Is Tommy Robinson a headstrong fool who thoroughly deserves the 13-month prison sentence handed him by a judge in slightly confused and murky circumstances last week?
Or is he the bravest man in Britain, the voice of the people, who has been martyred for the ‘crime’ of saying something the cowardly Establishment still considers to be unsayable about the dangers posed by Islam?
A bit of both, I’d say.
As many of you will know, I’m an admirer of Tommy’s. We bonded over the two podcasts we recorded together here and here. In the flesh, he’s very different from the “far right” thug you see portrayed in the mainstream media. He’s easy, friendly, intelligent company; he’s apparently devoid of racist sentiment; and he’s better informed on the Qu’ran and the Hadith than some Muslims, and probably as well informed on Muslim extremism as the police and the intelligence services.
Whenever there’s another terrorist atrocity like the one in Stockholm last week, and the one in Alexandria on Palm Sunday, and the one in St Petersburg a few days before, and the one in London the week before that, we often ask ourselves despairingly what on earth we can do to make a difference.
Well, I’ll tell you exactly what we can do. It occurred to me after interviewing this week’s Delingpole podcast guest – the founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson.
The interview itself was fascinating. I urge you to listen if you haven’t already: whatever preconceptions you may have about Robinson, I think you’ll be appalled by the way he has been scapegoated and maltreated by the British authorities, charmed by his honesty, and bowled over by his courage in the face of extreme danger.
But what I found even more illuminating was the response from all those people out there who wanted to tell me that Tommy Robinson was a disgusting individual whom I should never have interviewed (either for Breitbart or for a separate piece I wrote in the Spectator) and that my decision to do so made me a despicable fascist.
The EDL founder has been jailed for fraud, assault and football hooliganism. So, why do I like him?
‘Christ, I would be shot for buying this if people knew,’ says an anonymous fan in the comments below Amazon’s unlikely bestseller Enemy of the State. Which sums up how I feel before meeting the book’s author, Tommy Robinson. What if he turns out to be not nearly as bad as his reputation as ‘Britain’s most hated man’? What if, as some familiar with him have warned, I turn out to like him and want to plead his cause, and end up being tainted as a far-right thug by association?
We meet in a gastropub in a pretty Georgian market town. It’s only ten minutes from the ‘shithole’ of a dump where Robinson has always lived — Luton — and much more congenial for lunch because we’re less likely to be interrupted by any of the numerous Muslims who have put him on their death list. Robinson, 34, is wearing Stone Island, the preferred expensive attire (about £800 for a jacket) of violent football hooligans like the one he used to be himself.
Robinson is frank about his misspent youth: his first stint in jail for assaulting a plainclothes policeman; his second one for mortgage fraud; his brawls with rival teams as a member of Luton City’s Men In Gear football crew (he thinks Millwall’s bad-boy reputation is overrated; Tottenham has the best firm). He is frank about everything he’s done, good and bad. It’s part of the natural charm which, just over two years ago, won the hearts of an at first spittingly hostile audience at the Oxford Union.
And yes, I do like him. So would you if you spent a couple of hours in his company. He’s intelligent, quick, articulate, well-informed, good-mannered — and surprisingly meek in his politics for a man so often branded a fascist. Many of his home friends are black, some are Muslims; he’s not obviously racist or anti-Semitic. He only got into activism and street demos because he happened to be a white working-class English lad in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. It was Luton, unfortunately, that Islamist proselytiser Anjem Choudary chose as the base for his various proscribed organisations.
As a result the character of the town changed forever; and so did Robinson’s life. The trigger was a local Islamist recruitment drive for the Taleban and a subsequent protest against a parade by Royal Anglian Regiment troops returning from a tour in Afghanistan.
As he once told another interviewer: ‘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.’ So Robinson founded the protest organisation that would make him infamous — the English Defence League (he subsequently quit it in 2013).
You know how hateful the EDL is: every-one does. What’s curious, though, is how much worse it is by reputation than in deed. It’s almost as though the chattering classes needed some kind of bogeyman whose name they could brandish in outrage from time to time in order to demonstrate that, while of course they condemn fundamentalist Islam, they feel just as appalled, if not more so, by the ugly spectre of far-right nationalism.