THEY were marching on Halloween, in the memory of a man most regard as a monster. On the last day of last month hundreds filed through the Apennine village of Predappio, where one Benito Mussolini was both born and buried.
Many were in uniform, their shirts and berets black. Some were holding aloft inky dark standards trimmed with gold tassels and adorned with eagles.
“Comrade, Mussolini!” they chanted in unison, mimicking a roll-call. “Present!”
This year’s Predappio march marked the 99th anniversary of the March on Rome, when the Italian far right, upon threat of mob violence, seized power and began a two-decade dictatorship which ended in the ruins of war.
It was also, reported the centrist newspaper Il Reformista, effectively a protest against the “Green Pass”, what in Scotland we call vaccine passports.
Fascists – actual living, breathing fascists – have found a new rallying cry.
Here in Scotland we should be aware of this threat.
Because – like it or not – vaccine passports are now a live political issue here, one we cannot allow the extreme right to hijack.
This is no theoretical risk.
Extremists, especially rightist conspiracists, have long latched on to anti-lockdown, anti-mask, and anti-vaccine protests across the developed world.
This includes Scotland: I have had a journalistic nosey at a few Covid protests; supporters of Q-Anon, the pro-Trump far-right ‘satanic paedophile’ conspiracy theory, are very visible.
This is not a column supporting vaccine passports for Scotland. Or opposing them. I am not a public health expert. Like most of us, I’m not really in a position to weight up the pros and cons.
This week the Scottish Government decided it would not expand its currently-limited application of vaccine passports, saying such a move would be disproportionate at this time. But winter is upon us, our NHS is under horrendous pressure and this question is not going away.
Opposing vaccine passports does not make you a fascist. But nor does supporting them.
Yet the internet – and even parts of the wider rightist media eco-system – is fall of overblown claims about the policy, about its alleged authoritarianism.
Some have equated what they absurdly claim to be “discrimination” against the unvaccinated to restrictions on Jews in fascist Europe or racial segregation in the United States.
This is exactly the kind of wedge issue which malign actors – from domestic political extremists to authoritarian state propagandists – love to exploit.
So far Scotland has been relatively resilient to Covid disinformation.
But, sifting through social media, it is quite clear some online opponents of vaccine passports are indulging in hyperbolic language about the policy.
The danger? Shrill or irrational opposition to vaccine passports become a gateway drug to fascism.
How do we help avoid this?
We tone down our language, we acknowledge the complexity of the issue, we try to step out of our polarised constitutional tribes and we respect stakeholders and experts and those with different perspectives.
This is a test for our country. Not whether we expand vaccine passports or not. But how we have a public discussion about the issue.
There is a particular responsibility on vested commercial interests – some of whom, I’m afraid, have shown poor judgment during the pandemic – not to indulge in internet-grade rhetoric.
Protests against vaccine passports, or new lockdowns, have flared up across the continent, in Brussels, Amsterdam, in Vienna. Nerves are frayed, people are tired. Some of these protests have been violent.
In Italy, some fascists have turned nasty. It is not just the kind of blackshirted cranks – i nostalgici, the nostalgics – who gather at Mussolini’s tomb who oppose the Green Pass. More violent elements do too.
This week there have been parliamentary calls for the ban of an openly fascistic called Forza Nuova, whose members have been violent at “no vax” rallies and and who have attacked trade unionists.
Inside Italian politics it has been the nativist and chauvinistic Fratelli d’Italia faction of Georgia Meloni, which has been the main voice opposing vaccine passports. Are they fascists? More populists: they grew out of a “post-fascist” group. Are they anti-vaxxers? Not really. But they are opportunists. And they are outside the pro-Green Pass technocratic government of premier Mario Draghi.
Yet seven out of 10 Italians support their Green Pass scheme, even its extension to workplaces, according to polls this month.
There will be lots of reasons for this, not least how traumatised Italy was by the initial Covid outbreak.
But maybe, just maybe, Italy has a lesson here for Scotland, about how we might keep the extremists out of Covid debates.
Some media conversation in the country about vaccine passports can feel philosophical, centred on fundamental understandings of what the rights and responsibilities of citizens are in a democracy. Does this help immunise the public against fascism? I don’t know. But surely it does no harm.
Let me give you an impressive example.
There is a quote – it is fake, by the way – from Hermann Goering, the Nazi, which has been floating around social media for a while now. First it was pushed by Q-Anon, now by Covid conspiracists. “The only thing that needs to be done to enslave people is to scare them,” it goes.
The twisted implication is that authorities are manufacturing fear around the pandemic to control us. This, in Italy, was recently put in to the mainstream by a former TV executive. But it was also – thoughtfully and calmly – slapped down.
“I can’t think of a word other than ‘embarrassing,” declared Gianrico Carofiglio, the prosecutor turned author of cerebral but best-selling crime novels. “It was embarrassing to cite a Nazi boss as if he were an authoritative source.”
And there and then Mr Carofiglio, slowly and softly, explained that liberty is not absolute. We have, he said, no freedom to drive without a licence, “The first right of the constitution is to health,” the writer added . “If I am dangerous to the health of others, then I am not exercising my freedom, but an arbitrary whim, anti-social behaviour.”
These arguments did not reach the Predappio marchers. There, a fascist leader, as he railed against vaccine passports, equated Mr Draghi to Mussolini.