While there has been a history of far-right activity in the United Kingdom for over a century, few names in the movement are as well-known as Tommy Robinson in today’s political arena.
Real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, Robinson operates under the football hooligan-associated pseudonym and has identified himself as one of the most prominent and controversial far-right activists in UK politics.
Robinson’s influence appeared to be limited to his own political sphere at first, but the rise of social media meant he started to attract fans beyond the football hooligan stereotype.
The assumption of what a far-right supporter looks like is blurred by the new approaches Robinson and his colleagues have adopted, with their content both believed and shared by those that society consider to be ordinary working people, not traditional members of the far-right.
Among Tommy Robinson’s controversial statements are remarks such as “Islam in a man is like rabies in a dog,” “the Islamic community will feel the force of the English,” and “Islam is not a religion of peace.” The comments on Robinson’s social media follow in the same vein.
One user wrote: “Third world countries bringing third world behaviour to this country.” Another addied: “Vigilante justice is the only thing necessary for these people.” A third said: “Refugees welcome here! We also welcome rape, crime, acid attacks and female genital mutilation.”Among the racist, xenophobic and sexist slurs there are also hundreds of calls for ‘Tommy for PM’ and ‘Tommy for Mayor of London’, an illustration of the vast numbers of social media users convinced by Robinson’s content.
But while his following has rapidly grown, Robinson remains a political outsider. His rejection by mainstream politicians across the board appears to only encourage his supporters further, and may even be increasing his popularity beyond the committed far-right fringe.
Liam*, a 27-year-old from Leigh in Essex, is personable, funny and a hard-working electrician. With his stylish haircut and skinny fit jeans, he can be found DJing at local bars on his Saturday nights and watching Spurs at White Hart Lane. He lives at home with his mum, dad and brother, and appears, on the face of it, to be your regular Essex bloke. He is also a Tommy Robinson supporter.
He appears to be reluctant to be defined as a follower of Robinson, but often shares his online posts that strike him as convincing: “I am more interested and supportive to the factual views he has, he clearly has a strong point of view, but he does back it up with evidence like news stories,” he says.
Liam says that in his work he regularly encounters people who share his admiration for Robinson: “I think he just says what the people I know are thinking, when he is in certain situations he handles himself well, he just says it how it is,” continuing: “I think a lot of people respect him for that, if you agree with what he is doing.”
While Robinson’s delivery and attitude can be convincing, it seems in the conversation with Liam that on some level he is trying to justify, and withhold, the level of support he has for him. “I don’t hear as much of the ‘they’re taking our jobs’ talk as I did when I first started working in the building industry, but there is definitely a huge immigration problem,” he says.
Although he is surrounded by people with this kind of views at work, he believes the omnipresent posts from Robinson and similar activists on his Facebook and Twitter feeds are what has kept him interested and developed his support.
But how much of an impact does Robinson already have? His Facebook page has 1.3 million followers, his YouTube channel has almost 300,000 subscribers, and many of his videos have an excess of a million views.
Daniel Trilling, author of Bloody Nasty People, a book which has chronicled the growth of the far-right in the UK, acknowledges the importance the internet has had in Tommy Robinson’s case.
“The development of the internet allowed people with far-right views to become active without being part of political parties,” Trilling explains. “So it has become a lot easier in the past decade for far-right activists, and people with those kinds of sympathies, to gather online, to campaign and to build up support for particular issues.”
Trilling has researched the far-right in the UK for over a decade and acknowledges Robinson as one of the most skilful campaigners in navigating social media for his personal and political gain.
“If you look at the content that he puts out, most of it is not his own,” most of Robinson’s Facebook posts will be news stories from tabloid papers and other online news media, which he will then go on to radicalise, “stitching it together with his own narrative of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant or betrayal by the elite message,” as Trilling describes it.
If you look at the way social media has changed the way the far-right operate, it has become a lot easier for people to engage in some far-right activity, without much commitment. In the past people like Liam, whose views may not be as extreme as some of Robinson’s more dedicated followers, would not have necessarily come into contact with far-right content, now it is easily accessible without pledging his support more formally.
“Before the days of the internet, you would have to write off and find obscure, extremist magazines to find this kind of material,” says Trilling, “you would be part of a political party, and be actively going out and canvassing, you had to put a face to your politics.” Now with social media, you can remain as anonymous as you wish to while engaging with these more extreme views.
Understanding Robinson’s rise is instrumental in grasping his complex network of followers. In 2009 Robinson founded the English Defence League (EDL), a group he continually defended against claims it was a racist and anti-Islamic group, insisting they were only fighting the “rise of radical Islam”.
