Remember when Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was simply a thug running a tiny white nationalist group?
In the early reporting of the English Defence League – founded in 2009 but suffering an ever-dwindling support base since 2013 – the man who uses the alias Tommy Robinson (after a prominent Luton football hooligan) wouldn’t even give a second name to the press, for fear of being “targeted by extremists”.
So he was simply “Tommy” then – and now the use of that same mononym has further-reaching repercussions.
A few months ago, “Free Tommy” became a battle cry of the global alt-right, for which the former EDL leader has become a hero.
His act of martyrdom? Receiving a 13-month prison sentence in May for breaking the law. He faced two separate contempt of court charges (during one trial he disrupted at Canterbury Crown Court, he made an online film about “exposing Muslim child rapists”).
This sparked defences of “freedom of speech” from high-profile hard right figures, from Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders to the US president’s son, Donald Trump Junior.
Yaxley-Lennon was even described as the “backbone” of Britain by Steve Bannon, the former Donald Trump strategist and alt-right media platform Breitbart News co-founder, who once said you should wear the label “racist” as “a medal”.
Off the back of this new-found international fame, Yaxley-Lennon received funding for his legal bills and general donations from overseas far-right organisations and individuals.
The central London protest in July against his imprisonment was ironically multi-national for an English nationalist’s cause – it included a pre-recorded speech by Wilders, and was attended by US congressman Paul Gosar, Flemish populist Filip Dewinter and the far-right Sweden Democrats party’s Kent Ekeroth.
North American, Russian, Czech Republic, Danish and Welsh banners were reported in the crowd, reflecting the range of languages into which the petition for his release, signed by over half a million, was translated (French, Spanish, German, Italian, Polish, Czech and Russian).
Ukip leader Gerard Batten also addressed the crowd – calling Islam’s founder Muhammad a “paedophile” and comparing Yaxley-Lennon to the Suffragettes, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
Batten, who calls Islam a “death cult”, has led the party since February. His leadership marks the ascendancy of a faction that has been urging the struggling party – whose vote share has been plummeting since the EU referendum – to take the populist, Trumpian, Islamophobic route for some time.
As with Yaxley-Lennon’s new wave of fans, this has drawn the alt-right to Ukip. Social media darlings of the alt-right like Paul Joseph Watson (an editor at the US conspiracy site Infowars), Mark Meechan (aka “Count Dankula”, infamous for his video teaching a dog Nazi salutes by repeating “Want to gas the Jews?” at it) and Carl Benjamin (a toxic misogynist troll known on YouTube as “Sargon of Akkad” who was accused of sparking a wave of rape threats by others on Twitter against Jess Phillips MP) have joined the party.
Like fitting a pound shop with a golden elevator
Ukip’s journey from a crusty haven of golf club bores to a magnet for online superstars of viral bigotry is a bizarre and dangerous development. As is the YouTube presence and international support of the decidedly budget Little Englander Yaxley-Lennon.
By welcoming the alt-right, Ukip, which bans former EDL members from joining, seems to be moving in a more confrontational direction.
Like a pound shop suddenly fitted with a golden elevator, money and structure has begun pulsing through Britain’s hard right of hitherto no-marks and electoral obscurity.
There is a willingness from the fringes of the right in this country to be invigorated by imported Islamophobic zeal from Europe and the US.
Bannon has already stated his intention to create a movement in Europe to connect far-right groups and back new ones; he wants to develop a “supergroup” – echoing his worldview of a clash of civilisations – in the European Parliament.
The Bannonite influence is already having an effect. Far-right thugs attacked a socialist bookshop on Saturday, for example (three Ukip members who participated have been suspended).
But it’s the soft effect, on an elite level rather than street level, which anti-fascists in this country will need to rally against.
From the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson firing Bannon-style culture war salvos in his national newspaper column (comparing women wearing the burqa or niqab to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”) to the BBC giving far-right Raheem Kassam a platform (and an easy ride) on its flagship political programme (not even mentioning his former editorship of Breitbart London), the normalisation of extremism is creeping into UK political life.
Bannon has also regularly been in contact with Johnson, and has met other influential Tory politicians like leading backbench Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg and cabinet minister Michael Gove.
Anti-fascism and factionalism
HOPE not hate, the UK’s leading anti-fascist network, specialises in political campaigns against far-right parties as well as voter registration and “get out the vote” campaigns, gathering intelligence, carrying out investigations and community organising.
It is already gathering signatures for a petition to urge the Conservative Party to remove the whip from Johnson – and will begin organising in Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge if he’s not suspended from the party, to bring constituents’ attention to his remarks.
The group has yet to comment on the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s call this week for a nationwide anti-racist movement in the style of the Anti-Nazi League of the Seventies.
This might be a sticking point for anti-fascist unity in the UK. Mention anti-fascism to any experienced activist and they refer to factionalism in the movement. The Anti-Nazi League (ANL), which campaigned against the National Front from 1977 and is famed for its Rock Against Racism gigs, was set up by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – now seen by the mainstream as a rape apologist organisation due to a string of allegations.
What for many activists is an unpalatable link is also present in the modern iteration of the ANL, Unite Against Fascism, which came about in 2003 to challenge the BNP. The group is best-known for its Stand Up To Racism project, which excels in organising counter-demonstrations (one recent example being against Yaxley-Lennon supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice) and has had a large presence at anti-Trump protests.
However they decide to work alongside each other, anti-fascist groups will need mainstream politicians to behave responsibly. A quality that has been hideously lacking since the Bannonite wave hit Britain.