If you thought the campaign to free Tommy Robinson was a failure, think again.
On June 9, London saw a convergence of thousands of demonstrators to protest the jailing of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known to most as Tommy Robinson, formerly of the radical-right English Defence League (EDL). Robinson had been arrested for breach of the peace in Leeds whilst he was live streaming outside of a court, in violation of restrictions put in place by the judge; he pleaded guilty to contempt of court and was sentenced to 13 months imprisonment.
The “Free Tommy” protest brought together large crowds drawing from the more extreme and more violent end of the radical-right spectrum, with figures of the more respectable end of the scene — those like Anne Marie Waters of For Britain, the former editor of Breitbart London Raheem Kassam and Dutch anti-Islam campaigner and politician Geert Wilders. They addressed a crowd estimated at “as many as 10,000” by Hope Not Hate, around 15,000 by Searchlight, and the radical right themselves seem to claim a figure of 15,000 to 20,000.
These thousands include groups from Generation Identity (a European white supremacist movement), White Pendragons (who recently invaded the Fabian Society conference in January), members of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, former British National Party (BNP) and imported extremists from Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (Flemish interest) and from Poland’s Wolność (liberty) parties. Will Allchorn, of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, has examined what this tells us about the role of Tommy Robinson within the radical right, and what it tells us about post-EDL mobilization. But if we consider the historical context of the “Free Tommy” protests, we can see how the responses to the protest are failing to understand the real message: that it is neither about free speech nor is it, really, even about Tommy.
“Free Hess Now!”
This isn’t the first campaign of its type on the radical right. For a large part of the postwar period the call was not to free Tommy, but to free Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, who was serving a life sentence for war crimes following a conviction at Nuremberg. Appearing in the March 1965 issue of the British nationalist magazine Spearhead, the call to “Free Hess Now!” described him as an “emissary of peace” who had sought reconciliation when Germany was winning the war; through this the radical right sought to reframe the whole nature of the war and those who still had sympathies with the fascist cause. Spearhead, which would become the official magazine of the National Front and later BNP, was also not alone in this campaign, with the British Movement and other far-right groups putting out stickers and pamphlets bearing the slogan “Free Hess!”
The radical right, in their own claims, were the true champions of peace and human rights in their lauding of Hess, in comparison to “African inciters to violence, hack politicians, and other blood-drenched darlings of creeping Bolshevism.” The key point here is the claim that support for this cause was the duty of all British citizens “who still believe in peace and justice,” posturing themselves as champions of these ideals central to British identity while framing the governments that insisted on Hess’ continued imprisonment as enemies.
It was not just the appeal to British identity, though, that showed how useful these value-based freedom campaigns were. In February 1978, Martin Webster wrote in Spearhead about the campaign run by Wolf Hess, Rudolf’s son, to gain his father’s freedom and the recent refusal by the Soviet Union to agree to release Hess. The campaign, based on values and not overtly on politics, had, Webster boasted, brought together Liberal, Conservative and they suspect even Labour politicians on board, conflating UK government and parliamentary support for Hess’ release with their campaign.
Webster and Spearhead even spoke of the links the campaign had made in other countries, bringing them together with Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE. They used this international and cross-party support as a bulwark against attacks from others, notably from Maurice Ludmer, editor of prominent anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, whom Webster castigated for his observations that this international support was from the far right and thus, according to Webster, brought politics into a matter of principle.
A similar campaign was attempted, with much less impact, when Joe Pearce — editor of the Young National Front’s newspaper Bulldog — was jailed for publishing material likely to cause hatred based on race in 1982. Given the rather unpleasant content of Bulldog, a sentence of just 6 months, the fact that Pearce was not well known to the general public, and the decline of the National Front, the campaign did not gain much traction or public awareness. However, we can still see the impact it had within the movement. Despite wide, and rather bitter and personal, divisions between the National Front and the New National Front/Committee for Nationalist Unity, the campaign still managed to unify people from across the radical and extreme right, and from both competing movements, to support Pearce.
Pearce’s incarceration was used to highlight the cause of freedom of thought and expression, and what the nationalists saw as unacceptable curtailing of their rights to oppose non-white migration. Spearhead, in its February 1982 issue, took particular objection to the fact it had to moderate its language rather than its message to get around the law. The far-right also revealed in this piece one of the purposes of deliberately breaching these laws and provoking these campaigns, suggesting those who chose to break the law did so in the hopes that “it will surround the victim with an aura of martyrdom and inflame public opinion against our lawmakers.”
The Real Success
We can learn from these historical campaigns as to what the “Free Tommy” campaign is about, and why it is showing some success. If you understand it purely as a campaign to free Tommy, it is currently a failure and is almost certainly going to remain so, as Tommy Robinson will serve time until released by the proper procedures. Britain is equally unlikely to ever alter its laws to allow to hold the court in contempt the way Robinson did, where in breaching the order of the judge not to report on the case he could prejudice the trial, expose the names of vulnerable people and could have made any conviction unsafe and likely to be challenged on appeal.
However, if we understand it instead as a way to attempt to claim important values such as freedom of speech and use that to appeal both nationally and internationally to a broad movement that brings together groups who would otherwise never be willing to stand together, then we must accept the campaign it has been a success. Libertarians marching with their “Don’t Tread On Me” flags alongside neo-Nazis, nationalists marching alongside white supremacist pan-Europeans marching alongside elected politicians of various parliaments — it shows the very real, and very worrying, networks that the “Free Tommy” campaign hopes to create and exploit.
Mr Daniel Jones is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and a Doctoral candidate at the Department of History at the University of Northampton. See his profile here.
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