However, it was soon revealed that many of its members were football hooligans that would classify themselves as ‘anti-Muslim’, and protests would often turn violent and aggressive.
Much of his early political activism remained relatively under the radar, and with a string of arrests due to violent behaviour at EDL protests, it was easy for the political elite to dismiss him as nothing but a hooligan and a thug.
But while the rise of social media has made it easier in recent years for activists like Tommy Robinson to spread his beliefs, his appointment as advisor to the Leader of the UK Independence Party, Gerard Batten, in November 2018 caused great concern for many, and lead to the resignation of two former UKIP leaders and six of the party’s MEPs.
However, it is not just the followers and views that give the impression of the people that support Robinson. The controversial posts lead to an onslaught of offensive comments, his carefully curated timeline of posts illustrate his ability to manipulate his audience to encourage mass outrage and encourage the racist and Islamophobic discourse.From the comment threads on any of Robinson’s posts or the videos taken at EDL marches, it is easy to assume what a Tommy Robinson supporter is. Thuggish, aggressive and uneducated are the expectations held by the political elite and the media. For those with more liberal and left-leaning views, it can be almost impossible to understand the appeal. Therefore there is an assumed dissonance between the two opposing groups.
Another of Robinson’s followers that found his online presence convincing enough to become an engaged supporter is 25 year-old plumber Andy*, from Camden in north London. Having always voted Conservative, three years ago he had found himself leaning further towards the right, after feeling let down by the government.
“I was frustrated with how this country was being run, I’d lost two jobs in a year, and was seeing a lot more eastern European workers taking the work that has been given to English workers before,” he explains. “I’d seen it happening to friends in the building industry too, and it felt like we had been forgotten about.”
Whilst Andy was out of work he had more time on his hands and found Robinson’s YouTube videos and Tweets appealed to the emotions he was experiencing. “The people in parliament do not care about people like me and do not know what it is like to be in a situation like I was. Tommy can see them for who they are and actually wants to help working people like me and my family, and to make our streets safer,” Andy argues.
However, in March 2018 Robinson was barred from Twitter, after he broke the social network’s rules by governing ‘hateful conduct’, following a string of anti-Islamic Tweets. “To be honest, I think that it is unfair he was banned,” said Andy. “I think the point of social media is for people to have a voice, and what is the point if they are going to just de-activate accounts for anyone they don’t agree with.”
Robinson often plays on this anti-establishment rhetoric, and the term “free speech” is frequently addressed in his content, speaking with supporters like Andy, you can see that it has worked.
In a YouTube video he made titled Goodbye Twitter Robinson said: “Twitter, our police, our courts, our prime minister, our entire government and media, they raise one hand to support freedom of speech, while they try and rip it out from underneath us with the other. You are being lied to, we all are, there is a consorted effort to compress free speech in the UK, and they are all in on it.”
With the slick production, Robinson’s stern look into the camera, the tension building music and his direct address, you can see how people could be convinced by his content.
Combine that with the selective news stories he chooses to share, often from sketchy looking sources, and he has managed to curate an online profile that could be incredibly convincing, especially to someone who is already feeling at a loss with the establishment.
However, it is clear that neither Liam nor Andy wish to discuss the criticisms of Robinson, and much of both conversations seem to be focussed around them justifying their support. They consider Robinson a “relatable” figure, with the grievances he raises about immigration relating to the issues they have faced in their working lives. Liam had described the “huge immigration problem,” in the UK during our discussion, and Andy believes that his lack of work has been due to the influx of migrant workers who are willing to do the same job for less money.
When asked about the allegations of Islamophobia and racism, Andy shifts uncomfortably: “I’d say those people should do their research, because the stuff he shares is true,” he says. When Andy first started sharing his support online, he said he would often be met with angry responses, but felt it was from people that had not suffered the financial hardship and stress that he had.
Liam says: “That is just an opinion, I think it is wrong, but I am not going to argue with it.” Both Liam and Andy use the argument that Robinson has made genuine efforts to help with the safety of UK citizens when justifying their support, in particular, the campaigning he has done around grooming gangs, which they believe to a fundamental part of his activism.
Asim Hussain, 23, an administrator and self-professed “typical working class lad” from Birmingham had also been drawn in by Robinson’s campaigns that concerned the grooming scandals. “When Tommy left EDL and worked with Quilliam, I thought he was a legitimate journalist who wanted to tackle grooming gangs and terrorism,” he explains. “However I have come to realise he is far from a legitimate source of information, he just wants to cause havoc and con his supporters out of their money.”One of the most well-known of these scandals is the Rotherham Grooming Scandal, which occurred in Yorkshire from the 1980s through to the 2010s, the accounts and stories that followed it’s un-cover are truly harrowing, and it was described as, “the biggest child protection scandal in UK history,” by researcher Angie Heal.
