There is a long tradition of British chancers making good in America, from the Mayflower to Piers Morgan. Imagine the golden age of Hollywood without those south Londoners Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, and Archie Leach, whose extended performance as Cary Grant established a lasting benchmark for masculine style. Unfortunately, the quality of the exports varies. As a British chancer, allow me to apologise unreservedly for Gerry & The Pacemakers, Freddie & The Dreamers and all the other chancers who caught a ride on the Beatles’ coat tails. And also for Piers Morgan.
Should I apologise preemptively for Tommy Robinson? You may not know who he is but, the way things are going, you may well know soon. He has already turned up on Donald Trump Jr.’s Twitter feed, which is a better barometer of the national mood than the editorial column of the New York Times. He has also secured the support of Steve Bannon and Republican congressman Paul Gosar of Arizona, as well as the kind of people who give free speech a bad name, like Pamela Geller and assorted online alt-rightists.
Tommy Robinson is a man of many parts. Some of them are admirable, some of them are contemptible, and all of them are inseparable from each other—apart from his front teeth, which got punched out during a prison fight with a Muslim gang.
‘Tommy Robinson’ is not his real name, but a pseudonym donned, he says, to spare himself retaliation from Islamists. His real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, which sounds more like the name of an Anglo-Catholic novelist than a street fighter. Robinson insists that his brawling days are behind him, but the people who stand at his shoulder beg to differ whenever they get the chance. And they do like a fight.
Robinson is a proud working-class Englishman of the sort who stood up to the Kaiser and to Adolf. He is also an ex-football hooligan, an ex-member of the racist British National Party, and the founder of the English Defense League, a motley of football hooligans and erstwhile BNP supporters who have turned from fighting each other and hating Jews and Blacks to fighting ‘anti-fascists’ and hating Muslims—the ‘counter-jihad’, as they call it.
Robinson is a defender of free speech, and has contributed to the exposure of a scandal that the police, the BBC, and much of the mainstream media seemed unwilling to cover, the mass grooming and rape of underage white girls by gangs of men, almost all of them of South Asian Muslim extraction. He has also publicised online the names of South Asian Muslim men accused of grooming. Apart from being a breach of the law, this increases the likelihood of further illegality in the form of vigilante action by his hooligan followers.
Tommy Robinson is where the salt of the earth meets the scum of the earth. He is also where popular revulsion at Islamism and popular resentment of mass immigration meets the 21st century internationale of New Rightists, quite a few of whom are old fascists in anti-Islamist clothing.
‘Tommy’ was released from prison on appeal today. In 2017, Robinson was given a suspended sentence after broadcasting on Facebook Live the names and faces of four Muslim men during their trial on charges of raping an underage girl. That the men were found guilty does not alter the fact that Robinson broke the law. Broadcasting the names of people who are still legally innocent might prejudice a jury. It might even cause a prosecution to miscarry, and allow guilty suspects to escape conviction.
In May, Robinson repeated the offense during the trial of four Pakistani men in the northern English town of Leeds. By the end of the day, Robinson had been tried and sentenced to thirteen months’ imprisonment for contempt of court. His supporters launched a campaign of fundraising and protests. Their claim that Robinson was railroaded to keep him quiet has a certain plausibility. Britain’s politicians and policemen are paralysed by fear of exacerbating tensions between British Muslims and non-Muslims. British governments have admitted Yusuf Qaradawi, an Islamist and anti-Semite, but have refused to admit the batty but less dangerous Pamela Geller. That’s just not cricket, and it shows how scared the politicians, civil servants and police are of a violent crisis—and how easily intimidated they are by the belligerence of the Islamists.
Robinson represents an even less controllable threat: the revolt of the majority. In a recent Sunday Times poll, 24 per cent said they would support a new hard-right party that promised to halt all Muslim immigration. Then again, who would want to be associated with Tommy the free speech martyr? When a ‘Free Tommy’ rally marched on 10, Downing Street, Robinson’s supporters were filmed giving fascist salutes, shouting ‘Sieg Heil’, and fighting the police.
Lord Burnett, who freed Robinson on appeal today, called the haste with which Robinson had been arrested, sentenced and imprisoned at Leeds ‘a fundamentally flawed process’. Lord Burnett was not the only person to feel this. Steve Bannon had taken upon Robinson’s cause. According to CNN, Sam Brownback, the erstwhile Republican governor of Kansas, had raised the case with Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington, during a meeting at the State Department.
Robinson’s prominence in modern British life reflects the local version of Europe’s crisis of Islam and immigration. The French have Marine Le Pen, with her blonde coif and business suits. The Dutch have Geert Wilders, with his platinum quiff and business suits. The English have ‘Tommy’, who has false front teeth because his real ones got punched out, a conviction for drunkenly assaulting an off-duty policeman, and another conviction for mortgage fraud.
You could also say that Robinson’s growing fame in the United States has nothing to do with his ideas—as yet, he hasn’t really had any—but his sentiments, and his mob-baiting conflation of Muslims and Islamism. He might already be better known in America, were it not for the small problem of having been caught in 2012 attempting to enter the US on someone else’s passport.
Once, the British would have sent Robinson to Australia in chains. Now, there is every chance that British officialdom will be happy if market forces export him to America. He’s already made some powerful friends, and he likes the camera. He’ll probably chance his way into media prominence in the US as a defender of free speech and Western values.
So let me apologise once more. I didn’t think it could get any worse after Piers Morgan, but it’s about to. America, meet the Cary Grant of the alt-right.
Dominic Green is Culture Editor of Spectator USA.