Outside the Westminster bubble
The attack on Keir Starmer was not the result of Boris Johnson’s rhetoric
Words have consequences. On 31 January, Boris Johnson stood up in the House of Commons and accused the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, of failing to prosecute the BBC paedophile Jimmy Savile when he was running the Crown Prosecution Service. One week later, a mob incited by Johnson’s rhetoric descended on Westminster and hounded Starmer in the street, accusing him of being a “paedophile protector”.
That is the narrative in much of the media today. “MPs blame Boris Johnson’s ‘poison’ after protestors mob Keir Starmer”, says the Guardian. “Keir Starmer attacked after Boris Johnson’s disgraceful Savile lie’, runs the headline on the front of the Mirror, adding: “This is why words matter… this is why truth matters”.
The BBC is only slightly more circumspect. “It’s impossible to say categorically that the protesters had been driven by the prime minister’s comments last week’, says Laura Kuenssberg. I am reluctant to criticise Kuenssberg because she is hated by exactly the kind of people who abused Starmer yesterday, but these are the weaseliest of weasel words. The truth does matter, and the truth is that this was a rabble of anti-vaxxers and assorted fruitcakes who had spent the weekend travelling to London as part of a half-baked tribute to the recent Canadian anti-lockdown convoy. They had complaints about everything from “jab mandates’ to “low emission zones’ and were happy to scream in the face of any politician they encountered.
The protesters set off from around the country from as early as 10 am on Saturday with a view to having a “beach party” in Bournemouth in the evening, “occupying the M25” on Sunday and “occupying central London” on Monday. The list of speakers at the “Bournemouth outreach protest” gives a good indication of what their beef is. It included the ubiquitous Piers Corbyn, the rapper Remeece and the former nurse Kate Sheminari.
Remeece’s songs include “Don’t Tek Di Vaccine” and he told the crowd in Bournemouth “these GPs are not going to know what’s hitting them… we’re going to start putting some fear into them”. In July, Shemirani — who had recently been struck off the medical register — compared NHS workers to Nazis and said: “At the Nuremberg trials, the doctors and nurses stood trial and they hung.” Piers Corbyn needs no introduction.
If there was a single trigger for the “UK Convoy” it was the belief that the Covid vaccines are under criminal investigation. This idea arose after Mark Sexton, a former police officer, made a complaint at Hammersmith police station in December levelling various charges at the government and its vaccination programme and was given a crime reference number. This number — 6029679/21 — has acquired mystical significance among anti-vaxxers who recently paraded it around London during one of their many protests. Ex-footballer Matt Le Tissier adopted it as his profile pic on Twitter last week.
It is one of weirdest conspiracy theories of recent years, so easy to debunk and yet spreading so quickly among people who believe it so passionately. A crime reference number means nothing more than that a complaint has been received by the police. There is no criminal investigation into the vaccines. Nevertheless, in recent weeks anti-vaxxers have been visiting vaccination centres, citing the reference number and demanding they be shut down. Others have visited police stations, frustrated by the lack of progress in the fictitious investigation. Many of them see themselves as “sovereign citizens” or “freemen on the land” and use pseudo-legal gobbledegook when “serving notice” to vaccination staff and police officers. Occasionally, they attempt to make a citizen’s arrest, with amusing consequences.
Upon assembling in London on Monday, the rabble headed off to Downing Street where they were treated to another keynote speech from the tireless Piers Corbyn. They did not go looking for Keir Starmer, nor could they have any reasonable expectation of meeting him. Instead, they hung around outside Parliament, as protesters do every day of the week, looking for something to do. If they had wanted to protest against Starmer specifically, they would have made some anti-Starmer placards. They didn’t. Instead, they had placards reading “No Vaccine Mandates”, “No Vaccine Passports”, “Boris is A Liar” and, in the case of one lady, “Proud member of a small fringe minority with unacceptable views”.
