part, constructed in opposition to this English nationalism and the union. It could be argued that this may make Scottish identity less conducive to certain forms of nativist xenophobia.

The EDL has grown within this context, invoking the patriotic iconography of the flag of Saint George and Winston Churchill. Perhaps the disavowal of British to which Modood refers begins to explain the lack of Scottish uptake of EDL ideas, ideas which are overwhelmingly predicated on a very "English Britishness". This can be seen in their reification of the "traditions and culture of England" (EDL, 2010). If Modood's analysis is right, and "'English' has been treated by the new Britons as a closed ethnicity rather than an open nationality" (Modood, 2005: 294-95), we might perhaps begin to understand the divergence of ethnic minority identities in Scotland and England. Hussain and Miller aver that there exists in Scotland a "multiculturalist elite" which moderates "street-level antipathy between Muslims and local nationalists" (2006: 49), an influence which they argue is lacking in the English context. Scottish nationalism as a result, they argue, "does not create or inflate Islamophobia" (2006: 66). Further, they argue that Muslims in Scotland, knowingly or otherwise, even adopt some degree of Anglophobia as a "[tool] of integration" (2006:198).

In his seminal work Banal Nationalism Michael Billig argues that national identity constructs and reproduces itself in "familiar" and "continual" ways (1995: 8). The "unnoticed" flag is just one of Billig's "forgotten reminders" (ibid.) that construct and reproduce national identity. As Garland and Treadwell point out, the flag of Saint George carries with it the "historical association with the crusades, an earlier conflict between Christian Europe and Islam" (2010:29). This, paired with the Union Jack's imperial connotations, may begin to account for the more chauvinistic nationalisms of England and the associated disavowal of the EDL's ideas and activities in Scotland.



The EDL continues to stage demonstrations but its tactics, and in many cases attendances, are increasingly desperate. The organisation is riven by internal struggles over ideology, power and purpose. A recent split has seen the SDL veer away from the EDL somewhat, developing a more overtly racist ideological stance, aligning themselves more closely with the newly formed, and more openly racist, Infidels of Britain (themselves a split from the supposedly increasingly 'multicultural' EDL). At the same time the EDL have shifted their focus somewhat towards party politics, joining a British National Party split - the British Freedom Party (BFP) - where Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson), leader of the EDL, has taken up the position of anti-Islamic policy advisor and deputy leader. These internal divisions show that there are inherent political tensions within the Defence Leagues and far more consensus around what they are against than what they are for.

Tensions also exist within and between the SDL and EDL along sectarian, nationalist and football lines. With sectarianism in Scotland most apparent within football rivalries, and the EDL's key support growing within football casuals factions, forming a national solidary has proven problematic. Added to this is a palpable sense of Anglophobia, even within the unionist ranks of the SDL, which has further marred the growth of the Defence League model north of the border. The SDL reaction to the EDL's very English form of Britishness has often been one of bemusement and, at times, anger.

Aside from internal divisions in the Defence Leagues there has been a more concerted political response in Scotland than in England. In Scotland all major political parties have made clear statements regarding their opposition to the Defence Leagues and have supported Scottish grass roots anti-racist movements. In England, although a strong grass roots movement has been present, there has been more capitulation to the demands of the Defence Leagues and a more fertile political ground for their message. Indeed, on the day of the EDL's largest demonstration to date, David Cameron denounced multiculturalism, going so far as to decry its failure in Britain; a statement which was seized upon by the BNP leader Nick Griffin as a victory for the far-right. Whether accidental or not, this sort of rhetoric lends legitimacy to organisations such as the EDL at the same time as Scottish political elites are attempting (not unproblematically) to drive a multicultural agenda.

There is a clear divergence between the memberships and, increasingly, the agendas of the English and Scottish Defence Leagues and these can be attributed to a range of social, political and historical differences. Religious sectarianism and national rivalry have marred the SDL's growth as well as a more concerted and unambiguous political response North of the border. With the most recent splits within both the SDL and EDL it will be interesting to see how the groups develop in the future and even whether they continue to exist in their current form.




I'd like to thank my supervisor Colin Clark whose knowledge, passion and support have helped make this research a joy to carry out. I'd also like to thank the Carnegie Trust and the Interns@Strathclyde programme for their generous funding.



[1] Ruari Sutherland has just graduated with First Class Honours in Geography and Sociology from the University of Strathclyde and is about to begin an ESRC funded 1+3 MRes and PhD at the University of Edinburgh



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To cite this paper please use the following details: Sutherland, R. S. (2012), ''The Scottish hate us more than the Muslims...': The North/South Divide? A Comparative Analysis of the Agenda, Activities and Development of the English and Scottish Defence Leagues', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, British Conference of Undergraduate Research 2012 Special Issue, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at


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