There have been few sustained attempts to understand Tommy Robinson’s movement. Various academic books (by Joel Busher, Nigel Copsey, Simon Winlow and others) have been written about his previous party, the EDL, but their accounts tend to stop before 2016, i.e. with Robinson separated from his former supporters. In the last two years, Robinson has built up a larger street presence than ever before: 15,000 people marched for his release from prison, or around five times more than the EDL ever mobilised. One way to understand Tommy Robinson’s movement is to closely look at his memoir, Enemy of the State (2017). Written during a period of imprisonment for mortgage fraud, and widely read by his supporters, it precedes Robinsons’ elevation to his present celebrity, but it reflects the same sort of relationship to his supporters that you see in Robinson’s more recent social media output.
A personal style of leadership
Robinson’s book is an autobiography. It seeks to establish that its author is much like his readers, if perhaps more politically conscious than they are. An obvious comparison to make is with Hitler’s Mein Kampf, another far-right memoir, and also written in prison. Hitler’s book is longer: at around 1000 pages, it is about four times the length of Robinson’s. This reflects the much greater crisis in post-1918 Germany, the actuality of revolution and the obsession with which the counter-revolutionaries opposed the left, as well as the much greater availability of reactionary ideas in post-war Germany which Hitler could fuse into a more coherent theory.
Adolf Hitler had one basic idea, which was to make “race” a concept in order to transform the state. Races, he insisted, were unequal. This was an absolute law, which both explained all of human history, and gave birth to a detailed, systematic programme for territorial expansion, war and genocide. There is a personal story in Mein Kampf, but it is interspersed with a political manifesto. Reading Mein Kempf is in many places like being stuck in a pub with the worst bore you could imagine, except that Hitler demands your attention not merely for a few hours, but for days or weeks without allowing you a break even to sleep because all this time will be needed if he is going to explain to you how Europe will be transformed as soon as the racial idea dominates. Hitler ends his book by promising that Germany will soon lead the earth.
Tommy Robinson, by contrast, writes as if he has no developed programme other than a general feeling that people like him have been unfairly ignored. Robinson admits that when he joined the English Defence League he didn’t read newspapers on even watch news programmes on television. He describes feeling “belittled” by interviewers when he first started going on television Robinson frequently asserts his ignorance, admits to listening to other right-wing leaders but says that their arguments were beyond him. His book is narrower than Hitler’s, and more personal,. Its ends by asserting a personal project – simply to stay out of jail.
Part of the working class – but running away from it
In the first chapter of Mein Kampf, Hitler tries to show that he was different from many Germans: middle-class and more affluent. “My father,” he writes on the first page, “was a civil servant who fulfilled his duties very consciously.” These passages were not chosen by accident. The NSDAP’s strategy was to recruit suffering members of the middle-classes and convert them into a private army which could be used against the unions and the workers’ movement. Hitler’s life fitted into that project.
By contrast, Robinson insists on his working-class origins. He describes himself as having been born into an Irish family and having a Glaswegian stepfather who worked as a pipe fitter. Robinson grew up in Farley Hill, “the biggest working class community” in Luton and attended his local Junior and High schools. After that, Robinson was employed as an apprentice to be an aeronautical engineer with Britannia Airways, then as a self-employed painter and decorator, and later ran a plumbing business with his stepfather. His closest ally, Kevin Carroll (also Robinson’s cousin), is described as a “first class carpenter, builder and five star bloke”.
While this sounds like an ordinary working-class existence, actually Robinson’s account points somewhere different. Early on, Robinson describes a neighbour who moved into the next door house and raced bikes professionally. The neighbour owned his own Lotus and Ferrari and even leant encouraged in Robinson an interest in trials bikes. But the neighbour turned out to be involved in fraud, on a massive scale, and was caught and imprisoned. Robinson is full of admiration, crediting this friendship for introducing him to the possibility of a “flash” life.