When Starmer emerged on the street by chance with David Lammy, these yobs launched an intimidating verbal assault on him. Inevitably, it was captured on mobile phones for posterity and what you hear in the videos largely depends on who was filming them. One man at the back of the mob shouted about nothing but paedophilia, accusing Starmer himself of being a paedophile and repeating the charge that Starmer had let Savile off the hook.
But he was in a minority of one or two. The other videos put online reveal a range of incoherent obsessions. Not every word can be discerned, but I could make out the following comments, all of which were directed Mr Starmer: “What’s it like being a freemason?’, “What’s it like completely ignoring everything that’s going on right now?’, “Why aren’t you opposing the government?’, “Why aren’t you standing up for the working class man?’, “f**king traitor’, “f**king c**t’, “traitor” (many times), “why are you protecting paedophiles?’, “paedo protector’, ’do you enjoy working for the New World Order?’, “did you come here to distract from the protest?’, “why did you go after Julian Assange?” (repeatedly), “what happened to the working man, Mr Starmer?”, “is this a Labour Party or a party of the elite?”, “what about the working class?”, “why have your party allowed our Magna Carta, our rights, our common law to be ignored?” and “why did you go after a journalist, Mr Starmer?”.
It is quite possible that the references to paedophilia were at least partially inspired by Johnson’s widely reported comments in Parliament on 31 January, but conspiracy theorists need little encouragement to connect the powerful with paedophile rings, especially since the QAnon theory became popular. Michael Gove was harassed by anti-lockdown protestors in October with shouts of “paedo”. GB News’ Tom Harwood was yelled at in July by protesters who called him a “paedo protector” for no apparent reason. People like this will shout anything at anybody in politics or the media. Even Newsnight’s mild-mannered Nick Watt had the word “traitor” yelled in his face by swivel-eyed, dog-on-the-rope demonstrators last year.
Political journalists have a habit of assuming that what matters to them matters to everybody
The New World Order, Magna Carta, Julian Assange, “common law’, paedophiles, vaccines, freemasons — these are the telltale fixations of the psychotic and deranged. Such people are always with us. At the moment, they have taken over what’s left of the “anti-lockdown” movement to voice their peculiar views. Next year it will be something else.
It is concerning that we have a Prime Minister who, when cornered, lashes out with comments that give encouragement to conspiracy theorists. It does have echoes of Donald Trump. But the idea that the disgraceful scenes outside Parliament yesterday were triggered by Johnson’s comments is absurd. To believe this, you need to believe that a “convoy” inspired by anti-lockdown protesters in Canada which explicitly aimed to “take down govt and fake opposition” would not have gone to London had Johnson not made his ill advised comments. You need to believe if it had been Johnson, rather than Starmer, who had been walking down that street, he would not have received a similar level of abuse.
Political journalists have a habit of assuming that what matters to them matters to everybody. They also tend to assume that they are dealing with rational actors. And so when they see Keir Starmer accosted by a mob and hear the word “paedophile”, they immediately make a connection to the story that has preoccupied them and the rest of the Westminster lobby for the last week and to the broader story of whether the Prime Minister can survive. Here, it seemed to them, was cause and effect. It was proof that the story had “cut through” to ordinary people and that Johnson’s fake news had inflamed their animal passions.
But the “protesters” are quite obviously neither rational nor ordinary and they cannot be understood by journalists who think the world revolves around Prime Minister’s Questions and cabinet reshuffles. They are a tiny group of people on the fringes of mental health with no coherent political views who are understandably ignored by the media most of the time despite their frequent visits to Trafalgar Square. Their obsession with paedophile rings has no more broader political significance than their obsession with “clot shots’, the World Economic Forum or, er, low emission zones.
This is not to say that they are totally insignificant. The growth of conspiracist thinking in recent years, and particularly during the pandemic, is concerning and the potential for violence is real. The appeal of conspiracy theories in the Internet age is a subject worthy of attention, but we miss the point if we assume that those who believe them are triggered by anything as trivial as the toing and froing of conventional party politics.
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