Sunday Times interviews Stephen Lennon

Tommy Robinson: For you, Tommy, the war isn’t over

By Rosie Kinchen

Sunday Times, 13 October 2013

Tommy Robinson likes getting something for nothing. He walks into the lobby of the hotel and asks if he can have a full English on The Sunday Times. And one, too, for the cameraman who is filming him for a documentary. Having informed me it will cost £20 a head, he unselfconsciously ploughs through his baked beans and bacon until the hotel staff become so agitated by his presence they ask us to leave. Robinson wipes his thin mouth with a napkin, turns to me and brimming with pride says, “Welcome to my world.”

Robinson is a short, frantic man who smells of Lynx, hair gel and bravado. A former tanning salon owner, he seems to have spent the past four years transforming himself into the poster boy for British racism. He founded the English Defence League in 2009 in response to protests by extremist Muslim groups in his home town of Luton, Bedfordshire, and has helped build a base of 25,000-35,000 followers, although the only people who openly associate with the group are skinheads, yobs and opportunistic football hooligans looking for a fight. They march through city centres with large Muslim populations, wearing pig masks, chanting racist anthems and being offensive to Muslims and non-Muslims.

Last week Robinson made the shock announcement that he was leaving the EDL, citing, with no obvious trace of irony, “the dangers of far-right extremism”. It is a curious turnaround: just five months ago, after the murder of drummer Lee Rigby, he was calling for an “English spring”.

Just two days before his defection, on October 6, he tweeted that “sharia legalises paedophilia”. Now, suddenly, he is appearing on television announcing that he is tired of the “morons” in the group and “the parents looking at me” as he picks his children up from school. To add to the intrigue he has defected through Quilliam, an “anti-extremism” think tank set up by Maajid Nawaz, a reformed member of the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and says he is working with them to “counter Islamist ideology . . . not with violence but with better, democratic ideas”.

There has been a great deal of scepticism about how genuine this miraculous transformation can be. When we resume our interview a short while later at the Quilliam head office, it rapidly transpires that the answer is: not very. Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley Lennon (he borrowed the moniker Tommy Robinson from a renowned football hooligan who followed his team, Luton Town), is 30 but he has the attention span of a toddler: he leaps from subject to subject, fiddles with his phone and has an irritating habit of breaking off mid-sentence.

When I ask about his defection, he complains about “the Nazis” who have infiltrated the group and he mutters about “democracy” but what quickly becomes apparent is that his primary reason for leaving the EDL is practical rather than ideological, and it comes down to the lifestyle – predominantly, the booze.

He says he made the decision in February while serving an 18-week prison sentence for trying to travel to America on someone else’s passport. Prison was the “best thing” because he “needed a break from my life”. Leading the EDL had left his life “a mess”. “Everything revolved around the pub,” he complains, “I’d need to impress them at Wednesday night meetings, every time we left Luton for a march I’d get tanked up.”

It is particularly unpleasant when a notorious bully like Robinson, a man usually seen swaggering topless down barricaded streets, beer can in hand, hollering “EDL till I die” at bystanders, solicits sympathy. But that is what he is doing. He claims that in solitary confinement, he had plenty of time to think. He realised that he had “neglected my mother, my wife and my kids” and thought about how “embarrassed” he had been seeing himself on Proud and Prejudiced, a 2011 documentary that showed him dressing up as a rabbi to sneak into a protest in Tower Hamlets, east London, in breach of a police order – before spouting nonsense while necking vodka and lemonade. “How I’d carried myself and how I’d acted made me cringe,” he says, “but it wasn’t really me, it was the drinking culture.”

If he is aware of the irony of having to flee the hooliganism that he created, he does not show it, but then there is nothing subtle about Robinson. Last month he clashed with a member of staff in Selfridges who refused to serve him and a friend. Robinson kicked up a fuss and got himself a complimentary meal before tweeting: “I can’t lie, staff at Selfridges have been brilliant. #fatlads.”

