Skip to main content

Myths, lies and the strange rise of ‘Tommy Robinson’

LOUISE RAW looks at the reality behind the far-right activist of many identities

WE used to no-platform fascists in this country: now, it seems, we build them platforms.    

At the Old Bailey on the 23rd of last month, far-right poster boy Tommy Robinson strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage — in this case, a literal one, complete with powerful sound system audible streets away, and constructed right outside the Central Criminal Court by permission of the City of London’s Corporation and Police. 

All the flotsam and jetsam of the far right were gathered for Robinson’s mini-Nuremberg moment: Ukip and zionist flags flew high, and I saw too the emblem of the White Pendragons, the bizarre white supremacist group which brought a home-made gallows to Sadiq Khan’s speech to the Fabian Society in January, and tried to perform a “citizen’s arrest” on him. 

There, too, was far-right organiser Daniel Thomas, just out of prison for attempted kidnapping, but with whom the City Police apparently thought it appropriate to work.  

Robinson himself looks different these days from the Luton thug of yore: with new teeth, new suits and a marginally better haircut, he looks affluent. 

And he is — the “Free Tommy” campaign intended to pay for his defence when he was in prison on the same contempt charge garnered him an estimated £2 million in donations from the general public; he then sacked his legal team and represented himself. After protests, PayPal announced on the 8th of this month it would no longer process payments for him. 

But how has this happened? A couple of years ago Robinson looked washed up. The English Defence League (EDL) he co-founded was on the way out, thanks to determined anti-fascist action; his attempts to establish a British branch of German anti-Islamic movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) was a dismal flop. 

We need to know how he did it; not just because he represents the new rebranded, well-funded far right we face in Britain but because we all now urgently need to play our part countering far-right misinformation wherever we find it — in our families, pubs, schools and streets but also online: this is also a culture war. 

Here is some of what we need to know in order to challenge the myths and lies behind Robinson’s rise. 

Who is Tommy Robinson?

Even at face value, this is surprisingly hard to answer — Robinson himself says his name “just depends on when you met me.”
Born Stephen Yaxley, he double-barrelled to Yaxley-Lennon when his mother remarried, though sometimes also used “Stephen Lennon.” 

When he helped form far-right United Peoples of Luton in 2009, Robinson was quoted as a spokesman under the name “Wayne King” — disappointingly he doesn’t appear to have adopted this in a moment of self-awareness because it sounds like “wanking” when you say it fast. 

He also used the alias “Mickey King.” Robinson went on to work with far-right violent football gang Casuals United, and this seems to have been where the alias Tommy Robinson was first employed. It was homage to a real-life Tommy Robinson, well-known ultra-violent Luton town football thug. 

Before long, Yaxley-Lennon-as-Robinson had become a key figure in the newly formed EDL. 

He tried to enter the US illegally (having been refused a visa) in 2013 under yet another name — Andrew McMaster, a real-life associate of his. This led to another fraud conviction. 

But sentencing Robinson, Judge Alistair McCreath opened another can of worms when he told him: “I am going to sentence you under the name of Stephen Lennon although I suspect that is not actually your true name, in the sense that it is not the name on your passport.” 

The name on this, apparently legitimate, passport was in fact Paul Harris. Despite his much-vaunted commitment to up-front “honesty,” Robinson has declined to explain this when asked, and it’s unclear whether he’s ever used that name in real life. 

Myth: He was radicalised in response to paedophiles or extremists

Again, we can’t look to Robinson for a reliable account. He has said it was the grooming and abuse of a female cousin by Asian paedophile gangs that first motivated him. Pressed on this by the Huffington Post, however, he amended this to “cousin’s cousin.” To date, I have been unable to find any proof either way. 

Elsewhere he has also claimed Muslim anti-British army demonstrations in his hometown drove him to the far right — however, these occurred in 2009. Robinson had joined the BNP five years beforehand. 

His former aide Lucy Brown, sacked by Robinson earlier this year after what had been a very close relationship, argues Robinson has little or no genuine political interest, and his career is in essentially a “get-rich-quick scheme.” People’s outrage, she claims, is being stoked and then “monetised.” 

Myth: His comeback was the will of the people

By 2015, even the far right was sick of Robinson’s egotistical, irascible and rather immature behaviour.  

