Stephen Lennon is angry. Every taut sinew and muscle in his body exudes that rage. In a run-down pub on one of Luton’s most dilapidated and sprawling 1960s housing estates, his rant against Islam earned approving nods from his followers sipping beer as they listened while he was interviewed by The Times.
The 27-year-old former British National Party (BNP) member is the founder and leader of the English Defence League (EDL), a far-right group that is forging links with like-minded anti-Islamist organisations across Europe and, now, America.
It is the first time that Mr Lennon, a father of two, has given a newspaper interview and has been photographed without his trademark mask, emblazoned with the red Knights Templar’s Cross, concealing his identity.
As a heavyweight rottweiler patrols the backroom meeting, Mr Lennon reels off perceived injustices heaped on the English working class because of “failed” multiculturalism and the “Islamisation” of Britain.
As he vents his well-rehearsed rhetoric at a breakneck speed there is no room for compromise or middle ground. It is his speeches — made on the streets of cities and towns to hundreds, sometimes thousands of EDL supporters, many wearing masks — that have helped to fuel running battles with antifascist and Asian demonstrators. Many protests end in violence and arrests and invariably incur massive policing costs.
Mr Lennon is no stranger to violence. The Times can reveal that he was jailed for a year for actual bodily harm after punching and kicking an off-duty policeman during a domestic incident in 2004. He is banned from Luton Town football matches as part of his bail conditions, after being charged with affray and assault for two separate incidents this year. Mr Lennon denies both charges. He said he is also being investigated for money laundering, which he also denies.
He has many names; he once changed his name by deed poll to Paul Harris, has combined his parents’ and stepfather’s surnames and now claims he uses his stepfather’s name of Lennon. To most of the EDL’s rank and file, however, he is Tommy Robinson.
Wearing a leather jacket and jeans, and standing 5ft 7in tall, he cuts a stocky figure with the swagger of a man used to standing his ground amid the push and shove of the football terrace with the more volatile fans.
“People are at f***ing boiling point,” he said, sipping from a pint glass of vodka and lemonade. “There’s an undercurrent of anger from people living in towns like this. It’s ready to explode. And the Government needs to listen. Before we started, the working class across this country were ignored by the Government. We are bringing these issues to the forefront. They would have ignored us for another ten years if we didn’t do nothing.”
By his own admission, the EDL has adopted the tactics of the Islamic extremists, who unwittingly helped to spawn his group after disrupting a troops’ homecoming from Iraq by waving banners calling the soldiers “terrorists” and “butchers of Basra”.
What had been a few hundred, predominantly white, Luton Town football fans handing out leaflets stating “Ban the Luton Taleban” grew almost overnight into the EDL with so-called “divisions” linked to football clubs across England, Scotland and Wales.
To Mr Lennon it is a “war” with Islamic extremism. “We didn’t let the IRA recruit on the streets of England when we were at war with them. So why were Islamic extremists allowed to recruit in Luton? And I don’t agree with the war. It’s the most unjust war ever. But you have to support our troops.”
He insists that neither he nor the EDL is racist, despite often racist diatribes posted by some followers on the group’s Facebook page. “Islam is not a race, it’s an ideology. If you get the Koran there are elements to it that are racist towards us nonbelievers,” he continued, adding that he accepts that some divisions had been linked to Combat 18, a violent neo-Nazi group, but that a 17-month-old organisation without membership cannot control who claims to support it. He says that he has friends who are black, points to one of the most prominent EDL activists being Sikh and, as the London demonstration yesterday showed, the group supports Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
His claims are extraordinary: Muslims sell heroin as “chemical warfare” to weaken British society, as well as enticing drug-addicted British girls into “paedophilic prostitution”. He admits, however, that some EDL “activists” take cocaine on buses on the way to demonstrations (“That’s different. It’s a social drug. Brown [heroin] destroys communities.”).
While he has embraced technology with an official website, social networking and YouTube videos, he knows that EDL’s strength lies in its ability to wreak disorder and chaos through demonstrations. He said that “reluctantly” he uses the threat of a demonstration as “blackmail” to ensure that councils do not pander to Islamic pressure groups to change British traditions. “We are now sending letters to every council saying that if you change the name of Christmas we are coming in our thousands and shutting your town down.”
Despite the vacuum left by the failure of the BNP at the ballot box, the EDL will not try to enter mainstream politics and will remain an “anti-Islamist” pressure group. “If we build a support base across the country, the Conservative and Labour Party will start to accept what we are saying,” he said.
“If the politicians aren’t going to stick up for us we will make them, because we will cause so much fuss and so much noise they are going to have to listen. We will not back down or be beaten into submission. We don’t care if you call us racists. We are coming anyway. We are going to continue doing it until someone listens.”
Referring to how politicians held meetings with the Muslim Council of Great Britain after the terrorist attacks in London, he said: “The Government can now do deals with us. Before you make decisions in towns and cities, people had better think ‘what is the EDL going to say?’ ”
Asked if he can envisage a time when the EDL would end its activities and live in peace with the Islamic community, he said: “Of course I can. If they agree to stop taking the piss across this country and swear allegiance to the Queen, this country and the flag, and then live side by side. That’s what we want.” He added that anyone breaking that allegiance would be “booted out back to where they came from”.
Mr Lennon was born in Luton to Irish immigrant parents in November 1982. However, the couple split up and he lost contact with his father, Malcolm, at the age of 11. His mother remarried and he was brought up on a relatively prosperous housing estate in the Bedford area.
He attended Putteridge High School in Luton and went on to train as an aircraft engineer. But his brushes with the law in 2004 put an end to his career and he now works as a carpenter. Because of his criminal record he was recently turned away from JFK Airport in New York after flying there to attend the protests against plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero.
A lapsed Catholic, his activism began in 2004 when he joined the BNP (“I didn’t know they were racist”) and later set up the United People of Luton. He lives in a £200,000 home in a leafy suburb in Bedfordshire.
“We’ve got to go,” he said, pointing out how he was off to meet the American rabbi and Tea Party activist, Nachum Shifren, who spoke against Sharia outside the Israeli Embassy yesterday. One of his mates joked: “Yeah, gotta go. We’ve got a war to start”.
Before leaving, Mr Lennon said: “To be honest, mate, I didn’t want this on my shoulders. I didn’t want to be the leader of the EDL. I want to be home with my missus and kids. I don’t want fatwas on my head and death threats. I don’t want to be the next f***ing Nick Griffin. But I am not backing down.”
Times, 25 October 2010