We spoke to Tommy Robinson ahead of his talk in York next month

‘I’m happy to talk to anyone, and debate any of them’

Notorious far-right activist Tommy Robinson is coming to York next month.  It’s not the first time he’s spoken at a university (he addressed the Oxford Union in 2014), but this time he’s promised to steer away from his usual topic of conversation, radical Islam, and instead focus on free speech.  The Tab spoke to him about freedom of speech and what we can expect from him when he speaks at York in January.

Why do you want to speak at universities?

“I don’t know what York is like, but when I walked into Oxford I doubt, very much, that many of those people come from the background I come from or live, or have grown, up in the area I have.  So for them, when they go through their life, to university, and they have their careers, they need some sort of understanding as to why people are feeling like this.  That’s all I want to go and do.  I think I succeeded in doing that in Oxford.”

It became clear that Tommy feels he has a duty to speak on behalf of people who he thinks share his politics.

“I talk on behalf of a lot of people who are scared to raise the issues. And I’m grateful that they’re inviting me because I think that a lot of the people, whether it be Oxford University or York University, who go through the education system, and who are going to be sitting in positions of power, need to hear and understand the perspective and the argument that we’re coming from.”

He is certainly aware that his invitation to speak on campus hasn’t been without controversy.  It isn’t as if universities are the best place to recruit far-right, anti-Islam activists.

“For me, it’s not a good feeling. I know I’m going into these universities where most of these people don’t like me.  There’s no benefit for me.  I go because I just want to say ‘this is happening’.  You know, this is the reality of why this is happening. “  He’s talking about radical Islam (he has a LOT of stories on radical Islam), but later tells me he won’t mention it during his speech.

Tommy Robinson speaking at the Oxford Union in 2014

So should universities ever ban people from speaking on campus?

“[I don’t like] this whole angle of no-platform, which is a far left opinion.  If they want to look at the reason why Brexit happened, the reason why Donald Trump happened, the reason why the left are going to be booted from every position of power in Europe, it’s because of this attitude.  This attitude that you can’t say that, you can’t speak.  This is oppression of free speech and stopping people from having opinions, which they have anyway.   All these people calling themselves ‘anti-fascist’, that’s the biggest problem for me: ‘we’re anti-fascist, but we want to stop you talking’. It doesn’t make any sense.

“I think that anybody who incites violence, or someone who has openly said in the past that homosexuals should be executed [shouldn’t be allowed to speak].  Other than that I’m totally free speech.”

I hadn’t had a chance to confront him about some of the things he’d said in the past, yet as he talked (I rarely interrupted) he became defensive.

“I have never ever, which I’ll do in this University talk, I’ll show you what I’ve said… not what the media have told you what I’ve said… I’ve never incited any violence ever.  I just speak.”

Tommy Robinson in 2011. He has since tried to distance himself from the EDL.

What can we expect at York?

“I’m looking forward to it.  What I’d say to any students who have a problem with me coming to speak, especially if they’re shouting about fascism, if they have a problem with my opinions of anything I’ve done in the past, come and talk to me about it.  I’m happy to talk to anyone, and debate any of them.

“I want to come and talk about free speech.  I don’t want to talk about Islam.  I want to talk about free speech and I want to talk about what’s happening to free speech.

“I’m not going to mention Islam. Obviously I will in my Q&A, but the speech will be about whether we have free speech, whether we really have free speech in the UK.  Then I want to go through my experiences of what’s happened with police and secretive organisations in the police.  These units at Scotland Yard tried to recruit me, it didn’t work for them.  It’s all dark and dingy behind politics.

“The reason I want to give this speech, as long as I’m given the time to give it, is because I don’t want someone else to be standing in my position in ten or fifteen years talking about how they lost their freedom of speech.”

Whether or not this event will actually go ahead is not yet clear.  Organisers say it will, but there has been fierce opposition and a lot of confusion surrounding it.  I tried to get to the bottom of the circumstances under which Tommy was invited to York.  He was invited by Jayh Kaira, a University of York student, on behalf of ‘Nouse Talks’, but when I asked who had invited him, Tommy couldn’t tell me his name and admitted, “I’ve just got him in my phone under ‘York Uni’, I don’t know, I’m terrible like that.  I wouldn’t even know the lad’s name.”

But Tommy apparently admires Jayh adding, “You see from him, he told me straight out he doesn’t agree with anything I say. He told me that from the offset. I admire him.  Although he disagrees with my opinions, and he’s going to get a hell of a lot of bad feeling from students at the university, I completely respect the man. He stands up for free speech.”