LONDON — Welcome to Britain, where an elected member of parliament openly rages against “crime against humanity” COVID vaccines and a £12.50-a-day pollution charge is a “trojan horse” for government “control.”
The rise of conspiracy theories in British politics is not a recent phenomenon. However, there is growing worry that previously marginalized beliefs are now gaining more traction, aided by the involvement of politicians.
Earlier this year, concerns were heightened when Andrew Bridgen, a member of the Conservative party since 2010, had his membership revoked for drawing comparisons between the COVID-19 vaccine distribution and the Holocaust.
After being removed from the Conservative Party, Bridgen now stands as the only member of TV actor Lawrence Fox’s openly “anti-woke” Reclaim Party in parliament. Despite previous unsuccessful attempts at winning races, the addition of Bridgen to their group allows Reclaim to have a presence in parliament without having to win an election.
According to Rod Dacombe, a political expert and specialist in conspiracy theories at King’s College London, the Member of Parliament’s stance adds credibility to potentially harmful organizations.
According to Dacombe, he is now the MP for this small yet highly engaged group. He often references conspiracy theories and literature and has even invited individuals who share concerns about the negative effects of vaccines to speak at Parliament. This gives the movement a sense of credibility and support.
POLITICO reached out to Andrew Bridgen for comment multiple times, but did not receive a response.
Not just vaccines
Bridgen’s views on COVID vaccinations have seen him turfed out of the Conservative party. But it’s not the only issue on which conspiracy-tinged language is creeping into politics, often with less scrutiny.
The topic of “15-minute cities” has captured the attention of local politics. This planning concept emphasizes the importance of accessible amenities within a short distance. However, it has faced criticism online for being a “dystopian” idea that restricts people to their neighborhoods and isolates them from the outside world.
Similar language has even crept into the Commons. Conservative Nick Fletcher told fellow MPs earlier this month that “15-minute cities will cost us our personal freedom” — and described them as an “international socialist concept.”
When questioned about his knowledge of conspiracy theorists promoting certain beliefs, Fletcher responded to POLITICO with the following statement: “No one ran for office with a stated plan to regulate and tax transportation and limit personal freedoms. I firmly believe that our country’s strength lies in its acceptance of diversity. The implementation of ULEZ, CAZ, and the concept of 15 minute cities goes against traditional British values and should be abandoned.”
However, Dacombe cautions that the language surrounding 15-minute cities is becoming increasingly exaggerated, indicating that “conspiratorial thoughts are influencing the main discussions in politics.” He also notes that there is a limited number of individuals in the U.K. who view these ideas as their main approach to politics.
Resistance towards the concept of 15-minute cities has now intertwined with criticisms of London’s ULEZ, which has become a focal point for conspiracy theories that extend beyond typical policy evaluations.
The expansion of ULEZ in London by Mayor Sadiq Khan during the summer has sparked controversy. There are opponents from both Labour and the Conservative parties, citing the charge on high-polluting vehicles as a major factor in the unexpected victory of the anti-ULEZ Conservatives in a recent by-election.
However, the criticism towards it has sometimes escalated into extreme conspiracy theories, with the belief that ULEZ is a means for the government to manipulate the population being widely discussed in online conversations.
On the day that ULEZ was implemented in greater London, demonstrators, many of whom are part of the “Action Against ULEZ Extension” organization, gathered outside 10 Downing Street to express their opinions. The group’s primary goal is to prevent the expansion of ULEZ and to ensure that concepts such as pay-per-mile, 15-minute cities, and living under a controlling regime never come to fruition. The group clarifies that it does not want to be compelled to live in restricted environments.
The Metropolitan Police has reported that in the five months leading up to the launch of the ULEZ, 510 cameras were found to be damaged.
Dacombe cautions against blurring the line between intense campaign language and conspiratorial discourse. This serves as a prime illustration of how ideas from conspiracy movements have been incorporated into mainstream politics.
