Tommy Robinson (activist)
Tommy Robinson, October 2015
|Born||Stephen Christopher Yaxley
27 November 1982
|Residence||Luton, Bedfordshire, England|
|Occupation||Tanning salon owner|
|Years active||2009 – present|
|Known for||Former leader of the English Defence League and European Defence League|
|Political party||British National Party (2004-05)
British Freedom Party (2012)
|Movement||European Defence League (2010 - 2013)
Pegida UK (2016 - present)
Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon (born 27 November 1982), known by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson and also going by the names Andrew McMaster and Paul Harris, is the co-founder and former spokesman and leader of the English Defence League (EDL) "street protest" movement. He also founded the European Defence League, and for a short time in 2012 was joint party vice-chairman of the British Freedom Party. He led the EDL from 2009 until 8 October 2013, when he was persuaded to leave the organisation and discuss alternative ways of tackling extremism with the think tank Quilliam. He continued as an activist, and in 2015 became involved with the development of Pegida UK, a British chapter of the German-based Pegida organisation, presenting a stated purpose to counter the "Islamisation of our countries".
Robinson was born Stephen Christopher Yaxley in Luton. Robinson told Victoria Derbyshire on BBC Radio Five live in 2010, “both of my parents were Irish immigrants to this country”. His mother, who worked at a local bakery, remarried when Stephen was still young; his stepfather, Thomas Lennon, worked at the local Vauxhall car plant.
According to Robinson, after he left school he applied to study aircraft engineering at Luton Airport: "I got an apprenticeship six hundred people applied for, and they took four people on." He qualified in 2003 after five years' study, but then was convicted for drunken assault of an off-duty police officer who, according to Searchlight magazine, had intervened to stop a domestic incident between Robinson (then called Lennon) and his girlfriend Jenna Vowles. Robinson served a 12-month prison sentence, and as a result lost his job at Luton Airport owing to security measures imposed since the September 11 attacks.
Robinson joined the British National Party in 2004. When questioned about this by the BBC's Andrew Neil in June 2013, he claimed that he had left after one year, saying, "I didn't know Nick Griffin was in the National Front, I didn't know non-whites couldn't join the organisation. I joined, I saw what it was about, it was not for me".
He married in 2011 and is the father of three children. Robinson owns a sunbed shop in Luton. As leader of the EDL, Robinson regularly wore a bullet-proof vest when appearing in public, telling the BBC that he had had his business and his home attacked, and that he had been personally threatened by armed Muslims.
English Defence League
Yaxley-Lennon uses the alias "Tommy Robinson", taking the name of a prominent member of the "Men In Gear" (MIG) football hooligan crew, which follows Luton Town Football Club. Robinson was involved with the group United Peoples of Luton, formed in response to a March 2009 protest against Royal Anglian Regiment troops returning from the Afghan War by the Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun and Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah. Robinson recalled that he had been prompted to found the EDL after he had read a newspaper article about local Islamists attempting to recruit men outside a local bakery in Luton to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan: "I was like, they can't do that! In working class communities, we all know somebody in the armed forces. I’ve got a mate who lost his legs. And these lot were sending people to kill our boys."
In August 2009, he became leader of the newly established English Defence League with his cousin, Kevin Carroll, its deputy leader. Robinson has appeared masked at protests. Although Robinson repeatedly insisted from the early days of the organisation that the EDL was "against the rise of radical Islam" and that its members "aren't against Islam", its rank-and-file were noted for including football hooligans and members who described themselves as anti-Muslim. Robinson also founded the European Defence League, a co-ordination of groups similar to the EDL operating in different European countries.
Robinson was assaulted on 22 December 2011 after stopping his car due to another car flashing its lights at him. He said that a group of three men attacked and beat him, until they were stopped by the arrival of a 'good Samaritan'. Robinson said that the attackers were of Asian appearance. A CT scan revealed "bruising on his brain".
In 2012 Robinson announced that he had joined the British Freedom Party (BFP). He was appointed its joint vice-chairman along with Carroll after the two groups agreed an electoral pact in 2011. However, on 11 October 2012, Robinson resigned from the BFP to concentrate on EDL activities.
On 6 August 2013, it was reported that Robinson had tweeted a link to an article from a website called The Traitor Within. When he received replies pointing out its anti-Semitic content—the article included the claim that the ministers involved in the Labour Party’s immigration policy "are all Jewish"—Robinson initially replied "u have lost me? The link I posted was not about Jews? It was about labour purposely flooding our country with immigrants". He then, according to The Daily Telegraph, said "that he had 'never seen the website before', that it popped up his timeline and that he didn't read the anti-Semitic bit before pressing tweet".
Criminal record during leadership
On 24 August 2010, Robinson was involved in a fight between supporters of Luton Town and Newport County in Luton, on the evening that the two clubs played at Kenilworth Road. Robinson reportedly led the group of Luton fans, and played an integral part in starting a 100-man brawl, during which he chanted "EDL till I die". Eleven months later, in July 2011, he was convicted of having used "threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour" on the night of the incident. He was given a 12-month community rehabilitation order and a three-year ban from attending football matches. He was also sentenced to 150 hours' unpaid work, and ordered to pay £650 in costs.
