The Phony Martyrdom of Tommy Robinson

Tommy Robinson wants you to believe he’s a plucky underdog who’s been unfairly repressed. But the British far-right leader is no martyr — just a clever fascist with blood on his hands.

Tommy Robinson is escorted by police during a protest on April 1, 2017 in London. Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty

Last month, an irate Steve Bannon fulminated against Britain’s “liberal elite” and insisted that Tommy Robinson was “the fucking backbone of this country.”

Bannon’s comments came after a soft-soap radio interview with former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage. It was left to Farage, of all people, to clarify that, far from being the backbone of the country, “everybody hates Tommy Robinson.”

Farage is not far wrong. Though a cause célèbre for the Trump reactionaries, Robinson remains deeply unpopular in Britain. Serving his fifth prison term as Bannon spoke, he is the backbone only of a violent, schismatic far-right subculture.

Nonetheless, a Trump-appointed diplomat lobbied the British government on Robinson’s behalf, claiming to be concerned for his safety in jail. Here, the administration gave voice to the self-pitying propaganda of Robinson and his social media supporters. Robinson claimed through a social media outrider that he had been put in a jail with a 71 percent Muslim population, in a cell opposite the “mosque” where Muslim prisoners could spit or throw feces at him. This was reiterated on Breitbart by Telegraph journalist James Delingpole. Upon his release Robinson bemoaned his “mental torture” in conditions supposedly comparable to Guantánamo Bay, a claim that actual former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg gently skewered.

Robinson’s Pathetic Melodrama

The lies of Robinson’s weaselly little cult, if that isn’t a euphemism, collapse fairly quickly. Robinson spent a short period in HMP Onley, a “category C” prison. There is no mosque in the jail, and under a third of its inmates are Muslims. Robinson was under protection the entire time. His complaints while in jail indicate that he protested of “mental torture” in part so that he could demand “extra spends” and “enhanced” status and privileges.

Nonetheless, mainstream platforms echoed Robinson’s story of martyrdom. Far-right provocateur Raheem Kassam was shopped around the news by public relations firm CapitalHQ. He duly appeared on the BBC, as did Rebel Media boss Ezra Levant. As Owen Jones points out, if such interviews were supposed to challenge the far right’s mouthpieces, they failed abysmally. Kassam was allowed to style himself as a legal commentator, and his connection to Breitbart and the far right went unmentioned.

The irony is that Robinson’s supporters are exactly the sorts of people who typically decry Britain’s prisons as “soft touch” “holiday camps.” Here they compared a short stretch in a low-security prison to the global kidnapping and torturing rings linked to Guantánamo Bay. For a man who has served several jail terms, usually for violent offenses, this is weirdly melodramatic. Britain’s jails may be rough and overcrowded, but this mass conversion to the cause of prison reform would perhaps be less absurd if they honestly admitted why Robinson was jailed to start with.

In a softball interview with Robinson after his release, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson claimed that he was arrested for “attempting to cover the trial of a sexual grooming gang in the UK, for speaking out loud in the sidewalk.” Bannon likewise claimed that he was jailed unfairly, on a harsh application of a technicality regarding reporting restrictions. The Spectator’s Rod Liddle claimed not to be “remotely a fan” of Robinson, but asserted that he had been arrested for “simply being Robinson.”

Many of his supporters are more careful. UKIP leader Gerard Batten, who shares Robinson’s Islamophobic obsessions, told Infowars that Robinson was trying to protect “the victims of the industrialized rape gangs that we’ve got operating up and down this country now.”

But even he half-apologetically coughed out a disclaimer about Robinson breaking the law. Islam-baiter Douglas Murray, writing in the National Review, claimed that Robinson had been “persecuted” for “exceptionally brave” citizen journalism but admitted that he had committed an offense.

The reality is rather pathetic. Robinson knowingly endangered the trials of individuals potentially guilty of serious sexual assault against minors. In the first case, in May 2017, he brought a camera into the courtroom. British courts do not allow photography or filming, in order to preserve fair trials and prevent jury intimidation.

