Tommy Robinson: “I had to do what I thought was right”

This article originally appeared in the December edition of Total Politics

Tommy Robinson

Tommy Robinson

“She knew about the Trojan Horse plot, I told her,” Tommy Robinson says of the home secretary Theresa May. “All she kept saying was, “Our government have made it clear we have a tough stance on Islamic extremism”. I said to her, “You haven’t. You can say something, but you don’t see what’s going on in my hometown.”

The former leader of the English Defence League (EDL) sits back defiantly and takes a sip of water. He alleges that he and May had an arranged consultation in June 2011. It was reported at the time, however, that he ambushed her at a constituency meeting.

Robinson claims they spoke about the Luton Islamic Centre, which the Stockholm bomber attended. The centre adjoins the Olive Tree Primary School, where in May 2014 Ofsted found school library books advocating stoning homosexuals and lashing adulterers.

The ultranationalist, street-brawling EDL was formed in August 2009. Robinson and a group of Luton locals – under the banner ‘United Peoples of Luton’ (UPL) – had tried to get the Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun banned from a Royal Anglian Regiment homecoming parade in Luton. Despite getting thousands of signatures, in the event, Al-Muhajiroun barracked the parade.

The police protected them and threatened locals with arrest. Al-Muhajiroun had caused tension in Luton for years and this was the final straw for Robinson. With his mother’s cousin, Kevin Carrol, he created the EDL. “There had to be a breaking point when the authorities and everyone in the country noticed the problem, and that was it,” he says defiantly.

Robinson quit the group in October 2013 after realising he could no longer control the extreme far-right factions, and was aided in leaving by the anti-extremist think tank, the Quilliam Foundation. However, a month later, he was charged with conspiring to commit mortgage fraud, and was imprisoned for 18 months in January 2014. He was released in June. Despite keeping a low profile, Robinsonwas briefly re-imprisoned at the end of October after he broke his licence by responding to a death threat against him on Twitter.

Born Stephen Yaxley in 1982, he later renamed himself Yaxley-Lennon, taking his adoptive father’s name. “To me, he’s my dad. I haven’t seen my real father since I was 10,” he explains. He adopted the alias ‘Tommy Robinson’ when he became leader of the EDL over concerns for his and his family’s safety. They have been continually threatened by extremist Islamist groups, as well as by far-right groups.

Robinson is a stocky man. He has short, spikey, mousey-coloured, gelled hair and blue eyes alert with a hint of boyish energy. On his left arm is a semi-completed tattoo sleeve that contains, among other things, a Churchill quote: “There is a forgotten, nay almost forbidden word, which means more to me than any other. That word is England.”

When discussing the EDL, he expresses a mixture of pride and pain. “Leaving was the most difficult thing I’ve done,” he says. “Because I know what the EDL means to so many people who feel like they haven’t had a voice. And those people felt like I had become that voice.

“I feel like such a bastard for taking that away from them. But I had to. I had to do what I thought was right.”

He says he could no longer tolerate the group’s provocative and ugly marches in built-up immigrant areas.

“There’s a place where these sorts of politics should be discussed and sorted out, and it’s not out there,” he says, looking pensively out of the window.

He came to this conclusion while in solitary confinement during a prison sentence for entering America on a friend’s passport in January 2013.

“We’d been doing a lot – protests and shouting a lot – but we hadn’t really been looking at how we could solve any of the problems. It was then that I thought continually doing what we were doing was not going to help solve anything.

“Yeah, it’s got it out there, and got it talked about. People are debating it. It’s given a voice to it. But you need Muslims onside, and you ain’t going to get Muslims onside the way we were carrying on.”

He didn’t immediately leave the EDL once he was released from jail in February 2013, citing the murder of Lee Rigby as the reason for his eventual departure. On the evening of this tragic attack on 22 May, Robinson led over 100 balaclava-clad EDL rioters through Woolwich in what can only be described as a nasty, provocative and opportunistic demonstration. He told his crowd of supporters: “We’ve got weak leadership. They’ve allowed this to happen. People are scared to say the word ‘Muslim’. They’re scared to offend them. “You know what? We’re offended. People in this country are angry. They’ve had enough.”

During this period, he claims he was increasingly concerned by the presence of Nazi factions in the EDL that had made strong gains while he was in jail. He says much of his time as leader was spent stopping the National Front and various other fascist groups from joining. To describe the EDL as far-right, he says, is to overlook much uglier organisations in Britain today. Getting out his phone, Robinson shows me photos of a group called the North West Infidels. “These are the Nazis,” he says. “I tried for five years to keep these people out.” Back in September 2011, he was convicted of common assault after head-butting a neo-Nazi who had joined the EDL at a rally in Blackburn.

“There were many people in the EDL who wanted to take it in their own directions,” he continues. “They didn’t like me because I stood with Israel and I don’t care about immigration. Everyone I know is the child of an immigrant… People are fed up with Islam in Luton, but they have no problem racially.”

Despite this stance today, Robinson is a former member of the British National Party (BNP). When pressed on this, he stresses it was youthful ignorance rather than racism that led him there.

A guy approached him and a group of his friends at a Luton football match. He claims that the BNP saw them as an inroad into Luton. “He showed us this leaflet. Now, when you read these points, bear in mind I’d not been involved in politics at all, as a 20-year-old lad. I looked at it and thought, ‘I agree with all of them’.”

He subsequently turned up with some friends to a BNP meeting in a Luton pub. “These BNP blokes said my mates couldn’t come in because they were black. I didn’t know about that,” he recalls. “I didn’t know Nick Griffin used to be the leader of the National Front.

“We were just young lads – we thought we’d join the BNP, we’ll get pissed and all that. So when they said the black lads couldn’t join in, we said, ‘You can’t have the meeting here in this pub then, because it’s on our estate’. They had no more meetings after that. I joined the BNP in 2004 for 12 months and then left. I didn’t re-join.”

So what does the future hold now for Tommy Robinson? He’s planning on writing a book at some stage, and hopes to talk to schoolchildren across the country alongside a Muslim activist to encourage integration and tolerance. He’s also toying with the idea of launching a think tank in partnership with Muslim groups to counter community tensions. He believes that divisions in communities like Luton’s are being exacerbated by the political correctness of decision-makers.

“There’s so much that has gone wrong here,” he explains, “and we’ve encouraged the divide and segregation.” For instance, he cites a school in Luton that banned children wearing St George’s emblems on St George’s day, which caused tension among parents. “All these little things here chip away and impact,” he says. To counter this, he believes there should be a nationwide network that would bring communities together to speak to councils and schools to solve such problems.

“There’s definitely room for something that would bring Muslims and non-Muslims together,” he says. “The best way for us to protect and preserve our culture and identity is to have Muslims do it with us.”

As we part, I ask him what he thinks when he looks back at his life.

He gazes intently at me for a second. “I think I’m lucky to be alive,” he says. “I feel lucky that in five years in the EDL no one got killed on either side. If we didn’t have the police there, the anger and the frustration on both sides… people would have been getting killed. That’s when you end up with sectarianism, and it becomes a whole different ballgame.”

He pauses for a brief moment, before adding: “Where do you go from that?”


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