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Conspiracy? Not really, just common sense

It's wrong to dismiss constituencies far from the Westminster bubble as conspiratorial. Credit: Getty.

February 17, 2023 - 7:00am

I bring you this dispatch from the train back home to the North East. Out of my window are the familiar sights of Middle England: the pylons and farms, hedges and caravan parks. This is the great expanse of Tory blue that washes across the map, broken by the islands of Labour red which wind their way up like some Micronesian archipelago. Surveying this political map of England, it is hard to avoid the Disraelian conclusion that there are two different nations living side by side, Labour and Tory, metropolitan and provincial, each going about their lives in different ways.

At first glance, UnHerd’s polling readily confirms this view. Take the latest example: when people are asked whether they agree that “the world is controlled by a secretive elite”, the enduring geographical divide emerges. Joining urban England in its conspiratorialism are two of the old heartlands of Labour power, neither of which are particularly metropolitan or diverse: South Wales and North East England. 

Both are poor, both overwhelmingly white, and both supported Brexit. The North East, in particular, jumps out, running in dark conspiratorial green from Redcar in the south to Wansbeck in the north, broken only by the prosperous island of Tynemouth — perhaps the most liberal-metropolitan piece of real estate in the region. Just like the residents of Birmingham Ladywood, Leeds Central or Barking, the people of the North East tend to believe the world is not ruled by people like them, but instead an elite of others operating out of sight somewhere else. 

The dark conspiratorial green of the North East

But are they really wrong to think this? Unless by “a secretive elite” we are talking about a bunch of lizards or Bilderbergers, it’s not clear to me they are. In a much more prosaic sense it surely is the case that an unaccountable elite controls many aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. From an economic perspective, this really isn’t even controversial.

Reading Adam Tooze’s Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World is particularly eye-opening about the reality of the modern global economy in this regard. For many people employed by a multinational corporation, their job security is controlled far less by who they elect than by the board of some company sitting thousands of miles away. When the financial crisis erupted in the United States in 2007, it spread across the world, crippling banks across Europe who, it emerged, were utterly dependent on the US Federal Reserve, which in turn provided guarantees without informing Congress. None of this points to a malign conspiracy, but it does point to a certain reality about our lives today: that we live in an era of global capital, over which most states and people have very little power as things stand.

For an ordinary employee living and working in the North East, far from Westminster and the boardroom of Nissan, decision-making does not just feel far away, but actually is. The reason why the North East, South Wales and the inner cities feel this way particularly is perhaps because they really are further from the levers of control. The simple reality is that the managerial middle class is smaller in the North East than it is in the Home Counties. As such, the sense of empowerment that comfortable middle management provides is harder to find.

Once upon a time, politics provided a tool to wrestle back some control. This, in fact, was the very purpose of democratic socialism. The idea was that the universal franchise gave working people the tool they needed to control parliament, the sovereign governing board of the nation. Through the Labour Party, people could take back control of their lives by nationalising the industries in which they worked. 

It was for this very reason, in fact, that the Labour Party so vociferously opposed British membership of the nascent European project when it first emerged. Why would a Labour government which had nationalised coal production place it under the control of an unaccountable European coal and steel community? By the late 1980s, and the emphasis on a “social Europe” which would take the edge off Thatcherism, Labour changed its position.

Today, though, we are as far from Jacques Delors’s late-1980s vision of a social Europe as he was from the beginnings of a federal Europe in 1951. We are in a new global economic system dominated by the dollar and the rise of China. People are entirely correct to demand more control over their lives, but nobody has yet provided any credible answer showing how they can achieve this. And so resentment builds.


Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

Yes, exactly. I think the terms “secretive elite” and the “liberal elite” are just convenient labels for this (not unjustified) feeling of being controlled by unknown people in places unknown who you suspect don’t live like you, don’t think like you and have no idea what your concerns are.
It’s entirely natural and rational to want to be governed by people you know and by whom you feel understood. But when de facto political power is so far removed from your locality and is also diffusely held (including by people who aren’t politicians) – any attempt to regain control through voting is pure shadowboxing. And what other tools do ordinary citizens have?
I often find myself thinking about the slogan “take back control”…it’s got to be one of the most effective political rallying cries there has ever been, as it goes directly to the heart of this core issue in the governance of a country and who/what matters in it.