Robinson’s interest in the trials did not owe to some deep concern over sexual violence against children. When leading English Defence League (EDL) member Richard Price was locked up on child pornography charges, Robinson stood by him, and EDL members organized a campaign in his defense. But in this case the suspects were Asian — and many were Muslim.

Robinson has long cleaved to the Islamophobic right’s lunatic theory identifying “links” between Islam and pedophilia. He tried to make racist propaganda out of the trials for Canada’s far-right Rebel Media. The judge duly handed him a suspended sentence. The following year, while still serving the suspended sentence, he committed the same offense, knowing full well he would be arrested.

As Britain’s top source of populist racism, the Sun, pointed out, Robinson’s willingness to wreck these trials didn’t make him a hero but a “nasty thug and a grandstanding idiot.” Surprisingly — perhaps showing proprietorial concern for its own racist racket — the Sun was the only outlet to take such an uncompromising line.

A Long History of Fascist Organizing

If journalists are now queuing up to indulge the laments of “Tommy” — as BBC journalists now routinely call him — this is not entirely new. There has long been a curious sympathy for Robinson in parts of the British media. He is, in large part, a media creation.

Robinson’s major political contribution was to cofound the English Defence League, an anti-Muslim street gang that effectively existed from June 2009 to October 2013. The EDL first emerged amid a major dispute on the far right, whose principal force at the time was the British National Party (BNP).

The BNP had shed its overt neo-Nazi sympathies as part of chairman Nick Griffin’s media-friendly electoral strategy. Hugely successful on its own terms, this secured Griffin TV appearances including the BBC’s flagship Newsnight and Question Time, and built a base of close to a million votes between 2000 and 2009.

That success depended, however, on a tacit division of labor on the far right. As BNP activist Lee Barnes explained, the rival National Front would be left to organize “those nationalists [sic] who are not interested in political electioneering but in street activism.” Foot soldiers molded under longtime BNP leader John Tyndall remembered that Griffin was once a devout advocate of Tyndall’s strategy of backing up “rights for whites” with “well-directed boots and fists.”

By 2008, even as Griffin’s tactical detour brought votes and media coverage, some BNP factions itched to return to the purer fascist ideal of controlling the streets. They also distrusted Griffin’s role as a well-paid representative in a European parliament they considered an abomination and leveled claims of financial corruption. These early factional moves against Griffin overlapped with the formation of the EDL.

The EDL partly grew out of a violent fringe of soccer hooligans (“casuals”) in Luton. These “Men-in-Gear” (MIGs) were known for their hatred of the local Muslim minority. The main founder, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, took the pseudonym “Tommy Robinson” from one of the notorious local casuals. It briefly fused with a right-wing anti-Muslim group called “March for England,” organized by far-right YouTuber Paul Ray.

But Ray claims to have been driven away by an influx of BNPers. Both Robinson and right-hand man Kevin Carroll were ex-BNPers with convictions for violent offenses. Key EDL organizer Chris Renton was a known BNP activist. Davy Cooling, an activist in the Luton “division,” was a BNP and MIG member. Sean Corrigan, who ran the EDL’s online forum, was a BNP activist from St Albans. Alan Spence, its northeast regional organizer, was a former BNP candidate.

With the organizational spine drawn from the extant far right, the foot soldiers were recruited from among right-wing football casuals and organized into local “divisions.” Alan Lake, one of the group’s funders and strategists, explained that this was a deliberate calculation. The hooligans were motivated, traveled under their own steam to matches, and were partial to violence.

This old tactic mimicked the National Front’s infiltration of football gangs in the 1970s, partly to organize attacks against black people, Asians, the Left, and trade unionists. In 2009, it provided the physical heft with which to attack Muslims and anyone who might look like a Muslim. Finally, some ideological inspiration was drawn from Ulster Loyalism. The slogan “No Surrender,” often shortened to “NS” on far-right message boards (or “NFSE” for “No Fucking Surrender Ever”) was taken from the ideology of Loyalist paramilitaries, who backed it up with bullets. Linked to this was the strong “Crusader” theme in EDL ideology; recalling the bloody medieval struggle against Islam, its main visual icon was the St George’s cross on a shield.

