I barely need to explain who Tommy Robinson is. He started out wearing a balaclava and leading a rag tag bag of football hooligan friends protesting against a group of Muslims shouting insults and obscenities at British soldiers. He became the figurehead of the English Defence League (EDL) – a nationalistic street movement that he has since left behind.
Tommy Robinson’s new book – Enemy of the State – tells his story. It is more entertaining, funny, bitterly depressing and exciting than most of the fiction I’ve read lately. It had me laughing out loud then thumping soft furnishing in frustration over the injustice of it all. It’s not about the EDL but his involvement with the EDL is clearly the main driver for most of what’s happened to him.
It’s a relatively long read at 330 pages, and the style perfectly captures Tommy’s voice and background. Some of the phraseology will upset English grammar teachers: it’s always “me and my football pals” but that’s authentic Tommy-speak.
The book sets the scene for the formation of the EDL by explaining something of the life he led in Luton growing up.
He was hanging out with other kids in a solid working class neighbourhood. From the start it’s clear race was not something he, or most of the mixed race crowd he ran with, ever paid attention to. But as time passed the separation (on religious, not race grounds) between Muslims and everyone else grew clearer, the fights grew more serious and the impact on society more palpable.
Tommy had a conviction and prison sentence for a serious violent assault against an off duty policeman before he had anything to do with the EDL.Of course when Tommy tells the story in more detail the facts are a little nuanced. He claims he was assaulted first by a man who never identified himself as a policeman: the conviction came because he took it one step too far by kicking him on the ground. That kick and, according to Tommy, the police officer lying about identifying himself, led to the conviction and harsh sentence.
He’d also had (in the years after his imprisonment for that assault) one minor drug offence. His description gives a hint of the humour on display throughout the book.
One night I was walking through town when a female officer in a police van told her colleagues to stop and search me. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but she knew who I was. They found a trace of cocaine – just about enough to make your hamster pedal his wheel a bit faster, but that’s all. I got a £300 fine and for the future enemies of Tommy Robinson, my record was elevated onto something close to the level of a Colombian drug baron.
But contrast those convictions from 2004 and later with a story he tells when out filming a documentary in Luton. He comes across a well known Muslim leader, Sayful Islam, and all the following can be seen on YouTube (strong language warning):
Sayful noticed us, noticed me, and started shouting. Traffic is always slow through Bury Park and he walked into the road, demanding to know what was happening. Look it up, see for yourself. Google it on Youtube. You’ll see him smack me in the face, completely unprovoked.
I got assaulted by an off-duty copper, retaliated and was given 12 months in prison. This bloke who preaches hatred and murder of British people walked up and belted me in the chops, on camera, and the police were not remotely interested. Not for one second.
Early convictions established Tommy as a violent football hooligan and gave the media a pigeon hole for him and his organisation. The strongest theme in the book (and the reason for the title) is the persecution of Tommy as an individual.
When presented as a linear account, it is a horrifying picture of the entire apparatus of State power being directed at shutting down political speech and basic rights like free assembly and peaceful protest.
Tommy recounts his sudden and unprepared rise into media stardom. Very early on Tommy was shocked by what happened when talking to the media.
I went to the meeting at a time when no one yet really knew who I was. So I turned up with my three pals – and they were three black lads. Now you couldn’t miss these boys, especially Dorsett, who’s about 6ft 5ins. He’s younger than me, but growing up in Luton he was probably one of the handiest blokes around town.
I didn’t know who or what the Guardian was about, so I was talking about everything that was going on in Luton, just blabbing it all out, all the social problems, all the street radicalisation, everything – the reasons why we were doing what we were doing. And then the newspaper article came out and I was looking at it, thinking, ‘What the fuck, what’s this geezer on about?’
And he basically, again, called me, called us, racists. He completely did not mention the fact that I’d turned up with three black men who were clearly my close friends. These blokes weren’t my minders, they were my mates.
He has some choice things to say about other parts of the media he met along the way, the TV documentaries that flat out lied to him and the manipulations that were made in almost all reporting of the EDL.
Can we be sure of the veracity of every story in the book? I’ve reached out, behind the scenes, to others I knew from those days and major facts match up. And when you read the whole book, you can’t help but think: “nobody could make all of this up”.
If the treatment of the EDL by the media is one sub-theme, it fits completely within the overriding tale of persecution.
What is startling is the sheer scale of what the British state had to do leading up to his imprisonment more than twice on long sentences. Even more: none of his later convictions involved violence: one was for using someone else’s passport to travel to the U.S. (stupid and he admits it) and a retrospective conviction for a tiny part in a fraud (which cost nobody any money) that stemmed from lending his brother in law £20,000 ($30,000).
Along the way it is almost impossible to count the number of arrests, nights in cells and harassment that Tommy claims he’s been on the receiving end of. And that’s just from the State.
Being attacked by Muslim gangs, or neo-Nazis was another occupational hazard.
