What happened when FHM spent 48 hours with former EDL Leader Tommy Robinson
"We're going to Rochdale, we're going to get drunk, and we're going to shout 'EDL'"
Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League
During the height of the EDL in 2012, FHM were invited to spend 48 hours with Tommy Robinson, a man dubbed the face of the far right and quickly on his way to becoming one of the most controversial figures in British politics. Here's what happened...
"This town is totally fucked. There’s no money. No jobs.” These words could come from many mouths and many parts of the country. But today they spill out of the controversial gob of Tommy Robinson, the leader of the English Defence League (EDL) and the man fast becoming the new face of the far right.
We meet him in his hometown of Luton, outside a once packed but now deserted Arndale Centre. Around the corner sits a high street full of boarded-up shop windows and a job centre overflowing with the unemployed masses. Luton, like so many other towns and cities across the country, has been shattered by relentless recession, the depression that will not die. In political terms, this desolate economic climate is the most fertile breeding ground for the far right, and it’s one that has spawned the EDL: the fastest-growing, most talked-about, and most controversial protest movement in the UK since the National Front.
Tomorrow FHM will travel north to Rochdale on board the EDL bus, to witness first-hand one of the movement’s notorious demonstrations, on this occasion against the convicted Rochdale grooming gangs. If you missed it in the news, in May 2012, nine Rochdale men, eight of Pakistani origin, were convicted of offences including rape and trafficking girls for sex. All the victims were under-age girls. Crucially (in the opinion of the EDL) they were also white, and tomorrow’s controversial demonstration is a march against what Robinson calls “Islam paedophile gangs”, who he believes are “victimising hundreds of thousands of girls across the country”.
It’s a highly complex case that has provoked some inflammatory words from all camps: Tory party co-chairman Baroness Warsi faced a torrent of abuse in the press and on Twitter for saying there are a “small minority” of Pakistani men who see white girls as “fair game”. But her words pale in comparison to Robinson’s.
In his very controversial view, “Girls are passed from one Islamic community to the next Islamic community like bits of Halal meat. The police and the government have known what’s going on for 30 years, and there’s been a conspiracy of silence to facilitate it, through a fear of being called racist.” It’s an opinion that has seen him receive numerous death threats, and one that has led to what Robinson predicts will be “one of the nastiest demos so far”.
WHO ARE THE EDL?
Co-founded and led by Robinson, the EDL is a grass-roots, street-level movement. No one is entirely sure how many followers they have – leaders claim there are over 100,000, while other research groups put the figure closer to 30,000. Broadly speaking, the fundamental goal of the EDL is to oppose the “the creeping Islamisation of our country” and “protect the inalienable rights of all people… against radical Islam”.
Since the movement’s birth in June 2009 there have been hundreds of arrests, including that of its leader and key members of the inner circle. Many of these have been for incidents of violence on protests – often extreme – while death threats have been issued to outspoken opponents, left-wing activists and members of the press.
Politicians have labelled the English Defence League everything from “a dangerous cocktail of football hooligans and pub racists” (John Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham) to “a sick part of our society” (Prime Minister David Cameron). They’ve even been linked with Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, who was initially an EDL-sympathiser and allegedly attended a demonstration in 2010.
Despite this extraordinary backdrop, you couldn’t get a more ordinary-seeming leader than 29-year-old Tommy Robinson. He possesses neither a cartoon trait of villainy (see Nick Griffin’s wonky eye) or an out-of-touch old-Etonian air of superiority (see most of the Tory cabinet). He looks – and on the surface, acts – just like a normal lad, today wearing a pair of chinos and a blue anorak, his hair ever-so-slightly gelled.
While Robinson might appear normal, his life is anything but. To the EDL’s nationwide followers he’s a Messiah, a saviour of the far right and a hero of the highest order, the man who’s risked life and limb (quite literally – he’s threatened with beheadings on a regular basis) to stand up for what he believes in.
But to the movement’s opponents, he’s a stain on British society: a criminal, a drug-and-alcohol-abuser, a horrible racist, a violent hooligan, and one of the most dangerous men in British politics.
OUT AND ABOUT
In Luton, he’s also a local celebrity, simultaneously a hero and villain to the town’s racially and politically divided community. Within the space of our short walk to lunch, he’s stopped a number of times – first by a group of 20-something white men, who come over to call him a “legend”; then by a pair of similarly aged Asian men, who enter into a heated impromptu street debate with him about the merits of Sharia Law. “It’s something I’ve had to get used to,” he tells FHM over lunch in his local Turkish restaurant. “People come up to me and give me abuse every day. They swear at me, spit at me… it happens all the time.”
It’s no surprise that Robinson has his enemies, and many of them. As the leader of the movement poised to usurp the BNP as the dominant force of the far right, he’s never been shy about publically expressing his extremist views, labelling Islam a “brutal and barbaric” religion and describing parts of it as “anti-British, anti-democratic, homophobic, anti-semitic”. For his views he’s had death threats aplenty, as well as a handful of serious kickings. He’s even had to change his name (he was christened Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), and his family are under 24-hour surveillance. No one, not even his closest allies, knows where he lives.
As Robinson tucks into his kebab and talks us through the plans for tomorrow, it’s clear that, for him, the march in Rochdale is an opportunity to make a serious political statement about a highly contentious issue. Yet as some of his friends and followers join us throughout the afternoon, there’s a feeling that for many, a demo is nothing more than a big day out – a chance to have a few beers, sing a few songs, and – for some – throw a few fists.
“Tomorrow should be a good laugh – some beers, a day out of town. There might be a few scuffles if the Asians get involved,” says one 24-year-old, who wishes to remain anonymous. “It’s a proper away day when we go protesting,” says another. “We’re gonna go big! Will we go to sleep tonight? I don’t know man…”
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