You are here:   Civilisation >  Screen > The Age Of Cult Politics

The true believers: SNP supporters march on the Isle of Skye (Martainn Macdomnhnaill CC BY-NC 2.0)

The decline of formal religion has done nothing to weaken the religious impulse. At its best, it allows Europe to welcome refugees. At its worst, it fosters a sectarianism that damns rational argument as the blasphemies of scheming heretics.

Public service broadcasters ought to study the large and often impressive academic literature on how sects manipulate and control believers. For they are under attack from three of the most potent and most cultish forces in British society: Scottish nationalism, Euroscepticism and the far-Left — or as we must now call it, Her Majesty’s Opposition.

The political faithful dream of a glorious future: a Scotland free of English tutelage, an England free of the domination of Brussels, a Britain free of greed and poverty.  Like the great religious dreams of the past, these causes take over lives. But all present formidable difficulties. In political as in religious cults, believers must be insulated against doubts. The most effective method is to blacken the outside world, and make alternative sources of information appear like the Devil’s seductions that tempt the godly into darkness. As Professors Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth put it in their study of political sectarianism: “There is only one truth — that espoused by the cult. Competing explanations are not merely inaccurate but degenerate”.

The initiated can never see sceptics as just foolish or misguided, let alone as reasonable people asking legitimate questions. To maintain the unity of the faithful they must be damned as malicious. The outside world is no longer a place where sensible people test their theories. It is a contaminated space, a land full of traps, set by enemies, who mean you only harm. Paranoia and hypersensitivity follow. You can see them everywhere.

Broadcasters are the natural targets. The public gets its news overwhelmingly from television and radio (which is why complaints about the power of the press are so anachronistic). They respect them because what they hear is true overall. I can say this with some assurance because the sheer tedium of following the impartiality rules drove me out of television. When you make a television documentary, you must check every fact, as you always should. But then every criticism must be put to the target of your scorn. Their answers, however evasive or dishonest, must then be broadcast. The results of this exhausting process are often bland, but I will say this for it: the documentaries are trustworthy.

Panorama made one on Jeremy Corbyn. It did not have the space to cover his endorsement of Putin’s imperial ambitions.  Nor, like the rest of the mainstream media, did it emphasise the hypocrisy of a modern Left that says it believes in justice for minorities and women, then allies with the misogynists, homophobes and racists of radical Islam. Nevertheless, within his limited remit, Panorama’s John Ware asked hard questions. What did Corbyn’s supporters expect it to do when their man wants to be prime minister? They expected adulation, was the short answer. And when they did not get it, they bombarded BBC with complaints. The programme was an “establishment smear”, and a “hatchet job”. They were inside the cocoon of their cult and anything that disturbed their tranquillity had to be the result of a conspiracy of reactionary forces determined to protect the hated status quo.

View Full Article
Chris Whiteside
August 1st, 2016
8:08 PM
I think this is a very good article. And no, Nick Cohen has nowhere in this article claimed to be right all the time, or suggested that all Corbyn supporters, Scottish Nationalists, or Brexiteers are cultists, He IS saying that SOME of the members of these groups, and many others exhibit cult-like behaviour, and I think he is dead right.

Matthew Kalman Mezey
September 28th, 2015
5:09 PM
This is why it's so important to support people like Jonathan Haidt who wake up from the partisan trance and seek to do pioneering trans-partisan things about it. Like this Heterodox Academy: Haidt does a fair number of such things. Not sure who in the UK is on the same path...

September 25th, 2015
10:09 PM
First of all Nick Cohen seems to believe he is the only person who is impartial...which is blatantly untrue and deluded. All humans have a strong tendency to agree with their own opinions...and be seriously unaware of where those opinions are coming from. The only way out of this dilemma I have discovered is some extensive mindfulness training in self awareness - something that Nick Cohen most certainly doesn't have. Therefore he is just as "cultist" about his own rather nasty and negative beliefs as those he presumes to judge. Secondly, I do support Jeremy Corbyn and I have read and listened to just about everything - and there is an incredible amount of it - saying how wrong he is and how stupid those that support him are and exactly why all those supporters are wrong and stupid. This is what it comes down to: If I read an article and assess the agenda, personality, and motivation of the author and find the argument to be negative, hateful, or attacking, or filled with smears, manipulation and subtle or not so subtle put-downs then I am not going to believe or admire anything in that article or listen to anything that particular person has to say. If on the other hand I hear a well reasoned argument, coming from a place of the greatest good for the greatest number of people, from a compassionate and principled person then I am going to listen to what they are saying. Nick Cohen is really not very nice and this whole Corbyn-cult thing is just made-up nastiness coming from an intelligent but bitter and cynical world view. Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand is a man of integrity who has tirelessly worked for the people he represents and the cause of peace consistently for the last 30 odd years. I know who I trust and I'm not deluded or stupid or in a "cult"'s like attacking the Pope or the Dalai Lama or something. Sure you can do it but you don't come off looking like the good guy by doing so....and other people are going to look at what they are doing and what you are doing and judge accordingly.

