IT’S WIDELY HELD THAT only the uneducated fall prey to conspiracy theories. In fact, as illustrated in Adam Curtis’s latest film, this mode of magical thinking has complex origins, and paranoid delusions are just as common among the educated elite as among the disenfranchised. Curtis specifically names the tendency to imagine Russia (and other geopolitical enemies) as culpable for our own messy political realities, which is pronounced among centrist liberals and some self-declared leftists.
To illustrate how unhinged this gets, consider the recent Jewish Chronicle “investigation” and editorial into Nicola Sturgeon’s links to Iran. This had all the hallmarks of a 21st century hatchet job: guilt by association; hypocrisy; moralising cant; and, naturally, the weaponisation of identity politics (“anti-gay Iran cleric”) to serve state power. And it epitomised how click-bait has poisoned the public sphere and our collective capacity for fair moral judgement.
Regular readers know I don’t belong to Nicola’s foam finger brigade. Yet the Iran calumny unintentionally showed Sturgeon in her best light, as someone who has taken political risks for peace and who bravely built bridges with the Muslim community when it was unfashionable. If I hadn’t been on annual leave, I would have written an editorial titled, “in defence of Nicola Sturgeon”.
Imagine my disappointment, then, to read yesterday’s comments from Sturgeon loyalist MPs Alyn Smith and Stewart McDonald, urging MI5 to establish a summit on “hostile foreign activity” online. It seems that, far from conspiring with “Britain’s enemies”, the contemporary Scottish nationalist accuses the Westminster elite of being insufficiently paranoid about foreign intrusion.
“In recent months both Facebook and Twitter have published their own data about the number of accounts they have removed, in these cases for being fake accounts linked to states such as Russia and Iran,” they said in a letter to Michael Gove. “Although these data sets are relatively small in number, they do show a worrying trend in hostile foreign activity relating to political matters in Scotland and the UK, across all political divides. This is something that should worry us all.”
Elements of the SNP have decided that, faced with neo-McCarthyite slanders, the best mode of defence is attack. Talk of Russian interference has thus become a feature of liberal nationalism. Sometimes this is applied to Brexit; but the same simplifications have also been applied to elements of the Yes movement (good or bad) that escape the control of the SNP leadership.
It’s a useful illustration of why conspiratorial thinking has become so embedded among liberal elites. Conspiracies rationalise the inexplicable. They project agency onto events and behaviours that baffle us. Alienated voters in flyover country, faced with senseless factory closures, political incompetence and communities blighted by drug deaths, may conclude that the elite has been taken over by satanic paedophiles. As Curtis observes, such fantasies at least have the virtue of being interesting. More interesting than humdrum sociological realities of system disintegration.
Centrist liberals, equally, face unfathomable events. Having spent decades with an undisputed right to rule, they see Brexit, Trump and anything that challenges their authority as so incomprehensible that the only explanation can be a puppet master leading the world on a merry dance of disorder. Conspiratorial thinking comes from refusing to confront the realities of political defeat.
The irony, of course, is that Smith and McDonald are leading figures in one of the world’s great political success stories, the SNP. However, they also belong to a wider party, the party of transatlantic Clintonite liberalism, which has endured endless humiliations since 2008. And loyalty to that cause often transcends notional commitment to Scottish moral autonomy.