Robinson was arrested after an EDL demonstration in Tower Hamlets on 3 September 2011 for breach of bail conditions, as he had been banned from attending that demonstration. After his arrest, Robinson began a hunger strike in custody in Bedford Prison, saying that he was a "political prisoner of the state", and refused to eat what he believed was halal meat. A local paper reported that Bedford Prison sources had said that the hunger strike lasted only 24 hours. A handful of EDL supporters protested outside the prison in support of Robinson during his incarceration; the support peaked at a turnout of 100 protesters on 10 September. Robinson was released from prison on 12 September.
On 29 September 2011, he was convicted of common assault after headbutting a fellow EDL member at a rally in Blackburn in April that year. He was given a 12-week jail term, suspended for 12 months. Robinson said that the assault had happened because of a confrontation with a neo-Nazi who had joined the EDL's rank and file. Interviewed on BBC Three Counties Radio on 9 October 2013, the day after he had resigned from the EDL, Robinson said: "One of the things people condemn me for is having a criminal record; what they don't wish to say is that part of that criminal record is for confronting neo-Nazis in Blackburn at one of my demonstrations, where I was taken before the courts and charged for assault...during the last four years we've had in-house battles, physical battles to keep these elements out. Now I’ve got to the point—listeners can look on Youtube for 'RVF EDL', they'll see there's these Nazis and they're talking to me telling me they're going to kill me—and there are fifty of them with balaclavas on."
On 8 November 2011, Robinson held a protest on the rooftop of the FIFA headquarters in Zürich against FIFA's ruling that the England national football team could not wear a Remembrance poppy symbol on their shirts. For this he was fined £3,000 and jailed for three days.
In October 2012, Robinson was arrested and held on the charge of having entered the U.S. illegally. Robinson pleaded guilty at Southwark Crown Court to using someone else's passport—"possession of a false identity document with improper intention"—to travel to the United States in September 2012, and was sentenced in January to 10 months imprisonment. He was sentenced under the name of Stephen Lennon, but the judge added that he suspected it was not his true name, in the sense that it was not the name on his own passport (not the borrowed one), Paul Harris. Robinson was released on electronic tag on 22 February 2013. On being released, Robinson told the BBC that he was dismayed to discover that the EDL's ranks had been swollen with racist and neo-Nazi supporters: "I've battled for four years to keep certain elements out of this movement, to keep it down the path that we want to take it down. And I've seen that they've been welcomed back, they're the Nazis and the fascists—they were welcomed back."
Leaving the EDL
In April 2012, Tommy Robinson took part in a programme in the BBC's television series The Big Questions in which far-right extremism was debated. Mohammed ('Mo') Ansar took part in the same programme, and invited Robinson to join him and his family for dinner. The result was their meeting several times over the next 18 months to discuss issues to do with Islam, Islamism and the Muslim community, accompanied by a BBC team which created the documentary When Tommy met Mo. The turning point came when Robinson and Ansar visited the think tank Quilliam and Robinson witnessed a debate between Quilliam's director, Maajid Nawaz, and Ansar about human rights. Robinson said afterwards to the BBC: "I didn’t think a Muslim would confront Mo Ansar because I thought Mo Ansar was being built as the acceptable face of Islam; and that’s everything that I think is wrong. So when I saw this [debate between Nawaz and Ansar], and I read more about Quilliam and I looked at what Quilliam has done—they've actually brought change, which is what I want to do. I want to bring change. I want to tackle Islamist extremism, I want to tackle neo-Nazi extremism—they're opposite sides of the same coin."
On 8 October 2013, Quilliam held a press conference with Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll to announce that Robinson and Carroll had left the EDL. Robinson said that he had been considering leaving for a long time because of concerns over the "dangers of far-right extremism". Robinson said that it was still his aim to "counter Islamist ideology ... not with violence but with democratic ideas". Ten other senior figures left the EDL with Robinson and Carroll, and Tim Ablitt became the EDL's new leader. Robinson's decision followed discussions with Quilliam, which describes itself as a "counter-extremism think tank".
According to Robinson, when he had met Nawaz during the filming of the BBC documentary, Nawaz had refused to sit with him but had told him: "Tommy, if you ever think about leaving the EDL, and you want to chat, I'm here for you." Off-camera, Robinson had then told Nawaz that he was prepared to depart, and they subsequently held a series of conversations.
When Robinson was questioned by The Guardian newspaper about having in the past blamed "'every single Muslim' for 'getting away' with the 7 July bombings, and for calling Islam a fascist and violent religion, he held up his hands and said: 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.'" Robinson also said that he would now give evidence to the police to help in their investigation of racists within the EDL. Robinson added that "his future work would involve taking on radicalism on all fronts, although he could not support anti-fascist groups because they also subscribed to 'communism' or were 'anarchists'".
On 11 October 2013, whilst filming a documentary, Robinson was allegedly attacked by three men in Luton.
