The paranoid style in British politics

Is the Daily Telegraph front page anti-Semitic? Not intentionally, I don’t think. It is, however, an astonishingly ill-judged rocket-fuelling of a story that belongs, at best, six or seven pages in.

In its rush to damn the hated Remainers, the paper has oversold a middling story, splashed in primary colours a tale better told in pastels, and mimicked tropes more familiar to readers of an alt-right blog than Her Majesty’s Daily Telegraph. As such, it hardly matters whether it meant to echo the mood music of a far-right conspiracy theory. It does and it portends ill for British political discourse, where Jews are already vilified by the Left and the far-Right. 

The splash reveals — in an ‘exclusive’ no less — that billionaire investor George Soros is funding Best for Britain, a campaign group hoping to thwart Brexit. Chaired by former Labour minister Lord Malloch-Brown, Best for Britain is set to roll out an ad campaign urging a second referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal. Given the unspoken Tory-Labour alliance on Brexit, I don’t see it getting very far. (Curiously, the lead byline on the story is Nick Timothy, who is not a journalist but a failed political strategist. Timothy masterminded the election campaign that saw the Tories squander a 20-point lead and fall humiliatingly short of victory. In his latest endeavour to save Brexit, all I can say is that I wish him similar success.)

Ordinarily, this would be just another ill-fated effort by Continuity Remain to cling to an EU membership that they took for granted and only in the dying days of the referendum bothered to put up a proper fight for. What makes it stand out is the bizarre angle the Telegraph has taken on the story and the language it has used to convey it. The splash and accompanying backgrounders and analysis read like Breitbart gone up-market. 

George Soros is a bogeyman figure for nationalists in the United States and Europe who identify him as the head — or head financier — of a globalist plan to usurp national sovereignty and impose one-world government. The Telegraph story accuses him of orchestrating a ‘secret plot’ to undermine Brexit, so secret that it was launched last April. At a press conference. And was widely reported. Including by the Telegraph.

Soros has been accused, the ‘new’ story informs readers, of ‘interfering in the democracies of several European nations’, an allegation that is allowed to hang there without further elaboration in the main run. A separate profile box contains this passage:

Across eastern Europe, his foundations have campaigned for democracy to be respected and drawn attention to the authoritarian behaviour of several governments. This has led to him being personally targeted – in particular by the Hungarian government, which he has said is an anti-semitic attack. The Hungarian Government is attempting to close down the Central European university in Budapest, which he founded – a move which has sparked international uproar.

However, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, continues to accuse Soros of seeking to undermine his Government – by opposing his anti-immigrant policies – and the issue is the central theme of his re-election campaign. Soros’ organisations are banned in several countries.

This is as insidious as it is disingenuous. It constructs a ‘both sides’ fallacy which bears no scrutiny and frames the Hungarian government’s well-documented Jew-baiting as something ‘he has said is an anti-Semitic attack’. Soros says one thing. Orbán says another. Who’s to say, really?

Viktor Orbán is a nationalist strongman who has transformed Hungary into an illiberal democracy and prospered by promoting rank, fraudulent revisionism about Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis. He counts Miklós Horthy among the nation’s ‘exceptional statesmen’. A revisionist monument, the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation, now stands in Budapest’s Liberty Square and rewrites Hungary’s pro-fascist stance.

That the wartime government cooperated in the transportation of more than half a million Jews to their deaths is downplayed or even denied. Under Orbán’s watch, Budapest has become a des res for white nationalists and neo-Nazis. According to Hungarian Jewish group Marom, ‘For Hungarian Jews and other minorities, this is a worrying trend in a country with a long history of violent antisemitism.’ (If you want to understand the grim horror that is Orbán’s Hungary, I highly recommend James Kirchick’s masterful, if terrifying, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.)

The campaign that Soros ‘has said is an anti-Semitic attack’ includes government-erected posters depicting him as a puppet-master pulling the strings of an opposition politician, a staple Nazi canard. Another set of billboards show a slyly smiling Soros and the legend, ‘Don’t let Soros have the last laugh’. Orbán’s administration promotes the conspiracy theory that there is a ‘Soros Plan’ to facilitate a large-scale influx of migrants and refugees and has even gone so far as to mount a national consultation on the non-existent blueprint, canvassing eight million Hungarians on their view on it. According to Orbán, ‘the Soros network has an extensive sphere of influence’ and is working to ‘build a Europe of mixed population’.

The image of the wealthy, all-powerful Jew pulling the strings of world affairs to undermine national strength and cohesion should be familiar to anyone who has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (It should be familiar to anyone who has been sentient any time in the last hundred years.)

That the Telegraph failed to see it was dabbling in the kind of chauvinist fear-mongering practised by Orbán in Hungary and the alt-right in the United States does not speak highly of its editorial operation or the intelligence of those involved in reporting the story. That it too casts Soros as a puppet master orchestrating a dastardly effort against the UK Government demonstrates a profound ignorance of history and insensitivity to the grammar of anti-Semitism. An accompanying comment piece is headlined ‘Elitist Remainers are plotting to bring down the Government’ and contains the claim that ‘the intention is to topple the Government’. A third article calls Soros ‘a rich gambler accused of meddling in nations’ affairs’ and says he’s been ‘accused of having a hand in the fall of several governments’. Jews as seditious plotters, working to overthrow governments that displease them, is a trope with a long, dismal pedigree.

Anti-Semitism is nothing new in the British press. The Guardian once ran a hit piece on security funding for Jewish schools on Holocaust Memorial Day. The New Statesman put a giant golden Star of David on its front page above the headline ‘A kosher conspiracy?’ The Independent published a cartoon during the Second Intifada depicting Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby. While the Telegraph story does not make reference to Soros’s Jewish identity, demonise Jews as a group, or attack Jewish symbols, in its zeal to excoriate critics of Brexit it is constructed in a manner recognisable and useful to anti-Semites. 

Even if the paper didn’t mean to sound a dog-whistle, the dogs heard it all the same. The comments underneath the online version read like Nazi Scrabble. Various pieces of The Conspiracy are pieced together to declare Soros a ‘reptile’, an ‘Evil Hungarian’, ‘the fixer for the real owners of Europe, the Rothschilds’, and ‘the personification of the book The International Jew by Henry Ford’. Soros subsists on ‘baby blood’, says one reader. ‘Sadly Hitler missed him,’ adds another. There are multiple references to Soros being killed and warnings of ‘civil war’ and ‘blood on the streets’. 

Two closing points about this unpleasant episode. First, Britain continues to be shamefully ignorant about anti-Semitism and, from the academy to the media to the Labour Party, shows not only an inability to understand or to talk empathetically about Jewish experiences, emotions and viewpoints but a callous apathy about learning to do so.

Second, nationalism has come to dominate political thinking across the UK almost as comprehensively as it has in Scotland. A similarly divisive, ireful, wound-poking, self-pitying, vacuous, post-factual, faith-based, paranoid, demagogic grievance politics, unloosed during the EU referendum, now holds sway in much too much of political life. It is a mindset that leads otherwise intelligent people to produce the kind of front page the Telegraph gave us today.

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