Last edited 1 year ago by Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Addendum: I’m not sure if the whole film is available in English but the Austrian film “The Farmer and the Hipster” (“Der Bauer und der Bobo”) is really worth watching. Britain is far from being the only country whose population is sliced in two with neither party having a true idea of how the other lives. This film resulted from a clash between the two. You can laugh at the clichĂ©d-looking mountain scenes and think it all nice and twee, but these mountain farmers are incredibly tough guys! Their way of life is a precious part of the culture of the land and if we aren’t careful, it will die out. Credit to Florian Klenk for throwing himself into this – he’s a darned good journalist.
Here’s the trailer with English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diGi3nEiprQ

Last edited 1 year ago by Katharine Eyre
Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

True ‘dat. It’s beginning to feel like a kind of alienation from the means of political control over – who decides what is decent and evil, how to acquire wealth, what is the good life,etc.

Different Weltanschauungs are developing with the barriers between them hardening – a new kind of proletariat ?

Last edited 1 year ago by Richard Pearse
Andrew Schofield
Andrew Schofield
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

If you want to find out more about these ‘secretive elite’ then you could read the best seller ‘The Brotherhood’ by Stephen Knight you will be horrified to find they are in every part of our society and how they control it.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Addendum: I’m not sure if the whole film is available in English but the Austrian film “The Farmer and the Hipster” (“Der Bauer und der Bobo”) is really worth watching. Britain is far from being the only country whose population is sliced in two with neither party having a true idea of how the other lives. This film resulted from a clash between the two. You can laugh at the clichĂ©d-looking mountain scenes and think it all nice and twee, but these mountain farmers are incredibly tough guys! Their way of life is a precious part of the culture of the land and if we aren’t careful, it will die out. Credit to Florian Klenk for throwing himself into this – he’s a darned good journalist.
Here’s the trailer with English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diGi3nEiprQ

Last edited 1 year ago by Katharine Eyre
Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

True ‘dat. It’s beginning to feel like a kind of alienation from the means of political control over – who decides what is decent and evil, how to acquire wealth, what is the good life,etc.

Different Weltanschauungs are developing with the barriers between them hardening – a new kind of proletariat ?

Last edited 1 year ago by Richard Pearse
Andrew Schofield
Andrew Schofield
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

If you want to find out more about these ‘secretive elite’ then you could read the best seller ‘The Brotherhood’ by Stephen Knight you will be horrified to find they are in every part of our society and how they control it.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

Yes, exactly. I think the terms “secretive elite” and the “liberal elite” are just convenient labels for this (not unjustified) feeling of being controlled by unknown people in places unknown who you suspect don’t live like you, don’t think like you and have no idea what your concerns are.
It’s entirely natural and rational to want to be governed by people you know and by whom you feel understood. But when de facto political power is so far removed from your locality and is also diffusely held (including by people who aren’t politicians) – any attempt to regain control through voting is pure shadowboxing. And what other tools do ordinary citizens have?
I often find myself thinking about the slogan “take back control”…it’s got to be one of the most effective political rallying cries there has ever been, as it goes directly to the heart of this core issue in the governance of a country and who/what matters in it.

Last edited 1 year ago by Katharine Eyre
Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

Of course they’re right. Our entire postwar history is the story of a slow but steady accretion of power to the centre, first of the nation state, and then into the hands of a parasitic supranational elite. Because this has been done slowly we have come to accept unquestioningly that George S0ros, Bill Gates and the like who are not even citizens of this country, have more power over our government’s policy than we do. The ultimate symbol of this was the appalling spectacle of a British Minister of State grovelling at the feet of Greta Thunberg.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Yeah…
What are you going to do about Blackpool? Make Spanish vacations illegal?!

Glyn R
Glyn R
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I would say that some have come to realise that the Soros, Gates, Schwab fraternity have more control over our lives than elected politicians, although growing that number is still far from the majority. However, the more people realise the true state of affairs the greater the pushback will become hence the impatience of this supranational elite to exert even more control via the imposition of vaccine/bio-metric passports, the digitalisation of currency and the introduction of a Chinese style social credit system. Who will win?

