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Extremism Bingo

Craig Dalzell

Rishi Sunak’s recent speech on the dangers and risks facing the UK said much more about his perceptions of the risks to his premiership than about the risks facing the people of the country itself.

This week Rishi Sunak gave a speech hosted by the Policy Exchange – a think tank that scores the lowest possible rating for financial transparency and which doesn’t appear on either the UK or Scottish Lobbying Registers. In it he unofficially but totally officially used his position as head of government to launch a party political campaign aimed to try to save his career ahead of a general election that he will have to announce within the next few months – knowing that had he given that speech during that campaign, he almost certainly would have been forced to rewrite much of it to stay within election campaign rules. As it is, the “official” transcript of the speech is loaded with redactions where he crossed the line between Prime Minister of the Government and Leader of the Conservatives. Not that anyone who watched the speech on the TV would have been exposed to those redactions. It’s certainly an innovative approach to political transparency – to say things on the record knowing that they’ll be safely redacted from the record.

The speech itself was straight out of the nationalist authoritarian playbook of identifying the ‘enemies within and without’ that are seeking to destroy the way of life of party loyalists – so please stay loyal. Please?

The extremists who threaten the UK were a catch-all collection of everyone you might expect from the Sunak Government and included, in no particular order, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, people with nuclear weapons, people who oppose people having nuclear weapons, pacifists, violent protestors, peaceful protestors, illegal migrants, legal migrants, Putin when he holds our energy bills to ransom, environmentalists who’d like to remove Putin’s ability to hold our energy bills to ransom, people who try to impose their views on others, people who try to prevent others from disagreeing with you, people who disagree with the Government’s idea of what you should agree with, “foreign courts”, people who support human rights, and Scottish Nationalists.

I’m not going to fisk my way through the entire list (and there are certainly a few more in the speech itself if you want to go and add them to your personal Extremism Bingo scorecard) but I will pick out a couple.

One is the idea of “foreign courts” trying to meddle in Britain’s attempts to tear up human rights regulations that prevent the UK Government from trafficking vulnerable migrants to Rwanda. The idea that all Conservative problems can be solved by tearing up human rights legislation has been a long-standing shibboleth of the party going back at least a decade now and we need to be clear about the purpose of it. The Conservatives are not trying to remove all human rights from everyone, they are trying to make it possible for them to remove YOUR human rights the moment that doing so would be politically expedient or if you ever become an inconvenience to the State. What was your score on the Extremist Bingo card again?

They have so far found it quite difficult to actually do this, not least because many of the “foreign courts” that Sunak has pledged to ignore rather than allow them to “undermine” Britain aren’t “foreign”. The latest example, in a ruling published on the same day as Sunak’s speech, was from Belfast High Court which found that the Rwanda Plan would fundamentally breach the Good Friday Agreement. Go on Sunak. Declare Belfast to be the home of a “foreign court” seeking to undermine British values.
The other headline grabbing claim is that the security of Britain is threatened by Scottish Nationalists. Curiously, this particular point is one of the ones redacted from the “official” transcript on the grounds of it being party political content. And yes, he certainly generated the headlines by telling approximately 50% of the Scottish population to check that particular box on their Extremism Bingo card but it raised a question in my head almost as soon as he said it that I don’t think has been picked up elsewhere?

Why Scottish Nationalists in particular?

No bones about it, the idea of a fragment of British territory and the state that made up one of the two signatories of the Treaty of Union that formed the United Kingdom leaving that Union could indeed be construed as a threat to the idea of the UK (if you consider the idea of the UK to rank higher in priority than the concept of local democracy and self-determination then you’re welcome to that view) and if you’d like to see an illustration of the actual process of how that separation would happen, then you can read my essay here. But again…why Scottish Nationalism in particular? Why not the other separatist and autonomist movements in the UK? Why not other forms of nationalism?

The answer seems clear to me. Scottish Nationalism is the only nationalist movement in the UK that presents a threat to the Conservative Party. Unlike Labour and the Lib Dems, the Conservatives do actually stand candidates in Northern Ireland but basically only so that they can say that they do, they are not an electoral force there and so Irish Republicans like Sinn Féin and the SDLP do not run the risk of “stealing” Conservative seats and British Nationalists in Northern Ireland like the DUP are, of course, fairly closely aligned ideologically and have shown willingness to support Conservative governments. In Wales, the story is somewhat similar, with Conservative strongholds and the strongholds of Plaid Cymru really only overlapping at the edges but don’t really do so in the numbers that warrant the effort to fight them – especially with Labour being the more dominant political force there. In England, Sunak is himself a British Nationalist and so directly courts the votes of that particular constituency (though Keir Starmer has been wrapping himself ever-tighter in a Union Jack to try to pull away some of those voters) and specifically English Nationalists are either aligned with him as well or haven’t really found a political base to challenge him from the right (or from the left) though if current polling trends do push the Conservatives below that of Reform UK…perhaps there’s a realignment to come there.

So that leaves Scotland, where the main political battleground seats are either SNP/Labour (with the Conservatives having little hope of winning) or they are SNP/Conservative. This is why Scottish Nationalists get their spot on the Extremism Bingo card – they might win Conservative seats at the next election and the Conservatives are trying to win theirs.

On Monday, Rishi Sunak used his privileged position as Prime Minister to kick off an election campaign designed to save his position as leader of the Conservatives. The threats he identified were not listed because they are threats to the “British way of life”, but because they are threats to the Conservative party and its chances of winning that election. In doing so, he dangerously ramped up the trend in Britain towards militaristic authoritarian rule where the only acceptable political viewpoint is the one that is loyal to the Conservative Government.

In doing so, he has shown not that Scottish Nationalism is a threat to the UK, but that the ideas of the democratic, peaceful, egalitarian society that many Scottish Nationalists want to see is only going to be possible if the UK is allowed to peacefully and democratically come to its end.

Image Credit – Abbey Hendrickson

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