Comment | The Resistible Rise of Saint Tommy

On Saturday, thousands gathered in London's Trafalgar Square to express support for far right figure Tommy Robinson. The range and breadth of the #FreeTommy movement suggests it may be making serious inroads towards the mainstream, warns Matt Carr.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, June 13, 2018 17:35 - 0 Comments

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Trafalgar Square: Tommy Robinson supporters clash with UK police. (Source: AFP)

It’s been a strange year for Tommy Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the founder of the English Defense League. In February, he was cited as a key influence on the Finsbury Mosque attacker, Darren Osbourne. At the end of March, he was banned from Twitter. In April, he led a ‘free speech’ demonstration in London that was attended by a few thousand people, mostly from the Football Lads Alliance. Now, in the space of two weeks, this anti-Muslim ideologue, hatemonger and self-promoting grifter has become a hero-martyr and the focus of an international cult following.

This improbable transformation began two weeks ago, on  27 May, when Robinson was arrested outside Leeds Crown Court, during one of three separate trials involving the same group of mostly Pakistani-heritage men in northern cities accused of the sexual exploitation of mostly white women and young girls.

Robinson’s appearance was part of an ongoing attempt to monetize himself as an independent ‘reporter’ – a vocation that has often focused on the issue of sexual grooming cases. For Robinson, these revolting and deeply disturbing crimes are only of interest insofar as their perpetrators are Muslims and their victims are white.

Like his ideological peers, Robinson has presented these crimes as a product of Islam, and another sign that British society is in thrall to a barbaric and alien Islamic culture/religion, supported by a politically-correct liberal establishment. To promote this agenda, this ‘citizen-journalist’ has taken to hanging around outside ongoing trials of grooming cases, in order to frame them for his audiences as ‘Muslim’ crimes. 

Of course, this is not reportage in any conventional sense of the term.  Robinson does not follow the court proceedings themselves. In fact, his activities have actually threatened to capsize difficult and complex trials by breaching reporting restrictions. In one case, in Canterbury last year, he waited outside the courtroom, haranguing the defendants as they came and went from the court. As a result, he was charged with contempt of court and given a suspended sentence – and a warning that his behaviour ran the risk of undermining ongoing trials.

Despite this, Robinson spent more than an hour livestreaming from outside Leeds Crown Court on 27 May, doing exactly what he was told not to do. In his  video, Robinson can be seen haranguing defendants who he himself admits have not yet been found guilty, for no other obvious purpose except to promote himself and transmit his disgust to the 250,000 people who watched.

Nothing  Robinson did that day made any contribution whatsoever to furthering the cause of justice. His interest was purely parasitical. After more than an hour of this vigilante-journalism, Robinson was arrested for breach of the peace,  and subsequently charged with contempt of court. That same day, he was given ten months in prison, and a further three months for breaching his previous sentence.

For the next two days, a strange situation ensued in which the UK press, still obeying reporting restrictions on the trial, did not report Robinson’s arrest even though the news had already gone viral. Within hours, right-wing websites and TV channels on both sides of the Atlantic were reporting on Robinson’s ‘disappearance’, describing him as a ‘political prisoner.’

A petition calling for Robinson’s release garnered 500,000 signatures within a week. On Twitter, he was variously compared to Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. Internet memes showed him with his mouth taped. A widely-circulated painting showed Sadiq Khan attaching a noose around Robinson’s neck. Poems were written in his honour,  including a ‘grandma’s poem’ that proclaimed ‘Our government won’t beat us/we will never bend the knee/to the evil plans of Islam/We Britons will be free.’

The tone of this coverage was summed up by a headline in A pro-Trump website Canada Free Press: ‘”Great” Britain Imprisons Man for Speaking Out Against Child Rape'”. Standing outside the British embassy in the Hague, the sinister peroxide imp Gert Wilders compared the UK to North Korea and Saudi Arabia, and warned that “the lights of freedom are going out” all over Europe.

On 29 May, reporting restrictions on Robinson’s arrest were lifted, thanks to a request by a courageous local reporter named Stephanie Finnegan. By that time, demonstrations calling for his release had been held in the UK, the United States, Europe and Australia. On Saturday, June 9th, between 10,000 and 15,000 people took part in a ‘Free Tommy’ demonstration in Trafalgar Square, where they heard speeches from Gert Wilders, Breitbart’s Raheem Kassam, far-right firebrand Anne-Marie Waters, UKIP leader Gerard Batten, and others. As expected, these protests degenerated into a drunken riot, in which hundreds of protesters attacked and chased away the unprepared police.

