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The rise and fall of ‘Tommy Robinson’

PAUL SILLETT charts the fading fortunes of the not-so-successful far-right ‘leader,’ in the wake of him losing a libel case for defaming a Syrian schoolboy

THE fascist thug known as “Tommy Robinson” — real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — recently heavily lost a libel case after he defamed a Syrian schoolboy. 

Jamal Hijazi’s lawyers spoke of how the family were refugees who, after Yaxley-Lennon’s slanderous videos, had been forced to move home and Jamal had his education disrupted.

Yaxley-Lennon has a long record of bullying, lies, anti-refugee abuse and incitement to violence. Fortunately, a brave family stood up and beat him in court. The damages he has to pay will cost him dearly. 

It’s worth considering how a former poster boy for the far right now finds himself yesterday’s man — for now …

Yaxley-Lennon is the product of a toxic political mix in the late 2000s. Internationally, the extreme right, such as Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders, Jean Marie le Pen in France and the nazi British National Party were part of an Islamophobic cauldron following the September 11 attacks.

Inspired by US political scientist Samuel P Huntington’s Islamophobic thesis of a coming “clash of civilisations,” English nationalism in was seized upon by the founders of the English Defence League (EDL). 

Yaxley-Lennon also later fed off David Cameron’s Munich speech in 2011, before a major EDL demonstration, which indicted “state multiculturalism.” 

In 2009 the BNP had over 50 councillors and two MEPs and Yaxley-Lennon was ex-BNP. This informed and guided his politics, despite denials.

The EDL morphed out of an anti-Islam group in Luton. Characteristically, the far-right EDL was formed in a plush flat in London. 

Key players involved petit bourgeois figures who helped finance Yaxley-Lennon. Alan Lake, for instance, talked of wanting football thugs to push home their message, which targeted Muslims particularly.

The group grew quickly in areas which had had strong BNP support, such as Stoke, the Black Country and north-east England. 

The EDL didn’t fare well on its first outing in Birmingham, in 2009. A large Unite Against Fascism (UAF) counterdemonstration literally ran them out of Brum.

The last 12 years have seen a war of attrition between anti-fascists and Yaxley-Lennon. 

There were setbacks and real victories. Initially, some like UAF had to argue with other anti-fascists that the EDL needed opposing directly, rather than having events either side of an EDL march. 

Elements of the state arrested leading UAF figures and tried to criminalise activists, using the Prevent strategy. They rarely did likewise with the EDL.

The EDL, as street movements often do, rose quickly. Football hooligan “firms” at many clubs — although with key exceptions — initially mobilised with the EDL. 

Leafleting against this at grounds met some success by anti-fascists, despite occasional trouble.

Yaxley-Lennon’s ego, hubris and arrogance led to key mistakes and failures, which helped our side. 

Despite threats, the EDL never got into Tower Hamlets and a combination of anti-fascists, the London Muslim Centre, United East End and RMT solidarity action, always saw the little Hitlers lick their wounds in defeat. 

Walthamstow, in 2012, also saw Yaxley-Lennon desert his troops (the EDL was fixated on military allusions) in the face of large community anti-fascist direct action.

UAF successfully linked the nazi BNP with the EDL, in the minds of many, which wasn’t automatic and took patient explaining. 

Yaxley-Lennon thought he could bully and terrify Muslims but learnt the hard way often.

Trade unionists too were crucial in funding and mobilising against him. His attempt to form a European Defence League flopped, as Dutch anti-fascists humiliated him. 

The classic fascist tactic of “march and grow” stagnated and splintered, as anti-fascist opposition and internal splits hampered Yaxley-Lennon. Open nazism at EDL demos and rivalries saw many “firms” leave.

Many counter-mobilisations happened, mostly skirmish “score draws.” Importantly, they stymied Yaxley-Lennon and his backers’ plans. He once said: “Everywhere we go, UAF are there.”

Damage was done too when Anders Breivik committed his monstrous crimes 10 years ago and it was revealed that he had backed the EDL online. 

To be linked with Breivik put Yaxley-Lennon on the back foot, something repeated later when Darren Osborne, the Finsbury Park terrorist, was shown to have received emails from Yaxley-Lennon.

After four years of organised racist violence, Yaxley-Lennon and sidekick Kevin Carroll, left the group in 2013. 

Like much they touched, their association with the discredited Quilliam, eventually disintegrated.

Efforts to mirror a British Pegida group, modelled on fascist allies in Germany, also foundered.

Again, anti-fascist mobilisations mattered. In 2015, Yaxley-Lennon’s part in a planned international Islamophobic exhibition of the infamous Prophet Mohammed “cartoons” was pulled by the authorities.

