On October 10 2018, British anti-Muslim figurehead Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) caused uproar when he posted a video of himself with a group of young trainee soldiers online. The British Army quickly reacted to the incident, disavowing Yaxley-Lennon, and discharging one of the soldiers involved. Subsequently Yaxley-Lennon has hijacked this incident to promote his divisive narratives, launching the #IAmSoldierX campaign across Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, designed to provoke solidarity with current and former servicemen, and a page on The Rebel Media platform titled ‘Stand With Our Lads’.
Last Sunday Yaxley-Lennon launched another video on his YouTube channel purportedly showing him with active servicemen. Interestingly, this video predominantly focussed on welfare issues, highlighting apparent shortcomings in the food and lodgings afforded by military personnel. In another livestreamed video, Yaxley-Lennon discusses suicide rates amongst serving soldiers, and asserting that his movement is spreading throughout the Army.
This highlights a common trend in Yaxley-Lennon’s campaigning: the leveraging of relatively non-contentious arguments to drive his own personal celebrity, and mainstream his divisive anti-Muslim agenda to a broader audience. Recently this has also been observed in Yaxley-Lennon’s campaigning around free-speech, which culminated in the May 6th ‘Day for Freedom’ march. This is smart campaigning. The welfare of soldiers or freedom of speech are uncontroversial issues, indeed they are things which few would want to oppose, and by making himself a champion of these issues Yaxley-Lennon provides both a defence against those who oppose him and an opportunity to recruit new individuals to his cause.
The #IAmSoldierX campaign has generated significant online traffic and has been retweeted over sixty five thousand times since it was launched. This spiked on October 12th, the day after the campaigns launch with 13,688 posts on the day discussing the campaign, and has subsequently tailed off. Whilst this could suggest that the campaign is not gaining traction, this nevertheless demonstrates Yaxley-Lennon’s opportunistic approach to messaging, dynamically jumping on wedge issues – that traverse the radical and the mainstream – as and when they appear. Interestingly 13% of Twitter traffic engaging with the hashtag has come out of the United States, demonstrating the support which Yaxley-Lennon has built in the USA and highlighting how far-right influencers are becoming increasingly internationalised.
This is not the first time that far-right organisations have attempted to capitalise on the army with its messaging; in the run up to the 2010 elections the British National Party repeatedly made use of military imagery in its communications, whilst groups such as Britain First and the ‘For Britain’ Party have repeatedly incorporated the British Legion Poppy and remembrance into their merchandising.
Far-right groups also have a history of targeting current and former servicemen for recruitment, most notably last year several servicemen were arrested on suspicion of being members of National Action. This problem is not isolated to the UK either: a series of former servicemen have been known to be involved in the leadership of American white supremacist groups, whilst as of April this year German military intelligence was investigating more than 400 cases of far-right extremism in its ranks. Extremist groups leverage on a range of vulnerabilities and grievances when recruiting, including personal deprivation and any grievances which soldiers may have around their personal welfare and a perceived lack of support from the military may make them easy targets in the eyes of far-right groups. Yaxley-Lennon has demonstrated this in the #IAmSoldierX campaign by promoting a narrative that the ‘Army is selling soldiers short’. Of course, this is not to assert that soldiers or the military are sympathetic to far-right views, and the actions of Yaxley-Lennon will be seen as repulsive by most, however by leveraging these wedge issues far-right groups have found an opportunity to recruit the vulnerable minority, and this is something we must be concerned about.
Yaxley-Lennon is trying to undermine the credibility of the army as an institution through his campaign, whilst appealing to rank-and-file soldiers and sympathetic civilians. In rebutting this activity the response must thus come from the Army. When the BNP were appropriating military imagery in their campaigning in 2010 some of the most effective rebuttals came from respected soldiers. It was a devastating blow when Andy McNab hit out at the BNP for using his books in a publicity stunt. As Lee Barnes, a legal Director of the BNP said at the time “it is never good publicity to be attacked by a bona fide war hero”.  In order to push back against the insidious and canny campaigning by far-right groups civil society needs to start engaging the most credible voices – the UK Army & soldiers themselves.
Mr Jacob Davey is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Research Manager at Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). His profile can be found here:
© Jacob Davey. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
 Something which was also seen with the #FreeTommy campaign, where 47% of Twitter engagement came from the USA.
 See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/14/charlottesville-attack-vanguard-america-james-fields-dillon-hopper ; https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/nathan-benjamin-damigo
 See Bethel, J. Stolen Valour – The BNP’s Theft of Britain’s Military Honour, Nothing British 2009