First Thoughts: How Leave and Trump voters are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories

Nearly half of Trump’s voters think that global warming is a hoax “invented to deceive people”.

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Metropolitan liberal elitists – a category that presumably includes New Statesman columnists – are constantly enjoined to “respect” the voters who support Brexit. We should not patronise them as ignorant bigots, motivated by racism and xenophobia, nor as uneducated mugs fooled into supporting a false prospectus by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Donald Trump’s voters in the US are to be “respected” in similar fashion.

Now comes a study from Cambridge University and YouGov, testing the extent to which Europeans and Americans believe in conspiracy theories. It finds that 31 per cent of Leave voters and 41 per cent of Trump voters think Muslim immigration is part of “a bigger plan to make Muslims a majority of this country’s population”. The equivalent figures for Remain and Hillary Clinton voters are 6 per cent and 3 per cent respectively. Nearly half of Trump’s voters think that global warming is a hoax “invented to deceive people” and nearly a quarter that “the harmful effects of vaccines is being deliberately hidden”. Those views are shared by only an eighth of UK Leave voters but, again, the proportion of Remain voters who subscribe to the same opinions is many times lower.

Clearly, one shouldn’t tar all Leave and Trump voters with the same brush: 29 per cent of the former and 16 per cent of the latter don’t believe in any conspiracy theories at all. But without the support of those who hold views that seem – let’s be honest – utterly stupid, neither Leave nor Trump would have won. Those voters don’t respect, for example, the integrity, independence and expertise of scientists who have gathered copious evidence of global warming. Nor do they respect Muslims as honest citizens. Why should we respect them?

Riviera Britain

Since I am a pessimist about the prospects of convincing the British of the need for action on climate change, perhaps I should rejoice that only 7 per cent overall think it is a hoax. But denial isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s that Britons’ experience of global warming is so far a broadly positive one and its continuation looks quite attractive. As so often, the Daily Mail captured the national sentiment. On the Met Office’s new report that, by 2070, average summer temperatures could reach 24°C, the paper’s headline was “Riviera Britain”, accompanied by a picture of people on a Dorset beach.

Bridge to nowhere

Boris Johnson’s bridge ambitions have grown since his London “garden bridge” over the Thames was aborted. His latest proposals include a bridge over the Channel (22 miles) and another over the Irish Sea (14 miles). Around 2030, he’ll probably propose a bridge between Britain and America. You may think it’s a subconscious metaphor for something else, but I couldn’t possibly comment. All I know is that the world owes many unnecessary bridges to desperate politicians. For the Humber Bridge, we can thank Harold Wilson, who ordered its construction in 1966 when he feared losing a by-election in Hull and, with it, Labour’s tiny Commons majority.

China’s 183-metre-high Chishi Bridge in remote Hunan province – described by the New York Times last year as “overpriced, underused and sinking in debt” – was built by a government desperate to stimulate the economy after the 2008 financial crisis. The longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, Russky Bridge between Russky Island and Vladivostok, was built by Vladimir Putin to impress visitors to a summit on the island. It can carry 50,000 cars a day; the island’s normal population is 5,000.

Musk moments

The billionaire Tesla founder Elon Musk, aged 47, claimed the other day that the chances of his one day travelling to Mars are 70 per cent. Apart from the physical and technical problems, Musk would have to endure a 260-day journey in a confined space with several other humans. When he went to “help” boys trapped in a cave in Thailand, he fell out with the rescue team within hours, so the chances of a smooth voyage don’t look high. After all, Musk once described public transport as “a pain in the ass” because “there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer”. He may regret not taking his chance as a stowaway on the unmanned Nasa probe that has just landed safely on Mars.

Blair hunt

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Tony Blair, calling for a second referendum, says that “if the country votes again to Leave… I’ll get behind it and try to make it work”. Is that a promise or a threat?

Left field

Since the former NS columnist Ed Smith was appointed in April as England’s national cricket selector, the Test team has played ten matches, winning eight, including a 3-0 whitewashing of Sri Lanka, a rare feat in Asian conditions that are unfamiliar to English players. Among his unexpected selections, initially as an injury replacement, was Ben Foakes, a proper wicketkeeper. In recent years, England have chosen wicketkeepers for their batting rather than their keeping skills. They were adequate in English and Australian conditions, where pace bowlers predominate, because they needed only to stand back and dive around a lot. In Asia, however, where conditions favour spin bowlers, keepers must stand up to the wicket. Foakes, probably the best wicketkeeper in the world as well as a fine batsman, missed nothing and the knowledge that he could bring off a stumping inhibited opposing batsmen from leaving their ground to attack England’s flaky spinners.

Smith’s selections – which have also restored leg spin and left-arm swing bowling, two other unfashionable skills, to the England team – have been widely described as “left field”. Which, as it happens, was the title of his NS column, to which one day he will return.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 28 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died