Without a rabble, Robinson cuts a far less intimidating figure: today he is wearing a tracksuit and looks like he works in Sports Direct. He says he made up his mind to leave but was “terrified” about how he would do it. Then two weeks ago, while filming a BBC documentary, he met Nawaz and saw a way out. Robinson called Nawaz to see whether Quilliam “pushed Islam” and, satisfied that it was secular, he has taken the leap, with it on hand to protect him.

It is not quite the turnaround commentators were hoping for. Have any of his views changed? He concedes that the cost of policing his protests – £10m over the past four years – is “regrettable” though he still thinks that the EDL was “essential”. Beyond this, he spouts the same old bile: a boring blend of ignorance, conjecture and plain old racism. Mosques, he argues, are “the control and command centres” of Muslim communities; “most wars around the world begin after Friday prayer”. The Koran “promotes violence” and – “I know ’cos I’ve read it” – contains “14 references that allow Muslim men to take non-Muslim sex slaves”, a misinterpretation common on anti-Islamic websites. He believes Islamic law is going to take over Britain “in between 30 and 40 years” and he makes a baffling attempt to argue that “Muslim paedophiles” are somehow worse than “normal paedophiles”.

I would like to say that Robinson is simply stupid, but he is good at tapping into rational fears and then wildly inflaming them. He has a knack for picking up what other people have said without bothering to grasp the context in which they said it. At one point he recites a line that the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, misquoted from an ancient Islamic poem more than 15 years ago – “The minarets are our bayonets” – as evidence of Islamic intentions to conquer the West. He also has a habit of getting things wrong. He once accused Twitter of “#creepingsharia” for having a mosque on its homepage. It turned out to be a picture of the Taj Mahal.

When I ask him where his anti-Muslim sentiment comes from, he ties himself in a knot, waving his mobile phone around as though it contains proof that he is not a racist. “I have dealings with Muslims every day,” he says. “Every taxi in town is driven by a Muslim. I eat lunch at a Turkish restaurant”, and on and on. What is baffling is that he sticks stubbornly to this even though nobody else in his life seems to agree with him. His mother, who moved to Luton from Dublin in the 1960s, and his stepfather both “hate the EDL” and “don’t share my views about Islam”. His wife “doesn’t care about Islam”, “has never been to an EDL meeting”, and bans him from talking about it in the house. As a result, his three children, who are two, four and six, “don’t know what the EDL is”.

Despite this he is convinced that he is the “voice of the white working class”. Robinson has a bad case of small-man syndrome and a hugely inflated sense of importance. He believes the police are targeting him: he claims they have frozen his assets while they investigate him on suspicion of tax evasion and he now survives on £250 a week allowance from his £44,000 “savings”.

There have been at least four arrests for offences that range from fraud to common assault. The truth is that he is thuggish and he is scared. He talks about how “petrified” he is for the future. Society, he believes, is changing with “freedom of speech being restricted” and “English children are being attacked by the Muslim community”. Violence and fear-mongering are his only methods of defence.

Sadly, Robinson’s defection is not a transformation. This is a man who is hooked on attention; the negative kind will do as well as any. He has vague ideas of an inter-faith lobbying group and says he “sympathises with UKIP”, a declaration which is unlikely to delight Nigel Farage. Now that he is free of the EDL he believes his supporters will follow. “Most don’t want to be out on the street” but they will “be supporting what we’re doing”, he says. He also believes he can attract a new middle-class following, claiming to have received “message after message after message from people saying, ‘Now I can support you’ ”.

There is no doubt that Robinson is delusional – at one point he claims that 90% of Muslims think he is wonderful and tries to convince me he can’t walk into a pub in Luton without people wanting to shake his hand. His cameraman tells me that he, in effect, doubles as a security guard, and the evening after we speak Robinson is attacked in the street. Quilliam’s boast last week that this was a “proud moment” in the fight against extremism is a hasty one: Robinson is still preaching his own particular brand of bile. He may be changing his method, but I cannot see any signs he is changing his mind.