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Yeah…
What are you going to do about Blackpool? Make Spanish vacations illegal?!

Glyn R
Glyn R
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I would say that some have come to realise that the Soros, Gates, Schwab fraternity have more control over our lives than elected politicians, although growing that number is still far from the majority. However, the more people realise the true state of affairs the greater the pushback will become hence the impatience of this supranational elite to exert even more control via the imposition of vaccine/bio-metric passports, the digitalisation of currency and the introduction of a Chinese style social credit system. Who will win?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

Of course they’re right. Our entire postwar history is the story of a slow but steady accretion of power to the centre, first of the nation state, and then into the hands of a parasitic supranational elite. Because this has been done slowly we have come to accept unquestioningly that George S0ros, Bill Gates and the like who are not even citizens of this country, have more power over our government’s policy than we do. The ultimate symbol of this was the appalling spectacle of a British Minister of State grovelling at the feet of Greta Thunberg.

Paul T
Paul T
1 year ago

For many people employed by a multinational corporation, their job security is controlled far less by who they elect than by the board of some company sitting thousands of miles away.‘ Good thing! I worked in the private sector for all my career and I’m glad my job security was based on business results, not the whim of some politician who might purge you for the wrong opinions on gender or something.
The poorer regions of the UK have plenty of politics. South Wales has an entire law-making assembly and it seemingly hasn’t led to a greater feeling of control. What would help is more local enterprise, not more local politics.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul T

Spot on!

Glyn R
Glyn R
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul T

For too long now people have been encouraged to look to government for everything as if it was some kind of parent and governments have responded with a suffocating and aspiration killing paternalism, expanding their remit so widely that they fulfil none of it satisfactorily.

Paul Walsh
Paul Walsh
1 year ago
Reply to  Glyn R

I was thinking the same. people need to be less reliant on government. Government could also focus on less things and do them well, but that doesn’t seem to win elections.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Walsh

The failure of democracy – it relies on ordinary people. I’m sure Mencken said something apropos.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Walsh

The failure of democracy – it relies on ordinary people. I’m sure Mencken said something apropos.

Paul Walsh
Paul Walsh
1 year ago
Reply to  Glyn R

I was thinking the same. people need to be less reliant on government. Government could also focus on less things and do them well, but that doesn’t seem to win elections.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul T

Spot on!

Glyn R
Glyn R
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul T

For too long now people have been encouraged to look to government for everything as if it was some kind of parent and governments have responded with a suffocating and aspiration killing paternalism, expanding their remit so widely that they fulfil none of it satisfactorily.

Paul T
Paul T
1 year ago

For many people employed by a multinational corporation, their job security is controlled far less by who they elect than by the board of some company sitting thousands of miles away.‘ Good thing! I worked in the private sector for all my career and I’m glad my job security was based on business results, not the whim of some politician who might purge you for the wrong opinions on gender or something.
The poorer regions of the UK have plenty of politics. South Wales has an entire law-making assembly and it seemingly hasn’t led to a greater feeling of control. What would help is more local enterprise, not more local politics.

Jane H
Jane H
1 year ago

Wait til the Global Pandemic Treaty comes to the fore in May this year handing control over to the obscenely corrupt WHO who will then get to dictate the response to pandemics, lockdowns etc. Then the 
. will really hit the fan when people realise their sovereignty is being taken away by global elites. Followed shortly after by the introduction of Global Vaccination Passports. Looks like I for one won’t be travelling anywhere out of the UK soon. It’s all coming, I shall be counting on the long awaited global uprising once people realise the conspiracy theories are true.