Up to his involvement in the EDL he’d managed to successfully run a number of small businesses. His entire financial history was subject to astonishing scrutiny, many thousands of hours of police time were spent trying to find irregularities. All those cases failed until, eventually, he pleaded guilty to the mortgage fraud case to stop them going after his wife.
The scrutiny also applied to anyone Tommy ever associated with. All through the story of the EDL his 40 year old cousin Kevin Carroll (Kev) was with him. Weeks after one of the earlier demonstrations he was arrested (the first time he’d ever been arrested). The charge? Insulting Osama Bin Laden’s mother. When I said you couldn’t make this up, I meant it.
I heard the tape of the police interview and you have to picture the scene of Kev and his brief sitting with these officers and a laptop on the table from which you can hear Kev singing, ‘She’s a whore, she’s a whore, bin Laden’s mother is a whore…’ The copper says, ‘Is this you?’
Kev replies, ‘Woah, woah, woah, hold on a minute…’
And then there’s a long pregnant pause. And finally Kev says, ‘She hasn’t made a complaint has she? Because if she has I haven’t got a problem with her, just her wanker of a son.’ Everyone cracked up, even the coppers and the brief.
Calling for the beheading of those who insult “the Prophet”, the death of soldiers and much more is fine. None of that warranted a public order offence, but insulting Osama Bin Laden’s mother? Too much for the UK’s authorities to bare.
Which brings us to a part of the book that could seem almost tediously repetitive. The basic plot goes like this:
Tommy is arrested for something, we’re not sure what. He’s taken immediately to a maximum security prison “Category A” or “Cat A” which house murders, paedophiles and rapists. He tells the wardens and the Governor that he’ll be immediately set upon by Muslim gangs who’ll recognise him and then, if he’s lucky, he’ll survive to be put in solitary confinement.
I lost count of the number of times this repeats. With nearly fatal results for Tommy. The story is entertainingly told but the implications are horribly dark. It’s easy to see how Tommy started to believe the authorities really did want him to die, out of sight, in a prison fight.
Tommy ended up spending far more time in solitary confinement than anybody is supposed to, especially when convicted of non violent offences like mortgage fraud. But do you think any “human rights lawyers” would take up his cause?
From about eight weeks in, with no end to the isolation in sight, they started getting in touch with human rights lawyers. They’d explain this prisoner’s circumstances, the lawyer would express outrage, and then they’d explain that it was the leader of the English Defence League – and the spineless arseholes would drop it like a red hot brick. Not one of them would touch my case.
One said that most of their clients were Muslims and representing me would be bad for business. My family even went to the lawyer who represented Jon Venables, the lad who murdered the Liverpool toddler, Jamie Bulger. He could argue the case of someone who battered a two-year- old to death, but he wouldn’t touch me with a barge pole. It seems that human rights only apply to a select group of people.
Tommy had already left the EDL by the time he went back inside for the mortgage fraud conviction he plead guilty to. He’d done that seemingly with the help of the counter extremist Quilliam Foundation headed up by Maajid Nawaz.
In the book he carefully lays out the full extent of what they did for each other: yes, he received financial support from them but was never “on the payroll” and in return he was their “poster boy”. It’s fair to say it sounds like Tommy won’t be continuing the relationship. He’s polite and complimentary toward them about their intentions, but highly doubtful about the impact they’ll ever have on the kinds of Muslims who need to change.
In the book he covers, in some depth, what appear to be determined attempts to recruit him as a spy and send him back into the EDL. Again a pattern emerges: trumped up accusations, a spell in prison and a visit from shadowy characters who promise they can make all his problems go away. He recounts how he vigorously turned down all these approaches.
He does express his regrets throughout the book at some of the things he did, some of the directions the EDL took and he certainly takes no responsibility for what happened to them once he was removed from the top with arrests, prison and pressure on his family.
The book ends with a frank discussion of the problems facing the UK and the world. He’s pretty bleak, his proposed solutions of stopping Muslim immigration for five years and banning all building of new mosques will upset lots of people. Tommy was always clear, all throughout the EDL days, that the EDL was not anti-immigration per se: many of its members were immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants. Integration was always the issue. I’ll close with Tommy’s words again:
In Britain we appear to take for granted that care and compassion is a Christian quality, as if we shouldn’t even expect it of less developed Muslim countries. Jesus. And I mean that literally. Are you surprised that they all take the piss out of us? I’m only trying to say things, to ask questions, that our political leaders seem terrified of even raising. Could the mass migration we’re seeing right now from the middle east be an invasion by any other name?
I’m only asking. Not many other people seem to be.
This is an edited version of a longer review first written for Israellycool.
Brian of London (Brian Thomas) used to live in London. For the last 7 years he’s lived in Israel, earning a crust in various businesses and now navigating a new internet startup. All the while he’s been writing on the side for Israellycool and various other outlets.