It’s impossible, when observing the strange disorders of our current politics, not to feel we are trapped in an intervening period — between an old, discredited order and whatever follows it, for better or worse. It’s a crisis, as Gramsci famously wrote, which “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” There is no popular faith still adhering to the old institutions — the political system, journalism, the church. And yet the alternatives rising up to succeed them — the political religions of the internet, the grifting hot-take economy — seem in many ways worse. Now, indeed, is the time of monsters.
In Edgelands, a new series of videos for UnHerd, I’ll explore the strange and unsettling manifestations of our new political era. Travelling across the country, and further afield, I’ll meet people on the edge of politics — conspiracy theorists, idealists, visionaries and eccentrics — who each in their own way encapsulate this political moment. Much of what we consider offbeat or kooky may have a wider appeal to ordinary people than the London media consensus realises. Perhaps, on the margins and in the hidden recesses of the internet, new political realities are being born which will come to shape all our lives.
For the first episode, I travel to the wild cliffs of Tintagel, on England’s mist-shrouded Atlantic fringe, to meet John Mappin, a scion of the Mappin & Webb jewellery dynasty whose engagement with the kookier fringes of American conservatism has raised eyebrows. A cloud of overwhelmingly negative headlines surrounds Mappin, mostly derived from his flying the flag of the QAnon conspiracy theory from the roof of his Cornish hotel, Camelot Castle.
QAnon adherents, followers of an American political religion birthed from the internet, believe that the world is run by a Deep State cabal of bloodthirsty paedophiles, against whom the saviour Donald Trump was locked in a secretly successful campaign. Representing American politics at its most alien and outlandish, through its overlap with anti-vaccine sentiment and Covid conspiracy theories, QAnon may have more reach in Europe than anyone at first expected.
But is Mappin really, as the headlines claim, the leader of Britain’s QAnon movement? Have the wilder reaches of American conservative politics taken root in Deep England? Or is Mappin a classic eccentric of a traditionally English type, the sort of utopian idealist that has always been drawn to the Celtic fringes, and to the blurry borderlands between myth and reality? Is he dangerous, as the headlines warn, or is he, in his own way, sincerely trying to build a better world?
With more Twitter followers than the vast majority of journalists, and his own successful YouTube channel devoted to his worldview, Mappin is simultaneously a fringe figure and a genuine cultural phenomenon worthy of study. A product of the British establishment who has taken up the cause of anti-establishment populism, and whose beliefs are now shared by a discomforting number of people in Britain as well as America, Mappin is creating his own political reality from his clifftop castle.
Yet perhaps the standard response to this new politics — the recourse to the new breed of disinformation specialists and official fact checkers — is less productive than exploring these world views on their own terms, and trying to understand what drives them. Perhaps it’s only by exploring the fringes that we can fully understand the crisis of the centre, and discern the strange political futures taking shape within the mists. Welcome to Camelot Castle, and to Edgelands.