On 19 October The Guardian published an article by Mohammed Ansar, who had been barred from the 8 October press conference by Robinson on the grounds that he had not wanted Ansar to take credit for his leaving the EDL. Recalling their early meetings while making the BBC documentary, Ansar said that Robinson "seemed happiest when slotted into his groove—a well-rehearsed hustings tirade conflating Islam with terrorism, paedophilia and sharia". He also noted that despite Robinson protesting about halal meat on camera and at far-right rallies, "he eats it at Nandos and his favourite Turkish kebab shop". However Ansar recognised that over the next few months Robinson "had certainly softened on some of his views of Islam" since meeting him at the start and "that he was better educated, but it was a question of whether he could leave the politics of prejudice behind and face the public and his tribe".
Robinson claimed in his autobiography that he was paid £2,000 per month for Quilliam to take credit for his leaving the EDL. However, a Quilliam spokesperson said that the only payment Robinson received from the think tank was remuneration "as an external actor, after invoicing us for costs associated with outreach that he & Dr Usama Hassan did to Muslim communities after Tommy's departure from the EDL".
Imprisonment for mortgage fraud
On 28 November 2012, Robinson was charged with three counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by misrepresentation in relation to a mortgage application, facing trial with five other defendants. He pleaded guilty to two charges in November 2013, and on 23 January 2014 he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
At his sentencing, Robinson's lawyer, Charles Sherrard, QC said that the defendant was at risk of attack in prison by Muslim inmates and by EDL supporters who bore a grudge against Robinson for having left the movement. On 5 February 2014, Robinson was attacked by up to three men while being held in the reception wing in HM Prison Woodhill. A source close to Robinson told the International Business Times: "He was being taken for a legal visit and was then put in a room with these guys. The door was locked and the warders all disappeared." The source claimed that the attackers were Muslims, although the IBT was unable to confirm this. The source added that Robinson felt that "it was done deliberately and the warders [were] not exercising the duty of care to him". Following news of the attack, Maajid Nawaz wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling asking for Robinson's situation to be urgently addressed.
Shortly after this incident, Robinson was moved to HM Prison Winchester. Robinson told Jamie Bartlett, a director of the think tank Demos: "In Woodhill, I experienced Islam the gang. ... In Winchester, I have experienced Islam the religion." Robinson made friends with several Muslim prisoners. "Great lads", he told Bartlett at the time, "I cannot speak highly enough of the Muslim inmates I'm now living with."
Early in June 2014 Robinson was released, after having served almost six months of his sentence. The terms of his early release included the condition that no one involved with the EDL may contact him until the end of his original sentence in June 2015. Robinson was due to talk to the Oxford Union in October 2014, but before the event he was recalled to prison, for breaching the terms of his licence; he was ultimately released on 14 November 2014.
He finally gave a two-hour talk to the Oxford Union on 26 November 2014. Unite Against Fascism (UAF) protested against his appearance, criticising the union for allowing him the platform when, according to UAF, he had not renounced the views of the EDL. Robinson "told the audience he was not allowed to talk about certain issues because he was out on prison licence." He said, "I regain my freedom of speech on the 22 July 2015." This notwithstanding, he "criticised politicians, the media and police for failing to tackle certain criminal activities because of the fear of being labelled Islamophobic." He also said Woodhill prison had become "an ISIS training camp", and that radicals were "running the wings".
After finishing the licence at the end of his conviction, Robinson returned to anti-Islam demonstrations with Pegida, a German organisation founded in Dresden amidst the European migrant crisis. He announced the creation of a British chapter of Pegida in December 2015. He affirmed that alcohol and fighting would not be permitted because "It’s too serious now for that stuff", and told The Daily Telegraph that a mass demonstration would take place across Europe on 6 February 2016.
On 14 February 2016, Robinson was attacked and hospitalised after leaving a nightclub in Essex. Someone “hit his head with something” from behind while standing outside waiting for his wife. His head had to be "glued up" following the attack and he had to undergo an X-ray and CT scan, as he was suffering from concussion.
Robinson travelled to watch UEFA Euro 2016 in France and demonstrated with a T-shirt and English flag ridiculing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Bedfordshire Police gave him a football banning order on his return; his lawyer Alison Gurden accused the police of a "campaign of harassment" and said that they had equated the proscribed terrorist group with all Muslims in their action. In September, a judge at Luton Magistrates' Court dismissed the case, calling the prosecution's evidence "vague" and "cagey".
On 27 August 2016, eighteen Luton Town football supporters including Robinson and his family, were ejected from a Cambridge pub on the day of the Cambridge versus Luton football match by Cambridgeshire police who "believed that public disorder could occur between rival football fans and that as a result, members of the public could be put at risk". Robinson claimed he had been victimised, and complaints were submitted to the police.
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- Copsey, 2010, pp. 13–14.
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- BBC, The Big Questions, series 5 episode 13. Broadcast 1 April 2012: video from 1:59.
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- Letter from Maajid Nawaz, 6 February 2014
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- Copsey, Nigel (2010). The English Defence League: Challenging our Country and our Values of Social Inclusion, Fairness and Equality (pdf). Faith Matters.
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