One of the most intriguing aspects of the rise of populist nationalism is the way in which even simple questions, or observations, produce howls of rage from the followers of these movements. It is observable in the Trump fanbase on a vast scale. It is there in UKIP’s online warriors who have become steadily more robust. But Scottish Nationalists during the independence referendum of 2014 were pioneers with their “cybernat” army, or regiment.
Perhaps the ferocity is down to the sense of liberation that comes with access to the internet. The activist or angry reader can get stuck in and berate journalists, who have never – in Britain at least – been popular. Old media is tottering, assailed by a collapsing ad market and changing consumer habits. Relatively new social media (has there been a greater misnomer?) allows the keyboard warrior a form of direct access to the people who write stories and commentary. Twenty years ago you wrote a letter to a newspaper, and if you were lucky got a standard reply from the editor and perhaps a chance for your view to be published, as long as it was polite and didn’t attack the paper. Now? Get into the journalist’s timeline and tell him or her they are an idiot or worse.
Some of the change thanks to technology is positive. Even though journalism is important and it is under attack, there is no doubt that the old privileged position of hacks, enjoying a virtual monopoly and filtering and shaping news, needed challenge. New voices and new approaches now get a hearing.
Still, it is fascinating how angry people get when they read something they disagree with. It is after all just a person posing a question. Or a person saying a thing you don’t agree with. Is that really so terrible that it requires howls of rage?
I posed a simple question on Twitter yesterday. Why had the SNP only spent £90,000 on its Brexit referendum campaign? The SNP has made an endless fuss about how pro-EU it is – to the extent of proposing to take Scotland out of the single market (the UK) where 64% of Scotland’s exports go. Why, then, didn’t they make more of an effort to prevent Brexit?
My question unleashed fury. Couldn’t I see that Scotland voted to Remain (62-38) – representing a glorious victory and testament to the visionary leadership of the Party? One usually friendly Nationalist claimed the inactivity was because they were all tired after the Scottish Parliament elections held six weeks previously. Really? They were tired? This is billed now as an epoch-defining vote, changing the face of Europe, a generational struggle, and activists were a bit tired?
It seems more likely that the SNP thought it was in the bag and underestimated the challenge. Yes, of course Scotland voted Remain. But with the entire political Establishment ranged against Leave, and almost all of the media north of the border echoing the Establishment anti-Brexit view, almost 40% of Scots who turned out voted to leave the EU. In Scotland turnout was markedly lower, at 67.2% compared to 72.2% across the whole of the UK.
Yet on fighting Brexit the SNP only spent £90,000, which is interesting.
I wonder if the fury is rooted in Nationalist frustration that far from Brexit propelling Scotland towards independence (which may well happen eventually) it for now seems to be having the opposite effect? A new poll for The Times has support for independence on 44% and support for the Union on 56%. The Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson also has ratings that are better than First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, which must be annoying. Another poll this week showed overwhelming support in Scotland for keeping the pound, a policy that is incompatible with independence. Scotland if it votes to leave the UK can use the pound, of course, but it cannot expect the continuation of a banking union (propping up the financial system). Without that arrangement it would begin life as an independent country in an extremely perilous position.
Perhaps cybernats fear it is – for now – slipping away. Supporters sure of victory would be less defensive and less sensitive to criticism, surely.