ritain has just seen three different protests: one predictable, one annoying, and one very alarming. The protest when construction of the HS2 railway got underway last week was no surprise. There were similar ones against the Channel Tunnel, the M25 and the original steam railways 170 years ago. The plot of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford — a fictional depiction of a Victorian Cheshire town I used to represent as an MP — is all about the local people trying to stop a railway line. These days Cranford would be campaigning for a railway line if their forebears had succeeded.
I am passionately in favour of HS2, as the person who first promised high-speed trains over a decade ago and believes we can build a Northern powerhouse. It’s exactly what you would hope a rational, organised government to do. Plan for tomorrow and win the democratic argument for those plans — HS2 was in the last four winning election manifestos. So the protests don’t faze me. Nor do the ongoing demonstrations we’re seeing organised by Extinction Rebellion. They just annoy me. This weekend they blockaded newspaper printing plants , including ours — even as one of XR’s leaders was writing a column on these pages to get their message across.
The media was understandably indignant, and the capital’s commuters once again are suffering. But although the tactics are anarchic, at least there’s an underlying issue of real seriousness: climate change. They fit in to a long tradition of Left-wing protest in this country, often led by a combination of students and retired middle-class professionals — think the Greenham Common women and CND. I don’t agree with them, but at least I can see where they’re coming from. However, there was another event in the past fortnight that made me really frightened about our future. It was a march through London to “#Save the Children”. This demonstration had nothing to do with the famous charity or saving any children. The people taking part — mostly ordinary citizens, many of them young women — have become convinced that there’s a giant conspiracy.
Some of the posters carried the red and black sign of “QAnon” — a movement that began in America in 2017 with an anonymous post by someone called “Q” on an internet chat forum. In its purest form, they believe that Donald Trump is leading a holy war against a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles made up of senior politicians, journalists and famous actors; and a day of reckoning (they call “The Storm”) will arrive when this will all be exposed. I am not making this up — although someone clearly did.
QAnon has now spread to our country and others, turbocharged by coronavirus — purposefully invented, they believe, by this child-abusing elite to cover their tracks. Now it has merged with other conspiracy theories about Covid — that face masks are a tool of repression; that mandatory vaccinations are being used to control us; and that 5G telephone masts are spreading the virus. One of the banners on the London march said “Arrest Bill Gates for crimes against humanity”. On the same day there were other large marches in other civilised cities like Berlin and Boston.
We could laugh all this off. We’d be wrong to. For it represents a fragmenting of the basic social contract — turbo-charged by social media segmentation and cynically fuelled by forces on the Left and Right who have made railing against the “elites” and their “swamp” their modus operandi. The President of the United States retweets some leading QAnon voices. Why is it happening now? These sorts of millenarian movements have appeared before in world history, with theories of corrupted power, holy crusades and judgment days. They can lead to wholesale breakdown, violence and ruin. They flourish when the existing elites are struggling to cope with events, like plagues and droughts.
A new book this week, The Wake Up Call, argues persuasively that the Covid pandemic has exposed the weakness of the West. As one of the authors, John Micklethwait, puts it: even accounting for their dodgy numbers, China’s “Xi Jinping has been 20 times better at protecting his people than Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.” The book suggests sensible liberal improvements to the size, efficiency and redistribution power of modern western government. I agree.The risk is these sorts of answers are too prosaic and gradual for scared populations, and they turn instead to false prophets and wild conspiracies. That’s why we should all be alarmed at the QAnon march we just saw in London.