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  1. The Weekend Report
9 September 2023

Paranoia takes root in rural England

In one of the Peak District’s most beautiful valleys, a battle over who secretly runs the world rages.

By Freddie Hayward

The narrow lane into Cressbrook, a village of fewer than 400 people in the Peak District, bears signs that read “Save Cressbrook Dale” and “Act Now!!!”. On the far side of the village the lane descends into darkness as the ancient woodland closes overhead, leading into the steep-sided, 70-acre dale, which is overlooked by outcrops of limestone that rise 100 metres from the valley floor.

In the past year, Cressbrook Dale has become the site of an argument that is modern yet atavistic, combining the perennial elements of village strife – planning disputes and littering – with something new: a war of ideas over who secretly runs the world.

In June 2022, a group called Phoenix Rose bought an area of land in the dale. Rachel Elnaugh, a leading member of the group and a former TV personality, was leaning into her phone and moving slowly to retrieve her stout, asthmatic dog, Kobe, as I approached. We met at the hairpin of a lane on the west side of the valley. Elnaugh’s hazel-grey hair reaches her elbows. She was reticent; she asked whether she could record the interview on her phone, which is rare, even among the more bumptious politicians. A few hours later – and this is unprecedented, for me – she uploaded the interview to her YouTube channel.

We walked into the dale. Tibetan prayer flags were strung between the trees. Thick moss covered the rocks. An old well, topped with black plastic, was exposed. “Someone’s taken it off, so I need to put it back,” Elnaugh said.

The villagers set up the Save Cressbrook Dale campaign because they are concerned that Elnaugh and her group will damage the dale. They shared with me what they said were prospectuses from Elnaugh, showing she planned to turn the dale into a “working farm”. The group has so far erected a tipi tent, built steps and created a parking space. The Peak District National Park Authority has ordered the group to return the dale to its former state. But the real divide with the village lies in Elnaugh’s views on world governance. 

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“I read the Great Reset,” Elnaugh explained to me, referring to a set of proposals made by the World Economic Forum (WEF), an international organisation for companies that meets annually in Davos, for a sustainable and inclusive recovery from the Covid pandemic. These proposals, made in 2020, have become a focus for conspiracy theorists. “Because I had a lot of experience in the corporate world,” she continued, “I could see that the Great Reset was actually a ‘SWOT’ analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. It didn’t contain a strategic plan so I knew that there must be a strategic plan in a second book – but not a plan that we were allowed to see.

“I’ve done a lot of work with ayahuasca [a hallucinogenic used in shamanic rituals], so I’m quite intuitive… And the penny kind of dropped.” While she listed people connected to the WEF – Justin Trudeau, King Charles, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson, Meta, Pfizer, the Bill Gates Foundation – the sun shone on purple-topped thistles. The dirty-white tipi lay at the bottom of the field. “What does that tell you, from a business point of view? That this whole thing had been cooked up.” 

And what is the WEF’s strategic plan? “Firstly: lockdown. Second phase: [vaccine] jabs to the max. And ultimately… it is headed towards total digital control through digital ID, potentially linked to a universal basic income.” Elnaugh believes corporations have manufactured the cost-of-living crisis in order to make people so poor that they accept the totalitarian conditions attached to a universal basic income.

Does she consider herself a conspiracy theorist? “I wouldn’t say it’s a theory. I’d say it’s a conspiracy fact.”

In the title sequence of the first Dragon’s Den episode in 2005, Rachel Elnaugh grips the steering wheel of a yellow Lamborghini. She spent two series as one of the show’s Dragons before her business – Red Letter Days, which sold gift experiences such as balloon flights and race-track days – went into administration. Two other Dragons, Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis, bought her out (they sold the company in 2017). The show’s producers reportedly decided her business’s failure disqualified her as a panellist.

Elnaugh began mentoring hopeful entrepreneurs, but her experience with Dragon’s Den had instigated doubts about the establishment. Elnaugh’s “huge transformation” was “unplugging and uninstalling from the programmes” by taking ayahuasca with shamans in Peru. More than once in our interview, she credits the drug as the source for her understanding of global conspiracies. According to Elnaugh, these programmes “of compliance” are simple maxims – “money doesn’t grow on trees” or “you have to work hard to be successful” – that are designed to create fear and obedience.

[See also: You can’t pay off Nimbys]

This from a woman whose role model was once Margaret Thatcher. “You can tell that I was in the programme,” she reflects. “At that time, there was a great kind of female power thing coming through… Now looking back, even that was a massive trap, that whole ‘superwoman’ trap, that I swallowed hook, line and sinker… [as if] the most important thing is to run a business or do a career and it’s secondary to be a mother. Having done a lot of medicine work, and a lot of healing work, I realise now that the role of the mother is the most important role in society.”

Elnaugh takes ordinary positions – support for small business, a scepticism towards technology, reverence for motherhood – and turns them into pillars of a global conspiracy. She sees intentionality everywhere. A reasonable critique of corporate greed becomes an explanation for how elites control the world. Universal basic income becomes a mechanism to enforce digital IDs. 