Michael J86
September 25th, 2015
9:09 AM
Nice, nice, very nice!

September 25th, 2015
9:09 AM
Excellent article. Humanity seems to be have been endowed by evolution with a predisposition for taking refuge from reality in utopian/religous ideologies - 'utopia' from the Greek, no such place. in their more benign manifestations these ideologies just lead to the cluttering of comment threads in the Guardian, Telegraph and such like with tediously repetitive incantations of deeply held 'truths' about the world. In the less benign - Marxism, Nazism, ISIS etc. - we are talking about types of ideas responsible for the deaths of millions upon million ..... for literally fantasy beliefs. As Norman Cohn has pointed out - In Pursuit of the Millennium - this is hardly a new phenomenon, and unfortunately every age seems afflicted.

September 25th, 2015
1:09 AM
"You follow an Owen Jones or a Louise Mensch on Twitter, who never once forces you to question your beliefs, or accept that your opponents are not always liars and frauds." Wise words - and something which applies across the political spectrum.

alasdair galloway
September 24th, 2015
10:09 PM
I dont want to comment on the wider aspects of this article as it would take far too long. Instead I want to correct a series of factual errors re your claims about the SNP. You write " Last year we had the Scottish National Party organising demonstrations against the BBC and demanding that it sack its political editor for asking a clumsy question at a press conference as reporters occasionally do. With Scotland already looking a little too close to a one-party state for comfort, the SNP makes no secret of its wish to get control of BBC Scotland. When and if it does, I wonder how often we will hear those difficult questions about what currency an independent Scotland will have." 1. the SNP did not organize the demo against Robinson - they didnt have to - it was actually one of a series of demos against the BBC by Yes activists fed up with the Corp's, they felt, biased presentation against Yes on several occasions in the lead up to the vote. 2. they demanded that Robinson be sacked not for asking a "clumsy question" (though it was, and I will come back to that) but for alleging that Salmond hadnt answered the question Robinson had posed when in fact he spent no fewer than seven minutes doing exactly that. Go and look on Youtube - there are many instances that have saved the original question by Robinson, Salmond's response (seven minutes) followed by Robinson's presentation for the 6 o;clock news. As for the question being clumsy - you bet it was as it demonstrated Robinson's lack of understanding of how Corporation Tax works, and gave Salmond the opportunity to upbraid the BBC for being involved in the Treasury's efforts to get news of RBS shifting their registered Head Office to London if there was a Yes vote (which would have lost no jobs directly, despite Robinson's best efforts to imply otherwise). 3. as for Scotland being a "one party state", how much is that the fault of the SNP and how much the responsibility of the Tories (who have been toxic in Scotland for at least 20 years), the Lib Dems (who almost disappeared last May and not just in Scotland) and a Scottish Labour Party who rather carelessly managed to mislay all but one of their 41 Scottish seats. Is Alex Salmond, or Nicola Sturgeon to blame for Jim Murphy? 4. as for control of the BBC in Scotland, who controls the BBC in the UK just now? In fact the demand - as it has been for about the last 10 years - has been to give the BBC in Scotland more autonomy. The best example of that has been the demand for a "Scottish Six" - a six o'clock news broadcast that would present news from the perspective Scotland - something which is supported furth of the SNP, as I am sure you know perfectly well. But as with all the above, why let the facts get in the way of a good rant? Two last things. First this confirms for me the complete inability of London based journos not only to understand Scotland, but to even want to try to understand Scotland. As I have set out above, you cant even get the basic facts right. Secondly, if you are minded to portray my comments as coming from a member of the cult - dont bother. Its really a bit obvious, dont you think?

September 24th, 2015
5:09 PM
Do you mean to assert that _all_ Scottish Nationalists and _all_ Eurosceptics are cultists?

Roger Tattersall
September 24th, 2015
4:09 PM
"The initiated can never see sceptics as just foolish or misguided, let alone as reasonable people asking legitimate questions. To maintain the unity of the faithful they must be damned as malicious. " An excellent description of the global warming cultists, with their conspiracy theories of sceptics 'being in the pay of fossil fuel companies'.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.