Laurie Penny spent the day with Tommy Robinson – leader of the EDL – trying to find out.
The fake passport from the time that Tommy Robinson – born Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – tried to enter the US illegally as "Paul Harris"
"I want to see them, and I want them to see us,” says Hamid Soorghali, 22, an Iranian-born British student. He’s peering over the throngs of jubilant anti-fascists on the streets of Walthamstow, North London, to where, if you squint, you can just about make out a small, dispirited band of English Defence League supporters. In pictures taken behind the police lines, the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim protest group looks small and bewildered compared to the locals and leftists who have come out to prevent them marching through their town.
Men and women and children of all ages and races sit down in the road to block the route of a phalanx of white guys who, despite what their website says, are doing a terrible job of not looking like your stereotypical fascist skinheads. Hamid grins. He knows that, for now, Unite Against Fascism and other anti-racist groups have won the battle on the streets.
The EDL is finished as a political force. That much was obvious within five minutes of meeting its leader, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who I interviewed in a Luton pub earlier this year. Lennon, who goes by the alias "Tommy Robinson" in press releases and among his dwindling number of loyal supporters, is a former member of the fascist British National Party. After his gang, the English Defence League, was praised by Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, the group spent the past year trying to persuade people that really they aren’t racist – they just hate Muslims, fear immigrants and think people from other cultures are the main cause of Britain’s economic problems, which is completely different. In that time, the EDL has disappeared up its own ideological posterior, in between getting said posterior handed back to itself by anti-fascists on a regular basis.
When the opportunity to do this interview came up, I hesitated. As a reporter, I was fascinated by the possibility of getting to see the pocks and pores on the human face of British fascism, but as an anti-fascist, I’m aware that UK organisers have maintained a long tradition of refusing to grant any sort of media or speaking platform to the far-right. The "no platform" principle keeps right-wing extremists on the fringe by denying them the legitimacy they crave. No room for racists, neither in the public conversation nor on the streets. It’s part of a strategy that has been successful in driving back wave after wave of far-right organisations in this country down the years.
So, that’s one reason that this interview will not reproduce any of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s actual opinions about Muslims, immigrants and people of other faiths in Britain. The other reason is that his actual opinions are boring and predictable.
An EDL protest. Photo by Henry Langston
I could fill a small book with the interminable argument I had with the EDL leader in a Luton pub about the human rights of Muslim Britons, but it would boil down to: “RACIST IN SAYING RACIST THINGS SHOCKER.” There are many intriguing things about Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, but his ideas about Islam aren’t among them. There are more interesting questions – such as why a man who claims to be an authentic, representative voice of “working class” Britain turns up to a meeting in a shiny new BMW 1 series with leather seats, kitted out from top to toe in designer sports gear and reeking of posh cologne.
Lennon used to run a chain of tanning salons in Luton, the EDL’s hometown. After the group formed in 2009, with help from wealthy far-right backers like millionaire Alan Ayling, Lennon gained a reputation for being charismatic and personable. He’s known for besting television interviewers and making racism sound reasonable. On Newsnight, Lennon plays the part of a working class lad with something to say. As I make the necessary small talk and climb into his BMW, along with the two student journalists I’ve taken along with me for safety reasons, I wonder where that Stephen Lennon has gone.
The man who drives us out to a steakhouse on the outskirts of Luton, claiming that he’ll get beaten up if he shows his face anywhere else, is irritable and erratic and keeps glancing over his shoulder for the enemies he says are waiting for him. He orders the most expensive steak on the menu, with an enormous plate of cheesy potato skins, and chuckles that this is why he likes to meet left-wing journalists: so he can have dinner on their dollar.
Lennon begins to argue finer points of the Koran with my student companions. When one of them actually produces a copy of the book, he is unable to identify which precise passages call for the murder of non-Muslims, and this makes him angry. He starts explaining, again, why he is not racist, why the EDL isn’t a racist group. One of the student journalists, who is Asian, gets exasperated.
“Whatever the EDL claims, there’s a hardcore of racists in the movement and there are people who would, you know, assume I was a Muslim because of the colour of my skin and beat me up.”
Photo by Henry Langston
“I have been to EDL demos,” I say, “at the one that you were on last year in September, in East London, I saw EDL members start screaming racist abuse at kids who came out of their houses to see what was going on. Just kids down the alley. Your guys had no idea whether these kids were Muslims or not, they just started screaming at them because they had brown skin. And this was hundreds of members doing this, this wasn’t just a few outliers.”
“I wasn't there, but I’d have to beg to differ,” says Lennon. “Down most of those side streets was gangs of young, hooded Muslim youths with balaclavas covering their faces and trying to attack us.”
