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14 May 2021

Politics and Society

It’s a commonplace to fret about the online world of extreme politics. Conspiracies. Echo chambers. Anonymous trolls. Charismatic speakers. Indoctrination. They’re all there, and they’re all dangerous – as the recent evidence of Labour’s nasty antisemitism outbreak demonstrates. But are they really the threat they’re made out to be? Britain’s recent wave of elections rather suggest not.

It’s easy to sigh and get dissuaded as you scroll down Facebook pages pumping out fairly overt disinformation, or feel alienated from a Twitter thread you have just fallen into by chance, but it might be that the echo chamber is far smaller than the humdrum landscape in which it sits.

Consider three good examples of men – and it’s usually men – who raised hackles across the blogosphere in the run-up to this year’s Super Thursday vote.

Alex Salmond launched a new party, Alba ahead of the local elections, in order to outflank the Scottish National Party on the question of Scottish independence.

George Galloway, doyenne or villain of dozens of campaigns over the years – and a Member of Parliament for both Labour and Respect in his time – fought for the integrity of the United Kingdom from right down the other side of Scottish politics, with his All For Unity movement.

Then there’s Laurence Fox, erstwhile actor-sidekick in Lewis and self-appointed standard-bearer of the anti-politically correct in his race to become Mayor of London during the Mayoral elections.

Anti-masks, anti-controls, and sometimes it appeared anti-everything, he aspired to be the living embodiment of an elite Awkward Squad on the right of the culture wars.

Between them, these three men generated acres of newsprint, and a lot of noise on Twitter. Alas for their wider ambitions, the echoes and eddies of their fans’ delight did not carry across into the ballot box.

Salmond’s Alba Party received precisely 1.7% of the vote, failing to return a single Member of the Scottish Parliament – even Salmond himself, standing in North-East Scotland where he had been successful before, got only 8,269 votes (2.3% of the total). So much for being able to bring down First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who was returned to power with a one-seat increase in her SNP group.

What about Mr Galloway? Well, he did even worse. All For Unity received less than one per cent of the vote overall.

On the South of Scotland regional list, on which Galloway stood, the apparently left-wing firebrand’s group received a grand total of 5,521 votes. A far cry, perhaps, from his unexpected triumph in the 2012 Bradford West by-election.

Next, then, Mr Fox, who registered a similarly poor performance in his run to become the capital’s new leader.

Fox came sixth, with 1.9% of the vote, attracting 47,634 votes and limping in just behind YouTube pranker Niko Omilana, ‘supreme leader of the Niko Defence League’.

This all tells us something bland, which anyone who studies public opinion knew already – that the noises made in journalists’ and commentators’ heads by the most exotic figures of the political world, as they scan social media, is way out of proportion to their influence in the country.

But it also demonstrates something rather deeper about the electorate – that they triangulate or pick their way across the ideological landscape with some care, reach nuanced conclusions, and also look to their governments and leaders with more attention than all the talk of a ‘new populism’ assumes.

Look at Scotland. Scottish voters are very divided, almost down the middle, about whether Scotland should become an independent country.

Sturgeon is popular and seen as competent, but independence raises a number of questions – on the currency, border, debt, trade and citizenship – that Scots will want answered before they make their choice in another independence referendum.

What they don’t believe, and don’t want to hear, is a load of nonsense from Mr Salmond about how Scotland can emerge with ‘zero debt’, how it can quickly break free of the UK, how Edinburgh should straightaway take a booming, maximalist line with London.

Sturgeon herself had to retreat from the idea of a very quick referendum during the Scottish election campaign.

Voters clearly wanted Covid-19 addressed first, before turning back to the constitutional question in a year or two.

The First Minister was made to look foolish when she seemed to claim that there would be no border between an independent Scotland and England, even if an independent Scotland rejoined the European Union: it was no wonder that the SNP changed its tone in the immediate run-up to the election’s polling day, to stress the need to return Sturgeon to her desk and start the job of Covid-19 reconstruction.

All the while, there are many Scots who would like even more self-government, but are still very sceptical about the costs involved in constructing a new state.

Recent polling by YouGov shows that even among those Scots who want constitutional change, 42% would embrace a third way between the status quo and statehood, as against 36% who want full independence.

There are many problems with phrasing questions like that – what does ‘devo max’ even mean? – but as so often the electorate is far more subtle, far more intelligent, and perhaps far less divided, than the headline writers and politicians give them credit for.

As for Fox’s crusade against Covid-19 restrictions, a huge majority of Britons simply don’t agree with him, thinking that in the circumstances a slow and steady unlocking is far better to test the waters as they go.

Most Britons backed the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of lockdown back in February, 45% telling ComRes that it was ‘cautious’, but 31% saying it was ‘about right’. Only 19% thought his plans ‘reckless’.

Right now, 62% of the public tell YouGov that the Government is handing Covid ‘well’ or ‘somewhat well’; the majority say they’re still following most of the restrictions, though a large minority have met other people indoors again.

During elections, voters are complicated, thoughtful, shrewd and perceptive: they see that tide of nonsense lapping up on the far shores of our politics for what it is.

They may choose to tolerate Boris Johnson’s many transgressions because he evokes a better future, and for lack of perceived alternatives: but their appetite for unalloyed nonsense remains far weaker than many would have you believe.

By Glen O’Hara, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. 

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