Why is Tommy Robinson popular?
Popular is subjective; in one specific definition, it’s defined as “(of cultural activities or products) intended for or suited to the taste, understanding, or means of the general public rather than specialists or intellectuals.”
Are the general public at large racists? Is Tommy Robinson racist? Is he even real? I suppose the final question is a good place to start – Tommy Robinson isn’t even his real name, after all. Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon is his real name, Tommy Robinson is a pseudonym reportedly created out of admiration from the main character of the film Football Factory, about football hooligans. Tommy Robinson isn’t his first pseudonym either, he’s also been known as Andrew McMaster and Paul Harris.
Without wanting to get too deep into existential philosophy, Tommy Robinson isn’t real. He’s an idea, an ideology, a populist motif. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is real, but he’s also a convicted fraudster and criminal. Yaxley-Lennon has been convicted of, in no particular order, assault, assaulting a police officer, scaling the roof of a FIFA building, football rioting, using a fake passport, mortgage fraud and contempt of court.
It would be fair to ask, in these circumstances, why some are touting Tommy Robinson as a political activist and a true representation of the white working class in England. Suffice to say he’s not particularly popular in Wales or Scotland given that his particular brand of ‘activism’ relies heavily on English identity politics.
Robinson is popular, however, in some quarters and has quite successfully tapped into the rising tide of anti-establishment politics currently sweeping across the UK, Europe and US. The rise of Trump, Brexit, right-wing politics and, more recently, the election of an unashamed fascist in Brazil are, in many ways, interconnected.
For decades the far-right faced many of the same issues that the far-left, namely fringe issues that struggled to gain traction with the wider public and a fragmented, ineffective organisational structure. As with any fringe political organisation the likes of the English Defence League, which Robinson co-founded, the Football Lads Alliance and, less recently, the BNP often splintered and fell out regularly, being forced to rebrand and reorganise on a seemingly yearly basis.
Extreme politics appear to have made their way into the mainstream now, though, with the likes of the Socialist Worker Party, UK Communist parties and other fringe leftist parties now apparently happy to converge with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, whilst UKIP have all but collapsed after the Conservatives decided to do their best impression of the now defunct BNP. Aaron Banks, famously obnoxious multimillionaire and UKIP donor, has recently been trying to join the Conservatives with the intention of having pro-Remain MP’s deselected and encouraging insurgency into local Conservative party constituencies by extremist Brexit supporters.
In America and the wider world stage, the likes of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil are doing their best Donald Trump impressions by attacking the media, journalists and political opponents whilst decrying the rise of ‘political correctness’, usually by insulting minorities and threatening to deport them.
As the political and economic order that has dominated since the 80’s reaches its biggest crisis since it was championed by Thatcher and Reagan, it could be argued that it’s most obvious failures are now clearing the political landscape for politicians or figures who promise grand and sweeping change with little substance.
Back to Robinson then, who was recently seen outside the Old Bailey addressing a crowd of supporters having had his recent prosecution referred to the Attorney General. In a remarkably aggressive, but sadly not uncommon, gesture he pointed to the accumulated press and labelled them enemies of the people.
But why do people follow him at all? He’s not particularly charismatic, articulate or even a very good public speaker. Yet Robinson has nearly a million likes on Facebook and his content has been viewed millions of times across social media. As liberal economics begins to crumble under the weight of huge income disparity and the abandonment of rural communities and towns, people need somebody to blame and a seemingly easy solution to complex issues.
Robinson, for his part, offers up Muslims as the open ended, catch all enemy. Muslims, he says, have invaded Europe with the intention of changing our culture and attacking our women and children. Robinson uses the cover of due process through the courts to claim an establishment conspiracy. Recently arrested for attempting to film victims and the accused outside an extremely sensitive court case, Robinson was conspicuous by the nature of him being the only person there to report on the case as it happened. Forget the fact that the media had been ordered not to report on the case, which involved a grooming gang, due to the possibility of interrupting a fair trial, Robinson claimed that he was being silenced by the elites for telling the truth. In fact, he’d come dangerously close to derailing the prosecution of the grooming gang altogether, almost causing a mistrial.
Of course once the case was concluded and the men found guilty, the national media covered the case at length and in detail, naming all of those involved. In an age of conspiracy, it’s often too tempting or seductive to believe that something sinister is afoot, that corruption is the cause of all your problems and that the easy answer is to shift the blame on to a community that has little chance of fighting back against the tide of populist opinion.
It isn’t just an issue on the right, either, with many who support Jeremy Corbyn on the extreme opposite of the political scale operating within the same intellectual parameters. All too often, on this extreme, Muslims are simply replaced by Jews.
Robinson appears to be managing to do something that has evaded so many before him, he’s managing to bring together a fragmented extreme and present it as a common sense street-level political position. With the aid of social media and a deeply unstable mainstream political atmosphere, he appears to be allowing those who want to feel like they are participating without actually having to do the hard work of actual political activism. Robinson is allowing them to “tell the truth” by simply sharing content which incites hatred and anger at the wrong people, the lure of being a revolutionary and defying the establishment too strong to bother with looking at any facts or evidence.
Whether Robinson and his like-minded cohort will be able to harness this new level of organisation for anything other than kicking over bins and punching elderly counter-protestors is yet to be seen.
Just as a point of context, I may add, Tommy Robinson has recently bought himself a £1 million house in the countryside at exactly the same time as donations to his legal campaign reached a crescendo thanks to his recent court case. I don’t engage in conspiracies, but if I did, I might suggest that Robinson had engineered his own arrest to create a PR storm before raking in donations to live off the money.