I ask him how he can tell the religion of a person in a hoodie from 50 feet away. I tell him again that what I saw that day, what hundreds of us saw that day, was the EDL terrorising children and families in a multi-cultural neighbourhood just because of the colour of their skin.
“Well, I wasn’t there, as I said.”
I remind Lennon that a great deal of pictures of him were taken there, on the day, and published later in newspapers across the country.
“I was in East London, yeah,” he admits. “I was arrested.”
It’s like arguing with a toddler. He wasn’t there, nobody he knows was there, the EDL members who beat up brown-skinned people and graffiti their houses are outliers, and anyway, he isn’t a racist, it’s the Muslims who are racist, Muslims and leftists like me who are reverse racists. He has nothing to do with it. He wasn’t there.
Lennon really seems to believe himself to be some sort of revolutionary leader. He will not say quite how many members remain in the group he’s currently leading. “it’s very loose,” he says. “Um... if you ask me, if I go to a pub on a Saturday night and go round talking to people, how many people support us? The majority.”
Really? “Alright,” I say, “let’s put that to the test.” Leaving Lennon to wolf down his giant steak, which he eats crouched over the plate, as if someone is about to snatch it away from him, I take my recorder on a brief tour of the pub. I asking evening customers what they really think of neo-fascists on the streets of Luton. “It’s bad how people just jump on the bandwagon and follow EDL – people who aren’t Islamic or like terrorists, they get accused as well,” says Ravdi, 22, who has been the victim of racist abuse in his hometown.
“I’ll tell you what I think about it,” says Julie, who’s having a quiet drink with her girlfriends, “I’ve got two little boys – one’s a beaver, one’s a cub. They couldn’t have their march through town, ‘cause all the money went to policing the EDL, so little kids lost out on marching through the town holding their flags.”
“It’s in the media, giving Luton a bad name,” says Cameron, 29. “We’d all be better off, whether Muslim or not, not having people like that around.” I meet only one supporter, a man in his early fifties.
“There’s just lots of Muslims here,” he says, stating plainly what Stephen Lennon spends an hour not saying to me. “It’s just dreadful what’s happened to this town. I don’t want to live next door to someone that’s veiled, thank you very much.”
“That’s rubbish, Paul,” says his Asian friend, rolling his eyes fondly. I thank them for their time, and then they go back to sharing a drink.
When I return, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is trying to explain the vital difference between attacking Muslims in the street and "real racism" to my student journalist friends. I find myself getting angry. Worse, I'm engaging with Lennon on his terms, which is precisely what he wants. I don’t know what part of me imagines that anything I say, any evidence I lay in front of him, is going to change his mind. Right now he seems determined to introduce me to the torturous logic by which he has convinced himself that he is not racist. I almost wonder if he’s about to start telling me he has lots of Muslim friends.
“I have Muslim friends,” says Lennon. “I could sit here now and ring them in front of you if you want.” He gets his phone out, hands it to me when it picks up, at which point one must note that it’s a funny kind of friend who saves your name in his phone simply as “Bradford Paki”.
“D’you want to speak to this? This is a Pakistani Muslim,” says Lennon. The man at the end of the line is rather confused. He says he doesn’t know Tommy that well, but he’s not a racist, right, he’s just a weird guy. On that count, I notice, he’s right. Lennon is peering twitchily around the pub and has begun telling us again how many people in Luton are out to get him. He tells us that he is being persecuted by the police, by leftists, by Muslims, Muslims everywhere out to get him. He tells me that they even graffiti their own houses with racist slogans in order to make the EDL look bad, and there’s apparently an enormous police and media conspiracy to cover this up.
I experience a brief, appalling stab of sympathy for Lennon. He is, among other things, obviously unwell. I have had close friends who have experienced paranoid delusions, and they’re not funny, not while you’re having them and not from the outside. Most people who have this kind of problem, however, manage to deal with it without spreading hatred and suspicion in communities across an entire country. I’m glad that I met this man in person. And I’m glad that his project of taking an army of anti-immigrant thugs to every town in Britain seems pretty much buggered.
Anti-fascists and local residents hurl bricks at Tommy Robinson in Walthamstow, September 2012
“Groups like the EDL must toe a fine line between violence and attracting enough moderate support to seem legitimate,” says Dan Trilling, author of the recently released Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right. “It's hard to keep members disciplined, and to prevent them from becoming demoralised in the face of successful anti-fascist campaigns."