Jane H
Jane H
1 year ago

Wait til the Global Pandemic Treaty comes to the fore in May this year handing control over to the obscenely corrupt WHO who will then get to dictate the response to pandemics, lockdowns etc. Then the 
. will really hit the fan when people realise their sovereignty is being taken away by global elites. Followed shortly after by the introduction of Global Vaccination Passports. Looks like I for one won’t be travelling anywhere out of the UK soon. It’s all coming, I shall be counting on the long awaited global uprising once people realise the conspiracy theories are true.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

The folks in the red wall need to think very carefully about their vote at the next election. The Democratic benefit of leaving the EU has been achieved, but any economic benefits may take a generation to be seen. If the current set of Labour MPs form the next government, the ability for the North to achieve future prosperity will be put at significant risk. “Maintaining control” is the only chance it has.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

economic benefits may take a generation to be seen.

Global warming is going to make Blackpool competitive?
Tories are done (as they should), and that is a good thing.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith


. no sneaking back in please.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith


. no sneaking back in please.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

economic benefits may take a generation to be seen.

Global warming is going to make Blackpool competitive?
Tories are done (as they should), and that is a good thing.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

The folks in the red wall need to think very carefully about their vote at the next election. The Democratic benefit of leaving the EU has been achieved, but any economic benefits may take a generation to be seen. If the current set of Labour MPs form the next government, the ability for the North to achieve future prosperity will be put at significant risk. “Maintaining control” is the only chance it has.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

While it is true that the North East’s period of prosperity coincided with the period when North Eastern businessmen established prosperous coal, shipbuilding, ship owning and other heavy industries the virtue of local control is not necessarily the key to prosperity. The secret to prosperity is fairly straightforward and it doesn’t involve a multiplicity of politicians. 
“In the 1960s, the city-state of Singapore was an undeveloped country with a GDP per capita of less than U.S. $320. Today, it is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its GDP per capita has risen to an incredible U.S. $60,000, making it one of the strongest economies in the world. For a small country with few natural resources, Singapore’s economic ascension is nothing short of remarkable.”
https://www.thoughtco.com/singapores-economic-development-1434565
What is required is an intelligent focus on educating the population to supply goods and services that people want and minimising anti-business policies. The policies pursued by Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party focused on this to the exclusion full democracy and delivered prosperity in a way that socialist politicians in the North East would struggle against their ideological instincts to replicate. They also wouldn’t be able to imprison their political opponents as Lee did.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

The example of Singapore shows that there’s trade off to be made between prosperity and democracy. Singaporeans have accepted the bargain with their government to give up certain freedoms in exchange for stability, security and a very high standard of living.
Is benevolent dictatorship a perfect system? No. Is it preferable to our chaotic, short-sighted, polarised Western democracies? Maybe.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

What is required is cheap energy.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Not Singapore again…a semi-authoritarian city state far away.
Why don’t you use Denmark as an option?
Surely it would be a better comp?
Netherlands…or are they too tall?

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeremy Smith
Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

The example of Singapore shows that there’s trade off to be made between prosperity and democracy. Singaporeans have accepted the bargain with their government to give up certain freedoms in exchange for stability, security and a very high standard of living.
Is benevolent dictatorship a perfect system? No. Is it preferable to our chaotic, short-sighted, polarised Western democracies? Maybe.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

What is required is cheap energy.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Not Singapore again…a semi-authoritarian city state far away.
Why don’t you use Denmark as an option?
Surely it would be a better comp?
Netherlands…or are they too tall?

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

While it is true that the North East’s period of prosperity coincided with the period when North Eastern businessmen established prosperous coal, shipbuilding, ship owning and other heavy industries the virtue of local control is not necessarily the key to prosperity. The secret to prosperity is fairly straightforward and it doesn’t involve a multiplicity of politicians. 
“In the 1960s, the city-state of Singapore was an undeveloped country with a GDP per capita of less than U.S. $320. Today, it is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its GDP per capita has risen to an incredible U.S. $60,000, making it one of the strongest economies in the world. For a small country with few natural resources, Singapore’s economic ascension is nothing short of remarkable.”
https://www.thoughtco.com/singapores-economic-development-1434565
What is required is an intelligent focus on educating the population to supply goods and services that people want and minimising anti-business policies. The policies pursued by Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party focused on this to the exclusion full democracy and delivered prosperity in a way that socialist politicians in the North East would struggle against their ideological instincts to replicate. They also wouldn’t be able to imprison their political opponents as Lee did.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 year ago

Conspiracy theories are themselves a conspiracy theory designed to distract. Capital has cuckoo’d democracy; it really is that simple and it’s probably now too late to do anything about it. You might as well complain about the weather.

