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Britain will keep getting weirder

Covid-era conspiracy thinking has become a permanent feature of national life.

By Clive Martin

For the past few years, I’ve been immersed in the world of British conspiracy-thinking. This strange and fast-moving scene has become something close to my “beat” as a writer. I’ve been to the protests, I’ve read the pamphlets, I’ve listened to the podcasts and I’ve watched the people as they’ve segued and unravelled into ever-more bizarre splinter groups. 

It’s hard to put an exact timeline or a definitive cause and effect on its rise in popularity. There were rumblings before Covid – the ideas of David Icke slowly made their way on to online platforms – but it was lockdown that stuck a wedge in the collective psyche, creating a break that lasts to this day. While some clapped for the carers throughout the spring and summer of 2020, others took to the street, wrapping themselves in smiley-face flags, a symbol of the anti-lockdown movement, and cheering on a cast of rabble-rousing deniers. It was the dutiful vs the disobedient, the Facebook proles against the broadsheet elites.

At first, it was a bit of fun – a sense of assembly and purpose in a time of abject boredom. A classic British excuse for a piss-up. But when the vaccine drive started, “open the pubs” became “my body my choice”, and everything became… weirder. The anti-vax cause – which was a largely American fringe movement – had been taken overground by the strife of the time, and before too long people were breaking into respiratory wards, harassing doctors and carrying posters against Bill Gates to Parliament Square. 

Soon, this turned into an amorphous, informal, conspiratorial pressure group – one with no defined name (I once called it “the radical normal”) but with a keen eye for new avenues of dissent. There is no reliable data for the amount of people in this movement, but it’s only grown since many felt that they were forced into being vaccinated. Matt Hancock’s “frighten the pants off everyone” leaked WhatsApp revelations have only added to the fury.

This is a reactive moment, and with the pandemic now in “remember that?” territory, the latest targets are the various “green” schemes that are being rolled out or proposed by local authorities across the country; 15-minute cities, ultra-low emission zones (ULEZ) and low-traffic neighbourhoods. These are three separate concepts, but they all have the same modus operandi; make it harder for people to drive locally, and in the case of 15-minute cities, give people amenities closer to home so they don’t have to drive.

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To most rational people, these seem like wishy-washy eco-incentives chiefly designed to stop people taking their people carriers to the chip shop. But to the conspiracy crowd, they’re a Davos-led assault on our liberties, a sinister redrawing of society and, possibly, a mind control exercise. 

This kind of meddling has always drawn a reaction, but what we’re seeing today isn’t a bit of Nimbyism or small-business activism. The response is psychedelic in its actions and its rhetoric, with a vocabulary drawn from DeLillo or Pynchon. At a February protest about 15-minute cities in Oxford, Piers Corbyn (very much the Zelig of UK weirdness), climbed into an anti-traffic plant pot and led a cry of “do not comply!”. Meanwhile “King” Arthur Pendragon, the chief druid, was filmed declaring that “any assault on the vehicle is an assault on the person”. 

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[See also: We are all conspiracy theorists now]

The slogans on placards in Oxford show the deep weirdness of this response and its links with the anti-vax movement. There are smiley faces galore, with signs reading “beware digital ID”, “cashless society”, “carbon lockdowns next?”. A small PA system pumps “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as pensioners hold signs denouncing “green tyranny”. A concerned group of local motorists, this isn’t.

Really, it all seems a bit “much” for what is ostensibly a PR-heavy greenwashing initiative dreamed up by a few think tanks and enacted by sympathetic local councils. But this kind of berserk overreaction is exactly the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from the radical normal.

Why has everyone lost their minds? To understand this you have to put aside your prejudices and look at the ideas, the placards, the literature, the speeches. This paranoia hinges on the concept of the Great Reset – which sounds like some obscure text from the Prevent list of radicalisation, but is, apparently, a real thing. The Great Reset is the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s post-Covid recovery plan. Naomi Klein called it “barely distinguishable from earlier Davos Big Ideas”.

The way the Great Reset has been marketed fuels conspiracy thinking, like lighter fluid on a barbecue. Here, the WEF doesn’t help itself. Read through the official literature and you will find a wealth of vague concepts, buzzwords and corporate jargon. The official website claims the initiative will “offer insights to help inform all those determining the future state of global relations, the direction of national economies, the priorities of societies, the nature of business models and the management of a global commons”.

The content on the site (which seems to have been barely updated since 2020) is loaded with creepy stock images. Articles entitled things like “3 ways COVID-19 could actually spark a better future for Africa” and “Green hydrogen’s time has come, say advocates eyeing post-pandemic world” speak gleefully of “accelerating the benefits of AI and machine learning” and “strengthening global collaboration by using the metaverse to serve the global public interest”. To a jittery public, the whole thing reads more like the main portal for a greenwashed arms manufacturer than anything else.

