Russia and Brexit: a chattering-class conspiracy theory

Remoaners are harming British democracy more than Putin ever could.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Brexit Politics

Imagine how entitled you would have to be, how utterly used to getting your own way on every political and social matter, to think that the only possible explanation for a large number of people disagreeing with you is that they’d been got at by Russia and its mind-meddling invaders of the internet.

Yes, this is the latest elite Remainer cry. Blissfully unaware of how much they sound like political Veruca Salts, having spent 18 months boring the good people of Britain rigid with their foot-stomping and weeping, Remoaners are now landing squarely on the anti-Russia conspiracy theory as the explanation for why Brexit happened. It couldn’t possibly be because they failed to convince people of the merits of the EU. It couldn’t be because people disagree with them. No, it must be down to some foreign virus, messing with our grey matter and so frying our brains with EU-phobic propaganda that we all yelped ‘Leave!’ in unison like lemmings-cum-Manchurian-candidates. ‘Yes, that’s what it was’, they tell themselves at night, as they wrap themselves in the comfort blanket of self-delusion.

Of all the explanations-cum-libels that elite Remainers have offered for why they lost, the ‘Russia did it’ conspiracy theory has got to be the worst. Yes, their accusations of racism against Leavers were foul and divisive. Their suggestion that we were hoodwinked by Ukippy demagogues was patronising (and wrong — UKIP has collapsed post-Brexit). Their cynical ratcheting-up of a post-Brexit hate-crime panic was incredibly dangerous, sowing social division and convincing EU citizens in Britain that they are not wanted here, which is untrue: polls show a majority of Leavers want them to stay. But the Russia thing shows just how far they’re willing to drag politics into the gutter in order to rationalise the fact that for the first time in their cushioned, well-connected lives, something went awry politically.

The more tinfoil-hat sections of the elite Remainer set have been whispering about dark Russian influence for months. But it is now frontpage news thanks to new research showing that fake Twitter accounts linked to the Russian Internet Research Agency said some stuff about British politics, and also to Theresa May, who showboated at a banquet for business leaders in London yesterday by accusing Russia of ‘planting fake stories’. Cue 1950s-style frontpage newspaper headlines this morning, with The Times saying ‘Russia used web posts “to disrupt” Brexit vote’ and the Guardian insisting ‘Russia backed Brexit in fake Twitter posts’.

But if you look at the latest revelations, they’re spectacularly small fry. Of course Russia has an interest in what happens in Western nations. And through media channels like Russia Today, it sticks its oar into public discussion here. Just as Brits do overseas. Hello, British Council. Or BBC World Service. Or the Foreign Office, indeed. What these bodies do is little different to what Russia does. As for the US, it spent a vast amount of money and time and energy getting Boris Yeltsin elected in 1996, to a level that remains utterly unproven and highly unlikely in relation to Putin’s alleged whisking of Trump into the White House. Hold the front page: Nations Seek To Influence Other Nations!

But the anti-Russia conspiracy theories of elite Remainers are not concerned with these open, well-known stirrings of debate overseas by news agencies and sometimes by political people. No, they’re concerned with the things we can’t see, with the unknown, the shady. So today’s papers have convinced themselves that the 419 Russia-linked Twitter accounts that said stuff about Brexit, terrorism and community relations in Britain had a huge impact. They ‘disrupted’ the referendum. There is no proof whatsoever for this. Common sense, however — unfashionable, I know — should tell us that a tiny number of accounts whose output will have been seen by a tiny proportion of the estimated 10million Brits who use Twitter, which is 7.4million fewer people than voted for Brexit, will have done diddly squat to sway the referendum vote.

As with all conspiracy theories, it is precisely the unknowable, rumoured nature of Russia’s ‘swaying’ of Brexit that whets their agitated appetite. Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer, the closest thing the mainstream British media has to an out-and-out conspiracy theorist, writes of a ‘shadowy global operation’ involving ‘big data, billionaires… and the disparate forces of the Leave campaign’ that brought about ‘the great British Brexit robbery’. U ok hun? Cadwalladr, like others in the broadsheet press, employs the classic conspiracy-theory approach of ‘the spider-web fallacy’. This is where links are drawn between individuals — they know each other, they met for lunch, etc — but no proof is offered that they actually worked together to the end in question, in this case the ‘theft’ of the referendum from Remainers. As Jerry Goodenough writes in Critical Thinking About Conspiracy Theories: ‘All too often, conspiracy theories proceed in this fashion, weaving together a web of conspirators on the basis of who knows who. But personal acquaintance is not necessarily a transitive relation.’ Pretty much everything I’ve read on Russia backing Brexit is based on the spider-web fallacy.

The Russia-meddling obsessives also express the sense of powerlessness and frustration that lies at the heart of every conspiracy theory. They use words like ‘hijacked’, ‘robbery’, ‘hacking’, ‘plot against the West’. This language tells us far more about their own sense that they have lost control than it does about machinations in Moscow. The self-involved sense of powerlessness they express speaks to their political and moral disarray post-Brexit. Just as sweeping conspiracy theories about 9/11 or Obama’s birthplace or the death of Princess Diana provide comfort to usually quite isolated sections of society who feel that the world is confusing, and their ability to influence it is limited, so the Russia theories provide comfort to rather better-connected sections of society bruised by Brexit, who fear their outlook is being rejected. (Which it is!) The Russia-Brexit thing represents a shift of conspiratorial thinking from the outskirts of society into the political mainstream. Leaving aside the death of David Kelly, which had echoes of this, it might be the first modern chattering-class conspiracy theory.

But here’s the thing: the elite Remainers complaining about Moscow undermining British democracy are doing far more to undermine British democracy. And not through ‘shadowy global operations’, but in the light of day, openly. From their sponsorship of court case after court case designed to slow down Brexit, to their incessant fearmongering about the impact of Brexit, to their insistence that we should do a deal with the EU that would actually keep us in many of its institutions, they have sought to silence or tweak the voice of an electorate they no longer understand and definitely do not like.

Indeed, the reason they are drawn to the Russia conspiracy theory is because they think it might help them ‘invalidate’ the democratic demand for Brexit. If it can be shown that Russia ‘swayed’ British voters, as Labour MP Ben Bradshaw feverishly claims, then this will ‘delegitimise the original vote’, says the head of the Centre for European Security. They see in this conspiracy theory a chance to declare the Brexit vote polluted, and thus void. Get your head around that, if you can: their accusation that Russia undermined our democracy is motored by their own desire to undermine our democracy. That’s a shiny brass neck you have there, guys.

It is all so patrician and disturbing. The notion that ordinary people — free-thinking, autonomous, adult voters — could be ‘swayed’ by a few Russian tweets or Facebook ads is just about the most anti-democratic, anti-people argument doing the rounds right now. In raging against the Russian hijacking of our politics, they are really raging against us, the demos, whom they presume too easily hijackable. They are calling into question the entire basis of democracy — which is that people are rational and should have the right to decide the political future — in a way I have not seen Putin do.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Brexit Politics


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