Understanding the new far right

Robinson in October 2015. Photo: Wikipedia

JVL Introduction

In an important article published as the Guardian’s long read, Daniel Trilling looks closely at the new right, embodied by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon aka Tommy Robinson. Imprisoned for contempt of court, he was recently the focus for a mass mobilisation by the Football Lads Alliance and is currently out on bail awaiting a retrial.

And a reminder of the National Unity Demonstration on 17 November in London from noon, organised by Stand Up To Racism and co-sponsored by Unite Against Fascism and LoveMusic HateRacism.

Tommy Robinson and the far right’s new playbook

The former EDL leader is one of a new breed of entrepreneurial activists who are bringing extremist myths into the mainstream – while also claiming they are being silenced.

In the last few years, a new kind of far-right activism has emerged. This new activism, comprised largely of online anger and offline protest, crosses borders yet is heavily nationalist. It has figureheads but no formal leadership structure. It asks for little long-term commitment from its participants, yet is able to mobilise large amounts of money and attention, throwing its opponents into fierce disagreement about how to respond. Its icons tend to be entrepreneurial social media personalities, celebrities of a sort, who use their following to exert pressure on mainstream politics. And nobody embodies the dynamics of this new movement more than Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the founder and former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), who usually goes by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson.

Since the summer, thousands of people have taken to the streets in support of Yaxley-Lennon, who was imprisoned for several months in May for contempt of court, before being released on bail in August pending a retrial. These rallies, which were organised in part with funding from the US, were addressed by representatives of European far-right parties, as well as a US Republican congressman. A range of extremist groups were present in the crowds, and at one rally, on 9 June, several hundred demonstrators attacked police with bottles, cones and sticks in Trafalgar Square.

But the majority of protesters had no formal political affiliation, and answered to no party hierarchy. They were there because they believed that Yaxley-Lennon is being silenced by the British state. Hundreds of thousands of others supported his cause from afar: more than 630,000 people signed a change.org petition calling for his release, a third of them from outside the UK. Solidarity protests were held in Austria, Hungary, Australia and Canada, while a range of rightwing US activists offered their support: one Philadelphia-based thinktank, the Middle East Forum, helped organise the London rallies. The Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson covered Yaxley-Lennon’s story extensively on his show; Donald Trump Jr, the president’s son, tweeted his support, while the US ambassador for international religious freedom reportedly lobbied the UK on Yaxley-Lennon’s behalf. The UK Independence party is debating offering Yaxley-Lennon membership, while Stephen Bannon, the former Trump adviser and co-founder of Breitbart, has described him as “the fucking backbone” of his country and proposed including him in a new far-right venture, a pan-European network called The Movement.

For Yaxley-Lennon’s supporters, the contradictions of his story merely reinforce his image as an anti-establishment crusader. After his efforts to build an anti-Muslim street movement failed – first with the collapse of the EDL in 2013, then an attempt to launch a UK branch of the German anti-immigrant movement Pegida in 2016 – he reinvented himself as an online propagandist. He claims to be silenced but he receives a huge amount of media attention, including many TV interviews, and has almost a million followers on Facebook. What has distinguished Yaxley-Lennon is his ability to promote his own brand in a way that inspires a broad following and taps into a series of neuroses about class, power and ethnicity in Britain.

His activism includes filming and broadcasting himself making statements outside sexual assault trials involving Muslim defendants. This earned him a suspended sentence for contempt of court in 2017, because he intended to take photographs of the defendants in an ongoing trial in Canterbury crown court and filmed within the court buildings, which is prohibited. In May this year, he was convicted of contempt a second time, including for filming himself and people involved in a trial in Leeds, and given a 13-month prison sentence. He was released on appeal in August, and his case has now been referred to the attorney general. In both Leeds and Canterbury, the judges were concerned that his actions might prejudice ongoing trials, and wanted to ensure that juries could reach a just verdict.

Yaxley-Lennon’s supporters, however, see this as an unacceptable attack on his liberty, and proof he is being persecuted. Their rallying cry is “free speech”, but this is more than an abstract demand: it contains the accusation that ordinary people have been betrayed by a liberal elite that wants to cover up the disastrous consequences of immigration and multiculturalism.

The accusation of betrayal by the elites is central to the way that far-right movements operate. Older European parties with roots in 20th-century fascism have reshaped themselves around this kind of rhetoric, which is also employed by newer movements in Europe and the US. Far-right parties have made electoral gains in a number of countries, but the rhetoric also works at a cultural level, alongside formal politics, allowing loose groups of white nationalists, anti-Muslim demagogues and conservatives to mobilise around single-issue campaigns, often via social media, as they have done around Yaxley-Lennon.

The successful spread of anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric has encouraged some conservative politicians to borrow the tropes of the far right, leading to a blurring in the traditional distinction between the far right and the mainstream. For many years, there was an understanding – not always universally accepted, but with widespread support – that far-right views were outside the acceptable bounds of debate and should be denied a platform. But the breaking down of these boundaries presents a dilemma: what does the anti-fascist principle of “no platform” mean when a far-right activist has their own independent platform anyway? How can journalists scrutinise and interrogate the claims of someone who will use your work as evidence of a conspiracy against them? How can politicians and the media avoid a panicked response that accepts the far-right’s framing of a subject and reinforces their claims?

The growth of this new, international far-right activism has taken many by surprise. Many people see it as the result of technological change, which can be fixed by regulating social media companies. Others regard Yaxley-Lennon and similar far-right celebrities as the embodiment of a legitimate anger that should be given a fair hearing, so that the best arguments win out in the marketplace of ideas. And some see this as the same old far right – encouraging people to gang up on an ethnic minority group – which should be confronted in the streets. There is a degree of truth, perhaps, in all of these positions. But they don’t tell the whole story: how the far right itself has transformed in recent years, and how it has taken advantage of wider political failures to shift mainstream debate in its favour.

For the rest of this long read click here.


Comments (1)

  • Richard Kuper says:

    This article is usefully complemented by Richard Seymour’s The Phony Martyrdom of Tommy Robinson which appeared in Jacobin in August.

    As the standfirst puts it, “Tommy Robinson wants you to believe he’s a plucky underdog who’s been unfairly repressed. But the British far-right leader is no martyr — just a clever fascist with blood on his hands.”

    It is particularly good at showing the media’s collusion in facilitating Robinson’s reinvention of himself as this misunderstood underdog.

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