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The “paranoid style” has crossed the Atlantic
BRITAIN IS SEETHING with rumours of treason and plot. Hard-core Brexiteers speculate that Theresa May is preparing to betray the 17.4m people who voted Leave, at the behest of a Machiavellian establishment. Hard-core supporters of Jeremy Corbyn believe that the same establishment is co-ordinating a vast campaign to sabotage their hero. And a growing Yellow Jacket movement feeds on far-fetched theories of secret-service plots and police cover-ups. Richard Hofstadter, a great American historian, once posited that American politics was vulnerable to a “paranoid style” that is defined by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”. That style has now found a home in Britain.
The anti-Semitism crisis gripping the Labour Party is also a crisis of conspiracy-mongering. A worrying number of people on the Labour left are influenced by two conspiracy-charged tropes: that Jews are over-represented in international finance and that the Israel lobby distorts British foreign policy. People who are open to these tropes tend to be open to other wild ideas: that the deep state is mobilising to destroy Mr Corbyn; that capitalists are conspiring to immiserate the poor; and, at the extremes, that the CIA planned 9/11 as an excuse to steal Arab oil. Alex Scott-Samuel, the chairman of the Liverpool Wavertree Labour Party who did as much as anyone to persuade the local MP, Luciana Berger, to quit the party last month, often appeared on a television channel run by David Icke, who believes that members of the Bilderberg Group are literally reptiles in human form.
Conspiracy theories are also flourishing among Brexiteers. In November Allison Pearson produced a classic of the genre for the Daily Telegraph entitled, honestly enough, “It’s beginning to look a lot like a Brexit conspiracy”. A “powerful and well co-ordinated plot to thwart the democratic will of the British people” was afoot, she wrote. The BBC and various prominent Remainers were in on it. The civil service was “staging a coup”. An unidentified source revealed that Downing Street had a plan to “encourage a crash in financial markets” to stampede MPs into voting for Mrs May’s deal.
A study of conspiracy theories conducted by researchers at Cambridge University and YouGov, a polling firm, found that some 60% of Britons believe in conspiracies. Leavers are more attracted to them than Remainers: 71% of Leave voters believe in at least one, compared with 49% of Remain voters. Thirty-one per cent of Leavers believe that Muslim immigration is part of a wider plot to make Muslims the majority in Britain, compared with 6% of Remainers. This week a Tory activist, Peter Lamb, resigned from the party after it emerged that he had endorsed various conspiracy-flavoured theories about Islam, tweeting, for example: “Turkey buys oil from ISIS. Muslims sticking together!”
What is driving all this? The collapse of faith in authority plays a part. The Cambridge-YouGov study shows that 76% of people distrust government ministers and 74% distrust company bosses (journalists do even worse, with 77% trusting them “not much” or “not at all”). The response to the financial crisis, which saw bankers saved from the consequences of their folly at public expense, was almost laboratory-made to encourage conspiracy theories. And the internet allows paranoid people to get in touch with each other and share snippets of information that confirm their suspicions. But this particular untrustworthy journalist would like to emphasise two other things.
The first is the logic of populism. Since “the people” have numbers on their side, their failure to get everything they want can be explained only by the cunning of the elites, who fix everything behind the scenes, or the machinations of traitors who claim to be on the side of the people but sell out at the last moment. The logic of populism is further distorted by a growing sense of dispossession on the right, as nativists worry that their country is being taken over by immigrants and cosmopolitan elites, and a growing sense of righteousness on the left, as the pure of heart discover ever more signs of impurity in the population at large.
A fascinating new book, “Corbynism: A Critical Approach”, by two Marxist academics, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, argues that Mr Corbyn’s brand of socialism is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. The essence of Corbynism is the belief that a “cosy cartel” of capitalists have constructed a “rigged system” for their own benefit. “The people who run Britain have been taking our country for a ride,” Mr Corbyn has said. “They’ve stitched up our political system to protect the powerful…They’ve rigged the economy and business rules to line the pockets of their friends.” It is not hard to see how this type of thinking feeds anti-Semitism.
The second is the rise of outsiders. Both Labour and the Tories are being shaped by people who have spent their lives in the wilderness, plotting with like-minded enthusiasts to promote unpopular causes. These outsiders have brought with them habits of mind that were formed on the fringes. Prime among these is projection: a willingness to imagine that everybody shares their taste for back-room plotting. They have also brought with them thousands of fellow travellers who carry these habits to extremes. Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum, a pro-Corbyn movement, worries that the surge in Labour membership that he helped engineer has brought in some undesirables.
Caught in a trap
The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are almost impossible to uproot once they have taken hold. The more that responsible politicians such as Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, try to weed them out, the stronger they become. Plenty of people on the Labour left argue that the party’s anti-Semitism crisis is itself a Jewish plot. The more hopes of a “real Brexit” or a “real socialist government” are frustrated by the complexity of reality, the more conspiracy theorists see their theories as confirmed. The paranoid style will shape British politics for some time to come.