The repercussions of online anger in real life
The repercussions for those who are targeted by conspiracy theories can be very tangible.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission released a critical report in 2020 regarding anti-Semitism within the U.K. Labour Party. The report revealed that certain members perpetuated harmful conspiracies that portrayed Jewish individuals as having control over the opposition, labeling them as a “fifth column.”
The EHRC discovered that several members had spread false information about the Rothschild family and denied the occurrence of the Holocaust. After monitoring Labour and confirming that steps have been taken to address the issue, the EHRC concluded that numerous cases of antisemitic misinformation were left unaddressed. This led to some members and even MPs leaving the party in outrage.
Recently, legislators have been facing online harassment due to misrepresentations of their votes in the House of Commons. Bridgen recently spoke in the House of Commons to present a 10-minute rule bill, which is a symbolic gesture used to bring attention to campaign topics.
The MP for Reclaim proposed a new law to safeguard children in schools by prohibiting the promotion of gender identity. The MP also claimed, without any proof, that schools are exposing nine-year-old children to lessons on masturbation and simulated sexual acts using dolls.
Bridgen’s 10-minute guideline, which has been met with controversy, received 33 votes in favor and 39 votes against from MPs. This led to attacks against those who were opposed.
Several Members of Parliament (MPs) who opposed the proposal were called out in provocative messages on X, previously known as Twitter, by Reclaim party leader Lawrence Fox, who has 401,000 followers.
Fox and Bridgen referred to those who voted against the motion as opposing the safeguarding of children from grooming and social transitioning in school without parental knowledge or consent.
After receiving those tweets, X users made unfounded claims that these MPs were involved in pedophilia.
A Conservative member of Parliament, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, was falsely accused and described the responses they received as “disgusting.”
The individuals stated that the feedback they received online caused them to reconsider their vote, not because they lacked faith in it, but because they were uncertain if enduring the mistreatment was worthwhile.
According to my viewpoint, I believe it was proper to vote against Bridgen. However, you find yourself in a dilemma of balancing real-time public opinion on Twitter and considering the actions we want to take as a government to impact the nation.
Both Bridgen and Fox did not reply to POLITICO’s inquiry for a statement regarding this matter.
Dacombe cautions that internet harassment can quickly escalate, pointing out that there is a distinct path leading from such conspiracies to acts of terrorism or violence.
“He cautions that this belief is fundamentally against democracy, as it rejects the legitimacy of traditional political institutions.”
In a sense, Andrew Bridgen and like-minded MPs tend to oppose the institutions they represent. This is because they subscribe to conspiracy theories and do not have faith in the effectiveness of parliament or mainstream expertise.
According to Labour MP Charlotte Nichols, she experienced a significant increase in conspiracy-related abuse during the pandemic. While it has decreased since then, it has not returned to the levels seen before the pandemic.
“It reached a point where during school visits, children would ask questions that seemed to be suggested by their parents regarding certain ideas,” she explains. She continues, “Some kids even asked, ‘What is being done about the WEF?'” The WEF, also known as the World Economic Forum, is a key element in the conspiracy theory of the ‘new world order,’ which claims that leaders intentionally created the COVID-19 pandemic to gain power over people’s lives.
In the past few days, Nichols posted a video on the internet showing her being approached in her district by a man who referred to her as a “fascist” and claiming that Jewish individuals have control over Westminster.
Steve Nowottny, the editor of Full Fact, a fact checking website, suggests that politicians could take a crucial initial step towards improving Britain’s discourse by acknowledging and rectifying errors, as well as providing evidence for their claims. However, despite the seemingly simple nature of this suggestion, it is often neglected by politicians.
FullFact frequently communicates with Members of Parliament to bring attention to instances where they have made inaccurate statements. However, this often does not lead to a correction being made.
Nowottny cautions that our democracy is in trouble if we cannot trust politicians to speak truthfully in parliament and to correct any mistakes they may make.