‘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.
It’s the same with Tommy Robinson. If you looked at social media in the immediate aftermath of the recent terrorist murders on Westminster Bridge, you might have been surprised by the extent to which the righteous rage of the bien-pensant Twitterati was directed not at the killer, Khalid Masood, and the culture that radicalised him, but rather at that culture’s most vocal critic, Tommy Robinson. According to Robinson, this is no accident.
It’s a reflection of the Establishment’s intense reluctance to admit the scale of the problem with fundamentalist Islam in Britain. Robinson’s recent experiences have made him deeply suspicious of the authorities. Forcing him to share a prison wing with Islamists suggests, to him, that his personal welfare is not exactly their top priority.
While he was in prison, he refused to eat any regular food (he believed it would be poisoned or otherwise contaminated, so he stuck to tinned tuna), and made sure to cause sufficient trouble so he wound up in solitary where no one could stab him. His front teeth are all fake, the real ones having been knocked out when he got trapped in a room with eight Islamists. The only reason he didn’t die, he says, is because they didn’t have any ‘shivs’ (bladed weapons).
He’s a strong advocate of separate prisons for Muslims and non-Muslims: the scale of bullying (no one dare be caught cooking bacon, for example) and the extent of radicalisation, he argues, makes it culturally suicidal to continue as we are.
After numerous beatings and attempts on his life, Robinson is under no illusions about his prospects of reaching a ripe old age. ‘I’m a dead man walking,’ he told me. It’s not for his own sake that he minds: only for that of his wife and three young children. Though his kids are as yet unaware of his notoriety (Tommy Robinson is a pseudonym), he’s finding it harder and harder to protect them. Last August, police in Cambridge ejected the entire family from a pub on what Robinson claims was a bogus pretext of possible public disorder between rival football fans.
You could argue that Tommy Robinson doesn’t exactly help himself the way he goes looking for trouble half the time. But then, I don’t think that many of us are in a position to pass judgment. Not unless we’ve personally shared his worm’s-eye view of Islamic encroachment on our inner cities, which very few of us ever will. We simply wouldn’t be brave enough.