Nationalism – Scottish and English – has combined with social media to create a ‘patriotic sub-culture’ which stalks every modern politician amid debates over Brexit and independence, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.
My wife must think I’m having an affair with Robert Peston. His Twitter account is the last thing I look at before I go to sleep and the first thing I review when I wake.
I know I’m not alone – these are big, exhausting, high-stakes weeks. Like no time I can remember previously, there is a sense of living through history in the making.
Twitter and other platforms allow a real-time feed to the mindboggling events unfolding in our politics, but perhaps more importantly they offer us, for good or ill, a means of responding to and even shaping those events.
The tremendous benefit of all this drama is an unparalleled interest both in our democratic institutions and in politics more generally. People are more engaged in democracy than at any time I can remember.
I grew up in times of apathy, where the pendulum swing between left and right was predictable and prosaic. Except for what I can remember of the miners’ strike and the Falklands, people barely thought about politics outside of elections. It was a simpler time.
A dark underbelly Now, people are swapping Netflix for BBC Parliament, taking to Twitter and joining political parties, left, right and centre. That is primarily a good thing but it comes with a dark underbelly.
Since the politics of nationalism first gripped Scotland in 2014 and latterly the rest of the UK in the EU referendum of 2016, people’s involvement in politics has stemmed from something far deeper than how they felt about the poll tax or the war in Iraq.
There is now an emotional connection between a person’s political allegiance and their sense of identity. It’s a kind of tribalism that has flourished in step with the emergence of online social media platforms, which allow users total anonymity and direct access to their political heroes and villains.
This is a poisonous mix. Like with road rage, angry online activists hide behind keyboards in the same way angry motorists hide behind dashboards.
They speak in tones they would never dream of using in real life. They repeat and amplify the language used by leaders on the extremes of our politics (including the current occupant of No 10) and will regurgitate fake news and manufactured grievance as though it were received wisdom. That’s why the debate around the language in our politics really matters.
Boris’s dog whistle Phrasing and terminology used in the current debate around Europe and independence represent the dog whistles of our age. Boris Johnson didn’t just stumble over the term ‘Surrender Act’ to describe the legislation which demands he seek an extension to article 50, it was honed and focus-grouped for maximum impact.
And boy, has it had an impact. Thousands of online Brexit supporters (and several hundred foreign Twitter bots) have taken it up to abuse prominent Remain-supporting figures, repeating and expanding on the “surrender” theme. This militaristic language is designed to evoke a feeling of being at war with the other tribe and as a tactic, it isn’t new.
In 2012, Alex Salmond described a BBC producer, who refused to interview him after a rugby match, as a “Gauleiter” (a Nazi term for a local governor of an area under occupation). This greenlighted years of abuse for those of us on the pro-UK side and we have been referred to as ‘quislings’ and ‘collaborators’ ever since.
Nationalism, be it Scottish or English, has combined with social media to create a kind of patriotic sub-culture which stalks every figure in modern political life.
For my part, my Twitter notification feed is as serene as I can make it, but that’s only because I’ve muted 899 abusive accounts. Had I not taken that step, then I’d not venture onto the platform at all. Even for the lovely Mr Peston.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.