Tommy Robinson; and the rewards of outrage

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In June, anti-fascists everywhere were shocked by the size of the Free Tommy protest in London, which had 15,000 people on it and was far larger than any comparable protest organised by any of the National Front, the BNP, the EDL or UKIP. The Robinson supporters followed it up with a smaller march a month later, with about 4,000 people taking part. After winning his appeal, Tommy Robinson is now out on bail but again facing a sentencing hearing and no doubt this time his lawyers are begging him to keep low profile (at least until the next hearing). What about afterwards; will Robinson return to the streets – and, if so, what level of support is he likely to sustain?

The first thing to grasp is that we are still in a moment when the far-right is growing faster than any other time since 1945. On the left, when we look back at the 1960s, we think go it as a freewheeling time of countercultural advance when “the movement” would mean at one time a campaign for civil rights, at any other time women’s and gay liberation, when it encompassed huge popular music festivals, campaigns for national liberation, comics, films, songs, conferences, street happenings, election victories. It was a time when somehow all these different types of movement, with all their different demands, seemed to fit together and represent one single process.

The troubling thought is that the post-2016 far right has exactly the same shifting content. To take just one example: one component of the Tommy Robinson movement is a group of football firms – the Football Lads Alliance banner. A year ago, it was solely a conventional single issue campaign only against Islamic terror attacks. But, after that, when there hadn’t been any further outrages and the issue drained out of the news; it became an external faction support a local campaign to expose the supposed connivance of the UK state in the IRA pub bombings. Then, when it became clear that the campaign couldn’t take root outside Birmingham, the FLA became a reluctant part of the Robinson movement. Now, it has changed again, and all the group’s energy is dedicated to supporting a movement of “women and children” (because they’re the same thing, right?) against rape. It relies on the unspoken but real insistence that all rapes in Britain are being carried out by Muslims. And, with the backing of Anne Marie Waters and Pat Buchanan, the FLA is now building itself through a series of further demonstrations in the North East.

A key part of the far right’s ability to reinvent itself has been the refusal of the mainstream right to police its outliers. For seventy years, the mainstream right has known that the key to electoral success has been that it must keep the dangerous elements at arm’s length. So in Britain, the most popular rightwing political between 1945 and 1979 Enoch Powell was publicly sacrificed by the Tory party – not because the Conservatives were nice people but because a purely racist approach to politics would cause the party to lose elections, and they knew that he polarised voters, when a strategy for repeated success relied in presenting Conservatism as a universal virtue, somehow above politics. The same was even true on the electoral far right: Farage built a career by driving out the nationalist element, turning down deals with the BNP and positioning his party as a friend of the Tories and closed to those further to its right.

But in 2018, we have the likely next leader of the Conservatives Boris Johnson taking advice from Steve Bannon and coming up with his racist musings about women in burkas. Or the present leader of UKIP attending pro-Robinson marches and telling the demonstrators that the founder of the Muslim religion was a paedophile and insisting that every racist fantasy they have about Muslims is true.

When Robinson’s movement took a step back in July, I argued that it was facing significant problems in renewing itself. On further reflection, I think the reasons for that were as follows. The Tommy Robinson movement is not best understood a political party but a social movement or even (better still) as what happens when a social media career starts to express itself in real life. The campaign has very few “cadres”, and almost no infrastructure apart from its online presence and a shifting micro-generation of people (Robinson’s former employer, his former secretary) who can claim to speak for Robinson himself. When he was in prison, he had very little access to his allies, he was in a cell 23.5 hours a day with phone access limited to 30 minutes in the early afternoon. He couldn’t make decision for them, and so no decisions were taken – except for just the single agreement that they should have a second demonstration in his support, to copy as closely as possible the one they had just held in June.

Now that Robinson is at large (or at least, once his sentencing appeal is over), those practical difficulties have been resolved.

All the signs are that the far-right is still growing across Europe. The next election to watch will be on 9 September in Sweden and while it no longer looks as if the Swedish Democrats will actually win, they are polling at a steady 20% of the vote, and we should except them to win their highest ever vote. There will be more press headlines in Britain describing the far right as Europe’s coming force.

Here, Brexit continues to poison our politics; there is a convergence between the ways in which the main Brexiteers see the world (Johnson: Brexit was a great idea, but the politicians never allowed me to explain it properly) and the way that the Robinson supporters understand it, as the defeat of the nation by a caste of politicians committed to keeping their cosmopolitan links and working secretly behind the scenes to betray the Brexit vote.

Above all, we need to understand Robinson himself. On his version of events, for ten years he has been trying to have a normal career, as a working class man, supporting his wife and his children. But he couldn’t be a plasterer, he couldn’t have his own business, because every time he tries to live normally, he gets into trouble with the state. Therefore he has no choice but to try to live online. And by turning to social media, by monetising his followers on twitter and youtube, he has the opportunity to live well and to have his ideas about Muslims heard.

Of course Robinson’s version of reality involves him telling lies about the threat he represents to the state. He is not public enemy number one. He has got into trouble because the things he wanted to do – to physically confront his wife, to lie in a mortgage application and pretend that his house was for another person, to disrupt an ongoing court case by filming it to build his social media support – are acts of private selfishness, malice and stupidity which the state repeatedly disciplines without needing to invoking a grand liberal conspiracy against heroic patriots.

But if we get stuck on Robinson’s immense capacity for self deceit, we can miss the more important and troubling dynamic, which is this. Even with all the support Robinson has received, the far-right donors sending him cheques, he still has to live. He needs a regular income. He needs to sustain a lifestyle in which he can pay off six-figure court fines without pausing for breath. The problem with social media is that each grotesque act Robinson does (getting jailed, filming his traumatised children…) only remains newsworthy so long as it a first. He will stay in the public eye only if he does something even more grotesque next time.

In other words, if we take seriously the idea that this current iteration of the far right is – at its core – a strategy for building influence through selective use of social media, then it follows that Robinson will have every incentive when the dust settles to “go again”, to find new ways of winning supporters and outraging the rest of us. And in a world where the right is growing, his audience still wants more outrage and not less.

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