While co-founding the EDL got Robinson name recognition (disruptive and violent demonstrations, costing an estimated £10 million to police over four years, hit the headlines) he was never a sufficiently unifying figure to seem a potential mass leader, particularly after he was caught on camera assaulting a fellow EDL member on one march. 

The EDL was collapsing, after patient and relentless anti-fascist action, and Pegida UK went the same way.  

But just as he seemed washed up, Robinson reappeared in 2016, reincarnated as a “journalist” for hard right US website Rebel Media.
The site described him as a “Shillman Fellow.” It transpired this meant a five-figure lump sum had been paid to him by billionaire US businessman Robert Shillman (whose clients include Asda in Britain). 
Shillman has sponsored competitions to draw cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and funded pro-Israeli organisations. 

He’s active on the board of the David Horowitz Freedom Centre (DHFC), classified as a hate group by the US Southern Poverty Law Centre. 

DHFC associates include Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has called for a ban on the Koran, which he compares to Mein Kampf, and all non-Western immigration to Europe. 

Wilders is also backed by right-wing, pro-Israeli think tank the Middle East Forum (MEF), which paid his legal fees when he was last accused of inciting racial hatred. Robinson has recently thanked the MEF for its support. 

MEF founder Daniel Pipes was pushed out of the Bush administration in 2003 after protests over his Islamophobia. Pipes has since spoken several times at the DHFC, and explains his aims thus: “I would like to see an Israeli victory and a Palestinian defeat.

“The Middle East Forum calls this the Israel Victory Project … we’re building an intellectual base, working with allies in think tanks, sponsoring research.” 

Rebel Media founder Ezra Levant also receives funding from the MEF. Levant was cleared on Wednesday of taking photographs inside a court of law, leading to concerns charges against Robinson would also be dropped. 

The MEF has claimed victory “freeing” Robinson, after paying his defence costs and funding a Free Tommy rally in London.

Almost inevitably, Trump’s former ideologue Steve Bannon also backs Robinson to the hilt, and monitors believe he may be looking to set him up as a leader in some kind of new ultra-right, anti-European movement.

Myth: He’s an anti-Establishment hero

All manner of dodgy blokes, from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, have invoked the concept of a “silent majority” shut down by the Establishment and/or liberal elite. The invoker, in contrast, represents this majority, and is accordingly a true “man of the people.”

Robinson has spun his working-class roots and time in prison as evidence for all of the above. 

Bannon pushes it too: Theo Usherwood, political editor at LBC, relayed Bannon’s off-air tirade at him a few months ago: “Fuck you. Don’t you fucking say you’re calling me out. You fucking liberal elite. Tommy Robinson is the backbone of this country.”

Paul Sillett, national organiser of Unite Against Fascism, points out “anti-Establishment” Robinson is also supported by Ukip leader Gerard Batten, with whom he dined in the House of Lords after his triumphant rally on October 23 — instead of celebrating with “the people.” 

Sillett adds that joining them, and signing Robinson into the Lords, was his close friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a man so “anti-Establishment” he owns swathes of Scotland. 
Far from being silenced, as they falsely claim, this toxic far-right alliance is being normalised and allowed to grow.

Myth: We shouldn’t call the new far-right fascist

Robinson says he’s not even racist, and indeed “left-wing” in some of his views. 

Well he would, wouldn’t he, to quote trenchant observer of humanity, Mandy Rice Davies. We should remember that even Oswald Mosley eventually realised the word “fascist” played badly, and ditched it, while never changing his views or aims.   

It’s true that what constitutes “fascism” is highly contentious, and over-use of the term doesn’t help anti-fascists’ cause. 

However there is general agreement that a movement doesn’t have to actively advocate concentration camps to be fascist-minded. 
US scholar Christopher Vials delineates fascism as a strain of right-wing politics, distinct from conservatism. It will usually focus on a “strong man” leader; the scapegoating of outsiders; a dislike of equality; racism; misogyny (a key and overlooked factor), and a vocabulary which is “warlike,” aggressive, and anti-democratic. 

A lot of boxes are ticked here by Robinson and his supporters. 

Myth: Robinson is a campaigner against paedophiles

Robinson has personally exposed not a single grooming gang, but has merely bandwagoned on existing court cases. 

If his motivation was sincere, he would obviously not want alleged paedophiles walking free: yet evidence suggests Robinson’s contempt of court stunts actively aim to achieve this. 

According to legal teams involved and those close to Robinson, his intention was to enact contempt of court to force a mistrial and aggravate racial tensions when defendants had to be released. 