With this coalition mobilized by a rousing ideology of violent struggle, Robinson and his allies repackaged an old far-right strategy: “march and grow.” Big street mobilizations aim to gain media attention and excite potential supporters.

As academics Paul Jackson and Martin Feldman have documented, the EDL’s main innovation is to link this to a successful Facebook strategy. This was the vehicle, the outlet, for thwarted fascist organizers, football casuals, various neo-Nazis, and a periphery of young white men in Stone Island gear.

How was a media star born of such unpromising material?

Robinson the Public Star

At this stage, there was no “Tommy” cult. Robinson did not appear in public unmasked, and details about him were scarce.

It wasn’t until June 2010 that his real identity, far-right background, and history of football violence were revealed by the antifascist magazine Searchlight. At that point, the leadership was under attack by a weird alliance between Paul Ray, the Ulster Freedom Fighter leader and Combat-18 supporter Johnny Adair, and German neo-Nazi and Israel Defense Forces fan Nick Greger. In the ensuing organizational changes seeking to staunch the attacks, the leader’s role was consolidated and a string of new regional organizers appointed.

This meant two things. First, local organizers could complement national mobilizations with local initiatives such as anti-Muslim graffiti, violent flash demonstrations (in Oldham), placing pig heads near mosques or potential mosques (in Nottingham), descending on fast-food restaurants to warn against the sale of halal meat (Blackburn), or attacking Asian residences (in Nuneaton).

Second, Robinson became the EDL’s undisputed leader and main spokesperson, flanked by his deputy Carroll.

It was then that Robinson’s public persona was developed. He proved extremely adept at running rings around interviewers, and also had a certain laddish charisma. His unpolished speaking style played into his self-representation as the underdog facing down slick professionals.

The justification for giving such a fringe, violent figure these platforms was that this would “expose” him. This had already failed with the BNP, and most journalists seemed to know very little about Robinson’s history, his politics, or even how to challenge his most offensive claims. Meanwhile, Robinson carefully stuck to rehearsed lines: reiterating, for example, that he was not against all Muslims, despite obsessively tracking alleged Muslim wrongdoing.

A typical example was a BBC Radio 4 appearance when he was politely quizzed by Sarah Montague, who declined to ask the obvious questions. Strikingly, the one fleeting occasion on which Robinson has been substantively challenged was when rapper Akala shredded him on the BBC. Nonetheless, broadcasters continued to find him compelling. The day after he appeared at a European counter-jihad meeting in Denmark, the BBC paid to fly him home for an appearance on “The Big Questions,” hosted by right-wing anchor Nicky Campbell.

The Desmond media remained staunchly supportive. By 2011, after two years of violent mobilizations, racist attacks, and many disclosures of fascist involvement in the EDL, the Star still felt confident enough to publish glowing promotional material for EDL mobilizations, give friendly interviews to Robinson on his plans for a new political party, and enthuse that the EDL had “visibly growing support,” “attracting people across Britain to its ranks.” It uncritically quoted Robinson’s claim that the EDL had “no problems with race” and looked forward to it becoming “a political force” which people would have to take “very seriously.”

As the organization developed, and frequently faced counter-mobilizations led by the Left, it began to broaden its targets. Early on, the organization’s website had detected the menace of “communism” in the Labour Party and trade-union movement. As the Institute of Race Relations reported, in addition to the catalog of racist attacks, the EDL had attacked left-wing gigs, socialist and pro-Palestine stands, a trade-union bookshop, and antifascist meetings.

In 2011, in response to student protests against tuition-fee rises, Robinson threatened that next time such a protest occurred, the EDL would be there to stop attacks on the police. These students, he said, lived “off their dads’ fucking bank cards” and couldn’t “understand what it is to be a working-class member of this community.” Later, it set itself up as a protector of neighborhoods during the English riots in summer 2011. In this respect, it started to resemble a classic fascist movement.

