The big con in conspiracy theories

The UK has been governed by the Conservative party since 2010. Around 75 per cent of the print news media is controlled by the party’s supporters. BBC political panel shows platform Right-wing over Left-wing viewpoints by at least two to one. The government now enjoys unprecedented powers to control culture, education, academia and protest. The best-paying and most influential professions remain dominated by the alumni of a small group of exclusive schools (who tend to lean politically to the Right).

Yet, according to the very people who enjoy this dominance of British politics and society (unprecedented in at least half a century), the whole thing is actually run by a secret far-left cabal. Welcome to the age of the conspiracy theory.

In May the UK hosted the National Conservatism conference in which some of the most powerful people in government, journalism and education claimed that the UK is controlled by a shadowy Left-wing “globalist” sect (ironically the conference was organised by an opaquely funded foreign pressure group). But NatCon was just the coming-out party for a conspiracy theory movement that is already embedded in Britain’s (real) ruling elite.

In October Britain’s shortest-serving Prime Minister, Liz Truss, resigned after crashing the economy in her third week on the job. In February she wrote an article claiming that the “real” reason her policies failed was opposition from a “very powerful [Left-wing] economic establishment”. In April Dominic Raab claimed to have been forced out of office by “unionised officials [who] were targeting me and other ministers”. Lord Frost’s public statements since leaving government have blamed a deep-state cabal for his own failings.

There is, of course, no truth to any of this. Truss lost her job because her policies were (predictably) catastrophic. Raab lost his because an independent inquiry concluded he was a bully. Frost left government because he repudiated his own Brexit deal after it did exactly what most experts predicted it would do – created a border in the Irish Sea. The conspiracy theory is the next stage in the bullshit-isation of public discourse. A bullshitter aims to convince without regard to the truth – the conspiracist demands their followers actively reject reality.

Lord Frost blamed a deep-state cabal for his own failings

Conspiracy theories create political communities, becoming about more than a particular explanation for a particular event, giving adherents an identity and feeling of belonging. At the same time, they reduce trust in established news sources and democratic norms, and encourage believers to close their minds to “outsiders”. Political leaders become “saviours”, entitled to unquestioning allegiance. Opponents become “traitors”, justifying ever more repressive measures against them. Conspiracy theories, moreover, absolve politicians of the need to address real problems, knowing they won’t be held accountable for their incompetence in office so long as they performatively attack the “enemy”.

The carcinogenic effect of conspiracy theories is clear from the example of the USA where 40 per cent believe the 2020 election was “stolen” and 17 per cent believe the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against a cabal of paedophiles. More than half of registered Republicans believe the “great replacement” theory, wherein a secret (often Jewish) global elite is plotting to wipe out white people by importing Muslims into western states. Belief in these fantasies has been used to justify mass shootings, gang violence and an attempted insurrection. Already, in the UK, 47 per cent of Brexit voters believe the great replacement theory.

It is unfortunate that the proponents of (and believers in) conspiracies tend, at the moment, to be Conservatives. Centre-right ideas can be compelling and effective without the need to resort to conspiracy theories. Indeed, many Conservatives have rightly rejected their colleagues’ flights of fancy. Yet our constitutional and political system is ill equipped to respond to this threat. Where promoting conspiracy theories might once have provoked social and political opprobrium, it is now rewarded with media appearances, speaking fees and book deals.

Take the example of Matthew Goodwin. His book Values, Voice and Virtue attempts to elevate conspiracy theorising to a (pseudo) academic discipline. Goodwin’s central claim is that a “new elite” of Left-wing “woke aristocrats” is secretly controlling the country. The book itself is not worth serious analysis but it exemplifies how conspiracy theories reward their proponents. A few years ago Goodwin’s work might have been confined to the more esoteric corners of Reddit yet, in just two months, he was given columns in the Guardian, the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph and the Times, along with multiple television appearances to promote it. No significant media outlet made any effort to fact-check his claims or challenge his analysis.

Britain is not in a good place. Our economy is one of the worst-performing in the western world. We face crises in cost of living, housing, healthcare and mental health. Nearly a third of all children live in poverty.

Sam Fowles is a barrister, Director of the ICDR, and a lecturer at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He tweets at @SamFowles

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Columns, June 2023, Star Chamber

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