Tom Wilkinson discusses far-right agitator Stephen Yaxley-Lennon/"Tommy Robinson" and his relocation to Spain.
“If you’re a journalist and you think your office or your home is a safe space …. It’s not,” Tommy Robinson declared in a recent video.
Tommy Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, has relocated to Marbella after an alleged arson attack on his wife's property. He claimed to be weighing up leaving Britain for good. Stay or leave, the man who so compellingly blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction provides a compelling worldview for a great many – and his brand of right-wing extremism could thrive in the Covid-19 economic crisis. To defeat the far right, progressives must have the right arguments at their fingertips.
Growing up in Blackburn, one of the most segregated towns in Britain, I have always known people who have supported the far-right. The problem is that the widespread support for these views has barely changed over the last ten years. Despite being permanently banned from Twitter and in-and-out of prison, family members, school friends and neighbours often tell me Tommy Robinson is a decent lad.
It’s vital to rebuke these far-right views. Because until progressives can convince many in the northwest of England that Tommy Robinson’s views on immigrants and Islam are wrong then we can expect a political earthquake akin to Brexit every fifteen years. Or sooner still, the far right understands how to exploit dissatisfaction from a crisis like coronavirus. Their covid19 conspiracies, anti-vaxx theories and vilification of the Black Lives Matter movement are typical examples of this.
There is never a moment to be complacent about the far-right in Britain and it’s necessary to confront their extremist ideas. So, here’s three reasons Tommy Robinson is profoundly wrong. Firstly, the founder of the EDL is on the far- right and the solutions to Britain’s problems don’t lie in authoritarian politics. His ultra-nationalism, paramilitarism and rejection of the mainstream as one big lying leftist-establishment-conspiracy theory intend on destroying free speech situates Oh Tommy, Tommy on the far-right. Any A-level politics student would classify him as such even though the label is never used by those who belong to it.
Secondly, the far-right harness the politics of hate. Those that take to the streets in support of Tommy Robinson regularly employ intimidation tactics and violence to advance their political cause. Their hateful ideologies can inspire lone actors to plot and even commit acts of far-right terrorism.
Thirdly, the far-right peddles a perversion of Islam. Like Islamicist extremists, they adopt a selective interpretation of the Quran. Picking out only a handful of biblical stories could similarly enable one to make a compelling case that Christians are all barbaric and savage warmongers. They intentionally do not draw any distinction between Islamist extremists and ordinary Muslims.
Tommy Robinson’s politics best represents the far-right’s new playbook. Falsely claiming to be suppressed and silenced by the deep state, on the one hand, and powerfully tapping into concerns over the rise of Islamist extremism and immigration through street protest and social media platforms, on the other, is a convincing approach. One that has gone from the fringes to the forefront in the United States, Austria, France, and across the world in recent years.
The man who has made a political career out of demonising refugees and telling people to ‘f*ck off back to Africa’ claims to have fled Britain. But there is little irony here. All being well, it’s alas time to say good riddance to England’s rabble-rouser-in-chief. But it’s unlikely his highly profitable political career built from peddling half-truths and stirring hatred towards minorities will end anytime soon. Extremist politics is about transforming a decaying political system upside down. That’s a political ambition not easily left to rest. The Tommy Robinson story is far from over.
Tom Wilkinson is a PhD candidate in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics specialising in the history of colonial and post-colonial India. Before commencing his doctoral research, he worked as a Parliamentary Assistant in Westminster and as a teaching assistant in New Delhi for the British Council.
He tweets @TomWilk0