Tommy Robinson has been transformed into a truly global figure, a purported martyr for the dispossessed and the most influential radical-right leader in Britain since Sir Oswald Mosley.
Following Tommy Robinson’s imprisonment in May for contempt of court, the #FreeTommy campaign demonstrated just how much the British radical right has changed in a short space of time. It has transformed Robinson into a truly global figure, a purported martyr for the dispossessed and the most influential radical-right leader in Britain since Sir Oswald Mosley.
First of all, Robinson has a significant transnational following – particularly in Trump’s America. This is perhaps the most surprising development of the #FreeTommy campaign. Robinson has transformed himself from essentially a local activist in Luton into a transatlantic radical-right ideologue. As many studies of interwar fascism and postwar radical-right politics have shown, developing international links (either with sympathetic states such as Italy or Germany in the 1930s or other like-minded far-right groups in Europe, North America and beyond) has been a familiar practice.
Yet no radical-right figure in Britain has had anything like the success Robinson has experienced over recent months. Support came from leading anti-Muslim politicians in Europe, such as Dutch radical-right leader Geert Wilders, but particularly from the United States. US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and Republican Congressman Paul Gosar have all publicly expressed support for Robinson.
It is not just elite individuals within the radical-right community who support Robinson either. Findings from Hope not Hate, reported in The Guardian, recently demonstrated that “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 is not seeking political office. Electoral politics has always proved extremely difficult for the radical right in Britain. The first-past-the-post electoral system is challenging for any small party, while radical-right leaders are notoriously volatile and have tended to struggle to work together. Parties that have achieved some success on this front in the UK — notably the National Front and more recently the British National Party (BNP) — were riven by disputes over ideological purity when appealing to the electorate. In turn, this has led to endless fallouts and breakaways. The disintegration of the BNP in 2011 as well as UK Independence Party’s more recent collapse means there is currently no credible challenger to the right of the Conservative Party.
Robinson is almost an apolitical figure insofar as he largely focuses on social and cultural issues such as the so-called Islamization of Britain, pedophilic grooming gangs and the dangers of political correctness. He does not concern himself with policy, electoral strategy or the need to cultivate any kind of party discipline. This is why we have seen recent radical-right activity focus on street marches and demonstrations — the political outlet for radical-right ideas has all but disappeared. This is a potentially dangerous development, for when the democratic political outlet is gone, the radical right it can express itself in more sinister ways such as public disorder, hate crimes against social and ethnic minorities and even acts of terrorism.
Far-right leaders in Britain have long believed themselves to represent the needs, voices and values of working-class Britons. Yet rarely have any significant figures on the radical right come from that background, let alone embrace a working-class hero role, to the same degree as Robinson. For instance, the interwar fascist Oswald Mosley was a knight of the realm as well as the heir to a mammoth aristocratic fortune. More recent leaders such as BNP founder John Tyndall and leader Nick Griffin have been staunchly middle class in both appearance and accent.
This may seem an arbitrary point to make (or perhaps even an irrelevant one given the success of silver-spoon radical-right politicians such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump), but numerous studies of the English Defense League have emphasized the importance of activists’ sense of class identity (see Angry White People by Hsiao-Hung Pai and The Rise of the Right by Winlow, for example), alongside the fact that a significant proportion are unemployed or living in precarious economic circumstances with few opportunities. It therefore provides much-needed authenticity often absent from the radical right. It also bolsters the oft-repeated claim by Robinson and his followers that “we are not being listened to,” and that politics is governed by a small clique of distant elites out of touch with the masses. Tellingly, Steve Bannon crudely yelled off-camera, during a recent interview with LBC, indicting the show’s producer as well as Nigel Farage: “You guys hate Tommy Robinson. You hate him because he’s a working class guy. You’re one of these fucking elites that hate him.” In this view, he was probably expressing sentiment held by thousands of Robinson followers.
Social Media Savvy
The British radical right of all stripes has punched well above its weight online over the past decade. This became apparent recently, when US President Donald Trump retweeted false videos allegedly showing Muslim attacks on white people, which had been posted on Twitter by radical-right party Britain First. Prior to their ban, the party — banned from Twitter in 2017 and Facebook in 2018 for inciting animosity and hatred — was able to achieve more likes than the Labour and Conservative Party’s Facebook platforms put together, despite achieving nothing electorally and attracting derisory numbers at their organized protests.
Tommy Robinson has a similarly disproportionate social media following. One video on his YouTube channel, showing him emotionally greeting his children upon returning home from prison, has been viewed nearly 500,000 times. Other videos posted by his former employers, Rebel Media, entitled “Tommy Robinson confronts another accused Muslim grooming gang,” reached an audience of 1.9 million; and “Tommy Robinson confronts Twitter troll” was viewed by another 2.3 million people.
His transatlantic social media following has been hugely influential in spreading messages to far-reaching corners of the globe, while also translating this into funding and street-based activism in a short space of time. (For example, 2,000 protestors turned up to the “Free Tommy” demonstration in London in July 2018.) The transnational radical right has been deft in using social media to spread its message and recruit followers, and this is perhaps best demonstrated by the internet phenomenon that Robinson has recently become.
Suitable Political Climate
This is perhaps the most dangerous development surrounding the #FreeTommy movement: Britain has become a country not just hospitable to radical-right ideas, but one in which they can thrive. Whilst this is a long-term development, as I argue in my book, English Uprising: Brexit and the Mainstreaming of the Far Right, the normalization of radical-right ideas has palpably increased since the EU referendum. In recent weeks, for example, elite politicians such as Boris Johnson, who may well be Theresa May’s successor as prime minister, have been meeting with key figures in the global radical-right movement such as Steve Bannon and publicly disparaging Muslim women wearing face veils.
The tabloid media speak in aggressive terms about politicians and elites being “traitors” who are betraying ordinary Britons. The Conservative government has not sought to allay the public’s fears over immigration by arguing for its benefits, but instead made outsized promises about its impending cuts following Brexit. Even editorials in center-right magazines such as The Spectator have argued that “there is not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Conservative Party,” while The Times has published headlines of late such as “Our timid leaders can learn lessons from strongmen.”
The more politicians, media and writers use their influence to concede ground to the radical right, the more likely their ideas are to be accepted by the public and enter public policy debates. Should that happen, this could have devastating consequences for ethnic minorities, marginalized groups and those seen as “the enemy within.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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