Readers of a certain vintage might recall the Channel 4 sitcom Fairly Secret Army, written by Reggie Perrin creator David Nobbs and starring the brilliant Geoffrey Palmer.
Palmer’s Major Harry Truscott – effectively Reggie’s unhinged brother-in-law Jimmy, renamed because the BBC held the rights to that character – is a retired ex-serviceman who, fearful of a communist conspiracy, establishes a platoon that will, if necessary, take control of the state.
Harry, with his crackpot theories and wild over-reaction to non-existent threats, may have lived in an imagined 1980s Britain, but he is an enduring character who would be right at home in the internet age.
No notion is too ridiculous, no theory too nonsensical for the online community to give it a hearing. Don’t like reality? Simply invent a new one – you’ll find plenty of people willing to get right behind whatever nonsense you come up with. There are a lot of Harry Truscotts out there.
Take, for example, SNP councillor Kenny MacLaren, who has some queer ideas about what constitutes an important issue.
MacLaren first came to national attention when he was briefly suspended by his party for publicly burning a copy of the Smith Commission’s report, the post-indyref agreement on new devolved powers which was signed by the SNP.
Even though his own party had fully participated in Lord Smith’s cross-party talks about further empowering Holyrood, MacLaren saw betrayal; he saw conspiracy against the Scottish nationalists.
MacLaren – a councillor in Renfrewshire – was quickly readmitted to the SNP after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that she was not in favour of the burning of books.
You might have thought that his humiliation – MacLaren’s burning of the Smith agreement made him something of a figure of ridicule – would have led the councillor to enter into a period of reflection, of self-examination. Are the needs of people in communities across Renfrewshire met by the public burning of documents? Will pyro stunts get the bins emptied regularly? The questions are fairly straightforward.
The good news is that MacLaren’s book-burning days are firmly behind him and he has found a new focus for his energies. The bad news is that he has decided to serve the people of Renfrewshire by promoting a campaign to “name and shame” supermarkets that sell products which display the Union Flag.
Those of us with a lack of imagination might think that MacLaren’s constituents are more concerned by issues such as standards in schools or economic development or the state of the local roads. MacLaren has bigger ideas.
In a letter to the pro-independence newspaper, The National, he set out his thoughts about why supermarkets – damned tricky Johnnies, one and all – had begun applying the red, white and blue of the Union to packaging.
It is not, as you might have imagined, to denote that the produce so branded was grown or made in the UK. MacLaren’s view is that “this started really happening after Brexit in a feeble attempt at some sort of British patriotism drive by the major supermarkets”.
That one takes some chewing.
MacLaren believes that supermarkets have collaborated with each other to promote the idea of Britishness by placing on some packaging small images of the Union flag.
We can only speculate about how precisely this supermarket conspiracy will achieve its aim. Will repeated exposure to tiny Union flags on bags of apples turn people away from the cause of Scottish independence?
MacLaren is taking no risks and asks that vigilant shoppers take photographs of Scottish produce that is being marketed as being from the UK. But, you might point out, Scottish produce is from the UK. That is neither here nor there: any supermarkets trying to “hide the identity” of Scottish produce must be “named and shamed”.
It’s easy to laugh at this sort of thing. Local politics has always attracted its fair share of members of the completely batty community; MacLaren’s campaign is part of a great tradition of barmy wheezes dreamed up by councillors. But it’s also rather sinister. Look at the language he uses: “name and shame” is angry stuff, isn’t it?
And what about that suggestion of supermarket collusion in a post-Brexit vote patriotism drive? It’s not really all that funny when an elected politician begins peddling this sort of nonsense.
When the likes of MacLaren raise their voices, the SNP is fond of replying that it is a broad church in which people hold a number of different views across a range of subjects. Sometimes, the party will go so far as to say that this view or that theory is not shared by the leadership.
But the SNP should do more to distance itself from the sort of theories being espoused by MacLaren and others.
SNP members reacted in a variety of ways to defeat in the 2014 independence referendum. The smart ones concluded that their proposition had been tested to destruction; their case, they admitted, had just not been strong enough.
Others – fully encouraged by former leader Alex Salmond – chose to blame others for their failure. Thus, it is now a fairly widely held view among SNP members that the BBC and the Treasury conspired against the pro-independence movement.
If once powerful figures like Salmond are happy to peddle fantasies of victimhood rather than taking the time to analyse where the SNP’s campaign went wrong, why wouldn’t the likes of Councillor Kenny MacLaren feel their own fevered imaginings hold answers?
If the SNP is to further the cause of Scottish independence, it will have to persuade a sizeable chunk of small “c” conservative Scots to make a leap into the unknown.
These cautious voters won’t be persuaded to change their position by nationalist politicians spreading conspiracy theories that even Harry Truscott would have found too fantastic.