Lennon is realistic about the prospects of a far right takeover in Britain any time soon. Explaining the attempts to set up an electoral arm of the EDL, he tells me that rather than seeking power, people who think like him would prefer to force power to the right by force of publicity. His vision is that parties like the "British Freedom Party" – currently the fascist equivalent of a doomed start-up, with its clunky website and batty, rotating leadership – will “start taking a little percentage of those other parties' votes. Those parties... will then start changing things for what we’re saying. So that’s our goal, start nicking some of their Labour votes,” says Lennon.
The strategy is actually pretty sound. The brains behind Britain’s far right – and there are brains, much as others might like to reduce them to the boozy, bleary skinhead thugs who appear at their increasingly embarrassing demonstrations – know what they’re doing in terms of changing the national conversation. “I think David Cameron’s tried to appeal to our supporters a couple of times in the last few years,” says Lennon. “he did his speech [condemning multiculturalism] on the same day as our Luton demo. It’s so obvious.”
Last year, when Cameron’s flagship speech about taking a tougher line on immigrant integration was timed to coincide with the EDL’s largest demonstration to date, many supporters took it as a sign that the government was shifting its position to incorporate some of the racist rhetoric of far-right groups. The EDL is now disintegrating – but the shift it encouraged in the language of mainstream politics remains robust.
One could argue that that’s always been the real danger with Britain’s racist fringe movement, which prides itself on blaming minorities for problems, like lack of housing and jobs, which are structural. "Far-right movements are parasitical on the mainstream: they benefit from racism, and they make it worse, but they don't create it all by themselves,” explains Trilling.
“In the age of austerity, people in Britain have more reason than ever to fear for the future, and the right-wing media is in overdrive trying to shift the blame for the crisis onto the shoulders of minorities and the 'undeserving' poor.
At the end of the interview, Lennon offers us a lift back to the station in his BMW. On the way, he takes us on a little detour around Bury Park, an area of Luton with a large immigrant population, and points to all the mosques, shaking his head, telling us how violent they all are. “This is the Islamic centre, the most extreme mosque,” he says, pointing to a huge building down the street.
“Um - it says it’s a church?” I say. He tells us that the mosque is somewhere behind the church. It's like going on a guided bus-tour with a cracked-out stormtrooper. But there’s one thing I really do want to know.
Does Mr Yaxley-Lennon – sorry, Tommy Robinson – actually have any idea what he's trying to defend? What is this England that he and his shady friends are attempting to preserve? In two hours of chat and dodgy driving I'm no closer to understanding. I ask him again: can he describe the England he wants to protect?
He prevaricates. "One without Sharia law," he says, sounding unsure. "One without bombs going off every month. One without paedophiles running round under the banner of religion, raping kids." Lennon is unable to describe any positive features of the country in which he lives – instead he conjures up a fantasy nightmare society run by feral kids, immigrants and welfare scroungers just around the corner and encourages others to lash out. It's not a technique that's unique to the far-right fringe. It happens, in fact, to be the current British Conservative party's only electoral strategy.
As I write, Yaxley-Lennon is in Wandsworth Prison, on remand before his trial for trying to use a false passport to enter the United States, whose border guards aren't the friendliest to far-right spokespeople with assault convictions. Wandsworth prison is not a happy place. I've got friends who've spent time within its squat brick walls, and I wouldn't wish that even on someone whose views I find disgusting. In fact, the imprisonment of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is probably one of the few things the British government could have done to lift the spirits of the English Defence League, magically transforming an embarrassing and erratic figurehead into what approaches a martyr. But it hasn’t worked.
Straggly gangs of supporters have held vigils outside the jail, and far-right sympathisers have protested in Germany, but so far the call for a countrywide "I Am Spartacus"-style groundswell of popular protest has failed to gain momentum, in part because Lennon is the head of a gang which has consistently intimidated foreign-born people in Britain and called for a complete ban on Islamic immigration, and he has been arrested for – well, for trying to enter another country illegally.
Most people don't seem very keen to stand on a street corner shouting "I am Tommy Robinson". It's becoming clear that, in fact, most people aren't.
Most British people do not share Lennon's paranoid prejudices, and following last year’s mass murders in Norway, even sympathisers find the violence of the EDL difficult to stomach. Attendance at marches is dwindling. The last, in Walthamstow, attracted only 50 demonstrators against a thousand anti-fascists. The xenophobic rhetoric of Lennon and his followers lingers on the lips of mainstream politicians and pundits – but the short, ugly story of the English Defence league is, at least, coming to an end.
Follow Laurie on Twitter: @PennyRed
Walsall photo by Harvey McGinty. All others by Henry Langston.