As the Scottish referendum has drawn closer, so the battle lines over narrative have become ever more acute. Truth, rationality and reason have occasionally been abandoned in favour of hyperbole and spin, while online message boards creak under the weight of conspiracy theories.
As now seems standard for world events, the internet becomes a repository for alternative theories and conjecture as keyboard polemicists search for meaning in a world often far beyond their control. The divisive nature of the forthcoming vote has provided fertile ground for those convinced shadowy forces are at work, with the media a familiar target (this article will no doubt be decried as establishment propaganda).
As highlighted in the Sydney Morning Herald, one of the more interesting online conspiracy theories focuses on the announcement of the second Royal baby.
Even the most paranoid keyboard tapper would baulk at the idea of Downing Street forcing the couple to conceive so that the news would fall just before the vote. But did Cameron, struggling in the polls, ask Buckingham Palace to push the news out early to bolster nationalistic fervor?
Of course, this is all good fodder for Facebook, but that doesn’t mean that belief in some form of conspiracy isn’t widespread. A YouGov poll commission by Buzzfeed earlier this week found that 26% of Scots think Mi5 is actively working to stop Scotland voting for independence – that’s one in four. A further 20% said that they didn’t know if the secret service was deliberately interfering in the democratic process. The BuzzFeed research also found that 19% of Scots believe the vote will be rigged.
Yet it’s not just bedroom activists tapping away at midnight who are indulging in possible paranoia – official figures have spoken similarly, with many trumpeting the belief that Britain’s domestic secret service is at work in Scotland on behalf of the Union.
The BuzzFeed poll was commissioned following an interview Jim Sillars gave The Independent in which the former SNP deputy leader said he was aware that at least one secret agent that had arrived in Glasgow, seemingly bent on influencing the course of the election.
“Are you so naive, that you never think that perhaps MI5 and special branch are taking a role in this campaign?” he told the newspaper. “As their function is protection of the British State, they would not be doing their jobs if they were not. There was, and probably still is, a section in MI5 that dealt with the Scottish national movement, headed by Stella Rimington, who became Director General in 1992, and is now Dame Stella.”
Then there’s JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author, who in June spoke out against independence, donating £1 million to the Better Together campaign. It was an intervention that led to an unsurprising raft of abuse via social media. Nothing new there, however outrage over the abuse was dismissed by SNP politician Christina McKelvie who subtly suggested that the vitriol was not the work pro-independence supporters but of “secret service plants”.
“The attacks on JK Rowling for her donation to Better Together were, in fact, down to a very few people whose accounts no one could trace back to having anything to do with the Yes campaign,” she said, adding: “Whoever made them – there are interesting conspiracy theorists who think it might all have been down to secret service plants – should be totally condemned. I have no time for this kind of small-minded viciousness.”
McKelvie isn’t alone. Margo MacDonald, the former deputy leader of the SNP, who died earlier this year, said that she was convinced MI5 were up to no good north of Hadrian’s Wall, penning a letter to the service’s Director General Andrew Parker last June demanding answer.
“I will be obliged if you can give me an assurance that UK Security Services will not be used in any respect in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum on sovereignty, unless, of course, the Scottish police have sufficient evidence to justify normal responses to potentially overtly criminal acts,” she wrote.
Who knows if Mi5 agents are in Scotland, special branch is tweeting abuse at JK Rowling or if Alistair Darling is an alien (the last one is actually quite credible). Conspiracies do and have happened. But should Scotland vote ‘no’ next week, expect recriminations to include plot, subterfuge and cover-ups… and, of course, complicity of the “London-centric media” in the pocket of Cameron and his Westminster cohorts.