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Extreme Scottish unionists: how the hard right has muscled into the independence debate

During the last Scottish referendum, pro-union campaigners tried to ignore the most extreme members of their own side. But can they afford to do so again? 

This is one of a two-part series. For the article on extreme Scottish nationalists, click here.

Robert Somynne is a London-born Scot of African-Caribbean heritage. When the Scottish referendum was announced, he was inspired by the civic nationalism of the pro-independence campaign. But when he shared his support online, he found it came at a cost.

“The comments ranged from being called 'filthy Aids wog' to 'fuck off what you doing in Scotland anyway?’” he remembers. “These were usually comments from people who prior to the statements would talk about union and British unity.”

Another time, he was canvassing in the bustling Edinburgh neighbourhood of Leith, when three members of the Orange Order, a Protestant organisation viewed by many as sectarian, surrounded the stall.

“That was the first instance of physical confrontation,” he says. “They spat on the floor close to us, but walked away grumbling.”

With most newspapers focused on the online “cybernats” and pro-independence thugs, Somynne felt ignored. “As a BME pro-Indy person you had to sit and listen to the narrative about Indy people being abusive wondering if you were invisible,” he says. 

Read more: The extreme Scottish nationalists

With a second independence referendum looking increasingly likely, Somynne fears that the pro-union parties warning about “division” are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

“As for physical confrontation,” he says. “I'm honestly worried about certain sections of the No-supporting extremes, who see the independence movement as some kind of 'Jacobite plot' to destroy their British identity.”

In 2014, pro-union parties fought under a banner of economic realism, with the additional message that it was OK to be “Scottish and British”. After the experience of the EU referendum, though, there are murmurings that a second pro-union campaign would have to be fought on more emotional turf. 

So what is behind what Somynne calls “the dark underbelly” of the pro-union campaign? And how likely is it to rear its head again? 

One night in George Square

For many independence supporters, suspicions that the pro-union campaign had resonated with the far right were confirmed on the evening after the referendum. A group of crestfallen, mainly young independence supporters turned up at Glasgow’s George Square, where they were confronted by a group of union supporters waving Union Jacks, singing Rule Britannia and giving Nazi salutes. 

Glasgow SNP councillor Austin Sheridan, who is gay, was at the City Chambers that day, an imperial building on George Square. He left the building to see what was going on. “All of a sudden a guy came up and shouted at me,” he remembers. A video he made on his phone shows middle-aged men calling him “fucking poofter” and “nationalist scum”. 

Sheridan believes the homophobic attack was “clearly organised”. He says: “The group of people arrived at the square all at the same time.” 

In 2014, mainstream political parties succeeded in the most part in distancing themselves from the far-right unionists. 

Scots were treated to the rare sight of the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservative leaders agreeing on the need to stay in the UK. 

This cross-party unity did not, however, extend to some of the other groups opposing independence – the British National Party, the UK Independence Party and the Scottish Defence League (which shares anti-SNP posts alongside warnings of a Muslim “invasion”). 

While the fringes continue to share both far-right and an anti-independence messages, Facebook groups purely focused on a passionate defence of unionism have also flourished. Here, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is mocked as the TV comedy character "Wee Jimmie Krankie", or the "ginger poison dwarf". 

One of the grassroots groups most consistently pushing the pro-union message is A Force For Good (its Facebook page has more than 4,000 followers). During the 2014 referendum it was not affiliated with the Better Together campaign and describes itself as providing “a historical and cultural background to the Union and the British identity”. 

Its posts mainly thank Theresa May for objecting to a second Scottish independence referendum. However, the founder of the site, Alastair McConnachie, was forced out of Ukip after questioning aspects of the Holocaust (when I asked McConnachie if he still held these views, he referred me to a 2007 blog post in which he acknowledges the Holocaust but adds: "I've questioned and doubt, from a historically-interested point of view, some aspects, specifically with regard to the existence of execution gas chambers.") 

Unionism... and Unionism

There was a second undercurrent to that appearance in George Square. “The violence in George Square was sectarian,” says Dave Scott of anti-sectarian organisation Nil By Mouth, who wrote about the incident at the time. (You can read about sectarianism and the pro-independence campaign here).

While there is no direct link between the pro-union campaign and Protestantism (Jim Murphy, a prominent Better Together supporter, is a practising Roman Catholic), some of the most passionate supporters of the UK are from Protestant groups.

The Orange Order is a controversial Protestant brotherhood that dates back more than 200 years. It is based in Northern Ireland, but has other branches around the world, the largest of which is in Scotland. Orangemen traditionally march on 12 July to celebrate the triumph of the Protestant monarchy over the Catholic King James II. Critics accuse the Orangemen of stirring up sectarian hatred and bringing unrest to the streets (in 2016, 13 people were arrested for minor offences during an Orange march in Glasgow). 

In 2014, the Orange Order campaigned on behalf of remaining in the UK. Roughly 15,000 supporters from both Scotland and Northern Ireland turned up in Edinburgh on the weekend before the referendum for a march through the Scottish capital.

The organisation continues to comment on Scottish politics. The front page of the March 2017 edition of the house journal, The Orange Torch, was dedicated to the prospect of a second referendum. When I speak to Robert McLean, the executive officer of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, he confirms that if there is another referendum, his organisation will get involved again. 

I put to him the complaints of independence campaigners that the Orangemen were a divisive presence. He responds: "If anything, the referendum caused division. If anyone's causing division, it's Nicola Sturgeon." The Orange Order have been in Scotland for 300 years, he adds.

What next for the pro-union campaign?

Orange Order marches – and their sister activity, flute bands – have traditionally been abhorred by what Kevin McKenna, a Scottish columnist, calls the “liberal, godless, political classes” in Holyrood. The Better Together campaign was visibly embarrassed by its orange friends. But that was before Brexit. 

While pro-union political parties in Scotland are still working out their plans, organisers must grapple with the fact that “Project Fear” failed to win the EU referendum. Better Together's victorious campaign in 2014 was similarly pragmatic, with messages of economic stability and - crucially - the promise of staying in the EU. 

In the patriotic fervour of Facebook groups like “Do Not Break Our Unity”, there is a different kind of unionism. It waves the Union Jack with pride, wears the poppy, celebrates the monarchy, approves of Theresa May and voted Brexit. As McKenna wrote in the summer of 2014:

The people who will decide the referendum will not be those in the chattering, political classes but the tens of thousands in the housing schemes across the country… both sides had better start properly to understand their language and their curious ways.

The question for mainstream politicians in Scotland – as in England – is what to do about this well of passionate, patriotic unionism. Can they channel it into an emotional case for unity? And would doing so come at a price? 

Somynne, the independence campaigner and freelance journalist who has written about the referendum campaign, wants to see “calm and constructive” debate on both sides. But he worries it won’t turn out that way. “You're asking fundamental questions about the way we define ourselves and challenging political realities,” he says. “It's never going to be clean when that happens.”

Read more: The extreme Scottish nationalists

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.