Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad

London street conversations


The Quilliam Foundation announcing Tommy Robinson’s resignation from the English Defence League. (Photo: Evening Standard)

Coming out of a talk at the London School of Economics yesterday evening, I walked past a crowd of students spilling out from the George IV pub.  One of the faces looked familiar.

I was right, it was the ex-leader of the far right English Defence League known as Tommy Robinson.  What would you have done?  Perhaps I should have carried on and gone home.  But I turned back, introduced myself, explained that I was no fan of the EDL or its values, and asked him where he was putting his energy these days, post-resignation.  Who was he talking to?  What were his plans?  He said he was going to things like the LSE lecture (a guy from the Quilliam Foundation was with him, so I’m guessing they are suggesting events), which he thought had been interesting.

He was clear he’d left the EDL, but the distasteful & ultimately self-defeating aspect of the organisation for him seemed to be the alcohol and ‘hooliganism’ rather than the racism and divisive anti-Muslim attitudes it promotes.  Does he realise the effects on the ground – particularly against Muslim women – of EDL activities?  He wanted Muslims to protest strongly against violent extremism.  When I said that’s exactly what they do, he felt it wasn’t enough – they should demonstrate on the streets in large numbers and stop trying to defend Islam against detractors.  I said I’d expect Muslims to defend Islam just as I’d defend Christianity (and, I could have added, religious expression as a human right for all) but that this didn’t prevent any of us condemning violence, hate crime and hate speech, wherever it came from.  It’s possible to do both.

For Tommy Robinson, the voice of the white working class isn’t being heard; he talked a lot about being repeatedly ignored while others were fêted – by the local council, by the media, by interfaith groups – the photocalls, the friendly line-ups.  I don’t know if he’s ever met Owen Jones, author of Chavs – the demonization of the working class – I wish I’d asked him.  I do know he’s met Mo Ansar, who was at Greenbelt this year and who is appearing on tv with him next week.

I said that there’s a lot of work between people from different religious and other traditions which doesn’t hit the headlines but is of great value and suggested he find allies from across these divisions (including Muslims and Islamic centres) who were concerned, like him, about violent extremism and discrimination – and also about jobs, supporting a family, schools, crime, health & housing.

Maybe he will, maybe he won’t.  It will be hard to leave behind a high profile and a large following.

I’d noticed a camera nearby – our conversation was being filmed by Coelus for the BBC (due to air in 2014).  They are tracking Tommy Robinson as he works out what to do next.

I got talking to the camera operator and, not for the first time, noticed the combination of a Scottish surname and Jamaican roots.  We’ve been in touch since yesterday and I hope we might do something together on our entwined histories and the slave trade.

For those mentioned here, does this reflect our conversations?  Comments welcome.


This entry was posted on 24 October 2013 by in London and tagged , , , .
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