IT’S quite fitting that the far right behaves like a virus when it comes to spreading its propaganda. Right-wing extremists easily and happily mutate, latching on to whatever current concerns they can exploit to spread their message. Today, it’s anti-lockdown protests which have become one of their chief delivery mechanisms.

Don’t for a moment think that the far right narrative hasn’t infected the way Scotland discusses the clear and obvious tensions between handling Covid and individual liberty. We’re as much in the thick of it as America, England, Austria or the Netherlands. Some of our more hysterical anti-lockdown voices are peddling far right tropes whether they know it or not.

I’ve spent more than 30 years investigating the far right. Around the time I first began writing about extremism, the British National Party was in the process of a huge shift in its use of propaganda, and refashioning how best to exploit issues which resonated with the public.

In the early 90s, the far right noticed just how appalled the general public was with the targeting of the author Salman Rushdie over his book The Satanic Verses. It was easy and fertile ground to occupy – it also gave extremists a lifeline. The British far right had been going nowhere with its endless hatred of Jews and black people.

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By the 90s, it looked like British neo-nazism might become a thing of the past. Britain had changed. The days of big National Front rallies were long gone. However, after the Rushdie fatwa, the BNP turned its attention to exploiting the backlash against religious extremism and fears around attacks on freedom of speech. Extremists used this as cover to push an agenda of hate aimed at Britain’s Muslim population.

It worked. Much of today’s mainstream debate around Islam and Britain has its roots in this period. To some extent, this mainstreaming of far right propaganda would go on to provide a partial ideological backdrop to the debate around Brexit and immigration. It’s been argued that the far right was so successful in mainstreaming its views in Britain in the 1990s and early 2000s, that the BNP effectively made itself redundant.

Its rhetoric around race, immigration and Islam, amplified by much of the press and platformed by broadcasters, was given a cloak of respectability which allowed it to move over to Ukip and the Conservative Party – with some on the right of Labour even unwittingly in echo chamber mode.

Just as the national discussion around immigration has been slowly and craftily shaped by the far right, the same is happening today to the debate around Covid and lockdown.

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It’s no longer rare to hear commentators once viewed as sensible start to mouth far right tropes. Perhaps, the most common is ‘the Great Reset’ conspiracy theory. If you hear this phrase, start monitoring closely what’s being said and who’s saying it.

The Great Reset conspiracy theory holds that global leaders planned and executed the Covid pandemic in order to take over the world and reshape it. This is the stuff of dangerous lunacy – dredged up from the outer limits of the internet and pushed by people who’ve clearly been radicalised by spending far too much of their life online. This conspiracy is linked to the likes of QAnon – the amorphous blob of online extremists who believe ‘the global elite’ is literally killing babies and worshipping Satan.

Another conspiracy crept into the daylight over recent weeks – the claim that the Rockefeller Foundation ‘predicted’ the Covid pandemic in 2010. For ‘predicted’, read the words ‘knew about’ – and you will get the sinister subtext that this conspiracy theory is really pushing.

The claims are entirely fake. The Rockefeller Foundation didn’t predict Covid, rather it looked at the implications of a flu pandemic. Nevertheless, the fantasy is laden with far-right signalling around global elites and the ‘New World Order’. This nonsense is even being amplified by some European politicians.

Recent protests across Europe against lockdown are in part organised by far right extremists. In Austria, the far right Freedom Party was at the centre of demonstrations in Vienna. The far right has wormed its way into anti-lockdown rallies in Britain.

The Netherlands – which was the scene of violent anti-lockdown protests at the weekend, where riot police opened fire on demonstrators – is currently dealing with an upsurge in far right activity. Dutch anti-terror police fear ‘accelerationism’, the doctrine that white supremacists need to do anything they can, including the use of violence, to speed up the demise of western democracy.

The far right is now the biggest cause of referrals in Scotland to the anti-radicalisation Prevent programme – overtaking Islamist extremism.

Millions of ordinary people are rightly concerned over what they perceive to be their loss of liberty throughout the pandemic. However, there’s a world of difference between being justly cautious of any extension of government power, and the madness that’s unfolding both online and on the streets of European capitals.

Lockdown protestors have become the useful idiots of the far right. Rather than voicing reasoned concerns over liberty and freedom, their hysteria is playing into the hands of the very people who would take away not just their liberties and freedoms but the liberties and freedoms of us all.

One of the great ironies of Covid would be if it delivered the far right electoral success. We went into pandemic, promising each other that we’d emerge a more socially fair, egalitarian society – that the new normal wouldn’t be as cold and cruel as the old normal.

It’s doubtful that anyone is naive enough to still believe that what will come after Covid will lead to a better world. The horrible truth is that the best we can hope for is to cling to the creaking systems we had before our modern day plague arrived: principally, a relatively functioning democracy, and a welfare state of some sorts.

Governments and police forces across the west need to handle anti-lockdown protests very carefully. If Dutch police had killed demonstrators over the weekend, then the anti-lockdown movement would have its first martyrs – and martyrs help insurgents solidify and move towards electoral victory.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald