Paranoia rules the waves as Labour takes the art of conspiracy theories to a whole new level

Sam Leith
Sam Leith

In 1964, the American historian Richard Hofstadter published an influential essay called The Paranoid Style in American Politics. He used the term, he wrote, “because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind”. He added: “I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. […] It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Well, that was then and this is now. The paranoid style is back in style, and Hofstadter’s nice distinction between the players and the game seems to be becoming — I say no more than this — a bit blurry.

Labour has just selected as its prospective parliamentary candidate for the marginal seat of Worcester a woman who, as The Sunday Times reported yesterday, was banned from bringing claims in court without a judge’s permission after making claims against “MI5, MI6, the Metropolitan police, the army, Thames Water, her gas, electricity and broadband suppliers, Royal Mail, Hackney council, her GP and the freeholder of her flat”.

The High Court placed Mandy Richards under 14 extended civil restraint orders after she challenged her losing candidacy in the 2016 London Assembly elections, alleging a conspiracy by “state-sponsored organised crime”; that she was surveilled, her bicycle tampered with, her mail intercepted and attempts made to poison her.

She forced 13 witnesses — including the shadow home secretary — to give evidence in person before the case was chucked out as being “totally without merit”. Which judgment she rejected as having been issued “because she was a black woman”.

I don’t know Mandy Richards. If she is not entirely well — which is a reasonable construction to put on her litigation — she deserves sympathy and, perhaps, help.

But the Labour Party seems to have made the judgment that she is in her right mind; and, what’s more, that someone with her professed worldview (one that Diane Abbott has called “obsessive”) is an apt ambassador of its values to the electorate of Worcester.

That isn’t as strange as all that, when you consider the seethingly conspiratorial view that the Labour Left seems to take of the world: of a many-tentacled plot by the Blairite establishment and the corporate media and behind them, according to not a few, the Zio-Jewish ur-conspiracy. Every damaging story is a “smear”.

As senior a figure as Tom Watson endorsed the fantasy of a Westminster paedophile ring. The BBC is held to have conspired to photoshop a hat. Were the Skripal poisoning and the Douma gas attack “false flags”? The leader only murmured that more investigation was needed.

The truth is, in the current Labour Party, Occam’s razor is seeing less action than Jeremy Corbyn’s. “Jeremy” seldom directly endorses the wilder theories touted by his more enthusiastic supporters: but their wind fills his sails.

And here he flirts with something that gets very dark very fast. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Whoops, he burnt the Bacon

If Francis Bacon asked you to burn one of his paintings, and you burned the wrong one, you’d feel kind of a schmuck, right? If the incident featured in an episode of Friends, it would be called “The One Where Joey Burned The Wrong Francis Bacon Painting”.

Anyway, this is exactly what happened to Barry Joule. Mr Joule, a pal of the late artist, was asked by Bacon in 1986 to go to his studio and destroy “the one on the left”: “I don’t like it. Get rid of it.”

And so he did, falling afterwards into the sleep of the just. Which sleep was interrupted at 4am by a call from the pissed old genius. “In Francis’s mind, the one on the left was when you are standing with your back to the paintings. My left is on the left as you stand facing them,” he explained. “There was a huge volume of abuse,” he added.

I dare say there was. At this distance, tragic though it may have been for art history, the story is sublimely funny; not least because Mr Joule was by most reckonings in the right. Or left, as the case may be.

*Shania Twain took 15 years off. At the height of her fame, she suddenly couldn’t sing a note after Lyme’s Disease attacked her vocal cords. She had it rough in other respects. Interviewed at the weekend, Twain, pictured, talked about a childhood of physical and sexual abuse, and a marriage in which her husband cheated on her with her best female friend.

Shania Twain (Jamie McCarthy)

Most unexpectedly, given her wholesome image, she spent the interview cheerfully swearing the place blue — mostly about the friend who betrayed her. People who say it isn’t big or clever to swear miss how very satisfying and healing it can be. That do impress-a me much.