The perpetrators, in this case, were of British-Pakistani heritage, and the fact that several councillors had wished for the case to not be opened up as it could provide ammunition to racist perspectives, meant it played perfectly into the anti-establishment and ‘betrayal of the people’ rhetoric Robinson and the EDL had been crafting.
Asim, like Andy and Liam, was shocked that the issue had been covered up in part due to this reason. “People were frustrated because authorities had not taken action against these gangs, those girls were let down by the system and brushed under the carpet,” he explains. He, like Liam and Andy still do, believed Robinson was trying to shed light on the scandal for genuine reasons.
However, Asim started to see a different side to Robinson as he continued to follow his movements, “I started to realise he was using the victims for his own political gain, there was never any outrage from him when it came to white paedophiles or similar cases that did not concern immigrants,” he continued. “He never has told his supporters to stop using racist language, in real life or social media.”
“People can convince themselves that they believe all sorts of things, and it may well be that some far-right supporters genuinely believe that they are doing it for the cause of women’s rights,” says Trilling, “but if you look at the pattern of how they behave and the things they say about the people they’re dealing with, it’s just demonstrating that is not the case.”
The grooming scandal has been pivotal in Robinson’s ascent to fame as it was an amalgamation of issues that the far-right consider important.
“Firstly it’s the perceived betrayal by the elites, and this idea that the people that speak out about it are being silenced, it also plays into the role of ethnicity and Englishness belonging to one racial group and not others,” Trilling explains. “Although the way the Far Right talk about the scandal as if they are there to protect women’s rights, what it is really about is claiming ownership of a certain kind of woman, and saying ‘they belong to us’.”
In fact, Robinson’s efforts to ‘expose’ these scandals have put the trials and convictions of the perpetrators at risk. In May 2018, Robinson hit the headlines when he was arrested for breaching the peace as he conducted a live stream outside Leeds Crown Court during the trial.
“He never has told his supporters to stop using racist language, in real life or social media.”
While Robinson argued that he was giving the case the publicity it needed, the judge in the trial had ordered there should be no coverage, and said that Robinson’s actions could have resulted in the trial collapsing.
The arrest of Robinson drew condemnation from right-wing circles and his supporters, in the weekends following the arrests there were rallies across the country, where Nazi salutes, violence like throwing glass bottles and scaffolding poles and acts of hatred against Muslim members of the public became commonplace.
The Free Tommy Robinson movement that emerged from his arrest also drew in support from far-right groups in Europe and Australia.
“Lots of his support comes from outside the UK and he is able to use social media accounts to link what he is doing, trying to whip up hate against Muslims with stories like the grooming scandal, to things happening in other countries, creating the narrative that it’s everywhere, and that Muslims and immigration is the root of these problems, it is a threat to Western society, and all our political elite have let down and betrayed us,” Trilling explains.Robinson’s efforts to appeal to the everyman clearly are effective, and Trilling believes the superficial way our media handles class has worked to his advantage: “I feel like Tommy Robinson has really been able to exploit the media, by Robinson saying ‘I am an authentic, working-class person’ and then our media being so dominated by people from very elite backgrounds, they react to that by assuming he must be working class and an authentic voice.”
Liam, Andy and Asim all challenge the existing perceptions of Tommy Robinson supporters in the UK or at least undermine the stereotype drawn in the media and by the political elite. While Asim has turned his back on it, Liam and Andy, who come across as your average English young men, engage in the far-right daily and seem to be able to rationalise, even normalise, the views of an extremist, which is essentially what Robinson is.
The far-right has always played on the public’s resentments, using emotional appeals to recruit followers and blaming issues on certain groups of people. Be it a lack of work or opportunity, or a threat to security and safety, Robinson’s appeal now stretches beyond the thuggish football hooligans.
“It could be there is a feeling of lack of opportunity for you when you’re young, or feeling like your town has been totally screwed over and left to rot, which could affect people of all ages,” says Trilling, but it goes beyond these examples that concern deprivation. “It is actually also a problem of abundance, we have access to all this stuff and tools for communication, and we do not know how to negotiate it, it’s a whole different world.”
“Fundamentally what far-right politics has done historically, and Robinson does today, is take all sorts of resentments and anxieties and package them up together,” says Tilling.
Directing your anger at easy targets, as the world becomes more complicated and confusing and technology evolves, it gives way to a very simple, but very destructive explanation from these activists. Whether his supporters are naïve, vulnerable or simply evil – there is no clear-cut answer on how to tackle these attitudes in today’s society.
*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewee
Featured image by Paige Photography via Flickr.