As the rain fell on 6 February 2016, Tommy Robinson led a small crowd through an industrial estate on the edge of Birmingham. It was the launch event of Pegida UK, the anti-Islam outfit founded by Robinson. Fewer than 200 supporters turned up. Undeterred, he outlined the group’s pan-European ambitions. No other marches would follow.
Robinson had hit rock bottom. His other venture, the virulently Islamophobic English Defence League, had fractured and declined two years earlier. So low was his stock that anti-fascist organisations had stopped taking him seriously.
Fast forward 30 months and that stock has seen an extraordinary, and unsettling, rise. Robinson – real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – is now positioned as a superstar of the international radical right, a global “martyr” for free speech and a lightning rod through which the far right intends to wage its struggle to protect “traditional” western freedoms from the perceived foes of Islam and liberal democracy.
It was his 13-month prison sentence for contempt of court in May that, according to Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, cemented Robinson’s journey from fringe player to occupying “a valuable niche in the radical-right ecosystem”.
This week the court of appeal will deliver its judgment on whether Robinson should be released from prison immediately. If it rules in his favour, the Observer has been told, his newfound liberty may well be celebrated with a key position within the new rightwing European populist foundation, called The Movement, being planned by Steve Bannon.
Donald Trump’s former White House adviser wants The Movement to focus its efforts on the European parliament elections next spring, as well as the post-Brexit landscape in the UK, where he anticipates being able to exploit the disaffection of millions of Leave voters in the event of a deal they feel is not what they voted for. A high-profile figure with a sizeable rightwing fanbase will be required to lead the fight. That figure, some say, will be Robinson.
“It’s his if he wants it. He’s the key figure, the most charismatic. He’ll come out of prison as a superstar, especially in North America. He’ll be on Fox News, everywhere. It’ll be a massive few weeks for him,” said Joe Mulhall of Hope not Hate, which has monitored Robinson since he founded the EDL in 2009.
“We have to see Tommy within this Bannon foundation. Bannon has been very supportive of him. You cannot really detach Tommy from this wider project,” added Mulhall.
Bannon’s support for the convicted fraudster appears unswerving. After an interview on Nigel Farage’s show on LBC radio – timed to coincide with Trump’s visit to London – Bannon delivered an off-air eulogy to Robinson that described the former UK Pegida leader as “the fucking backbone of this country”.
That such a prominent figure from the US alt-right might so enthusiastically embrace the 35-year-old from Luton is no surprise. An intricate constellation of alt-right and far-right groups, including America’s largest anti-Muslim organisation and even one of Trump’s senior diplomats, has offered Robinson staunch backing in recent weeks.
Gregg Roman, director of rightwing Philadelphia-based thinktank Middle East Forum (MEF), said Robinson should be lauded for speaking up on sensitive issues linked to the Muslim community. “There is a growing movement to silence anything that people disagree with,” he said. “Our prerogative as an organisation is to protect that discussion, the right to say it.
“His predicament is emblematic of the difference between the American protection of free speech and freedom of the press versus the rather draconian system that’s been implemented in the UK.”
Roman, whose group has paid Robinson’s court defence fees, revealed it had also paid Republican congressman Paul Gosar’s travel costs to the UK on 14 July so he could address a London protest in support of Robinson. Gosar, who did not want to be interviewed for this article, is considered an influential conduit between Bannon’s future operations in London and the Freedom Caucus, the group of pro-Trump, ultra-rightwing Republicans in the US House of Representatives.
Gosar told the London crowd – 25 times the size of the Birmingham Pegida march – that he could no longer “stay silent” on the jailing of Robinson.
Many feel similarly energised. More than 630,000 have signed an online petition for Robinson to be freed, its international reach articulated by its translation into French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Polish, Czech and Russian. Analysis of signatories by Hope not Hate found only 68% came from the UK, while 35% of Twitter posts using a “Free Tommy” hashtag analysed by the group came from the United States.
