The rise of Tommy Robinson From con­victed foot­ball thug to far-right cause cele­bre

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Josh Hal­l­i­day Lois Beck­ett

As Tommy Robinson lan­guished in a prison cell in ru­ral War­wick­shire this sum­mer af­ter a con­tempt of court con­vic­tion, the on­line cam­paign for his re­lease be­gan to spread rapidly.

Don­ald Trump Jr called it “rea­son #1776 for the orig­i­nal Brexit”, while a con­stel­la­tion of Twit­ter ac­counts – some iden­ti­fied as pro-Rus­sian trolls by a US ad­vo­cacy group – helped fuel out­rage on the far-right.

The most vo­cif­er­ous on­line sup­port came from a more un­usual source, how­ever. A Twit­ter user named @re­boot­bill spewed a daily bar­rage of pro-Robinson tweets, rack­ing up more than 4,700 “#free­tommy” posts within days. The ac­count was run by a re­tired IT worker on the re­mote Cana­dian prov­ince of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

Bill Kays, 63, might not seem like the most ob­vi­ous Robinson sup­porter. The de­vout Chris­tian lives with his wife, Deb­bie, in Char­lot­te­town, the ru­ral is­land’s main city where he has spent most of his life. Kays de­scribes him­self as a “crit­i­cal think­ing, anti-glob­al­ist, con­ser­va­tive lib­er­tar­ian”.

He told the Guardian he fol­lowed “ev­ery­thing that af­fects the global as­sault on free speech”. He said: “Glob­al­ism is evil in its cur­rent form, as ev­ery­thing we do is done un­der the threat of force.” He did not say whether he sup­ported Robinson’s views on Is­lam.

The fact that Robinson has be­come a house­hold name in such re­mote parts un­der­scores how he has gone from be­ing a fringe an­tag­o­nist at far-right ral­lies to an in­ter­na­tional brand with sup­port­ers in high, as well as far-flung, places.

That brand will get an­other mo­ment in the spot­light to­mor­row, as Robinson leads a Lon­don protest styled as a “Brexit be­trayal” rally.

The Amer­i­can right ap­pears par­tic­u­larly se­duced by Robinson. A Guardian in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found that over the past two years Robinson has re­ceived fi­nan­cial or po­lit­i­cal sup­port from three Amer­i­can think­tanks. Be­tween 2014 and 2016, these groups ben­e­fited from mil­lions of dol­lars of fund­ing from some of the big­gest names among con­ser­va­tive donors.

Robinson’s jour­ney from con­victed foot­ball thug to global cause célèbre be­gan in 2014. The fa­ther-of-three had all but re­tired from ac­tivism when he was called by Ezra Le­vant, a con­ser­va­tive Cana­dian com­men­ta­tor who wanted Robinson to be the Euro­pean face of a new far-rightwing web­site, the Rebel Me­dia.

A dev­as­tat­ing se­ries of ter­ror at­tacks in Bri­tain pro­vided the back­drop of Robinson’s first months at the Rebel Me­dia. He de­clared that the UK was at “war” within hours of the March 2017 West­min­ster Bridge at­tack; af­ter the Manch­ester Arena at­tack two months later, he branded Mus­lims “en­emy com­bat­ants who want to kill you, maim you and de­stroy you”. The videos have been seen nearly 3m times on YouTube.

Robinson was paid about £5,000 a month by the Rebel Me­dia, a for­mer col­league has said, in a role that was part-fi­nanced by US tech bil­lion­aire Robert Shill­man, founder of the Nas­daq-listed firm Cognex.

In early 2017, Robinson turned his at­ten­tion to “groom­ing gangs”. He filmed him­self out­side courts in Hud­der­s­field and Leeds, mak­ing re­marks about the de­fen­dants’ eth­nic­ity and re­li­gion while claim­ing the abuse had all been cov­ered up. The Rebel Me­dia said it had raised £20,000 in do­na­tions within hours when Robinson was ar­rested for film­ing out­side a trial in Can­ter­bury

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BRAIS G ROUCO/BARCROFT IM­AGES

Tommy Robinson is es­corted to a stage out­side the Old Bai­ley to speak to sup­port­ers in Oc­to­ber

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