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 year ago

Not something I’ve thought deeply about, but I do read a lot of history. Democracy, or at least the modern version not the classical one, was effectively created by Capital as that created an urban working class which demanded representation and an easing of the bonds of capitalism. So to say that Capital is now destroying democracy is an interesting development, but I suspect not quite right. Maybe it’s Globalisation, which sunders Capital from the control of the people as represented by the State, which is the culprit?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Good analysis, and one which separates political reality from political theory.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Good analysis, and one which separates political reality from political theory.

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 year ago

Not something I’ve thought deeply about, but I do read a lot of history. Democracy, or at least the modern version not the classical one, was effectively created by Capital as that created an urban working class which demanded representation and an easing of the bonds of capitalism. So to say that Capital is now destroying democracy is an interesting development, but I suspect not quite right. Maybe it’s Globalisation, which sunders Capital from the control of the people as represented by the State, which is the culprit?

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 year ago

Conspiracy theories are themselves a conspiracy theory designed to distract. Capital has cuckoo’d democracy; it really is that simple and it’s probably now too late to do anything about it. You might as well complain about the weather.

Mark Kennedy
Mark Kennedy
1 year ago

Just a coincidence, obviously, but I’m fresh from reading another Unherd article (the one about ordinary Russians’ feelings about the war in Ukraine, and their susceptibility to propaganda) in which this claim appears:
 
“The Golden Billion doomsday scenario, for instance, in which powerful Western elites control world events to amass great wealth and destroy ordinary people’s lives, is endorsed by high-ranking officials, such as head of the security council, Nikolai Patrushev, a close ally of Putin.”
 
To which I replied, in the Comments section:
 
“It doesn’t sound that far off what numerous people in the west believe, too, and on not unreasonable grounds. One might even classify these people among the more propaganda-resistant.”

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark Kennedy
Mark Kennedy
Mark Kennedy
1 year ago

Just a coincidence, obviously, but I’m fresh from reading another Unherd article (the one about ordinary Russians’ feelings about the war in Ukraine, and their susceptibility to propaganda) in which this claim appears:
 
“The Golden Billion doomsday scenario, for instance, in which powerful Western elites control world events to amass great wealth and destroy ordinary people’s lives, is endorsed by high-ranking officials, such as head of the security council, Nikolai Patrushev, a close ally of Putin.”
 
To which I replied, in the Comments section:
 
“It doesn’t sound that far off what numerous people in the west believe, too, and on not unreasonable grounds. One might even classify these people among the more propaganda-resistant.”

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark Kennedy
Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago

but nobody has yet provided any credible answer showing how they can achieve this. And so resentment builds.

There is no credible answer to competition. What are you going to do about Blackpool? Make Spanish vacations illegal?!
Is UK GOV going to kick Nissan out (once the people in Sunderland vote for it?) and replace it with what? BMC Leyland.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Your observation about Spanish vacations points out a real contributing factor: increased globalization – in the sense of increased communication and trade. (Globalization has other downsides too: increased speed of spread of pandemics; refugees; etc.)
But globalization has upsides, too; the current level of prosperity is connected to globalization (not too surprising; larger organizations can be more efficient, due to greater specialization and economies of scale).
What to do? And remember the Great Depression, a ‘recent’ episode of de-globalization.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Your observation about Spanish vacations points out a real contributing factor: increased globalization – in the sense of increased communication and trade. (Globalization has other downsides too: increased speed of spread of pandemics; refugees; etc.)
But globalization has upsides, too; the current level of prosperity is connected to globalization (not too surprising; larger organizations can be more efficient, due to greater specialization and economies of scale).
What to do? And remember the Great Depression, a ‘recent’ episode of de-globalization.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago

but nobody has yet provided any credible answer showing how they can achieve this. And so resentment builds.

There is no credible answer to competition. What are you going to do about Blackpool? Make Spanish vacations illegal?!
Is UK GOV going to kick Nissan out (once the people in Sunderland vote for it?) and replace it with what? BMC Leyland.