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British deaths in Afghanistan: How the war has fallen out at home

Stephen Lennon explains to Monitor reporter, Ben Arnoldy, how he co-founded the English Defence League in the wake of an Afghan war protest.

By Staff writer / July 2, 2012

British troops keep watch at a checkpoint, where a man shot and killed three British soldiers, in Helmand province July 2. The man, an Afghan policeman, shot the soldiers at the checkpoint on Sunday, Afghan officials said, the latest in a chain of increasingly frequent rogue killings. A fourth British soldier was also injured. The soldiers were serving with an Afghan police advisory team.

Abdul Malik/Reuters

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Luton, England

An Afghan policeman turned his weapon on British troops Sunday, killing three and sending more bad news to a British public deeply unhappy with the war.

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Managing Editor, Monitor Frontier Markets

Ben Arnoldy is managing editor for Monitor Frontier Markets. He has served as the Monitor's bureau chief in India and Northern California. 

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British forces have lost more than 400 soldiers as well as public support for the conflict. A YouGov poll in April found just 14 percent supported staying on, with 77 percent favoring troops withdrawing immediately or soon. In the US, by contrast, 32 percent still support staying on until the situation is stabilized, according to a Pew poll in April.

The near universal disillusionment with Afghanistan in Britain has meant anti-war thinking lives not just in lefty and mainstream circles but within some emergent groups on the flag-waving right. 

In the postindustrial city of Luton on London’s northern fringe, Stephen Lennon explained to me this May how he cofounded the English Defence League, an anti-Islamic group, in the wake of an Afghan war protest.

In 2009, some hard-line Muslims protested a homecoming parade in Luton of British troops from Afghanistan. They held signs calling the troops butchers and killers and shouted “terrorists.” Mr. Lennon channeled anger in Luton over the protest into a broader backlash against Muslim immigration and, he argues, those Muslims whose ideology is separation, not integration, into British society. The group is also trying to bolster English pride through St. George's Day celebrations and waving the English flag, which is a less common sight than the British Union Jack. 

“You know how they say multiculturalism has failed?” asks Lennon. “That’s just a weak, pathetic way of saying Islam has failed.”

Despite all this, he told me he doesn’t support the Afghan war either.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m against the war as well, but I still give full support to our boys and girls,” says Lennon, who in the early days of the EDL went by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson. “If you want to protest the war, take it to … Parliament.”

Lennon had just joined the executive council of the recently formed British Freedom Party in May. The first bullet point of the party’s defense platform is “Withdraw British forces from wars that are no concern of this nation.”

The US right has an isolationist strain too, a view that has gotten a high-profile airing by Ron Paul’s runs for president, and before that Patrick Buchanan

The EDL, however, has drawn considerable debate whether they belong within the boundaries of mainstream discourse. The group drew condemnations after some supporters turned violent, something Lennon says is now self-policed. Membership fell quickly after Norwegian killer Anders Behring Breivik wrote positively of the EDL in his manifesto; Lennon refers to Mr. Breivik with an expletive. Lennon bristles at being called racist or fascist, and banters with black friends who drop in during the interview at a local hotel.  

But the group uses its controversial image for political intimidation.

“We threaten things with [the EDL] really,” says Lennon. “Because it’s all about money with politicians, it costs them a million pounds to police our demonstrations. So if you build a mosque in our shopping center which they wanted to do … [we say] we’ll be here, and then they didn’t.”

Now Lennon, by joining the British Freedom Party, is trying to steer the EDL into politics, albeit on the fringes. 

For a group that formed in reaction to an anti-Afghan-war protest, it’s remarkable the EDL's leader has found a political home in a party that also eschews the military effort abroad. Or as Point 8 in British Freedom’s defense platform puts it: “Desist from tasking our forces to undertake hostilities in a war that is not directly threatening the homeland or British territory abroad.”

The party, formed in 2010, also wants to beef up the Army to 1980 levels, focus it on defending the country’s borders, and strengthen overseas bases in Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Falklands, and Antarctica

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