This is surprising for someone who succeeded in society, who saw the mediocrity of those in power up close. Success usually affirms one’s belief that events are accidental, the result of incompetence rather than conspiracy. Encounters with the elite tend to evaporate the illusion of their superiority. The idea the elite could orchestrate a global conspiracy becomes untenable.

Elnaugh has inverted this. Her erstwhile membership of the elite, in her eyes, gives her insider knowledge. Her suspicion originates from her time on Dragon’s Den. She saw a normal editing process for reality TV – which selected the footage of “bitchy comments [from] 6pm” when it was “80 degrees in the studio” – as proof that the media twists and distorts the narrative to suit its malevolent ends. Reality television was elided with reality itself. “Dragon’s Den was a programme,” she tells me. “I was part of creating that programme, so I feel a bit of a duty to speak out and uninstall it.”

Failure demands explanation. Those two series convinced Elnaugh that the BBC was untrustworthy. She lost control of her narrative at the BBC, so created her own.

Arguing with Elnaugh is futile because for her, nothing is as it seems. Every counter-argument can be dismissed as propaganda. As we walked up a steep lane back towards the dale’s boundary, Elnaugh expressed admiration for her son’s belief that the Earth is flat. They have debated the topic: “He was absolutely convinced in a flat Earth. And I’m like: but what about astrology?” Her five sons listen to the podcaster Joe Rogan and other “cool dudes” like him. She supports her son’s questioning approach, but she does not share his analysis: she rejects the notion of reality entirely. Scepticism has led to immaterialism: the Earth is not round or flat, because it does not really exist.

“I know the whole thing is an illusion because I’ve experienced enough ayahuasca and journeyed beyond the veil to the pure lands to realise that this is a false matrix.” The flat Earth theory, she said, was probably created by the CIA.

With two other women, Elnaugh set up the LOVE Party in January of this year to give people a chance to vote for someone “not standing on the ticket of a World Economic Forum, Davos-backed, global, corporate, hostile takeover bid”. Their manifesto – or “people’s charter” – longs for a world that never existed. A nostalgia for antique furniture; a complaint that medieval peasants had more holiday than workers today; a warning that ignorance of the Magna Carta makes a population vulnerable to tyranny.

The party’s positions lurch from libertarianism to anarchism to a version of the gold standard, to communitarianism, to a rewording of Boris Johnson’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee, to transforming the NHS into a Natural Healing Service. It wants people to live without “electromagnetic stress” (by which the party means 5G) and wants schools to teach astrology to children. At the same time, LOVE Party’s candidate for Mansfield mayor laments deindustrialisation and homelessness in a promotional video. “I really feel we are capturing the zeitgeist of the times,” Elnaugh has said.

Communes have historically sprouted from the left: the Diggers, those inspired by the French socialist Charles Fourier, the kibbutz. Yet the ideas behind the nascent Cressbrook Dale commune combine right-wing libertarianism with New Age thought, disguised in an atavistic, rural pastiche – albeit with a disdain for planning permission. 

Across the road from the war memorial in Cressbrook lies the village club, a committee-run bar open on Friday evenings. When the cotton mill at the bottom of Cressbrook operated the club was full every night, one passing local told me. Inside, I spoke to Jane from Save Cressbrook Dale over a San Pellegrino. She was visibly upset.

“There’s a lack of trust because we don’t know what’s going to happen next [in the dale],” Jane says, and added that one reason she helps the campaign is her belief in preserving national parks. “Last summer, it was very disturbing. There were big groups of people being shown around.”

For now, there is no commune. The caravan has been taken away. The Peak District National Park Authority has stood by its legal warnings to Elnaugh. The villagers behind Save Cressbrook Dale think the damage would have been worse without their campaign because the planning authorities are understaffed. They are exhausted and unnerved.

When I put to Elnaugh the villagers’ concerns that she might try to develop the dale, she dismissed it as an “old paradigm, false-matrix mindset”. “I wouldn’t even use that word ‘farming’ – I would say it’s about being in tune with nature.” Her evasive reply seems grounded in her belief that the WEF controls the media (“probably even the New Statesman; I don’t know who owns you”). The villagers and the landowners cannot talk to each other for the same reason – because one group remains trapped in a false matrix.

On the way home I got talking to my taxi driver, who was from Pakistan. As the fields rolled by, we discussed the influence of the military in Pakistani politics. “But of course,” he said, “it’s not just Pakistan: the CIA got rid of Donald Trump just as they killed Kennedy.”

Elnaugh is far from an anomaly; a large number of Britons agree with her. According to a poll from Savanta, 30 per cent of people believe the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset is designed to impose a totalitarian world government. A similar proportion think the cost-of-living crisis is a government plot to control the public. Theories about CIA assassinations are quaint compared with the ideas now circulating around Britain.

In Westminster, where I work, it is not uncommon for politicians to say they meet conspiracy theorists on the doorstep. It would be a mistake simply to deride them. As these ideas spread, politicians will have little choice but to confront this rejection of authority and the modern world. Conspiracy theories have infiltrated England’s green and pleasant land.

[See also: The myth of England’s rural idyll]

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