Incredibly, the ‘#Free Tommy’ campaign has become a catalyst for the largest and most dangerous far-right mobilisation in the UK in decades. It’s a national movement, galvanised and emboldened by Brexit ‘taking our country back’ rightwing ‘resistance’ narratives, and surfing on a toxic wave of ethnonationalism, xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment. Robinson has also become a free speech icon for an international rightwing network that reaches across Europe and into Trump’s America, whose members share a common loathing of Islam, globalism, multiculturalism, immigration and George Soros.

Not surprisingly, the Free Tommy campaign has attracted huge interest in conservative/far-right circles in the US, where Robinson’s arrest has been interpreted as further evidence of the ‘death of Europe’ and a validation of Trumpism. Robinson’s arrest has been heavily covered by all the usual suspects such as Fox News, FrontPage, Jihad Watch, the Gatestone Institute, and Alex Jones’s InfoWars.

It is easy — but nevertheless essential — to point out the idiocy, the ignorance, and truly epic lying and dishonesty that has brought about this bizarre outcome. No one can be surprised that Alex Jones, a commentator who cannot breathe without lying, has claimed that Robinson is being ‘tortured’ in prison because he revealed ‘secret courts in England with massive numbers of Muslims being convicted for running giant child kidnapping and sexual exploitation gangs.’

The (marginally) more mainstream Fox News also claimed that Robinson was arrested for ‘daring to talk about sexual abuse rings run by Muslim immigrants to the UK.’  Douglas Murray — a longtime fan of Robinson’s —  appeared on the network to describe his arrest as an example of how “people in power always try to stamp down on dissent.”

Few of these commentators paid any attention to the actual legal reasons for Robinson’s arrest, or acknowledged the fact that reporting restrictions are intended to protect the victims and ensure a fair trial. This jaw-dropping indifference to facts is not simply a cultural product of the 21st century ‘post-truth’ era. Robinson’s supporters lie about him because it suits them. In effect, Robinson has become a fictional character in a paranoid fantasy that springs directly from the diseased imagination of the 21st century far-right: the humble English Yeoman who finally stands up to what Alex Jones has called a “foreign cancerous political cult” and leads a rebellion against the ‘elite’ that is supposedly enabling and facilitating the UK’s transformation into an Islamic colony.

Variations on this hysterical narrative have been coursing endlessly through social media these last two weeks, often fused with ferocious hatred against Muslims and Islam — or against anyone who presents facts or arguments that contradict the narrative. When Stephanie Finnegan posted a thread explaining the facts behind Robinson’s arrest, she was viciously abused, and — naturally — threatened with rape.

For all their interest in ‘the truth’, Robinson’’s supporters are only interested in the truth that suits them. On the one hand there is nothing new about that.  The far right has always trafficked in lies, paranoia and fantasy. But the range and breadth of the #Free Tommy movement suggests that such qualities have a much wider constituency that is now making serious inroads towards the mainstream. 

These developments coincide with the most serious peacetime crisis in modern British history. A cowardly and incompetent political class has brought the country to political chaos, emboldening racists and xenophobes across the country, creating festering and vicious political divisions in which tabloid newspapers call judges and politicians ‘traitors’.

Austerity has left a trail of poverty, bitterness and resentment across the country – much of which is directed at immigrants or people perceived to be immigrants. Islamic State and other jihadist groups routinely carry out mass murder with the precise aim of generating the kind of hatred that the #Free Tommy movement has fastened onto. 

All these factors combine to pose a grave and unique threat to the future of British democracy, to social cohesion, tolerance and coexistence, and to the multi-ethnic society that Robinson and his supporters detest. Faced with the very real prospect of a collapsing post-Brexit economy, and the ongoing prospect of more jihadist atrocities, the #FreeTommy movement may yet acquire an audience that the BNP and the National Front could only dream of, when Robinson gets out of jail and starts to receive some serious money from the same people who helped finance Trump and Brexit.

In this Weimar-like atmosphere, the Robinson cult may herald a wider transformation, in which the fringe moves to the mainstream, facts and truth are demolished, and the most grotesque fantasies become credible. This outcome is a failure of successive governments, but it’s also a failure of the left — in the broadest sense of the term — to develop counter-movements and counter-narratives to the toxic fantasies of cultural invasion and exclusionary identities propagated by Robinson’s many supporters.

That needs to change, and quickly. “Pity the nation that has need of heroes”, wrote Brecht, and few heroes are more pitiful, more undeserving and more unlikely than Tommy Robinson, and his canonisation tells us as much about the debased political and social climate in this country as it does about the movement that spawned him.

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Matt Carr

Matt Carr is a writer, blogger and freelance print and radio journalist. He is the author of My Father's House, Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, and The Infernal Machine: an Alternative History of Terrorism. His book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent was published in autumn 2012. He is also the author of 'Savage Frontier: the Pyrenees in History', to be published in the UK by Hurst in autumn 2018. He has lectured in a number of UK universities, schools and cultural institutions. He blogs at www.infernalmachine.co.uk.

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