16 September 2015

Intolerant Corbynistas are just like the SNP’s creepy cybernats


Some of us have been here before. Those of us granted the questionable privilege of ringside seats during the Scottish independence referendum know what’s coming to English politics now Jeremy Corbyn has been elected leader of the Labour party. Prepare yourselves, comrades, for a tsunami of cockamamie hyperbole and hysteria.

The CyberNats (and, to be fair, their Unionist counterparts) are so last year; this season’s new sensation are the Corbynistas whose appetite for seeking grievance, victimhood and reasons to be outraged seems set to rival anything we saw in Scotland last year. As if that were not enough, it will all be accompanied by a sneering moral superiority that, while boasting of their own virtue, scarcely manages to camouflage the contempt with which they regard their fellow citizens. Citizens whose only crime is to take a different view. Fascist goons, the lot of them, you see.

But this is the age of the political selfie; a time when advertising your politics is an indication of your moral worth. An age of manufactured outrage in which every horse is high and every cocoon impenetrable. Keeping up with politics in the social media era is an exhausting business, not for the faint of heart. Each time you think the tide of nonsense must retreat you remember that, like the ocean, it will return within just a few hours.

Identity is everything and trigger warnings abound. How dare you intrude on my fantasies with your facts and other inconveniences? You should understand that when you criticise my political party you are insulting me personally. Taking offence is my bread and butter and while you may have no right not to be offended, I certainly do.

Happy times, then.

For all his faults, one of the good things you can say about David Cameron is that he does not inspire much in the way of a cult of personality. I dare say “Dave” t-shirts exist but no-one could possibly wear one in all seriousness. They do things differently elsewhere on the political spectrum. Jeremy Corbyn already shows signs of commanding a personal following every bit as that which has fallen, lock, stock and barrel, for Nicola Sturgeon.

In one respect this comparison is unfair. Ms Sturgeon is on more than nodding terms with reality. She has also won her portion of a general election, an achievement likely to prove beyond Mr Corbyn. She is, whatever your politics, a figure of some stature.

Nevertheless, there is something rotten about the state of Scottish politics these days. Not all of the fault for this lies with the nationalists – Unionist bitterness, despite winning the referendum, is another contributory factor – but there is, on the whole, a special quality about denizens of the nationalist cocoon.

Opponents, you see, are not simply mistaken, they are wicked. Good Scots voted Yes; Quislings voted No. Life under Mr Cameron, one newly-elected MP believes, is akin to “the early days of the Third Reich”. Such sentiments are not as rare as you might wish. And they are matched, to an eerily complete degree, by Mr Corbyn’s own fury chimps. Anyone to his right – that is, most of the Labour party – is “a Tory” just as, in Scotland, people who have devoted their entire lives to the Labour movement found themselves traduced as nothing more than “Red Tories”.

The process of “othering” is always an ugly business. Again, it is not confined to the left, as Mr Corbyn is about to discover. “Othering” is a means by which a political opponent is denied the standing to make his case in the first place. Deny him (or her) the right to speak and you need not trouble yourself with confronting the substance of his case, loopy or impossible though it might be.

Even so, the manner in which the Corbynites have reacted to perfectly reasonable questions over their champion’s beliefs, policies, and associations reminds me of how Scottish nationalists so often preferred to play the man, not the ball. Reasonable questions about the SNP’s independence prospectus were dismissed as “talking Scotland down”. Unionists were caricatured as people who believed Scotland was “too poor, too wee, too stupid” to be a viable independent country. If true, that would have been a damning commentary on three centuries of Union. But it wasn’t true and no senior Unionist believes that. (There is a difference between being “poorer” and “too poor”.)

Awkward questioning, however, was deemed insulting. Hence the campaign to discredit the BBC. Nick Robinson, then the corporation’s political editor, bore the brunt of this campaign but he was far from the only target. The sight of nationalist mobs marching on the BBC calling for Mr Robinson’s head was, well, not quite as “joyous” as Alex Salmond said it was.

I don’t deny that some parts of the press were hostile to the idea, let alone the reality, of independence just as sections of the press are unlikely to look fondly upon Mr Corbyn. But there is all the difference in the world between objecting to “bias” in the press and seeking to shut down entirely legitimate questioning. During the referendum campaign Mr Salmond accused journalists of doing Better Together’s work for them and we can expect Mr Corbyn’s partisans to react in similarly exaggerated fashion. This too, it should be noted, is a means of avoiding answering questions. Destroy the questioner’s credibility and you can laugh all the way to your next tweet.

It is in this way that a “smear” has been redefined as an awkward fact or a disagreeable interpretation and, often, an accurate quotation. Never mind the record or the reality, concentrate on the legend, please.

Of course, all’s fair in love, war and politics. Even so, there is something unseemly about the manner in which, especially when viewed through the filter of social media, so much contemporary political debate consists of so much posturing and grandstanding. Combine that with a wilful refusal to accept the validity of alternative views and a hostility to the basic idea that those with whom you disagree might possibly be making their arguments in good faith and you have a recipe for a blighted political climate in which confected outrage and cynical narcissism become the twin currencies of the age.

As I say, happy times.

Alex Massie is a columnist for The Times.