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14 January 2023

Andrew Bridgen isn’t the only conspiracy theorist when it comes to the NHS

When things go wrong, we are all primed to go looking for someone to blame.

By Jonn Elledge

So, Andrew Bridgen has destroyed his reputation. This seems like an unlikely turn of events, since it’s not like the reputation of the arch-Brexiteer and Tory MP for North West Leicestershire was looking that perky to start with. Yet manage it he has, by ramping up his nonsensical and damaging comments about the “experimental” Covid vaccine and its mysteriously hushed-up side effects. When asked for evidence of all this Bridgen has, unsurprisingly, failed to provide any.

On Wednesday he finally said something bad enough that even this Conservative Party felt it had to act. “As one consultant cardiologist said to me,” he tweeted, “this is the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust.” No consultants, cardiologist or otherwise, have yet come forward to claim responsibility. Bridgen promptly lost the whip and is out of the party, and there are now discussions over whether a man who spread conspiracy theories that could endanger public health should really be eligible to stand for the Tories again.

This is not a flattering observation, I fear, but: Bridgen fits neatly with our sense of what a conspiracy theorist is supposed to be like. He has claimed that shadowy forces are involved in a plot against the public for some unknown but nefarious reason, which is pretty much the definition of a conspiracy theory. More than that, he seems at a slight remove from reality, tweeting from a parallel universe of his own alternative facts, drawn from websites far removed from the wicked mainstream media. He may not have the YouTube following or the tinfoil hat, but when we think of the new conspiracism, it’s men like Bridgen we probably picture.

In some ways, though, this is a false comfort because there’s another, less obvious form of conspiracism to which rather more of us are prone. I’ve written before about the copious polling evidence showing that substantial groups say they agree with many conspiracy theories. A majority of Americans, for example, have consistently claimed to believe that a conspiracy did for JFK. The reasons for this seem to lie in our mental wiring. Our brains have evolved to notice patterns, to spot the shapes in the bushes that are actually a predator, or the change in the weather that suggests the oncoming storm. One side effect of all this is that, when things go wrong, we are primed to go looking for someone to blame.

So history is littered with examples of conspiracism going into overdrive at times of trouble, and looking for specific people or groups to blame for broad social trends. Those at the sharp end of urban plagues, for example, have sometimes viewed them not merely as the result of the unhygienic and cramped conditions ideal for spreading disease, but as conscious choices by political elites attacking the poor for their own ends. The result is that the medics trying to help have sometimes faced resistance, even violence. That’s not to say elites themselves are immune from this habit. The Illuminati were a short-lived, stuck-up but essentially harmless Bavarian book group. The myth they are an all-powerful secret society, which has presided over politics for over 200 years, has its origins in the belief among certain conservative thinkers that there is surely no way the people could have come up with this whole French Revolution thing all by themselves.

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[See also: Andrew Bridgen is the sign of a new conspiracist conservatism]

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The last few, turbulent decades are not short of examples, either. The 5G mast going up on your street and ruining your view; the fact the ethnic makeup of your country is changing; even the way your kids have radically different ideas and values to your own – all these things result from invisible, incomprehensible and faceless forces. Much easier to blame a sinister tech industry, or politicians who hate Britishness, or a shapeless but terrifying new ideology called “woke”.

The biggest events often attract the biggest conspiracy theories, as if we are trying to balance the scales between the apparently tiny cause and world-shakingly huge effect. The notion that the almighty US government was not powerful or competent enough to prevent a few dozen really committed fundamentalists from killing thousands in New York is terrifying. Much easier to believe that the government knew about 9/11 before it happened – and thus that there must have been some reason it chose not to act. In the same way, it’s difficult to grasp, and terrifying to think, that a life-ruining event could be the result of random mutations on a virus on a bat. Easier, from some perspectives, to get your head round the idea it was the work of the Chinese authorities. Or Amazon. Or Bill Gates.

None of this is to say that there are never bad people, doing bad things. There are. But often they’re no more in control than the rest of us. We are all sometimes at the mercy of broad social, economic or biological trends, which we can’t even understand, let alone control. It is, perversely, a comfort to imagine a cackling supervillain presiding over the mess of our lives. If bad people ruined you, after all, then good people could help.

Which brings us to the new conspiracy theory that’s emerged in some quarters these last few weeks. As was discussed on a recent New Statesman podcast, there are some who believe, and many more who wonder, if the chaos now engulfing the NHS might result from a long-term Tory plot to destroy an institution they’ve always hated. But while there are a few market fundamentalists who truly hate the NHS, and would love nothing more than to tear it down, they’ve always been outnumbered by the pragmatists, even on the right.

The truth about the crisis in the NHS is far more prosaic, and far more frightening. The NHS is popular; the Tories’ overriding ideology is the desire to win elections. The crisis may result from underfunding and negligence, but even this government didn’t want this to happen. The really scary thing is that sometimes things can go ruinously wrong, without anyone intending it at all.

[Read more: Are the Conservatives “defunding” the NHS in order to privatise it?]