If murder was mooted in No 10, what else is true?

Conspiracies and their enactors have been making the news, from JFK's assassination to the death of Yasser Arafat. Some old chestnuts never lose their flavour

Share

It was a remarkably good week for conspiracy theorists. No sooner had the latest miasma of speculation ceased to waft over the 50-year-old corpse of John F Kennedy than news sped in from Switzerland that an examination of the recently exhumed body of Yasser Arafat, the former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, had revealed abnormally high levels of polonium, leading to the suspicion he had been poisoned.

Meanwhile, at Westminster the heads of the British secret services were facing questions from a parliamentary select committee of such a sensitive nature that a time delay had to be placed on the broadcast lest anything untoward should slip out. As for the revelations emanating from the Old Bailey, where the trial of the News International executives arraigned for their alleged complicity in phone hacking, these are reportable but not, alas, discussable.

Whenever I read the words "conspiracy theory" I always think of a man who, for the purposes of this article, I had better call "Ralph Davison", a former SAS officer whose autobiography, back in the 1980s, I attempted to ghost. Mr Davison, who once interrupted a telephone conversation with the disquieting intelligence that he thought his phone was being tapped, had, by his own admission, been involved in practically every high-level secret service assignment of the era. He had, he assured me, attended the Balcombe Street siege of 1975, been present at the Libyan Embassy stake-out in 1984 and participated in a stand-off with Carlos the Jackal against the unlikely backdrop of a Majorcan swimming pool. But the most chilling story of all concerned the assassination of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, connived at by the British government, he briskly deposed, who had withdrawn his SAS bodyguard in the certain knowledge that the now untrammelled killers would strike.

There was, and is, no way of demonstrating that this particular conspiracy theory was true, but it sounded plausible, not least because of the bluff, no-nonsense, Yorkshire-accented way in which Ralph dealt it out (the project foundered by the way, owing to his insistence that his exploits should be written up as a novel). And, it scarcely needs saying, the idea of a top-secret British scheme to destabilise the Middle East by allowing one of its major players to be taken out is exactly the kind of thing one reads about in newspapers, whether applied to plots to assassinate JFK or the very common assumption that the CIA were involved in a conspiracy to remove Harold Wilson from Number 10 in the strife-torn 1970s.

Why is the average citizen, whose knowledge of the world comes entirely from the mass media, so absorbed by these tales of quiet words in high places, stealthy backstairs intrigues and discreet – or not so discreet – wire-pulling in the ante-chambers to the corridors of power? One answer lies in the widespread belief, common to most countries with at least the vestige of a bureaucracy and a centralised administration, that much of what goes on at the upper levels of national life is arranged in secret, offering a kind of code which onlookers can amuse and edify themselves by trying to decipher. Dickens once wrote an essay on these lines entitled "It is not generally known..." ("It is not generally known that the people have nothing to do with a certain large Club which assembles in Westminster, and that the Club has nothing to do with them.")

Another rests on the habitual use made of conspiracy theories by political minorities as an authentication of the stand they are taking against the world. The right-wing pacifist groups who tried so hard to limit the UK's involvement in the Second World War, for example, believed everything that the classic conspiracy text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion told them, in particular that the pre-war Soviet politburo was largely composed of Jews and that practically all newspapers were under Zionist control.

Then, of course, there are the localised conspiracy theories that attach themselves to the idea of the "Establishment", that vast, shady and unaccountable body of civil servants, politicians, BBC mandarins and heads of Oxbridge colleges, ceaselessly at work – or so the argument goes – to frustrate the ambitions of ordinary people, ganging up to secure preferment for their own and ensure that the upper levels of society are constantly replenished by the right kind of recruits. My father's version of this secret alliance was an entity known as "them" – a gargantuan and anti-meritocratic clique designed to frustrate his and his family's progress through life. Occasional triumphs over this tribe of talent-quellers and aspiration-deniers were marked by extraordinary detonations of temperament. I can remember once shouting news of an exam result up the staircase and my father responding with a cry of "That's shown the buggers!" Against all the odds, despite the accumulation of road-blocks placed in their way by this devious agglomeration of upper-class caballers, the Taylors had won through.

Whether focusing on the unexplained death of a politician or the workings of the Establishment, conspiracy theories clearly fulfil some deep-rooted psychological need, consoling the powerless and offering the intellectual satisfaction that comes from identifying a complicated shadow-world that only you, and a few like-minded savants, can see. The really alarming thing about conspiracy theories, alas, whether focused on JFK, the polonium levels in the remains of Arafat, or the idea – quite seriously bruited about in the 1980s – that Marlboro cigarettes were manufactured by the Ku Klux Klan (proof positive, three Ks are revealed when you turn the packet inside out), is how innocuous they seem when set against the Byzantine complexities of documented reality.

To go back to the mid-70s speculation surrounding the Labour government of Harold Wilson and in particular the influence supposedly exercised on the Prime Minister by his political secretary, Marcia Williams, now Baroness Falkender, it was later revealed by Wilson's adviser Bernard Donoughue that the PM's doctor, the late Joe Stone, was so alarmed by what he believed to be Williams' fell designs that he proposed to Donoughue and his colleague Joe Haines that they should "discuss ways of taking the weight of Marcia off the Prime Minister's mind". Stone then confided that he could, if necessary, "dispose" of her in a way that would make it seem as if she had died of natural causes. "He added that he would sign the death certificate and that there would not be a problem," Donoughue recorded. In the end the plan, which Haines and Donoughue thought went a bit far, was dropped. On the other hand, when set against this real-life skulduggery in Number 10 the idea that Yasser Arafat was poisoned, or that a Marlboro packet was really only an anti-Semitic fetish, seems the merest bagatelle.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Muslim men pray at the East London Mosque  

Sadly, it needs to be said again: being a Muslim is not a crime

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin