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Artillery Row

The paranoid style in British centrism

Disinformation journalists? The call is coming from inside the house

Huge excitement swept across pro-Remain Twitter yesterday — excitement unseen since the publication of Marina Hyde’s latest column. “We might be on the verge of a HUGE SCANDAL,” one “Dr Bella” claimed:

Suspicions have been raised that Reform have fielded election candidates that aren’t real people. Is there any evidence that Mark Matlock (candidate for Clapham & Brixton Hill) actually exists? He looks AI generated.

Dr Bella’s tweet has racked up more than 4000 retweets and almost 25,000 likes. Centrist dads up and down the land missed their divorce hearings as they followed the story.

Of course, Mark Matlock is a real person and was soon appearing on GB News in good spirits. In fairness, the picture he used on his campaign materials did look a bit artificial. Yet “Dr Bella”, whoever she is, uses so many filters in her profile picture that she looks “AI generated” herself.

We hear a lot about the threat of “disinformation” and “conspiracy theories” on the political extremes. Of course, there is something to it. There are right-wingers who think Bill Gates is putting estrogen in our water supply to make all men trans women, and there are left-wingers who are boycotting the sun because it shines on Israel.

But if we’re talking about misinformation and paranoia in politics, how about the centrists? Some of the most bizarre discourse I have encountered in all my years in journalism has emanated from people whose policy preferences are blander than dry toast.

The #FBPE (Follow Back, Pro-European) worldview is founded on a conspiracy theory of society. The pure and virtuous New Labour settlement is under siege from the hostile machinations of Putinites and populists, its believers think. There is no extent to which people organically and genuinely disagree with them. They are just being hoodwinked by bots, trolls and dark money flooding into *boo hiss* Tufton Street.

Of course, the Russians do try to influence Western discourse, and bots are a real phenomenon, and funding — from all directions — does have some effect on politics or it would have no reason to exist. But there is a difference between believing that such things are elements of political disagreement and believing that political disagreement can be reduced to them.

Too often, liberal Remainers cannot comprehend the idea that their political opponents might have any thoughtful and sincere opinions. You think that the private sector could have a role to play in the NHS? You want to impose the American model of healthcare. You have concerns about expanding NATO? You love Vladimir Putin. You back border controls? You’re a Nazi.

Abroad, any politician who can be wedged into the “populist” framework can be reduced to pure malice. The likes of Viktor Orban and Giorgia Meloni have no political interests or ideological depth. They simply do, or serve, anti-democratic evil.

With this conspiratorialism comes deep paranoia

With this conspiratorialism comes deep paranoia. It was Alastair Campbell, co-host of The Rest is Politics, the audio Bible of British centrism, who suggested, without evidence, that Boris Johnson was exaggerating the severity of the COVID-19 infection that led to his being hospitalised in 2020. It was AC Grayling, the court philosopher of the pro-Remain crowd, who entertained the baseless idea that Baroness Charlotte Owens was Boris Johnson’s daughter. It’s difficult to make yourself look more undignified than Boris Johnson but somehow these people manage it.

From Carol Vorderman encouraging speculation that her Twitter followers were being removed because she criticised the Conservatives to Jolyon Maugham suggesting that critics of his book have to be motivated by political incentives, a deep persecution complex lurks here as well. Even writing this, I suspect, will look like evidence of political malice. (Did you know that The Critic is based on Tufton Street? And that I live in Eastern Europe? Well, Central and Eastern Europe. But still…)

With the paranoia comes shocking gullibility. A lot of people on the right believe in wacky things. I won’t deny that for a second. But I’m not sure we have elevated someone quite like R.S. Archer — a fictional character whose fans believe that he is a real novelist and businessman, living in Gallic luxury and encountering all manner of absurd and bigoted Brexiteers. As I wrote previously:

… there is intrinsic comedy to this in that Remainers love to flaunt their superior intelligence and education, yet are being taken in — not as a whole, of course, but in thousands of cases — by such a blatant fraud.

Time and again, R.S. “Arse” Archer has posted colourful fiction which his fans have embraced as facts. In 2022, for example, he wrote:

Telling comment from a banker here in Zurich. I asked him, “What does the UK sell next”

He didn’t even hesitate.

“O that’s easy, every investment house knows that – the NHS,  worth a fortune.  We all want a piece of that deal”

This fantasy earned him 6000 retweets. Amusingly — as the writer and occasional Critic contributor John Sturgis noticed — the editor of Byline Times recently signal boosted one of Archer’s posts on the subject of — wait for it — fake accounts.

Doubtless, there are many people who have thoughtful and sincere reasons to admire the EU and Keir Starmer, and to hate the Conservatives and anybody to their right. It would be hypocritical to ignore their existence. Yet this streak of unhinged conspiratorialism exists as well — polluting discourse by pathologising disagreement.

Perhaps Keir Starmer’s electoral success will heal the frayed nerves of the centrists. But I doubt it. All dissent will be framed as Kremlinite propaganda or malicious trolling. Starmer’s failings, as with Joseph Stalin’s, will be the result of political sabotage. I hate to reach for the language of purges and show trials — but it is tempting when these people are speculating that their political enemies do not actually exist.

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