Robinson’s resurgence, says Mulhall, can be neatly traced to the chaotic aftermath of the March 2017 Westminster terror attack. Accompanied by a film crew from Canadian far-right platform The Rebel Media, Robinson rushed to the scene and began to fulminate into the camera that Britain was “at war” with Islamic fundamentalists.
Although accused of exploiting the tragedy, his sentiments struck a chord with a sizeable minority. The footage has been watched more than 1.7m times on YouTube. The Rebel Media offered him a position, boosting his North American profile. But Robinson’s true ingenuity, according to Ford, was mixing his rough diamond personality with the mantra that the UK establishment was out to censor him because he dared to speak the truth.
“This is exactly the argument they like,” said Ford, “because it means they can say, ‘we’re the truly brave liberals’. The degree to which it has gone viral as an argument shows this is a winner for the radical right. It strongly motivates their core electorate.” Robinson’s imprisonment buttressed the message, allowing him to present himself as a “martyr for truth”.
“If he sticks to that line I can imagine a lot of far-right outfits wanting to make use of that. He could find himself perpetually on tour to whichever country has an election,” added Ford.
Roman, whose colleague Daniel Pipes at the MEF floated the unfounded claim that there were “no-go” zones in largely Muslim areas of Europe, described Robinson as a symbol of the struggle to speak the unspeakable. “He’s the emblem of an individual who’s tried to – as an advocate or journalist who has transcended his grassroots days – highlight the plight of victims. This is to do with his ability to articulate viewpoints without facing penalties,” said Roman.
It is an argument that has electrified the US far right. Recently, the US’s largest anti-Muslim organisation, ACT! for America, emailed its 750,000 members, outlining the “battle for free speech in Europe, specifically England”, around the Robinson case. Another influential Robinson supporter has been the far-right Texas-based conspiracy theorist website Infowars, which receives around 10m monthly visits. Alex Jones, who runs the site, calls Robinson a “political prisoner”. One Infowars piece, published by the Gatestone Institute, an anti-Muslim thinktank, articulates the US-UK alliance over Robinson. A prominent fellow of the Gatestone Institute is Raheem Kassam, London editor for rightwing website Breitbart when Bannon was its executive chairman.
Other pro-Robinson US figures include Pamela Geller, an anti-Muslim blogger banned from the UK, and Donald Trump Jr, who messaged nearly 3 million Twitter followers that jailing Robinson was another reason “for the original #brexit”. The reference to Brexit is germane to exploring the trajectory of the future transatlantic alignment of the far right. The day before Trump’s arrival in London on 12 July Bannon met rightwing luminaries at a Mayfair hotel, including Louis Aliot, partner of France’s National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, and Ben Harris-Quinney, chairman of the UK’s oldest conservative thinktank, the Bow Group. Although Harris-Quinney told the Observer they did not discuss Robinson, Bannon clearly had his eye on Britain’s exit from the EU and discussed “the current state of the Brexit process” following the Chequers proposal.
Ford believes fallout from the Brexit deal will help the far right make a real incursion into UK politics. He calculated that around 20% of the electorate hold a Ukip worldview, of which around half might be seduced by the xenophobic, Islamophobic vision of a Bannon/Robinson alliance. “That’s still 10% of the electorate – a lot of voters,” he said.
Brexit offered an opportunity to vastly increase numbers, added Ford. “We were promised a national renewal project and all we got was this crappy T-shirt from Boris Johnson,” he said. If a radical-right movement harnessed the power of a Robinson, or Farage, with adequate funding and credible candidates, it could make significant inroads. “There are formidable barriers to entry for new parties. One is getting any kind of attention, and figures like Robinson and Farage are valuable for that.”
If Robinson is released this week, his value to the international far right may soon be underlined.
Robinson founds and becomes leader of the anti-Muslim English Defence League (EDL)
Resigns from the EDL, claiming he has concerns over the “dangers of far-right extremism”
Launches Pegida UK, British offshoot of the German anti-immigration organisation
Becomes correspondent for rightwing Canadian outfit Rebel Media
Sentenced to 13 months’ imprisonment for contempt of court