Their England is not one I either want or recognise

The flag of St. George.

The flag of St. George.

I’ve often heard the movers and shakers in the Potteries wish that Stoke-on-Trent had a similar profile to the likes of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham.

At the weekend that wish came true, after a fashion, when Stoke-on-Trent followed in the footsteps of those cities and endured its first English Defence League (EDL) protest.

There were 17 arrests, six police officers were injured and city centre traders were left seriously out of pocket at a time when they can ill-afford it.

It could have been worse. Much worse.

All in all it was an expensive farce which prevented thousands of Potters going about their business up ’Anley.

However, it wasn’t the end of the world and no – it doesn’t mean that our city has suddenly become a pariah.

After Saturday, it would be easy to tar all the EDL demonstrators with the same brush and label them yobs and fascists.

But, as The Sentinel’s own reporters discovered, the inconvenient truth is that far from being entirely composed of shaven-headed Nazis and unemployed louts, the protesters on Saturday were a mixed bag of locals and outsiders, teens to people in their fifties from all walks of life.

Whatever their reasons for being in the city centre on Saturday no-one could possibly argue that they were all there seeking violence or indeed that they are all fascists.

It would be a bit like arguing that because a certain football club has a few followers who enjoy a ruck then all its supporters are hooligans.

While it is absolutely fair to say that elements of the EDL showed themselves up to be bigoted morons bent on provocation and confrontation, it seems a large number of the protesters were simply disaffected, disillusioned and misguided – none of which are crimes.

Whatever their motivations, these kind of people have every right to hold a peaceful public protest.

Sadly, a peaceful protest is not what we got.

“Saturday made me ashamed to be English,” wrote one reader on The Sentinel’s website, somewhat melodramatically.

Well it didn’t make me ashamed to be English because the EDL doesn’t represent me and it is not campaigning for an England that I either want or recognise.

If the EDL genuinely wants to affect change in this country then I would suggest to its leadership that there are far better ways of doing it – such as becoming a legitimate political party or lobbying decision-makers.

Bringing a busy shopping town to a standstill on a Saturday afternoon, intimidating the locals and wearing scarves and masks while shouting “ban the burkha” is patently not the answer.

The fact is the organisers of this gathering knew there would be trouble and that’s exactly what we ended up with.

Unfortunately, as our economy continues to struggle and the mainstream political parties shy away from tackling the thorny issues of immigration and the UK’s membership of the EU and its ramifications, these kind of demonstrations will continue – along with a growth in support for right wing parties.

To use a word popular with modern soundbite politicians, many ordinary people feel disenfranchised by the mainstream parties and are looking elsewhere for someone to give them a voice.

The EDL should have done its homework, of course. Stoke-on-Trent has a proud history of tolerance and integration and a few placards and a bit of lairy behaviour one afternoon is hardly likely to shake our city to its foundations.

This year we mark the centenary of the Federation of the Six Towns and we have plenty to celebrate.

In a few weeks’ time the Staffordshire Hoard comes to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and over the coming months we will all be enjoying numerous events to coincide with the 100 years which will put our city on the map for all the right reasons.

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