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Stop moaning about Europe – Brexit is the least of our troubles

In a corrupt, divided UK, there are plenty of problems down the line whether we leave or remain.

A recent headline in the Times left me reeling at the speed at which the world has changed: “The moaners mustn’t be allowed a second vote”. But surely moaning was the essence of wanting to leave the EU?

In discussions about the Brexit vote, much of the attention has been focused on a mass revolt by the English working class. This was crucial, undoubtedly, but for me the sinking feeling I had while watching the early results came from staring at the map. I just knew that a swath of Middle England, from Somerset to Suffolk – that diehard Conservative territory – was about to turn on its master. For the first time in a generation, those places had a proper Tory prime minister, and now they were going to destroy him.

For anyone feeling even faintly disaffected with a careless and mean-spirited government, the opportunity that the referendum provided to give David Cameron and George Osborne a free kick in the head was almost too good to be true. Yet the Tories’ betrayal of themselves probably needs more explanation.

I shiver even to raise this, because I feel so dangerously close to these people in terms of my identity. I am never happier than when I’m wandering around a National Trust pile, admiring a luxuriant yet ordered garden from behind mullioned windows, contemplating coffee-and-walnut cake, humming a little Elgar under my breath and thinking about how tremendously brave our lads were in the Boer War. But what saves me is that I know this has nothing much to do with foreign policy or economic choices: that, ultimately, all that coffee-and-walnut cake has to come out somewhere.

The moaning at the heart of the Leave argument has gone on as long as anyone can remember. John Major was driven mad by various peculiar Tory MPs who made no sense and had the horrible air of those who wear monogrammed underwear and have a special room in which they listen only to Wagner. Incredibly, these people are still around. Michael Gove was correct, though, when he talked about British voters having had enough of “experts”: in effect, those wanting to leave the EU had almost no intellectual base of any kind beyond the utterings of iguanodons such as Bill Cash and Patrick Minford. The vote has not caused some intellectual leviathan to burst to the surface and transform the country. Instead, all we have is the unremitting moaniness of a deeply silly, coddled and evasive English middle class.

I keep having a nightmarish vision of a Union Jack-themed dinner party in Cromer, at which middle-aged couples, chewing local produce, stare across the table at each other, saying things like: “Tim, we’ve finally got our country back.” Yet what shape should that country, no longer strangled by the tentacles of Brussels, take? The moaning has gone on so long, it is no longer clear what it has to do with the EU. Besides, deep down, these people know that each time they said “Pole”, they actually meant “Somali”.

The only vision of the future described so far is one that frees up “the lion to roar once more”. But it is hard to see where and at what greater volume this could happen. Britons can be found all over the world – bribing Saudis, filling the Gulf of Mexico with spilled oil, grovelling to the Chinese, building London homes for Russian criminals. Modern Britain already acts on the widest stage. This is the heart of Middle England’s problem.

Taking a walk across London the other day, I was struck by how many businesses there were, lodged in posh streets, filled with nicely brought-up yet slimy young middle-class English men and women who supply yachts, financial “advice”, ugly art and discreet homes for a global clientele untrammelled by the EU or, indeed, by almost any legal framework. When the Mafia expert Roberto Saviano stated in May that Britain was “the most corrupt country in the world”, I initially felt a bit affronted, but walking west from the Strand to Park Lane proves how much Middle England has been behaving like some diseased Jeeves.

The tragedy lies in the way so many middle-class Leavers know this to be true. There can be hardly a village in the Cotswolds or Sussex that does not have that big house with extensive grounds and security gates yet absent owners. The post-Cold War world has reconfigured the nicer bits of southern England so they are now honeycombed with fairly straightforward criminality. The unfortunate revelation in the Panama Papers that Cameron’s father used entirely legal (if entirely contemptible) measures to shield his investments from tax shows that those stables, nice schools and foreign holidays of even the old elite were, in effect, being paid for by starving the NHS of funds, denying our troops proper vehicles, closing libraries – take your pick.

The problem that faces Britain as a result of Cameron’s staggering incompetence is that, whatever the result of leaving the EU, it cannot change any of the things that many people feel uneasy about. Everyone is right to moan – but not about the EU in particular. The UK is now wobbling all over the place, spurred on by an intellectually feeble movement that has no idea what it wants, one that has hardly any respect in parliament, or the City, or Nato, or in scientific or academic life, or among any of our allies or trading partners, anywhere in the world.

Putting out the hand of friendship, I think that, whether we leave or remain, we will soon have plenty of new things to moan about.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge

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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.