Founder of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson has been seen by many over the years as an outsider. However, support for Robinson has soared following his recent conviction for contempt of court after he filmed defendants involved in a child-grooming trial, referring to them as ‘Muslim child rapists’ and broadcasting the footage on Facebook. Far right supporters both at home and abroad have hailed Robinson as speaking truth to power, celebrating his release from jail as a victory against an attempt by the liberal establishment to ‘censor’ him.
To understand Robinson’s escalating fame, we must understand that he is not an outlandish free-thinker, but simply a product of the political mainstream. Legacy newspapers and Theresa May created him. And what’s more, it has been entirely in their interest.
The surge of far-right racism today is given credence by a new national narrative popularised by the press and the political elite. Britain is supposedly under threat from Muslims, painted as an alien enemy within protected by a liberal over-tolerance and an authoritarian egalitarianism. Meanwhile white citizens are presented as the vigilant defenders of liberal freedoms under the banner of ‘free speech’. It is precisely this racialised restructuring of the terms of inclusion that acts as the source of the far right’s appeal. They play off a base of familiar islamophobia sewn throughout society, watered by powerful interests.
The guise of free speech has given the mainstream media a hollow pretext for offering a platform to racist views embraced by the far right, making extremist arguments mainstream and lending them respectability. We must ask ourselves, how has the far right come to rehearse this now familiar stereotype of ‘Asian’ (read Muslim, usually of south-Asian heritage) men as sexual predators, apparently culturally prone to the crime of ‘on-street grooming’ of young white girls?
The spectre of ‘Asian grooming gangs’ was first thrust into the headlines in January 2011 by The Times which quoted evidence of a ‘new crime model that police and care agencies refused to recognise’. This was leant political authority by Jack Straw’s announcement on Newsnight a few days later that Pakistani men ‘fizzing and popping with testosterone’ see white girls as ‘easy meat’. In the media furore that followed, grooming was framed in the as a racial crime threat determined by an imported patriarchal Islamic culture: all south Asian men were situated as potential groomers and all white girls as potential victims. Posited as an institutional cover-up due to fears of appearing racist, this is manifested in frequent calls for the South Asian community to apologise for the crimes of individuals or accept their communal culpability. According to mainstream politicians and the press, Britain must be defended from a Muslim community ever on the cusp of radicalisation and now also responsible for child grooming.
While distancing herself from former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s comments in The Telegraph last week, comparing women who wear the burkas to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’, Theresa May remains the architect of ‘Go Home vans’ and the hostile environment. Where religious identities are presented as racialised threats, this has eased the way for May to use citizenship stripping and deportation as a legitimate form of crime control. Last week, under laws first pioneered in the context of anti-terror policies, the decision was upheld to strip four Pakistani sex-offenders of their British citizenship, after which they await deportation. By harnessing this existing politics of fear, conceptions of Britishness are narrowed and May’s hostile environment expanded to target not only ‘illegal’ migrants but also ‘failed’ criminal citizens.
The political mainstream has created a climate in which the far right can thrive. As they sell a story about liberal over-tolerance and political correctness allowing the Muslim and immigrant threat to go unchallenged, Robinson and extremists like him position themselves as able to do just that: transforming their violent bigotry from politically ‘unsayable’ to politically respectable. It is from such sources that his supporters can derive arguments about his persecution, as the last bastion of free speech, denied justice at the expense of the Muslim community. However, it is important to point out here how claims of victimhood work out in practice. Beyond risking mistrials, lives have been lost. Last year Jo Cox MP was murdered by a far right activist in the UK and a person killed when Darren Osborne deliberately ploughed his van into worshipers outside Finsbury Park Mosque. This is to name but a few episodes of recent far right violence.
In Britain, the far right has often been treated as an aberration: an eyesore in an otherwise traditionally tolerant and generous society. By regarding their success as isolated, we fail to recognise how anti-Muslim racism upon which they thrive is institutionalised and instilled in the national consciousness by the political mainstream. Robinson’s self-proclaimed role as a ‘free speech’ warrior allows him to say out-loud ideas mainstream policies have been constructing since 2011. Robinson didn’t create this discourse, the media and May’s hostile environment did. The EDL founder is just helping to escalate and sustain it.