Four years after defecting from the EDL, Yaxley-Lennon piggybacked onto another idea, a so-called “Unite Against Hate” event after the horrific bomb attack in Manchester.

What was supposed to be a “silent” march led by Yaxley-Lennon to “honour the victims of hate” saw ex-EDL thugs riot. The 1,000 there showed again how speedily far-right groups can recuperate.

Yaxley-Lennon also worked with the far-right fake news outlet, Rebel Media. He increasingly focused on sensitive, child sexual abuse trials. 

He ranted about Islam being a religion which encouraged such abuse and he radicalised many online.

Yaxley-Lennon received a suspended sentence for contempt of court in 2017, for reading out parts of such trials outside court.

That year also saw him rush to the scene of the Westminster Bridge terror attack in order to make political capital out of it. A subsequent video he made drew huge audiences on social media. 

The newly formed football Lads Alliance (later Democratic Football Lads Alliance) initially greeted him as a hero, but tensions developed due to Yaxley-Lennon’s misuse of supporters’ money, something he was long accused of. 

He and new Ukip leader Gerard Batten in 2018 thought they’d ape overseas European far-right strategies which saw gains for the German AfD, for example.

They fed off Boris Johnson’s comments about Muslim women and other mainstream Islamophobia. 

The movement round Yaxley-Lennon really took off again, though, after he was imprisoned for contempt of court in 2019, over comments he’d made outside a Leeds court.

Leeds saw a large march for Yaxley-Lennon. Racist thugs locally attacked a mosque and a Sikh temple. 

Perhaps the largest ever far-right outdoor event happened in London in June. Some 15,000 people joined the “Free Tommy” event in Whitehall. Nazi groups such as Generation Identity joined street thugs. 

The depth of support for Robinson was seen when ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon expressed his support, while a US congressman spoke alongside Wilders and Belgium’s extreme right, Vlaams Belang. A US ambassador even lobbied the British government in defence of Yaxley-Lennon.

Both police attacked and anti-fascists were attacked. It was clear we were at a turning point in the fight against the far right. 

Serious funding for Yaxley-Lennon came from the Islamophobic Middle East Forum, which had links to ex-president George Bush. Far-right fake news site InfoWars website also donated to Yaxley-Lennon.

Stand Up To Racism/UAF argued we needed a bigger movement urgently, to tackle this — and MPs, trade unions and others responded positively.  

It was critical that major forces came together, albeit late, to discuss responses. At last, too, Yaxley-Lennon was kicked off Twitter and Facebook, as well as having restrictions placed on his YouTube channel.

The day after a huge anti-Trump march in July 2018 saw 3,500 anti-fascists march in London. It enjoyed labour movement support. 

Trade unionists from the RMT were attacked by Yaxley-Lennon supporters in a nearby pub. This galvanised opposition to him. 

His next court appearance was at the Old Bailey in August. Incredibly, and despite the efforts of anti-fascist activist Louise Raw, no answer by officials was given for Yaxley-Lennon’s ability to address supporters on a stage.

This heralded several appearances by Yaxley-Lennon there.

However, 2018 ended with anti-fascists on the front foot. A unity march happened in November, the same day as Ukip/Yaxley-Lennon held a “Brexit Betrayal” march. Momentum activists joined SUTR, UAF and many others there.

Yaxley-Lennon and Batten thought they could capitalise on the then impasse over Brexit. But they were outnumbered by anti-fascists.

In 2019, there were further setbacks for Yaxley-Lennon. Lively campaigning against him in north-west England saw his bid to become an MEP fail miserably. 

Highlights of the campaign had been his “milkshaking” and “megaphone man,” UAF North West organisers’ silencing of Yaxley-Lennon. Videos of both went viral. 

The supposed working-class hero had been decisively rejected by those he claimed to represent.

He has not recovered from this. He subsequently pulled out of supposedly confronting Black Lives Matter protests and was quietly dropped by many former backers.

Often in court, an appearance at Hyde Park two years ago attracted a tiny crowd. He and much of the British far right have not capitalised on anti-vaccination protests, despite their wishes.

His “pro-Israel” stunts have isolated him and deplatforming via social media means income and allies have declined. 

The far right has long suffered from anti-intellectualism and attempts to correct this have failed. 

Yaxley-Lennon sums up their ideological weaknesses — more Captain Mainwaring than Mussolini.

The England he rhetorically “defended” saw the national football team take the knee. That’s a kick in the teeth to all he represents.

It’d be foolish to write him off but with a Johnson government, his and far-right fortunes aren’t recovering. 

This could change fast, but Yaxley-Lennon cut a lonely figure at the Old Bailey. Let’s savour his fall but ensure he can’t come back.

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