The people involved are hardly likely to quell the flames of conspiracy either. The WEF’s board of directors includes such veritable figures as Lawrence D Fink, chief executive of BlackRock; Mark Schneider, the CEO of Nestlé; Patrice Motsepe of the platinum-mining company African Rainbow Minerals; Al Gore; and, bizarrely, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. 

At Davos, birthplace of the Great Reset, you’ll find a similarly divisive cast of characters: your Mandelsons, your Blairs, a Clinton or two – as well as the heads of Amazon, Shell and other vast multinationals. The whole thing starts to resemble a QAnon forum post, one mired in murky doublespeak and uncertain plans. How any member of the public is meant to receive all this positively is anyone’s guess.

A little bit of critical thinking should help pass it off as the mega-rich paintball weekend that it probably is, but critical thinking is in short supply right now. And in these delusional times, the Great Reset becomes a stand-in for the New World Order and all manner of other scurrilous concepts.

[See also: The pandemic won’t be a global reset]

On an international scale, Davos continues to court some of the richest and most damaging people on the planet – while telling the public that they should be braced for dramatic changes to their lifestyles. The fact that the WEF continues to invite these people in the middle of such a global pushback reveals a serious communication error – or a total lack of care. People in power scratch their heads as to why conspiracy theories and bizarro pushbacks emerge, but they do little to help themselves.

On a local level, many believe that ULEZ and low-traffic neighbourhood schemes are unaccountable, opaque green protection rackets. Haringey Council in north London – a fierce adopter of low-traffic neighbourhoods – has constantly tried to face down criticism of its plans, while reportedly making £2m in revenue in just four months after fining more than 60,000 people. Whether the people of Haringey ever see the fruits of this scheme, environmentally or otherwise, remains to be seen. 

There is a class element at play here and a generalised feeling of powerlessness. Much of the fightback against the low-traffic neighbourhoods, ULEZ and other green measures comes from tradespeople and small-business owners, who see these measures as favouring WFH laptop types – as opposed to those who need to lug vans full of product and equipment around. 

Perhaps the first time we saw this sentiment was in the hugely divided borough of Islington, where fund managers live cheek by jowl with street traders. As far back as 2020, the borough has seen protests and marches staged by residents furious about the redrawing of roads. In response, a separate group of clean-air-conscious residents stood as “human bollards” outside a local primary school. The class dynamics between the two sides were obvious. Even the most cursory understanding of British social hierarchy will tell you which side is more likely to be dragging a Ford Transit full of tools through Upper Street rush hour. 

At a recent People’s Question Time event in Ealing, east London, Sadiq Khan – the target of much of the London-based pushback – was quick to draw links to the anti-ULEZ protesters and the far right: “What I find unacceptable is some of those who’ve got legitimate objections joining hands with some of those outside, who are part of a far-right group… Let’s be frank, let’s call a spade a spade. Some of those outside are part of the far right. Some are Covid deniers. Some are vaccine deniers. And some are Tories.”

Khan isn’t wrong; the UK conspiracy movement is mired in anti-Semitic and racist ideas. But reducing it to purely this is a dangerous move, one that recalls Hillary Clinton’s backfiring “basket of deplorables” line. The sheer number of people involved, and the way it seems to unite both eco-crusties and boomer Brexiteers, suggests this is not a crowd that can be dismissed with a wave of the “you’re a racist” wand.

Experimental green schemes usually treat the working class as guinea pigs. When the UK launched its “hydrogen village” scheme, they chose the industrial town of Ellesmere Port in north-west England – with Redcar (a deprived area in the north-east) potentially becoming the second roll-out. Locals told the Guardian of their fear at becoming Westminster “lab rats”, calling to mind that old truism: “They wouldn’t let it happen in Guildford.”

The climate issue is real and urgent, and will probably require some impact on people’s habits and lifestyles (and possibly even their wallets). But to have any hope of dampening the madness and winning people over, there have to be far better lines of communication – and greater equality. 

Politicians – from local to global – need to show where motorists’ fines are going, reveal the environmental impact, reinvest openly and fairly in local infrastructure, stop writing off their opponents as deplorables and start talking clearly. Davos needs to be opened up, away from the heavily guarded thing that it is, and away from the likes of venture capital firms and Nestlé.

But equally, the public needs to stop falling for the demagogues capitalising on all this dissent, and indulging themselves in conspiracy overthink in lieu of rational criticism. There are plenty of real issues with these schemes, but state-sanctioned mind control probably isn’t one of them.

Clearly, we have become a country in which significant numbers of the population believe in some wild ideas. And with more and more green incentives to come, we’re going to see a lot more of this fightback and conspiratorial thought. These are turbulent times that call for brave ideas, yet there is a top-down belief that, eventually, all these people will fall into line. But without open dialogue, or the quietening of Davos arrogance, things can only get weirder.

[See also: The dangerous conceits of the green revolution]

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