What is clear is that Robinson knew what contempt of court was when he committed it and that he knew mistrial was a likely result. 

Before his first offence, he had recently been given media law training by none other than Ezra Levant through Rebel Media. No further action was taken, but police carefully explained exactly what constituted contempt of court, and the threat to the justice system, to Robinson on that occasion. 

Strange to relate, then, that it was at this time — when Robison was free and had undertaken to commit no further contempt offence — that Levant bought and registered a “Free Tommy” website. Only later did Robinson commit the further contempt offence which led to his arrest and imprisonment.  

Unite against Fascism also notes: “…Robinson and his supporters claim to support women and children subjected to rape, sexual abuse and exploitation [yet] are silent when those such as EDL member Peter Gillett, sentenced last month to 18 years in prison for child sex offences, and Leigh McMillan, jailed for offences against a 10-year-old, are found guilty of these serious crimes.”

Robinson’s EDL also launched a campaign in 2011 to free their organiser Richard Price from jail on a violence charge, when they were well aware he had also been convicted just the year before for making indecent images of children. 

In 2012, Robinson tweeted a 15-year-old girl that she was “pretty fit for a Muslim” and made no comment when told her age. 

Myth: Robinson is a defender of free speech

Outside the Old Bailey on October 23, Robinson (in words echoing both Trump and nazi propagandist Goebbels) described the media as “enemies of the people” while his supporters shouted “scum” at journalists. 

Robinson has form for harassing not just anti-fascists (friends of the late Antifascist Action activist Edel “Lola” Carroll tell me he and his associates repeatedly targeted this young woman and her family) but journalists exercising their “free speech,” turning up at homes as well as workplaces. 

In an online video, he has warned: “If you’re a journalist and you think your office or your home is a safe space … It’s not.”

It hardly needs saying that the far right in power has never acted as a defender of free speech, but quite the contrary — today in Germany, the AfD (Alternative For Germany) party recently advocated setting up online portals to enable schoolchildren to anonymously report teachers who “speak against” the party. 

Myth: Social media isn’t important in anti-fascism

Online and non-mainstream media have been hugely important to the international rise of the far right this time around; Trump doesn’t spend half his life online for no reason: he knows Breitbart and Infowars in the US have his back. 

Alex Jones, conspiracy theorist-in-chief at Infowars, who infamously claimed the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, this summer hired the lawyers of the neonazi Daily Stormer website to defend him when victims’ families sued. 

As I was researching this issue, Infowars co-founder Kelly Jones responded to me on Twitter echoing my concerns. 

She says she has cut ties with the site, horrified at what it has become, and now feeling it is incumbent on her to “make it right.” The same day, she tweeted a statement: “‘I’m [a] former owner of Infowars. America — the only conspiracy is the propaganda of fake news Infowars, which was instrumental in getting Trump elected and aims to destroy the Free Press so that fascism can take control. United we must stand.”

Nor is this just a US problem — websites like Stormfront (“White Pride, World Wide”) get huge traffic from Britain.

It seems it’s now possible for people to become radicalised entirely online (as Finsbury Park mosque killer Darren Osborne apparently was, through the propaganda of Robinson, among others).

So we must now fight them on the retweets, and engage with misinformation on all the platforms we use.

How to defeat today’s far right

We can take comfort from the fact we’ve done this before – we can again. Britain has seen off the Blackshirts, National Front, British National Party and EDL among others.

But there are no guarantees. We have to act immediately, repeatedly, and in unison. There’s no place for sectarianism in this struggle — we are in a world of nazis and the rest of us, and have to pick our side.

Unite against Fascism agrees: “Working with traditional anti-fascist allies like trade unionists, key individuals and groups in the Muslim community and with the energy of young people round Love Music Hate Racism (inspired by Rock Against Racism) saw off the EDL and Pegida UK. Robinson will be beaten again by the anti-fascist majority which will take time, skill, and persistence.”

As late, great anti-fascist activist and Cable Street veteran Max Levitas, who sadly died on Friday November 2, put it: “Through Cable Street, people learn of the struggles that happened in the ’30s. That has got to be applied today. People have got to be brought together in the struggle against fascism and racism.”

Join the National Unity Demonstration next weekend, Saturday November 17, central London at noon. Visit www.standuptoracism.org for more information.

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 8,728
We need:£ 9,272
21 Days remaining
Donate today