The ballad of Tommy Robinson
The left is in the habit of not thinking, notes Paul Demarty. Nowhere more so than when it comes to the far right
In one of the more surprising developments on the British far right of late, Tommy Robinson - the nom de guerre of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon - has abruptly departed the organisation from which his name has been hitherto inseparable, the English Defence League.
He has taken with him his long-time associate and deputy, Kevin Carroll - exactly where the pair will wash up is still unknown. Robinson’s reasons for leaving the EDL are, shall we say, unconvincing. He is apparently disappointed that the group has been taken over by “extremists”, under most known definitions of which Robinson would fit comfortably. Here is a former British National Party member and far-right veteran, whose time as the EDL’s most prominent spokesman (he has never officially been its leader) has seen the group become the foremost street-fighting fascist formation in Britain, with smaller offshoots in Scotland and Wales, complaining that the group has been taken over by neo-Nazis and associated oddballs ...
In truth, the EDL is no more dominated now by sieg-heiling neo-Nazis than it was last week, or the week before, when to all appearances Robinson was still ‘EDL till I die’. Such elements - contrary to establishment hysteria - were always relatively marginal compared to their counterparts in the BNP and elsewhere; the EDL has been appropriately red, white and blue since the day of its birth. Its ‘extremism’ was barely distinguishable, idea for idea, from certain neoconservative ideologues of the ‘clash of civilisations’ and the unique tyrannical perfidy of the Muslim faith: Sam Harris springs to mind, among others.
The difference between the latter and Robinson’s former outfit was tactical - Robinson and his lieutenants spurned the fatuous op-ed and the under-researched popular non-fiction in favour of street violence. The EDL may never have owned up to a strategy of physical confrontations, but violence followed its set-piece marches around the country like a bad smell. There is no doubt that the nihilistic anger of alienated football casuals, the most atomised members of the white working class and the usual petty bourgeois and lumpen elements was being stoked and provoked by the EDL’s leaders. Random beatings were the only logical result.
Robinson’s conversion to the mainstream is unconvincing on more mundane counts as well. Interviews since have been fulsomely apologetic in the same measure as they are non-specific on significant points. The man still clearly dislikes Islam with some venom. He now officially disdains neo-Nazis equally, but we shall see what soundbites he comes out with, or indeed where he goes politically.
For now, as is well known, he has taken up with the Quilliam foundation, a peculiar anti-jihadist think-tank founded by various lapsed hard-core Islamists, chief among them Ed Husain (whose memoir, The Islamist, was widely feted upon its release) and Maajid Nawaz (who has been at Robinson’s side constantly in the past week). Both are former members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organisation that has frequently made headlines in this country, particularly regarding its success on campuses.
Quilliam takes its name from William Henry (later Abdullah) Quilliam, an English convert to Islam who founded this country’s first mosque in 1889 (ironically, given the foundation’s anti-Islamism, he was a firm believer in a worldwide caliphate). It is one of many organisations to have sustained itself primarily on the basis of post-9/11 state handouts, under the Prevent strategy and its successors, in order to fight the spread of ‘extremism’ among young Muslims.
It is difficult to divine exactly what Quilliam does on a day-to-day basis; whatever it is, it gobbles up public money. Certainly, like many think-tanks, it has a taste for the publicity stunt. Nawaz must have been chuffed to find Tommy Robinson falling into his lap. He and his allies’ hatred of the Islamists has something, alas, of the zeal of the convert about it; even though he and Husain were both radicalised by global events in which Muslims were butchered, neither can find anyone to blame other than the radical preachers who put an Islam-versus-the-west spin on things, rather than the perpetrators of the horrors themselves. They thus naturally resemble all ‘convenient’ defectors in world history.
Then, along comes Robinson - quite the prize! He is proof positive that, whatever its particular focus, Quilliam opposes all extremism, and will fight to keep people off whatever dark path they may find in politics; by neutering Robinson’s hysterical anti-Islam slant, Quilliam can dispel, for a moment, the stench of the Uncle Tom that hangs around it.
It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, then, but we cannot imagine it will be sustained. Robinson will need his own outlet; whether he has the requisite writing chops to find it as a journalist, whether he will be welcome in the Conservative Party or even the UK Independence Party, remains to be seen; but his ego is too big for a minor counter-jihadist think-tank.
After all, without his street-fighting wing, Robinson is left with only his views; and his views have never been particularly remarkable on the spectrum of British reaction. He exaggerates the threat posed by political Islam; but so have the Tories and Labour alike in the last decade or so. He calls for a stronger sense of national identity and curbs on ‘multiculturalism’ - again, like all mainstream rightwing politicians. His only difference with them was his refusal to condemn the street thuggery of his supporters.
This is something the left has never grasped about the EDL, one way or another. In its early days, it was suggested that it was the street fighting wing of the BNP. It was not - Nick Griffin has always despised them as rivals, and expelled people for associating with them (after all, he was for a suit-based strategy, rather than boots on the street). Yet it fulfilled a convenient purpose; after all, the BNP are ‘Nazis’ in particularly the Socialist Workers Party imagination, and so the EDL could also be labelled in that way.
This has always been nonsense. Of course, various forms of fascist and neo-Nazi ideologues have attached themselves to the EDL, but where they have won influence they have been marginalised (several splits have taken place over the years). The EDL is unproblematically a fascist organisation, but its ideology has never been Aryanism, anti-Semitism and crackpot social Darwinism. It has been good old British common sense (that is, Daily Mailism), cranked up to 11.
The SWP has always presented the most extreme form of this misunderstanding, thanks to its phobia of nuance (that oldest of obstacles to getting people terribly excited right now), with its absurd misuse of the ‘Nazi’ label. But it lurks in anti-fascist ideology more generally - the notion that fascists possess ideas that are necessarily outside of political normality, and are thus more perniciously threatening than the bourgeois state, is utterly false.
For an object lesson in its falsity we need look no further than the EDL, which was born of chauvinistic ‘Support our troops’ sentiment, received a much needed shot in the arm after the murder of Lee Rigby, and has ever been the most assiduous cultivator of the British (and specifically English) national mythos. It is also the only significant organisation to organise street intimidation of the left and minorities since the BNP’s electoral turn in the late 90s - that is, the foremost fascist organisation in this country.
Moreover, this is absolutely typical of fascism, which has only rarely thrived on imported national myths. With the partial exception of Golden Dawn in Greece - which has achieved considerable, and worrying, success in spite of its obvious Nazi inspiration - successful fascist movements must be plausibly indigenous. You cannot rally the English petty bourgeois enragés to a flag as polymorphously foreign as the swastika.
And so, as the left struggles to make up its mind whether to continue no-platforming Tommy Robinson and demand he be denied airtime on the BBC and so on, an acute dilemma presents itself. We may believe the suspicions of many a commentator that Robinson’s conversion is barely plausible; but without the EDL he is just another rightwing Tory. It was never his voice on the radio that fed the fetid ideological atmosphere that begat the EDL and its like; but the output of the Mail, The Sun and every other reactionary mouthpiece the left unaccountably fails to no-platform.
Yes, Robinson’s ideas are a threat - but, whether or not he has physical force behind him, it is stupid to imagine these ideas can be defeated by sweeping him off the street, or still less organising miserable counter-demonstrations in every hamlet he decides to descend upon. For those ideas are nothing more or less that British national chauvinism; and the struggle against it is necessarily for internationalism and the class perspective.