Robinson describes himself as working class, and those he dislikes as middle class. But what he means by class is birth and education rather than trajectory. This is a description of class in which Alan Sugar would be working class (even though he is rich and employs people to work for him) or Donald Trump (even though he was given pocket money amounting to several millions of dollars a year while he was still a young child) because he is “one of us”: white, combative, and showy with money.
Throughout his book, Robinson’s boasts that he has pulled himself up, away from normal working class life. His book was written in 2016, i.e. before Robinson was being paid £8,000 per months by Rebel Media, and before the vast sums he took in donations during his recent imprisonment. Already by this point, he says, he owned seven properties, starting with the freehold on a tanning salon business – and these leases earned him, no doubt, a rental income several times more than the average salary. Indeed Robinson now lives in a £950,000 home in rural Bedfordshire.
Robinson is not saying that only landlords can join his movement; but what he is pitching to a particular segment of working class life. His supporters predominantly have jobs in the private sector, rather than the public sector. They operate on the borders of illegality. They are self-employed. They get on through schemes of personal enrichment rather than through unions or any collective approach.
Women – not wanted
“I’ve always been comfortable,” Robinson writes, “in a bloke-oriented environment,” and it is a feature of his memoir that very few women are mentioned: his mother, his wife (good), his probation officer (bad). He is the sort of writer who can describe himself – without finding this in any way unusual – as “having a bit of a domestic” when describing walking outside his home with his own wife.
A quarter of the way into his book, Robinson recalls his cousin Jeanette, a woman of about his own age. As teenager, Robinson says, Jeanette was “groomed” by a gang of Pakistani men, persuaded by them to acquire a heroin addiction, after which she was “gang-raped by half a dozen Muslim men”. Jeanette apparently returned home, only to escape again. At the end of his story, Jeanette has converted to Islam and married a Muslim. She has six children. The family cannot see her, Robinson complains, even if she was still living in Luton, since even if they were on the same street as her should would be unrecognisable beneath a burka.
There are many reasons to be sceptical. The story is too convenient, it involves too many people doing what Robinson’s politics tell him “ought” to have happened: a female victim, Muslim criminals, the passivity of the incompetent British state.
One further reason for caution is that the story fits over-neatly into older patterns of sexist story-telling. The historian who captures this best is Klaus Theweleit, who for his book Male Fantasies, studied the diaries and memoirs of a previous generation of far-right activists, the 1918-era German Freikorps, the immediate predecessor to Hitler’s Nazis. In their books, Theweleit observed, there were only two sorts of women: “white” (mothers, nurses, nuns) and “red”. The latter were sexually promiscuous and politically pro-Communist. Supporters of the German right were required to murder or rape them, or they might be killed themselves. In Robinson’s story, his cousin Jeanette is a latter-day red woman. She is a race traitor: a willing convert to Islam. She betrays her family. She is sexually active and indifferent to human suffering, even if the suffering is played out on her own body. She expresses, in other words, a recurring far-right fantasy in which an entire class of women – even though they are British and “ought” to be virtuous – are a little less than human. They can become full people only be setting aside their selfish desires and agreeing to put their lives into the hands of their betters: i.e. patriotic white men.
Racism – obsessive and banal
For Hitler, everything was race. In the first pages of Mein Kampf he sets out that the Jews are Germany’s greatest enemy, and that if Germany’s national ambitions are to be allowed (and she will build a colonial empire), the Jews must be defeated. Hitler espoused a racial theory of history, in which every single non-white person had to be classified in terms of how much they would, or would not, assist his plans for a universal white ascendancy. Repeatedly, this lead Hitler to absurd results. He would give no practical assistance, for example, to those anti-Muslim racists and anti-semites who were the forerunners of today’s BJP. Because they were Hindu, they were racial inferiors, and had to be ruled by the British. Even in the depths of the Second World War, Hitler preferred to leave India in the control of the British (with whom he was at war) rather than the people who wanted to ally with him.
