The rise of Tommy Robinson From convicted football thug to far-right cause celebre
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
Tommy Robinson is escorted to a stage outside the Old Bailey to speak to supporters in October