Tommy Robinson has said he wants Boris Johnson to be PM—so why isn't the media talking about it?

A lot of the fear about the rise of the far-right has been about those individuals and their parties gaining power. But that's not the full picture

December 10, 2019
Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson. Photo: PA
Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson. Photo: PA

The far-right activist “Tommy Robinson” stood outside the homes of British Muslims and called them “enemy combatants.” He described the refugee crisis of 2015 as “an invasion of Europe by military age Muslim men.” He said Muslim men were “raping their way” through the country. Referring to immigration, he said “we’re importing barbarians.” He claimed that London mayor Sadiq Khan is “part of an invasion into our country.” In one video apparently from a 2011 rally, he addressed “every single Muslim” and told them they had “got away with killing and maiming British citizens” during the 7/7 attacks.

And now, ahead of Thursday’s general election, he’s backing the Conservatives. “Everyone should vote for Boris Johnson,” Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, said, from outside court last month. “Go Boris!”

In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump won the backing of the leader of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke. The endorsement—and Trump’s initial refusal to disavow it—was headline news for days. Every time Trump was interviewed, journalists asked him about it.

British journalists like to compare themselves favourably to their American counterparts, particularly on politics. But so far neither Johnson, nor any of the cabinet ministers or spokespeople put up by the Conservative party, have been asked once about Robinson’s apparent support.

It is not hard to imagine why a racist would support a prime minister who has caricatured Commonwealth citizens as “flag-waving picaninnies”  and some British Muslim women as “letterboxes.” But more than these statements themselves, it is Johnson’s response when questioned about them which would probably make a far-right activist happy. He has occasionally offered a non-apology apology—sorry if any offence was caused, etc—but more recently he has alighted on a more dangerous line. It’s a freedom of speech issue, he claims, saying “I defend my right to speak out.” In other words, it’s okay to use derogatory language about blacks, Muslims and gays (“bum boys,” as Johnson once described them.)

And if it’s okay for him, it’s okay for the rest of us, including Tommy Robinson. For years, the far-right—from Nick Griffin through to Robinson—have claimed that “political correctness” prevents them from saying what they really believe. Now they have a prime minister who has sung from an almost identical hymn sheet.

A lot of the fear about the rise of the far-right has been about those individuals and their parties gaining power. That makes it easy to look at the small percentage of votes such parties receive and think everything is okay. But the threat from the far-right doesn’t just come from an Oswald Mosely or Tommy Robinson; it comes from mainstream politicians who voice extreme views and use language not dissimilar to the far right.

The mainstreaming of far-right opinions broadens the pool of what’s acceptable and what’s not. This expansion of the Overton window has begun to numb us to fresh outrages. Johnson’s closest advisor, Dominic Cummings, last week wrote a long blogpost urging Brexiteers to vote Conservative. In it, he warned that if the Conservatives failed to win a majority, warned that Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems would “rig” a second referendum by allowing “millions of foreign citizens a vote on EU membership.” He went on, “they will cheat the rules, they will do anything, supported by the likes of Goldman Sachs writing the cheques.”

According to the Electoral Commission, the largest donors to the Remain campaign were, in descending order: David Sainsbury, a travel company called Trailfinders, a billionaire called David Harding, a hedge fund called Liberty Global, the Tower Ltd partnership, another billionaire called Mark Coombes, and the founder of Travelex. Yet, for some reason, Cummings didn’t single out any of these individuals or companies and focused instead on Goldman Sachs.

We like to cling to the idea that Britain has become a more liberal nation. And in some ways, it is. Our views on gender and sexuality have changed dramatically over the past 30 years. A generation ago a plurality of Britons believed “a man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job is to look after the home and family”—today, just 8 per cent agree. In the 1980s just one in 10 believed same-sex relations were “not wrong at all”—today’s it’s two-thirds.

But the one issue where we haven’t changed is race. Just over a quarter of Britons admit to being “racially prejudiced,” according to the British Social Attitudes survey. One in five believe some ethnic groups are “born less intelligent,” while more than 40 per cent believe that some ethnic groups are “born less hard-working.” In a recent YouGov survey, 40 per cent of the country admitted to “unfavourable” views towards Muslims.

We’re not as liberal as we think—and that’s why Johnson’s own brand of racism and his seeming green light for some of the far-right’s views is so dangerous. This is a country where a sizeable minority have racist views. Johnson has come perilously close to courting those voters. If he wins a majority, it could be on the backs of racists.