The chattering classes’ favourite conspiracy theory
The idea that David Kelly was murdered is as baseless as the idea that Bush crashed planes into the Twin Towers. So why is it so respectable?
There are some people who think conspiracy theories spring from the caliginous minds of tabloid-reading Diana fans or gun-wielding American rednecks. These people must be confused by the David Kelly conspiracy theory. Here we have a chattering-class conspiracy theory, indulged and promoted not by ill-educated grunts, but by politicians, medics and the Guardian as well as the Daily Mail. The respectability of the ramblings of the Kelly cult, the seriousness with which they are treated, reveals much about the origins and nature of contemporary conspiracism.
Kelly was the British weapons inspector who committed suicide in a forest in Oxfordshire in July 2003 by overdosing on pills and slitting his wrists (YES HE DID). He did this after he was exposed as the source for journalist Andrew Gilligan’s claim that the New Labour government had ‘sexed up’ its dossier on Saddam’s WMD. But some question the circumstances surrounding Kelly’s suicide, and then make a fantastic leap – without the benefit of anything resembling evidence – to other theories. Namely that he was murdered, by Blairite assassins or by anti-Saddam Iraqi forces annoyed that he was playing down Saddam’s threat. In common with all other conspiracy theories, it is 1% scepticism and 99% demented speculation.
Only this conspiracy theory comes from the dinner-party circuit rather than the David Icke one. Every year or so, some of Britain’s top medical experts write a letter to a newspaper demanding a full inquest into Kelly’s death, because it is ‘extremely unlikely’ that he would have haemorrhaged from cutting his ulnar artery in his wrist. And every time, their letter opens the floodgates to more furious tale-peddling about what might really have happened. (‘Might really’ – every conspiracy theorists’ favourite two words.) And so it has been over the past week, where first a group of profs wrote a letter to The Times on 13 August questioning the conclusion about Kelly’s suicide, and less than a week later we have headlines about murderous MI5, anti-Saddamites sneaking through Oxfordshire forests, and the claim that ‘KELLY COUSIN SAYS HE WAS ASSASSINATED’.
The social breeding of the Kelly cult is impeccable. These are not bedsit weirdos – they are professors (‘boffins’ to the tabloids), MPs, TV producers, serious journalists and poshos. This week, former Tory leader Michael Howard joined the chorus of respectable people calling for a full inquest into Kelly’s death on the basis that ‘new statements by doctors raise serious questions’. Howard didn’t say ‘I think Kelly was murdered’, but he didn’t need to – his demand instantaneously threw petrol on the flames of the Kelly conspiracy theories (and he must have known it would). One Lib-Con Cabinet minister is calling on justice secretary Kenneth Clarke to scrap the 70-year embargo on releasing Kelly’s medical records so that we can find out ‘the truth’. This is the equivalent of dangling a bright red rag in front of the internet’s battalion of conspiracists.
The Kelly conspiracy theory has most famously – and fatuously – been promoted by Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP no less. Once the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and now a junior member of the Lib-Con government, Baker wrote a book in 2007 called The Strange Death of David Kelly in which he said the weapons inspector was possibly murdered by an anti-Saddam group. This led the serious journalist Melanie Phillips to ‘run the risk of being branded a conspiracy theorist’ by announcing that she was ‘not convinced David Kelly had taken his own life at all’. This is a recurring theme in the chattering-class conspiracy theory about Kelly: the attempt to distance themselves from those actual conspiracy theorists, who believe Di was murdered and 9/11 was executed by Dick Cheney, by presenting their Kelly conspiracy theory as evidence-based. Er, just like the 9/11 and Diana nutters do.
And while it is mainly the Mail that is propagating Kelly conspiracy theories this week, more respectable papers have also entertained this baseless rubbish. In 2007, under the headline ‘Was David Kelly murdered?’ (another favoured tactic of the conspiracy theorist: turn your crazy theory into a question in order to make it sound a little less crazy), a Guardian writer said: ‘I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories but the death of David Kelly struck me at the time as distinctly odd, sinister even.’ This was written in response to a TV programme exploring whether Kelly was murdered, which was shown not on Five or Bravo but on the erudite BBC2.
The well-to-do mythmakers are protesting way too much when they say ‘we’re not like the Diana brigade or the 9/11 loons’. For the Kelly murder story has all the classic ingredients of the conspiracy theory. It ignores evidence, in this case that Kelly severed a key artery (primary cause of death) and also took 29 co-proxamol tablets and was suffering from an undiagnosed artery condition (contributory factors in death). ‘I’ve got no doubt that the cause of David Kelly’s death was a combination of blood loss, heart disease and overdose of co-proxamol’, says no less an authority than Professor Robert Forrest, president of the Forensic Science Society. The key ‘insight’ of the Kelly cult – that some cops didn’t see much blood at the death scene – is also easily explained. As top pathologists have pointed out, it’s not unusual in deaths by bleeding in the outdoors, where the leafy, muddy earth is far more absorbing than a hospital floor, to see little blood.
And like all conspiracy theories, the David Kelly one moves swiftly from asking questions about an incident to speculating about other possible incidents. Scepticism about the cause of death gives rise to speculation about assassination. The Kelly cult is deeply concerned about the holes in The Official Story, such as the alleged bluntness of the knife Kelly used to sever an artery – but it is not at all concerned about the holes in its own story, such as the absence of murderers’ footprints, the dearth of witnesses, the question of whether the killers force-fed Kelly 29 of his own tablets as well as murdering him in a way that was not spotted by pathologists. Such is the way of the conspiracy theorist: a seeming lack of evidence to back up the official version of events transmogrifies into hard evidence for their own nutty version of events. Lack of evidence becomes evidence in a crazy po-mo war between relativism and reality.
Too often, conspiracy theories are written off as the work of the dumb lower orders. The Kelly conspiracy theory shows that there’s far more to them than that. The conspiracy theory emerges at a time when people feel that society has spun beyond their control. These theories become a way of making sense of seemingly senseless events, of putting forward clear, black-and-white, frequently moralistic tales in an effort to explain the workings of the world and our place within it. So 9/11 conspiracy theories emerged amongst those who feel most cut-off in modern-day America – working-class, often Southern whites – and were later made respectable by Democratic-leaning celebs and thinkers. The Diana conspiracy theory is most tightly clung to by those who feel estranged from both traditional Britain (those evil royals) and modern Britain (those backbone-lacking Blairites), though it too was made respectable by the bizarre decision in 2004 to hold an official investigation into whether Di’s death was more than a ‘straightforward road traffic accident’.
And in the Kelly conspiracy theory, we effectively have a middle-class screech of rage against a political system that the middle classes believe no longer represents their interests, an extreme expression of disgruntlement with the Blair government for not living up to ‘our expectations’. That’s why Kelly is idolised as an unimpeachable truth-teller (when he was no such thing: he was a warmongerer par excellence and was providing that NYT hack Judith Miller with BS about Iraq right up to the end of 2002), while Blair and his people are depicted as dark, possibly murderous forces – because this is a fanciful morality tale designed to satisfy a feeling of estrangement amongst sections of the middle classes. David Kelly was ‘like all of our dads’, said one journalist this week: he was ‘conscientious, private, decent and ordinary’ in contrast to ‘the macho game in the political/media beltway’. In peddling this simplistic story in a desperate bid to make sense of their own feelings of isolation from the Blairite era, the chattering classes have committed GBH against the truth every bit as much as those 9/11 nuts have done.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.