Nonetheless, the student protests died out, and the EDL failed to build on the riots. It was also tarnished by its alleged association with Anders Behring Breivik, who killed sixty-nine Norwegian schoolchildren in 2011. The EDL continued its protests targeting Muslims, including two attempts to march on Tower Hamlets (a borough of London with a large Muslim population) in 2011 and 2013. In July 2013, an EDL protest in Birmingham spiraled into a riot, for which fifty people were imprisoned. But the protests were starting to dwindle, and were constantly hampered by opposition, as in Walthamstow in 2012.

Born Again

Quitting the EDL in October 2013, Robinson was suddenly minted as a born-again antiracist hero. He appeared on a platform alongside his confederate Kevin Carroll and ex-Islamist-turned-counter-jihad entrepreneur Maajid Nawaz.

Robinson and Carroll claimed that they had quit the EDL because of mounting far-right infiltration. The Quilliam Foundation, which Nawaz cofounded with Ed Husain, took credit for this breakthrough in race relations, claiming that Robinson had seen the error of his ways. It came a year after the foundation’s government funding was cut off. Since then, it has been funded by right-wing anti-Muslim groups in the United States. Immediately after Robinson’s salvation was declared, Nawaz issued requests for government funding to help his ongoing rehabilitation.

There was reason to be skeptical of this apparent conversion. The Quilliam Foundation had previously staged the apparent conversion of EDL activists Leighton Evans and Harry Burns. Quilliam arranged for Evans to be interviewed by the Guardian, and it became glaringly apparent that no conversion had taken place. Robinson had claimed he was “EDL till I die” when he was interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Neil only months before.

There was no evidence that Robinson had changed his views about Muslims. He had still attended anti-mosque protests and made the same formulaic far-right speeches, until the brink of the announcement. He was still fond of physically intimidating his critics.

Robinson later alleged that the Foundation paid him £2,000 a month to leave the EDL in order to take credit for his conversion. But Robinson was already on the way out, looking for a more respectable platform. He had flirted with setting up a new party or joining UKIP. After quitting, his personal assistant made it clear that he was looking to form a new non-street-based organization. There was no conversion. It says a lot about the UK counter-jihad industry, Tommy Robinson himself, and the British media that they were all so open to such a stunt.

Parts of the media, especially left-wing pundits, did raise mild skepticism over Robinson’s conversion. But many swallowed his “contrition” whole, and he was quickly invited onto BBC Newsnight for an interview with an unusually tame Jeremy Paxman. Given the chance to repudiate his racism, he deflected.

Comedian Omar Hamdi broke bread with Robinson and found that “the new, grown-up Tommy Robinson has some serious things to say.” The BBC produced a documentary featuring Robinson and Mo Ansar, which implied that the encounter between the pair on the BBC’s “The Big Questions” had caused Robinson’s change of heart. Seeing Robinson’s media standing, and obviously impressed by Quilliam’s ability to capitalize, the enterprising Tory candidate Afzal Amin attempted his own publicity stunt, offering EDL members cash to canvas for him and stage a phony march and climbdown for which he could claim credit.

This rebranding persisted even after Robinson’s open return to Islamophobic activism. In 2015, when he launched Pegida UK (imitating the German far-right movement), he was again invited onto news programs to explain his new moderate agenda. He told Channel 4 that he had kept the EDL’s “righteous” message, but “we don’t want the booze and the football hooligan element.” In the Spectator, James Delingpole insisted that “Britain’s most hated man isn’t that hateful.”

Delingpole — a preposterous, posh reactionary — seems to have met Robinson and been charmed by his earthy thuggishness, declaring that he was unfairly made into a pariah. Swallowing Robinson’s self-published hero myth, the Telegraph’s Jamie Bartlett considered him a marginalized voice, victimized by “very aggressive policing tactics” and civil liberties violations.

The fact that journalists keep saying that Robinson is a “plucky underdog” and a victim surely ought to make them wonder if they’re being played.

A Fascist, Not an Underdog

Yet the trope of the plucky underdog persists in part because of another egregious idea: that this goon represents the “legitimate grievances” of the “white working class.”