A recurring argument of Enemy of the States is that Robinson has no problems with other races but only with Muslims. Islam is “taking over communities, racially victimis[ing] [whites] … ethnically clean[ing] non-Muslim people”.
When talking about Muslims, Robinson comes over as obsessed, paranoid, willing to believe any conspiracy that suits him. When it comes to his dealings with other black people, his approach is different. Repeatedly, Robinson alludes to having black friends. He takes one to a BNP meeting, he invites another to EDL demonstrations. These figures (if they ever actually existed) appear once, and are named, but never appear twice. Robinson seems to think that treating black people as his stage friends proves either that he isn’t a racist, or that his supporters aren’t.
Robinson is trying to lead his supporters towards the adoption of a particular kind of politics: one that is hateful towards Muslims while offering black or Jewish people an Alan Partridge or David Brent sort of racism: exaggerative, inconsistent, ignorant, lurching suddenly from declarations of friendship to hostility.
Distancing himself from the BNP
There is a widely-held view on the British left that Tommy Robinson represents an immediate fascist threat. Writing in Jacobin, Richard Seymour describes Robinson as “a clever fascist”. Meanwhile Socialist Worker calls him, “Nazi Tommy Robinson.” There are indeed a few places when Robinson’s book reads like the sort of memoir that a leader of the National Front or the BNP might have written. “My over-arching crime,” Robinson writes, “has been to be a patriot. I love my country.” Elsewhere he complains, “It still seems perverse to me, the way that taking pride in the cross of St George and the Union Jack suddenly makes you at best a far right bigot”.
Robinson was a member of the BNP – although briefly. He claims they were “the only people talking about the problems with the Muslim community”. He says he attended one meeting where the speaker talked “plain common sense about the whole range of Muslim / Islamic issues” and never renewed his membership.
His account is self-serving. Long ago, Searchlight published a photo of Robinson at a BNP meeting. The speaker was Richard Edmonds. By the time of Robinson joined the BNP, the party’s original leader John Tyndall had been deposed as leader by Nick Griffin, and Griffin was taking the party away from its street fighting roots in the direction of a more respectable Euro-fascism, modelled on the Front National in France. Edmonds was a critic of Griffin’s leadership – he did not speak often at BNP meetings and when he did, it was on a factional basis, to promote a perspective which was even closer to Hitlerian National Socialism than the BNP mainstream. We can assume, therefore, that the speech would have been littered with anti-semitic codewords and other ideas derived from 1930s-style national socialism. If it really struck Robinson as just mere “common sense”, that tells you more about the extent of his politicisation during these pre-EDL years than he likes to admit.
Who, really, is Tommy Robinson?
The figure that emerges from Robinson’s memoir is different from the monsters of classical fascism. The traditional basis under which anti-fascists have justified our politics is by saying that the far right represents an urgent threat, in Leon Trotsky’s phrase, to uproot ‘all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society … whatever has been achieved during three quarters of a century by the social democracy and the trade unions’. Jair Bolsonaro plausibly fits that description: like Hitler, he is promising punitive violence against the left. But the Tommy Robinson of Enemy of the State has a different antagonist – not the left, not reformism or social democracy, not even all racial others, but simply Muslims, politicised or otherwise. The fascists of the 1930s told the majority of people that they too could take part in politics, but the price of their participation was the destruction of the only organizations which provided any chance of popular rule. If Robinson’s programme really was the abolition of democarcy, then he does very little in his memoir to prepare his followers for it.
The strongest impression of Tommy Robinson that emerges from these pages is rather of what an older generation would have considered a spiv: a person who works on the border of legality, who is concerned only with their personal enrichment. A person born into the working class, but doing all in their power to escape from it. Tommy Robinson is the salesman of his own reputation, who finds himself by chance having to incarnate the present moment of post-9/11 politics. He has no programme and little vision, other than the hunch that this is the way to an easy life and nothing else he does will ever be as well remunerated again.