I’ve often thought it might be interesting to meet Tommy Robinson, or Stephen Lennon, or whatever one is supposed to call the erstwhile English Defence League frontman these days. Because, well, he’s not an idiot, is he? Or at least, not to the extent you’d like him to be. And it bugged me.
I remember seeing him up against Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight a few years ago. Yes, he fell into bear-traps, quite a few of which he’d dug himself, and yes, he said more than a few things that any mainstream politician would have been crucified for, and rightly. But at core, there was something there with which Paxman simply couldn’t cope at all. This was an eloquent, white working-class voice, airing white working-class concerns. We are not good, we media and Westminster villagers, at engaging with this stuff, and Paxman certainly wasn’t. We focus merrily on the unpolished hate and prejudice, of which he espoused really quite a lot, but anything that truly unsettles us, we just ignore.
It would be another couple of years before the media — led by my colleague Andrew Norfolk at the Times — started taking at all seriously the idea that gangs of young men, invariably Muslim and predominantly of Pakistani origin, were engaged in the endemic grooming of vulnerable white girls in Oxford, Rotherham, Rochdale and God knows where else. Given that the likes of Stephen, or Tommy, had been banging on about this for ever, that should make us all feel rather queasy. Never yet, even now, have I read an interview with him in which I didn’t know precisely what it was going to say the moment I read the byline. And, when a journalist spots a hole in the narrative, it’s the journalist’s job to fill it.
I never made the call, though, and it wasn’t just because I had humorous skits and TV reviews to write. It was also because, even allowing for all that plain-talking voice-of-the-white-hoodie-streets stuff, he had glaringly terrible views.
Occasionally, of a free afternoon, I’d start reading up on him, in preparation for trying to fix something up, and before long I’d always go off the idea, feeling quite sick. You’d see videos of him addressing rallies of baying men with tattoos, and really it wasn’t in much doubt. He spoke of invasions, of all Muslims being to blame for 7/7. He misrepresented the existence of voluntary Sharia courts, and did his best to take ownership of grief after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. Screw all that, I’d end up thinking. Yes, there’s a hell of a piece here. But I’m not going to be the guy who brings this horrible prick into a reputable newspaper.
Now, suddenly, apparently, he’s seen the light. Quilliam, an anti-extremist group led by Maajid Nawaz (who was once, by his own account, a fairly dodgy Islamist), has brought Stommy in from the cold, along with his EDL deputy Kevin Carroll. Both of them claim to have suddenly noticed ‘the dangers of far-right extremism’. And who knows? Maybe they really have. Maybe this isn’t simply far-right factionalism; the equivalent of Robert Kilroy-Silk huffing out of Ukip to found that party with a name like an air freshener. Maybe it’s for real.
My hunch is, by the time you read this, there will have been a wealth of commentary saying that it isn’t, and maybe that commentary will be right. But I have decided, in a spirit of sheer Panglossian optimism, to think otherwise. I like the symmetry of his journey with that undertaken by Nawaz (who, at 35, is also surprisingly young) and maybe he does too. Like I said, he doesn’t seem stupid. So maybe he just grew out of spending all his time with people who do seem very stupid indeed. In 20 years’ time, he could be solidly in the mainstream. Maybe he’ll only have one name. A Labour MP, perhaps? This is what, right now, I choose to believe. I wonder how long it will last? Maybe a month.
The evil of e-cigarettes
Now let us speak of e-cigarettes. For they are evil. Rod Liddle wrote about them here a couple of weeks ago, castigating the BMA for their lunacy in trying to restrict their use. Speaking only from personal experience, I’m not sure he’s right.
I’ve been on and off real fags for years, and sometimes those ‘off’ periods had lasted as long as a couple of days. About 12 months ago, I picked up a fake one. ‘Brilliant!’ I thought. ‘This solves everything! I won’t stink, I won’t wheeze and I won’t die!’
I now realise that those downsides (stinking, wheezing, dying, etc) are really the only thing that stop me from smoking almost literally all the time. My nicotine intake? Whoosh. Off the charts. I’ve become like that Martin Amis character who craves a cigarette even when he’s smoking a cigarette. Of course, I don’t normally have one. I have a blast of gas from a clinically untested bit of plastic instead. But I still do sometimes have cigarettes, too. And I do not feel as though my situation has improved.
A few months ago, I was debating Peter Hitchens. Nice man; not what you’d expect at all, but still quite scary. And of course he doesn’t believe in addiction. Famously. He thinks people consume because they want to, because it’s a moral failing. Take it from me, he’s not the sort of chap you want to bump into outside the Cambridge Union while standing in the rain, shivering, sucking miserably on a plastic tube. I could see the baffled disdain in his eyes every time the tip glowed blue.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.