This trope is echoed by his supporters, such as Delingpole, and the oleaginous Douglas Murray. But it frequently appears in mainstream news reporting. Journalists want him, one senses, to be their fantasy of the “white working class”: an uneducated geezer, a bit of a character with a colorful past who might, with indulgence, grow up and be educated into a more mature position by his class betters.

This discourse ascribing far-right success to the “legitimate grievances” of the “white working class” has a disgraced and disastrous pedigree. The cult of victimhood is classic far-right language. Insofar as it has been echoed by pundits and opportunistic politicians, it has resulted in pandering attempts to placate the far right with racist policies. More recently, it has been used by Robinson and his acolytes to rationalize murder.

But what sort of grievances are we talking about? The latest to take up this cri de coeur is none other than Maajid Nawaz, today a radio presenter.

Rather than recanting his promotion of Robinson, he uses this platform to draw attention to what he terms the “legitimate grievances” driving Robinson’s support. He claims that these grievances include a “cultural blind-spot to extremism coming from brown people,” adding that “grooming gangs” were “allowed” by Labour councils “in the name of antiracism.” And thus, he concludes, Robinson is simply trying to say what can’t be said in the British media.

Nawaz, to give him his due, is an intelligent and facile opportunist. It would be surprising if he didn’t know that every other news day is “extremism coming from brown people” day. Nor is he unaware that the UK’s ongoing participation in extraditions, kidnappings, internment, secret prisons, assassinations, drone attacks, and war are all justified by “extremism coming from brown people.”

Likewise, whatever grossly inflammatory, inaccurate, headline-grabbing material the Quilliam Foundation has published on grooming gangs in northern England, there is no obvious connection between outrage at the sexual exploitation of children and being an anti-Muslim racist. Unless you make a racist connection, there isn’t one.

Nawaz’s repetition of the loony far-right conspiracy theory that Rotherham council covered up sexual abuse to further their politically correct agenda should be taken for the brazen cynicism that it is. And the British press has hardly been reticent in covering this scandal, and in blaming “brown people” for it.

It’s also important to notice how the language of “grievances” works out in practice. Consider the anger of Darren Osborne, who used a van to mow down a crowd of pedestrians outside Finsbury Park mosque.

What were his grievances? Police claim that Osborne was goaded into action by Tommy Robinson’s posts and videos. Court evidence suggested that it took a month, digesting this material, for him to become obsessed with Muslims. This probably simplifies matters greatly. Nonetheless, it is significant that Robinson termed Osborne’s murderous attack a “revenge attack” and blamed the mosque for “creating terrorists and radical jihadists and promoting hate and segregation.”

Robinson was rationalizing the killing. And he did so in a way characteristic of his rhetoric.

Between 1997 and 2003, the Finsbury Park mosque was under the leadership of Abu Hamza, against the wishes of its trustees and despite legal action on their part. During that time, a number of jihadist cadres were molded at the mosque. A combination of police action, and intervention by Muslim organizations and the Charity Commission, reopened the mosque under new leadership in 2005.

The idea that this mosque, let alone worshippers and anyone who happened to be outside, gave an unemployed Welshman anything to avenge, makes sense only if you make the racist assumption, like Robinson does, that Islam is extreme and all Muslims are extremists.

Nonetheless, the media continued to crave Robinson’s input, with ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” giving him a platform the day after the attack to say that the Quran was an incitement to violence. Not despite the fact that a man inspired by Robinson’s ideology had just been jailed for murder, but because of it.

And again, on the day that Osborne was found guilty, the BBC saw fit to invite Robinson onto Newsnight for yet another softball interview. Again, not despite the fact that a man inspired by his ideology had just been jailed for murder, but because of it. Asking no difficult questions — grotesquely in the circumstances — they handed Robinson a platform to play the martyr.

The extraordinary fact about Tommy Robinson, therefore, is not that a wicked nation has tormented him, but that he receives such docile goodwill from a variety of quarters, above all the broadcasters, despite all that he has said and done.

But he isn’t a martyr, he is a clever fascist. And that isn’t stigmata, it’s blood on his hands.