The Astroturf Politics of the New Right
After Rangers fans were filmed with a police escort belting out the Famine Song in Glasgow the usual performative gnashing of teeth went on and then – as we know this script – back to business as usual. Nothing will be done. The issue spilled onto the floor of Holyrood this week when the First Minister responded to a Scottish Labour question on the expression of “anti-Irish and anti-Catholic” sentiment in the wake of the march in Glasgow, telling MSPs: “I take the view that anybody who chooses to live in Scotland, whether they in the families have been here for generations or whether they have come to Scotland very recently, this is their home.”
As she said this the new Tory MSP Tess White interjected “except if you’re English”. An official complaint was made to the Presiding Officer and within an hour and a half a chastened Ms White was mumbling an apology through gritted teeth. Now the interesting thing about this story is not Loyalist thugs routinely patrolling Glasgow with impunity, nor is is that the language and tone of the Scottish Conservative is so abject, and the quality of debate at Holyrood so pathetic, no the real story is that Tess White is a Vice President of Shell, which has 30% stake in the proposed Cambo oil field. The Dundee Conservatives website tell us she is a “Business leader on senior management teams in blue chip Energy companies, delivering complex transformations” and “Vice President Shell International; HR Director Centrica”. We’re also told that as a “Karate Black Belt, she has the mental mindset and resilience to take on the SNP.”
The real story is not that she is rude or stupid or that the Tories are reduced to this, the real story is that she is the face of oil in our parliament.
The sense of clandestine networks operating through our politics has been building for years and is now all pervasive and amplified by the widespread corruption and cronyism that has been witnessed through the Brexit fiasco and now into the pandemic. But lobbyists and dark money isn’t confined to parliamentary politics – civil society activism is riddled with ‘front groups’ and bad faith actors. The problem is where they intersect.
A riot of dubiously-funded ‘think tanks’; pressure groups; and reactionary movements that need little more than a Facebook group to give them instant media legitimacy have sprouted like fungi in the public realm. They spread and replicate and cross-over with bewildering speed and in a blur of dark and dodgy funding. Astroturf politics – where you give the illusion of being a genuine grassroots movement – has been around for ages but it’s now given new powers in the age of social media and in the politics of post-Brexit and mid-pandemic.
Scotland is not immune from this, in fact we’re riddled with it. Tom Dissonance and I reviewed some of it here.
‘Concerned citizens’ – and people with ‘legitimate concerns’ are flourishing everywhere. Brexit was the training ground and the breeding ground for the new Astroturf politics. We had ‘Fishing for Leave’, ‘Veterans for Britain’, ‘Artists for Brexit’, ‘Leavers for London’, ‘Leavers of Britain’, ‘Lawyers for Britain’, ‘‘Change Britain’, ‘Business for Brexit’, ‘All in Britain’, ‘Invoke Democracy Now!’, ‘Leave Means Leave’, and on and on and on. The phenomenon famously spawned Darren Grimes but also a hundred other characters you’ve not heard of (yet).
As the new territory of History and Culture Wars emerges from the dank underbelly of English sado-populism, academia has a role to play in giving a patina of respectability to the Astro-Right.
As Otto English writes in Byline Times: “Then there was ‘Briefings for Brexit’, set up by Cambridge academic Robert Tombs and other clever Brexiters to prove that smart people backed Brexit too. Their numbers included Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Philosophy at Oxford; the historian Andrew Roberts; David Abulafia, another professor of history at Cambridge; and Philip Cunliffe and Joanna Williams – both lecturers at the University of Kent who, like Govinda, are also both authors for Spiked Online.”
He continues: “The influence of Spiked and the wider alumni of the RCP and LM on ‘grassroots’ Brexit organisations and their activists was everywhere pre- and post-Brexit. At least two of the movements listed above – Invoke Democracy Now and Invoke Article 50 Now – were essentially Spiked by another name.
While Spiked was not setting up all of these organisations or running them, two things are undeniable. First, that the Spiked-RCP crowd always excelled at astroturfing. Second, that members of the network popped up with alarming regularity in Brexit pressure groups.
Spiked apart, the sheer number of ‘pro-Brexit’ organisations gave the impression that Leave was a mass movement, consisting of lots of activists, across all strata of society. And, having set them up and held a ‘conference’ or ‘event’, many of them ceased to do much beyond a little low-level activity on their Facebook pages.”
Nigel Biggar (Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford) you’ll remember is a key part of These Islands and the author of What the United Kingdom is Good For. He pops up as part of the strange new group ‘Don’t Divide Us’ and is also part of History Reclaimed, a new front for the Culture Wars.
‘Don’t Divide Us’ claims to be a “wide range of people, taking a stand against the divisive obsession with people’s racial identity”. “We are liberal anti-racists who reject the proposition that the UK is inherently racist”.
It’s a very strange Open Letter – a sort of founding document announces: “In the wake of the horrifying and brutal killing of George Floyd, many in the UK expressed heartfelt solidarity; widespread protests showed a genuine commitment to opposing racism. Since then, however, activists, corporations and institutions seem to have seized the opportunity to exploit Floyd’s death to promote an ideological agenda that threatens to undermine British race relations. The power of this ideology lies in the fear it inspires in those who would otherwise speak out, whatever their ethnicity. But speak out we must. We must oppose and expose the racial division being sown in the name of anti-racism.”
The group boasts all the usual suspects: Manick Govinda; Claire Fox; Inaya Folarin Iman; Doug Stokes, Spiked writer Alka Sehgal Cuthbert; and GB News regular Calvin Robinson. It’s partners include Claire Fox’s Academy of Ideas and Toby Young’s Free Speech Union. Of course it does.
This is the dregs of the Brexit activists shifting and slithering into the culture wars, morphing into new entities like a complex Venn Diagram of disinformation and a blurry lack of transparency. The irony is all of these astro groups all lay claim to authenticity, whether it’s an authentic history, an authentic identity or an authentic politics, its all done by a bewilderingly small group of people posing in a multitude of fronts. It’s like a hall of mirrors. But if the new right has astro-turf down to a fine art – where identity, race, libertarianism, defence of empire and history (and statues) are all key motifs, there is also something desperate about the right’s new astro politics. They have failed, they are failing. Their major projects are a disaster they can’t deliver and the waging of ‘war on woke’ is by definition on a short demographic timeline.
The libertarian right (posing as the left) used to be able to get away with pretending it had some edgy-outsider energy. Now they’re in the Lords and in No 10 and all their dirty washing is being brought into the open. The more they are exposed to the bright light of day the more their political power wanes.
Illustration credit: David Peter Kerr
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