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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Comments (18)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Groups such as the Rangers supporters filmed last week, have, for decades been the brutish face of the right wing, not just in Scotland but across much of the world. Associating with particular football clubs has been a main way of forming a local ‘association’, but this quickly generalises beyond the local and specific issue of Rangers (for example) to racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia, ultranationalism and a mysticism around ‘strong’ leaders.

    However, they are only one symptom of more powerful groups who are institutionalised in society. These groups are the ‘useful idiots’ for the wealthy and powerful. They can be used to intimidate the general public and to threaten and, sometimes, murder opposition groups, such as feminists, eco-campaigners, trade unionists, black rights groups, gay and trans rights, etc. However, their antisocial thuggishness also enables the powerful to reject and excoriate them when their actions evoke public revulsion. They are ‘disposable’ as far as the powerful are concerned. We see this in the prosecutions of those who acted on Trump’s urgings and attacked the Capitol. They are getting stuck in the penitentiaries, while Trump luxuriates at Mar a Lago.

    There is a scene in the film Cabaret when Isherwood is riding in the car with his wealthy paramour when they pass a Nazi group breaking up a demonstration by ordinary people. When Isherwood expresses his concerns the wealthy paramour says they are useful in dealing with such malcontents. but, we can control them. When Isherwood asks what if they get beyond control, this is dismissed.

    A couple of glimmers of hope: The Rangers fans’ conduct was reported in condemnatory terms by sections of the media which are normally very pro Rangers. There was the prompt action by Rangers regarding the abuse of the Celtic player, Furuhashi, there was the the strong statement by the FM and her angry reaction, supported by the Presiding Officer and others in Holyrood, including it would seem, some Tories and the apology by the MSP.

  2. Colin Robinson says:

    Surely, the genealogy of these organisations is irrelevant. What matters is whether or not the claims they make can be justified.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      I do not think that their ‘claims’ can be separated from their ‘genealogy’. The ‘claims’, if they can be described as such, derive to a large degree from the ‘genealogies’ and the histories from which they are derived. When examined much of what is being claimed is cognitively dissonant.

      Many of the young men who were involved last Saturday, will ‘grow up’ in the next year or so and will go on to live fairly normal lives. Appalling as their behaviour was, it was not in any significant way different from the behaviours I saw amongst young men in the 60s and 70s. I knew several – they lived in the same district, went to the same schools, played in the same amateur football teams, were in the same BB companies, etc. Like most young men, we grew up, met young women (being gay was still illegal then!) whom we liked and who engendered in us self respect, we got jobs, we went to college or university, we travelled, etc.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        No, of course, they can’t be separated. Those claims have evolved; they have a history.

        But I’m talking about the value of those claims, whether or not they can be evidenced. The question of their pedigree or that of their claimants is irrelevant to the matter of what those claims are worth. Who claimed what and what their interest was in claiming it has no bearing whatsoever on the value of that claim.

  3. Tom Ultuous says:

    Sevco fans have been Scotland’s shame since 2012. Prior to that it was the fans of The Taxpayer’s XI and, pre-Murray, the Rangers fans.

  4. Graham Ennis says:

    Actually, a simple explanation is that politics, everywhere, has gone online, and digital.

    I think the so-called “Extiction rebellion has a strong set of suspicious indicators, No real central leadership, whishy washy actual social policies, no interest in the actual issues of Climate disaster, just a lot of trendy posturing. The main people to benefit from this are Special branch, who by now have infiltrated, gleaned all the files and data, and entered it alongside the membership list into their system. Extiction rebellion has no real politics, just a sort of trendy stylish org that is almost all there is, when you look hard at them. Sigh.
    Also. the situation in S ctland, and the strange things that happened around the last indy vote, speak for themselves.
    There was a very visible and clear disinformation cam,paign during the run up to that vote.
    There are also some interesting things that have emerged about the statistical analysis and structure of the actual vote.
    Anyway, as I said recently, Independence is now not a political issue, its a survival issue.
    The clock also ticks. The lewft and the Nationalist liberals have a huge golden oportunity in the forthcoming Scottish climate conference. But nobody has any sort of program, so far, to organise things, and score some goals. Comments please

  5. Wul says:

    I can’t understand why it’s OK to be Vice President of a big corporation and an elected member of parliament at the same time. Isn’t being an MP supposed to be “an incredibly difficult job”?

    How come these chancers can hold down several “jobs” at the same time? Whenever I’ve gone for a new job they kind of expect you to give up the previous one. MPs and MSPs should be required to quit all other employments and interests before sitting in parliament.

    One can only surmise that the various, so-called, “jobs” are actually a piece of piss, requiring little or no actual work. Good money though.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Are MPs and MSPs employees? Do they have employment contracts?

      Representing a constituency shouldn’t be a job. MPs/MSPs should be given paid time off their work to attend parliament and be reimbursed any agreed out-of-pocket expenses they incur in carrying out this civic duty. Serving as a MP/MSP should be entirely voluntary rather than for profit.

