Well, it’s been an interesting day’s news and my only regret in saying anything about it is that I will in some small way be adding to the vast amount of publicity that Yaxley-Lennon has gained for himself in one day by his canny shift sideways in the Islamophobic marketplace. He’s the topic of conversation and has made all opinion gravitate around himself, so that love him or hate him, we’re all talking about him.
Anti-fascists should not be automatically celebrating Yaxley’s move. The real thing to celebrate in this is not anything to do with Yaxley-Lennon’s phoney personal journey but the confusion and chaos generated in the ranks of the far-right by the hand-grenade he has thrown into their midst. In the short term, we’re going to see a lot of confused and demoralised racists arguing with each other, and that’s good news for everyone else. Eventually a general re-alignment of the far-right seems likely – what the end result of that will be is hard to say now. The most likely outcome is that either under the EDL name or another we will see the EDL free to become more openly racist and fascist, which is the pattern we have seen with the splinter groups – Infidels, Casuals and EVF. Certainly the EDL isn’t going to have to pretend so hard not to be racist anymore as apparently even their erstwhile leader found it easier to leave than to expel the racists.
From Yaxley-Lennon’s point of view the whole thing is clearly a very smart tactical career move rather than any remarkable transformation in his views – he has given no indication that he has changed his opinions at all. It was the EDL cannon fodder who he is trying to distance himself from who got him where he is now of course. He has elevated himself to appearing on Newsnight on the backs of the numbers who turned out for demos. None of us would know who ‘Tommy Robinson’ was were it not for 4 years worth of violent racist EDL confrontations in towns across Britain. Rather than any change of opinion, this is rather an exercise in cutting himself loose from those people who are now a liability to his political career.
It’s a little like current celebrity culture. Half the contestants on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ or ‘I’m a Celebrity…’, no one can remember what it was they did to get famous in the first place. But that doesn’t matter – once you have by some means entered the magic circle of ‘celebrity’ then whatever you say or do is news. Yaxley-Lennon has managed to elevate himself into the media world as a personage -– as a name and a face that is known and recognised, as someone that gets invited on chat shows and asked his opinion about things. In the future we may see a free-floating ‘Tommy Robinson’ appearing on a media that conspires to forget how it was that he got to be there in the first place.
His decision has already paid off for him – he’s got more media attention today than he’s ever had before. Nick Griffin doesn’t get invited on Newsnight. And the media will now presumably be waiting on Yaxley-Lennon’s every future move with bated breath.
Unfortunately it appears from Newsnight tonight that there’s lots more to come: For the last 9 months while Yaxley-Lennon has been cooking this thing up, he’s been followed by cameras for a BBC documentary to be broadcast ‘this autumn’. So we are to be treated to the full Tommy Damascus conversion story in excruciating detail as we hear about how hard it was being the public face for far-right loons for 4 years trotted out again ad nauseam.
Yaxley-Lennon said today that street based protest was no longer ‘productive’ rather than that there was anything wrong with it. It seems clear that he is looking at setting up some new rather more respectable political formation de-linking Islamophobic racism from the rather unfortunate violence and thuggery of the EDL which is keeping him from mainstream acceptance. Because his racist message has plenty of very respectable and mainstream supporters but the rather uncouth behaviour of the EDL has kept him beyond the pale. It seems clear from today that apparently all you have to do is jettison the unfortunate street thug image and associations of violence and you will be welcomed into the fold as a legitimate voice in the democratic debate.
In the longer term, we could potentially be looking at a more dangerous situation all round – an ‘acceptable’ voice of racism in the mainstream (could Yaxley-Lennon become the English Geert Wilders?) combined with more virulently racist street protests courtesy of his former comrades.
The alliance with Quilliam is certainly interesting. Who’s using who is the obvious question that arises. Maajid Nawaz thinks Quilliam will be “training and guiding” Yaxley-Lennon and Carroll. Is this really how it’s going to work?
Have Quilliam just been foolish to fall for his shtick with no actual apologies or renouncing of anything he’s said or done? Without this, it looks more like an endorsement of his views rather than any hard won conversion of the ex-racist. It certainly seems that Quilliam set the bar rather low for being an ex-extremist. Would the same leniency and media coverage be granted to a former Islamist militant leader without them being forced to publicly recant all the previous views? In the press conference Nawaz kept emphasising what a great thing it was to have got Carroll and Yaxley-Lennon to leave the EDL, but without any indication of why they might have left or what for. It seemed that as far as Quilliam were concerned, simply getting them to leave the EDL at all was enough.
It could be that both parties benefit from their association and get some political capital out of it. Certainly this is a big boost in kudos and status for Quilliam who are now the people that got ‘Tommy Robinson’ to leave the EDL. From Yaxley-Lennon’s point of view, he has the official stamp of approval from a counter-extremism organisation, so QED he can’t possibly be an extremist can he? With this clean bill of health from unimpeachable source (actual Muslims!) he can now go forth into the world sanitised and embark on his future career untainted by the label of being a right wing extremist.
A question or two for us too
Have anti-fascists inadvertently made this manoeuvre more possible by too often taking the easy option and harping on about Nazis all the time? In his various interviews today Yaxley-Lennon has tried to equate the “far-right” only with “neo-Nazis” and has sought to identify the problem only with neo-Nazis or the far-right ‘infiltrating’ the EDL. He has thus cast himself and the EDL as the unwitting victims of the far-right rather than its primary manifestation. ‘Tommy’ has painted himself in the role of a valiant anti-fascist who has spend the last 4 years desperately keeping the Nazis at bay, rather than as we know having actually spent the last 4 years hanging out with them in branches of Wetherspoons across the land.
The easy way to criticise the EDL has always been to call them Nazis, because of course everyone knows Nazis are bad. This has avoided confronting head-on forms of far-right racist ideology that are not Nazi or even classically fascist, which is where the majority of the EDL sit. And now we have Yaxley-Lennon managing to go more or less unchallenged on primetime TV as he defines the far-right to mean only neo-Nazi ‘fringe elements’ of the EDL. It’s hard to avoid feeling that perhaps we handed him that one on a plate.
One thing for sure is, whatever the new Yaxley-Lennon political project turns out to be, we’re going to have to collectively sharpen up our arguments a bit – shouting ‘Nazi scum’ at him probably isn’t going to cut it any more.