There are alarming signs that some young people in Scotland are looking for a leader like far-right activist and EDL co-founder Tommy Robinson, writes Alistair Heather.
Elements of Scotland’s youth have taken a sharp turn to the right. Recently my girlfriend and I got into a bit of a flare-up with some young Arbroath fans on a late ScotRail train up the coast.
“Rudi Skácel is a f****** refugee” rang up and down the busy carriage as we left Carnoustie, a tight knuckle of drunk young fans forming a chorus section at one end of the train. This is the same Hibs chant that Scotland striker Leigh Griffiths was recorded singing in a pub. Overconfident with drink, my partner and I confronted the group. The result was a messy slagging match and a loud chorus of “Tory c***, Tory Tory c***” down the train at us until Arbroath, the group disarmingly both anti-Tory and anti-refugee.
Young supporters of Heart of Midlothian also recently photographed themselves with Tommy Robinson masks before a match. Tynecastle has been marred with an emergence of horrendous chants, some in support of Robinson. That same hate-preacher has since declared his intention to attend a Hearts game. I like to hope that he would be forced into the same humiliating run-for-cover that overtook Brexit fraud Nigel Farage on his visit to the capital. But I worry that, this time round, protesters would be met by a hardcore of disenchanted youth, ready to fight to defend their adopted totem.
These two examples are from the football, but it is not a football problem. Indeed, the lust for strong, contra-identity likely attracts them to the glorious tribal identities of Scottish football as much as it does to the identity politics of Robinson or anti-Toryism or anti-refugee-ism. Nor is it a youth problem. There is an increasingly large group of disenchanted, anti-establishment people in Scotland awaiting a leader. Our current political and social scene is creating them.
The Yes movement birthed around the 2014 referendum activated a huge number of ordinary Scots, and gave them a taste for social influence, safe rebellion and the intoxication of group action. I was part of it, and loved it. But whilst the majority of the movement has carried on aiming for independence and pressing towards that goal through manifold soft means, a hardcore fringe has developed.
This Indy fringe became excluded through a sense of being unrepresented by an out-of-touch media. The coverage around the 2014 referendum, where the vast majority of media outlets favoured a No vote, has led to a long-term distrust of mainstream titles. The Indy fringe also feel unheeded by the centrists of the SNP, the former in a permanent ferment for a new referendum, regardless of the pessimism of the polls, the latter awaiting an opportune moment to strike again for independence. Sun and moon establishments – Holyrood and Westminster – serve as targets for the ire of the disenchanted. And amongst this thrang move the Russian bots, number-hungry bloggers and anonymous trolls sowing cynicism, conspiracy and discontent.
Hardcore Brit Nats have a similar fringe. Both drive their own fury through Facebook groups, sharing fake or slanted news, through certain bloggers preaching to the converted in exchange for notoriety and numbers, and through a self-sustained idea of being ignored by the mainstream and united against a corrupt establishment.
So why is Steven Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson’s real name) proving popular with this contra mob?
Robinson inhabits a disestablishment discourse in England that is currently unoccupied in Scotland. The anti-nuclear, anti-oil mob are represented by the Greens, effectively part of the Scottish Government. The independentistas are safely part of the SNP, the ruling majority in Scotland. What’s left of the Conservatives and Labour take solace in battling for control over what remains of their foothold in Scotland. Much of the media speaks too directly to the middle classes, as it is they that subscribe to online content. Some, I’m told, have been spotted actually buying a physical paper of a morning. There are few fake news sites expressly focused on Scottish issues. So for those that are just plain angry and disenchanted, who speaks for them here? Naebody.
Now, Tommy Robinson also does not speak for them. He is too focused on his English heartlands to make a real impact up here. Our relative dearth of easily excludable minorities would leave him largely targetless. I also think that Robinson is near his high watermark. A better spouter of anti-establishment Union-Jack-flavoured tosh will oust him before long. Someone, perhaps, more attuned to the Alex Jones mould.
Alex Jones, the madcap Texan – whose web empire pumps out pro-Trump fake news and sells dodgy pharmaceuticals – and I go way back. As a young teen I came across his websites, podcasts and lengthy YouTube videos exposing all sorts of interesting stuff.
Jones has it all. He is very personable and extremely confident on camera, talking in bullish quotes and enlivening, simple terms. Big government vs the little guy. Power vs people. Us vs them. He harnessed social media long before everyone else. Through his once millions-strong social media follower groups he distributed fabrications, half-truths and wild accusations. These began seemingly harmlessly, blaming the mainstream media for lying about big events (the moon, JFK, 9/11), but slowly turned very sinister. The idea that all the Jews in the Twin Towers had been forewarned by Israel to not go to work that day, for example. Hours after the bombs arrived at CNN and Clinton and Obama’s offices, his site (which I won’t name) had tens of ‘articles’ exposing it as a conspiracy. It was the ‘Deep-State’ trying to demonise ‘Patriots’ before the US elections. He promotes the flimsily veiled fascism of the so-called ‘Alt-Right’. He is a big part of Trump’s high approval ratings.
I feel that a Scottish Alex Jones could thrive here in the current climate. There are plenty pretenders for the crown of Scottish ‘spokesperson of the disenchanted’. Blogs, Ywitter accounts, low-rent websites that spit out hostile contra attitudes abound, the proclaimed enemy almost an afterthought to the thoughtless fire of the rhetoric. Russian bots and counterintelligence agencies certainly play a role in feeding this decisiveness. But a strong personality could well unite the various divided tribes of the disenchanted.
The Scottish media, such as it is, must make sure that it doesn’t play into the hands of the extremists, or feed the idea that mainstream outlets are propaganda tools for one state or another. Editorial lines exist, but they shouldn’t limit understanding of other points of view. Journalists are constantly being expected to do more with less, but a way must be found to let unheard voices find mainstream expression, to stop pressure building up underground and becoming something ugly. We can lance this unwelcome boil of racism and disinformation, but it will require a bit of hands-over-the-divide understanding. I think we’ve got it in us.