  6. Paula Becker says:

    Mike Small can feel the political ground beneath his feet moving. He’s still referring to the old left vs right political paradigm but it’s possible that this paradigm is breaking up . Something new ( and dark) is emerging but no one can tell what it is yet. He finds this unnerving. I find this unnerving. In fact, if you don’t find this unnerving you may be in a coma or watching daytime television.
    Mike is a big fan of Devi Sridhar. She is a Professor of Public Health at Edinburgh University, an adviser to Nicola Sturgeon, and a leading proponent of the Zero Covid strategy of dealing with the pandemic. The country which has gone furthest down the Zero Covid path is Australia. To achieve Zero Covid you have to control the virus but this is very tricky because viruses, particularly corona viruses, are notoriously difficult to control. So instead Australia has decided to control people – which is much easier.
    Parts of Australia are now, effectively, under martial law. Daniel Andrews is Premier of the Victoria state and in a recent press conference he made this astonishing statement: ‘There’s going to be a vaccinated economy and you get to participate in that if you are vaccinated’. He added: ‘ to protect the health system we’re going to lock out people who are not vaccinated and can be’. So a political leader who is supposed to represent all the people of his state is instead introducing an apartheid system.
    Left is right, down (under) is up, the centre cannot hold. It’s all gone a bit topsy turvy.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Aye, the old left vs right political paradigm is politics’ ‘Old Firm’; viz. a traditional way of framing ‘the enemy’, in antagonism to which one forges one’s own kinship identity and solidarity.

    2. Tom Ultuous says:

      “Mike is a big fan of Devi Sridha”

      Aren’t we all?

    3. I don’t believe I’ve ever referenced Devi Sridhar Paula?
      When you look at the chaos wrought from No 10 and the likes of Priti Patel and Boris Johnson it’s clear the right (hard and far) are in power.
      The anti-vaxx movement is one led by Right Said Fred and a recent symptom of a wider problem of people who are confused and paranoid and narcissistic.

      1. Paula Becker says:

        You have re-tweeted her many times.
        The Astra-Zeneca and mRNA ‘vaccines’ don’t stop people catching the virus. They don’t stop people transmitting the virus or getting sick from the virus or dying from the virus. They don’t deserve to be called vaccines.
        People with concerns about these ‘vaccines’ therefore cannot be termed anti-vax. They are worried that an experimental gene therapy may have side effects which haven’t been fully assessed yet. They can’t be assessed because the trial is literally on-going.
        Today we have 7,065 positive cases whereas on the same day last year we had 146 positives. This means that case numbers are 4800% higher today than this time last year. Last year we had no ‘vaccines’. This year we have ‘vaxxed’ 92% of adults!
        Strange isn’t it.

        1. Tom Ultuous says:

          Not really Paula. It’s down to the Westminster clown letting in the Delta variant.

        2. Well she is Professor & Chair of Global Public Health, at Edinburgh University Medical School. So if I had to take medical advice from her or Right Said Fred, I’d probably go with her.

          1. Paula Becker says:

            Heading back to Oz – do you think Daniel Andrews is right to lock out the unvaccinated from the Victoria health service?

  7. johnny english says:

    The real story as always is that ‘celtic’ nationalism is fundamentally racist towards the English and that modern ‘celts’ lack the courage and ability to confront it and thus are incapable of evolving beyond it. As per the script mike small (small in courage) immediately takes the issue off into a space where as per the script mike can lay into the very same people who as per the script are being race-hated. same old racism. same old racists. the scots reckon themselves to be a uniquely brave race and yet in truth they are the most cowardly – too frightened to confront the reality of their own disease – yellow on the outside and yellow on the inside. racist scotland’s so-say first minister lectures people that it is wrong to sing songs about sending people home (unless you’re English) but thinks nothing of her very own anthem which does exactly that to English people. and not one person in holyrood or in the meeja thought to address Tess White’s truth by actually saying something welcome to us English untermensch. The ‘celts’ treat us English like niggers just like they treated the rest of the world’s population like niggers when they exploited the union jack and the empire in years gone by. What is wrong with these cowards? do they imagine that there is some positive outcome for themselves in this sewer or is it simply that ‘celtic’ is a culture that is at the end of its existence; adrift in the modern world and incapable of evolution, we are witnessing the final chapter. a culture of the past that is best left there. something very very nasty on the inside that has no place in the world of BLM.

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      Ms Sturgeon told MSPs: “I take the view that anybody who chooses to live in Scotland, whether they and their families have been here for generations or whether they have come to Scotland very recently, this is their home.”

      In what way is that racist or anti-English? You then tell us how much you hate us and say “The ‘celts’ treat us English like niggers just like they treated the rest of the world’s population like niggers when they exploited the union jack and the empire in years gone by”. In the latter part of that sentence are you sure you’re not confusing us with your “blues brothers” who laid the foundations for the KKK in the US. Even your user name stinks of the far right. Tess White loves you though.

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