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27 June 2018updated 29 Jun 2018 3:56pm

How Tommy Robinson became a folk hero for the global alt-right

Since his imprisonment for contempt of court, the former EDL leader has been hailed by far right supporters as a free speech martyr.

By Julia Rampen

On 23 January 2014, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, then 31, was jailed for mortgage fraud. Months earlier, he had resigned from the group of which he had been de facto leader, the English Defence League (EDL). Under the nom de guerre Tommy Robinson, Yaxley-Lennon complained that he was the victim of a “stitch-up” and tweeted a picture of a meal of mashed potatoes, meat and chips. “See u all in 18 months,” he wrote. Then he went quiet.

On 23 June 2018, as 100,000 protesters marched through central London to demand a “People’s Vote” on the Brexit deal, a small group of counter-demonstrators chanted: “Whose streets? Our streets.” Another cried: “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy.” Many wore T-shirts bearing the hashtag #FreeTommy. Robinson was in jail once again, and this time the world knew about it.

Robinson was born in Luton (today one of three white British-minority towns, the others being Leicester and Slough), in 1982 to an Irish immigrant mother and an English father. After leaving school at 16, Robinson studied aircraft engineering for five years at Luton Airport, qualifying in 2003. But he was fired after being convicted in 2005 of drunkenly assaulting an off-duty police officer.

His political engagement began when he joined the British National Party in 2004, but Robinson later claimed to have resigned his membership after a year. “I didn’t know Nick Griffin was in the National Front, I didn’t know non-whites couldn’t join the organisation,” he told BBC presenter Andrew Neil in 2013. It was as leader of the EDL, which began in 2009 as a group of football hooligans protesting against Islamist preachers, that Robinson first achieved renown (his name was borrowed from a member of Luton’s Men In Gear hooligan firm). In 2010, he was outed as Yaxley-Lennon, only to declare himself to be Paul Harris (he has also tried to travel to the US under a passport belonging to Andrew McMaster).

Under Robinson, the EDL also had multiple identities. On paper, it was simply opposed to “militant Islam” and its structure included Jewish, Sikh and LGBT divisions. On the street, its supporters were angry, male, intimidating, mostly white – and prone to directing racist abuse at anyone with darker skin. In 2013, Robinson resigned as EDL leader, citing the dangers of “far-right extremism”. The group became another by-word for alienated white nationalists.

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By the time Robinson was released from prison in November 2014, a refugee crisis was engulfing Europe. Instead of returning to the streets of Britain, he travelled to Germany and sought to expand the country’s anti-Islam movement, Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West). Next came Brexit, Donald Trump and a new term for a slippery, extremist ideology now dominating corners of the internet: the alt-right.

Robinson spied an opportunity. He became a columnist for Canadian far-right website Rebel Media and cultivated a YouTube channel. Until being banned by Twitter earlier this year, he had 413,000 followers.

As in his EDL days, Robinson combined dog whistle tactics with the insistence that he was not a racist. More potently, perhaps, he borrowed the alt-right’s argument that he was merely defending free speech.

Then Robinson overreached. After standing outside  Leeds Crown Court in May 2018 and live-streaming a video during an ongoing trial, he was arrested and sentenced to 13 months in jail for contempt of court.

But this was not the story the world heard. “Reason #1776 for the original #Brexit. Don’t let America follow in those footsteps,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr, the US president’s eldest son, about the case. Conservative US radio host Rush Limbaugh acknowledged that Robinson had “technically violated a judge’s order”, but told listeners that “the real thing to take away from this story is that they categorise this guy as ‘far right’, which then permits them to spirit him away”. Australian supporters held rallies.

In the UK, petitions to “free Tommy Robinson” have attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures. “I’m sick of being the silenced majority in my own country and I need people like Tommy to fight my corner,” one supporter wrote. On 9 June 2018, as many as 15,000 protesters gathered in central London under the  #FreeTommy banner.

To his supporters, Robinson is the victim of an oppressive state. Those watching the latest march felt differently; one described the mood to me as “creepy and uncomfortable”.

There is no doubt that, for many, it is Robinson the street fighter who most appeals. “It is a class culture war,” Jonathan Rutherford, an academic and one of the leading Blue Labour thinkers, told me. Robinson the man, it seems, is less important than what he represents. “Robinson is a tribune of that working-class white identity – although he’d probably not like the white identity bit,” said Rutherford. “He’s for them, and of them, and who else is?”

This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone