I almost miss Nick Griffin, as I always suspected I might. As racists go, Nick Griffin had a couple of things against him. The first was that he wasn’t particularly smart, and wilted in the face of the most elementary debating points. The second was his haughty manner, which made him easy to caricature as an elitist, as a class snob who’d caught the TARDIS straight from the dying days of the Third Reich.
I almost miss Nick Griffin because Tommy Robinson is smart; and he is a far better communicator than Griffin will ever be. Griffin was an adversary whom many found it easy to outfox. Robinson will be a far tougher proposition, and the news that he has now left the EDL and taken his prejudice freelance is, I think, great cause for concern.
Tommy Robinson is smart because every time that we write, type or utter the stage-name Tommy Robinson we help to take him further from his original identity of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the child of Irish immigrants who swiftly realised that to portray himself as the saviour of the English he would have to change his name. After all, you can’t parade so comfortably yourself as the indigenous working-class white hero if (a) your surname is visibly foreign and (b) double-barrelled. Just listen to his stage-name: “Tommy Robinson”. It’s rhythmic, and can roll off your tongue even when you’re drunk in the guts of an angry crowd at noon. Yaxley-Lennon very possibly thought about stuff like this. The marketing of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as Tommy Robinson is the most successful piece of rebranding since Marathon anointed itself as Snickers.
Just as with Snickers, I strongly suspect that Yaxley-Lennon offers the same flavour under a different name. There are many who are rushing to see him as a reformed character now that, alongside the Quilliam Foundation, he has apparently turned his back on the EDL’s violent outliers. They would do well to remember that just last week he attempted to intimidate the editor of an anti-EDL website by tweeting photos of his home. Yaxley-Lennon, a former member of the BNP, has not to my mind had a Damascene conversation. I think that he has merely done what all canny executives do, which is to leave a failing brand in search of better job opportunities.
Yaxley-Lennon is a man of relentless agility; in that sense, he reminds me of the T-1000, the upgraded robot in the second Terminator film. The early models of the Terminator, of which Nick Griffin was one, were summarily repelled: they didn’t look right, they didn’t move right. The T-1000, however, was far harder to confront. Like Yaxley-Lennon, it keeps shifting shape, and it keeps advancing.
I watched one of the shows where this T-1000’s advance was partly checked: and this was when he was in a debate with Akala, a rapper, record label-owner and teacher, on BBC Three’s Free Speech programme. Their debate was as great a mismatch as that time when Portugal met North Korea in the 2010 World Cup, for the simple reason that Akala was exceptionally well-prepared and kept his cool. What was a worry, though, was the way that several other people on the show engaged with Yaxley-Lennon. Filled with understandable fury and horror at the progress of his far-right organisation, they opted for soundbites and angry point-scoring rather than carefully and coldly dissecting the tortuous logic that lay beneath Yaxley-Lennon’s ideology. The result, if you mute the footage at certain points, is the unfortunate image of a white working-class man being laughed at by a gleeful audience of the metropolitan elite. Yaxley-Lennon is wise enough to understand how this sight would burnish his credentials as a true outsider.
That’s not to say that Yaxley-Lennon is entirely dishonest. When he remarked that leaving the EDL was a huge step for him, he was right. He has turned his back on the heartland where he created a substantial following. At the same time, though, he knew that he had outgrown the EDL, just as a leading Championship forward will get restless when Premier League clubs come calling. The real question is who will pick him up next. Yaxley-Lennon is apparently about to make the step up to a higher division of prejudice: and it is this leap in public life, one that Nick Griffin desperately desired but could never make, that I watch with trepidation.