Watching Brexit unfold with all the predictability of a horror movie the phrase “hurtling backwards” has become a sort of mantra as we stare in astonishment at Britain – or parts of Britain – being gripped by a grotesque fantasy. The fantasy has coughed up various miscreants: Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson, Dominic Cummings (making a comeback this week), Priti Patel and the incomparable wobbling priapic buffoon of a Prime Minister. The pantomime operates at such a level of absurdity that its comical nature masks the reality of it as a regime that is both radical and venal.
English popular and political culture has both driven this fantasy and become absorbed in it as ‘CoronaBrexit’ has boosted and amplified the worst aspects of a new reactionary movement. The window of ‘accepted’ language understanding and narrative has shifted as forces of the far-right have become mainstream. Now, realities like the treatment of immigrants and asylum-seekers, of peaceful protestors and activists, and of police and state violence have become normalised.
Up until now Scotland was seen to be largely immune from Brexitification – defending a commitment to values of civic nationalism: internationalism, openness and a broad consensus to aspire to be a progressive society and a progressive country. The extent to which this is true can be debated, but it is an aspiration, and aspiring helps. Added to this, the emergence of Boris & Co the Brexit fiasco has fueled a longing for independence and given a boost to Yes for most of 2020. Clearly Scotland being dragged out of Europe against its wishes was a huge part of this but we must also consider the perception of Boris’s incompetence alongside Sturgeon’s quiet integrity. If anyone has successfully managed to articulate the need for independence it is Johnson. Sure we somehow managed to elect David Coburn, but until now we have somehow managed to avoid the worst expressions of Brexitmania.
Watching George Galloway’s All for Unity election broadcast on Friday induced a collective jaw-drop moment across the country, but the laughter was tempered with the realisation that Galloway’s party represents a sliver of Scottish society. The permanent hat, the carefully-placed Churchill photograph, the RAF insignia – all symbols designed to evoke a bygone era. Galloway’s strange contorted delivery referenced Britain’s glorious past, and Scotland’s shipbuilding era, before a strange assortment of candidates was paraded before us. The All for Unity tactic, of attempting to unite all of the Unionist voters together will flop and fail, but it’s a tactic that takes a leaf from the Farage playbook.
This most dismal of election campaigns is manifesting strange new forces, and a rash of brand new parties and oddball candidates.
But if the Unionist Right emerges like a caricature of itself with its Spitfire Nationalism, union flags and rhetoric that hovers somewhere between Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers, the Nationalist Right is its mirror.
The Alba Party’s ascent into a bundle of cliche’s regurgitated from Project Fear is unfortunate, but entirely predictable. With a party political broadcast channeling Robert the Bruce the party evoked an ethno-nationalism not seen in the Scottish independence movement for decades. The idea of the ‘sma-folk’ was pure theft from the Brexit campaign.
If watching England “hurtling backwards” over the last few years has been a mixture of horror and comedy, it’s certainly not funny when it’s closer to home.
Maybe Galloway and Salmond’s parties will fail, but who really knows in this strangest of elections and with polls all over the place and turnout uncertain?
But they do emerge out of the political landscape that seems moribund, locked in a battle between the ruling SNP’s tepid supremacy and inertia – and the opposition’s dismal one-note constitutional nihilism.
Both the Unionist right and the Nationalist right emerge out of the political gloop of post-Brexit, mid-pandemic, pre-independence Scotland, and for me speak to the descent in standards and tone of public life. The idealism and dreamy-positivity that infected so many around 2014 seem to have evaporated.
Celebrating the SNP’s momentous victory in 2011 the Irish writer Peter Geoghegan wrote: