Tag Archives: Nigel Farage

Jonathan Cook on revelations of Paul Mason and Carole Cadwalladr’s deep collusion with western intelligence agencies and the broader implications

Reprinted below is a two-part investigative piece by independent journalist Jonathan Cook on the recently disclosed involvement of “celebrated” liberal media journalists – in particular Paul Mason and Carole Cadwalladr – working in undercover collusion with the British security state. In the second part, Cook then documents and collates evidence of more extensive penetration of the mainstream media by western intelligence services.

To those who are doubtful about widespread recruitment of journalists by British intelligence services, Cook cites the case of Channel 4’s Jon Snow, who rejected approaches to spy on his own colleagues. Asked at first to supply information about the Communist Party, Snow was later asked to spy on certain “left-wing people” working in television. He revealed (in 2015) that in return he would have received secret monthly and tax-free payments into his bank account matching his then salary.

Cook adds only: “Most journalists are not likely to talk of such approaches, either because they have accepted them or because disclosure might harm their careers. Snow left it until very late in his own career before mentioning the incident. But there is no reason to imagine such approaches do not continue to be made on a regular basis.”

In the reprinted articles below, all links, images, tweets, etc. have been retained throughout.

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Events of the past few days suggest British journalism – the so-called Fourth Estate – is not what it purports to be: a watchdog monitoring the centers of state power. It is quite the opposite.

The pretensions of the establishment media took a severe battering this month as the defamation trial of Guardian columnist Carole Cadwalladr reached its conclusion and the hacked emails of Paul Mason, a long-time stalwart of the BBC, Channel 4 and the Guardian, were published online.

Both of these celebrated journalists have found themselves outed as recruits – in their differing ways – to a covert information war being waged by Western intelligence agencies.

Had they been honest about it, that collusion might not matter so much. After all, few journalists are as neutral or as dispassionate as the profession likes to pretend. But as have many of their colleagues, Cadwalladr and Mason have broken what should be a core principle of journalism: transparency.

The role of serious journalists is to bring matters of import into the public space for debate and scrutiny. Journalists thinking critically aspire to hold those who wield power – primarily state agencies – to account on the principle that, without scrutiny, power quickly corrupts.

The purpose of real journalism – as opposed to the gossip, entertainment and national-security stenography that usually passes for journalism – is to hit up, not down.

And yet, each of these journalists, we now know, was actively colluding, or seeking to collude, with state actors who prefer to operate in the shadows, out of sight. Both journalists were coopted to advance the aims of the intelligence services.

And worse, each of them either sought to become a conduit for, or actively assist in, covert smear campaigns run by Western intelligence services against other journalists.

What they were doing – along with so many other establishment journalists – is the very antithesis of journalism. They were helping to conceal the operation of power to make it harder to scrutinize. And not only that. In the process, they were trying to weaken already marginalized journalists fighting to hold state power to account.

Russian collusion?

Cadwalladr’s cooperation with the intelligence services has been highlighted only because of a court case. She was sued for defamation by Arron Banks, a businessman and major donor to the successful Brexit campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.

In a kind of transatlantic extension of the Russiagate hysteria in the United States following Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016, Cadwalladr accused Banks of lying about his ties to the Russian state. According to the court, she also suggested he broke election funding laws by receiving Russian money in the run-up to the Brexit vote, also in 2016.

That year serves as a kind of ground zero for liberals fearful about the future of “Western democracy” – supposedly under threat from modern “barbarians at the gate,” such as Russia and China – and the ability of Western states to defend their primacy through neo-colonial wars of aggression around the globe.

The implication is Russia masterminded a double subversion in 2016: on one side of the Atlantic, Trump was elected U.S. president; and, on the other, Britons were gulled into shooting themselves in the foot – and undermining Europe – by voting to leave the EU.

Faced with the court case, Cadwalladr could not support her allegations against Banks as true. Nonetheless, the judge ruled against Banks’ libel action – on the basis that the claims had not sufficiently harmed his reputation.

The judge also decided, perversely in a British defamation action, that Cadwalladr had “reasonable grounds” to publish claims that Banks received “sweetheart deals” from Russia, even though “she had seen no evidence he had entered into any such deals.” An investigation by the National Crime Agency ultimately found no evidence either.

So given those circumstances, what was the basis for her accusations against Banks?

Cadwalladr’s journalistic modus operandi, in her long-running efforts to suggest widespread Russian meddling in British politics, is highlighted in her witness statement to the court.

In it, she refers to another of her Russiagate-style stories: one from 2017 that tried to connect the Kremlin with Nigel Farage, a former pro-Brexit politician with the UKIP Party and close associate of Banks, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been a political prisoner in the U.K. for more than a decade.

At that time, Assange was confined to a single room in the Ecuadorian Embassy after its government offered him political asylum. He had sought sanctuary there, fearing he would be extradited to the U.S. following publication by WikiLeaks of revelations that the U.S. and U.K. had committed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

WikiLeaks had also deeply embarrassed the CIA by following up with the publication of leaked documents, known as Vault 7, exposing the agency’s own crimes.

Last week the U.K.’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, approved the very extradition to the U.S. that Assange feared and that drove him into the Ecuadorian embassy. Once in the U.S., he faces up to 175 years in complete isolation in a supermax jail.

Assassination plot

We now know, courtesy of a Yahoo News investigation, that through 2017 the CIA hatched various schemes to either assassinate Assange or kidnap him in one of its illegal “extraordinary rendition” operations, so he could be permanently locked up in the U.S., out of public view.

We can surmise that the CIA also believed it needed to prepare the ground for such a rogue operation by bringing the public on board. According to Yahoo’s investigation, the CIA believed Assange’s seizure might require a gun battle on the streets of London.

It was at this point, it seems, that Cadwalladr and the Guardian were encouraged to add their own weight to the cause of further turning public opinion against Assange.

According to her witness statement, “a confidential source in [the] U.S.” suggested – at the very time the CIA was mulling over these various plots – that she write about a supposed visit by Farage to Assange in the embassy. The story ran in the Guardian under the headline “When Nigel Farage met Julian Assange.”

In the article, Cadwalladr offers a strong hint as to who had been treating her as a confidant: the one source mentioned in the piece is “a highly placed contact with links to U.S. intelligence.” In other words, the CIA almost certainly fed her the agency’s angle on the story.

In the piece, Cadwalladr threads together her and the CIA’s claims of “a political alignment between WikiLeaks’ ideology, UKIP’s ideology and Trump’s ideology.” Behind the scenes, she suggests, was the hidden hand of the Kremlin, guiding them all in a malign plot to fatally undermine British democracy.

She quotes her “highly placed contact” claiming that Farage and Assange’s alleged face-to-face meeting was necessary to pass information of their nefarious plot “in ways and places that cannot be monitored.”

Except of course, as her “highly placed contact” knew – and as we now know, thanks to exposes by the Grayzone website – that was a lie. In tandem with its plot to kill or kidnap Assange, the CIA illegally installed cameras inside, as well as outside, the embassy. His every move in the embassy was monitored – even in the toilet block.

The reality was that the CIA was bugging and videoing Assange’s every conversation in the embassy, even the face-to-face ones. If the CIA actually had a recording of Assange and Farage meeting and discussing a Kremlin-inspired plot, it would have found a way to make it public by now.

Far more plausible is what Farage and WikiLeaks say: that such a meeting never happened. Farage visited the embassy to try to interview Assange for his LBC radio show but was denied access. That can be easily confirmed because by then the Ecuadorian embassy was allying with the U.S. and refusing Assange any contact with visitors apart from his lawyers.

Nonetheless, Cadwalladr concludes: “In the perfect storm of fake news, disinformation and social media in which we now live, WikiLeaks is, in many ways, the swirling vortex at the centre of everything.”

‘Swirling vortex’

The Farage-Assange meeting story shows how the CIA and Cadwalladr’s agendas perfectly coincided in their very own “swirling vortex” of fake news and disinformation.

She wanted to tie the Brexit campaign to Russia and suggest that anyone who wished to challenge the liberal pieties that provide cover for the crimes committed by Western states must necessarily belong to a network of conspirators, on the left and the right, masterminded from Moscow.

The CIA and other Western intelligence agencies, meanwhile, wanted to deepen the public’s impression that Assange was a Kremlin agent – and that WikiLeaks’ exposure of the crimes committed by those same agencies was not in the public interest but actually an assault on Western democracy.

Assange’s character assassination had already been largely achieved with the American public in the Russiagate campaign in the U.S. The intelligence services, along with the Democratic Party leadership, had crafted a narrative designed to obscure WikiLeaks’ revelations of election-fixing by Hillary Clinton’s camp in 2016 to prevent Bernie Sanders from winning the party’s presidential nomination. Instead they refocused the public’s attention on evidence-free claims that Russia had “hacked” the emails.

For Cadwalladr and the CIA, the fake-news story of Farage meeting Assange could be spun as further proof that both the “far left” and “far right” were colluding with Russia. Their message was clear: only centrists – and the national security state – could be trusted to defend democracy.

Fabricated story

Cadwalladr’s smear of Assange is entirely of a piece with the vilification campaign of WikiLeaks led by liberal media outlets to which she belongs. Her paper, the Guardian, has had Assange in its sights since its falling out with him over their joint publication of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs in 2010.

A year after Cadwalladr’s smear piece, the Guardian would continue its cooperation with the intelligence services’ demonization of Assange by running an equally fabricated story – this time about a senior aide of Trump’s, Paul Manafort, and various unidentified “Russians” secretly meeting Assange in the embassy.

The story was so improbable it was ridiculed even at the time of publication. Again, the CIA’s illegal spying operation inside and outside the embassy meant there was no way Manafort or any “Russians” could have secretly visited Assange without those meetings being recorded. Nonetheless, the Guardian has never retracted the smear.

One of the authors of the article, Luke Harding, has been at the forefront of both the Guardian’s Russiagate claims and its efforts to defame Assange. In doing so, he appears to have relied heavily on Western intelligence services for his stories and has proven incapable of defending them when challenged.

Harding, like the Guardian, has an added investment in discrediting Assange. He and a Guardian colleague, David Leigh, published a Guardian-imprint book that included a secret password to a WikiLeaks’ cache of leaked documents, thereby providing security services around the world with access to the material.

The CIA’s claim that the release of those documents endangered its informants – a claim that even U.S. officials have been forced to concede is not true – has been laid at Assange’s door to vilify him and justify his imprisonment. But if anyone is to blame, it is not Assange but Harding, Leigh and the Guardian.

Effort to deplatform

The case of Paul Mason, who worked for many years as a senior BBC journalist, is even more revealing. Emails passed to the Grayzone website show the veteran, self-described “left-wing” journalist secretly conspiring with figures aligned with British intelligence services to build a network of journalists and academics to smear and censor independent media outlets that challenge the narratives of the Western intelligence agencies.

Mason’s concerns about left-wing influence on public opinion have intensified the more he has faced criticism from the left over his demands for fervent, uncritical support of NATO and as he has lobbied for greater Western interference in Ukraine. Both are aims he shares with Western intelligence services.

Along with the establishment media, Mason has called for sending advanced weaponry to Kyiv, likely to raise the death toll on both sides of the war and risk a nuclear confrontation between the West and Russia.

In the published emails, Mason suggests the harming and “relentless deplatforming” of independent investigative media sites – such as the Grayzone, Consortium News and Mint Press – that host non-establishment journalists. He and his correspondents also debate whether to include Declassified UK and OpenDemocracy. One of his co-conspirators suggests a “full nuclear legal to squeeze them financially.”

Mason himself proposes starving these websites of income by secretly pressuring Paypal to stop readers from being able to make donations to support their work.

It should be noted that, in the wake of Mason’s correspondence,  PayPal did indeed launch just such a crackdown, including against Consortium News and MintPress, after earlier targeting WikiLeaks.

Mason’s email correspondents include two figures intimately tied to British intelligence: Amil Khan is described by the Grayzone as “a shadowy intelligence contractor” with ties to the U.K.’s National Security Council. He founded Valent Projects, establishing his credentials in a dirty propaganda war in support of head-chopping jihadist groups trying to bring down the Russian-supported Syrian government.

Clandestine ‘clusters’

The other intelligence operative is someone Mason refers to as a “friend”: Andy Pryce, the head of the Foreign Office’s shadowy Counter Disinformation and Media Development (CDMD) unit, founded in 2016 to “counter-strike against Russian propaganda.” Mason and Pryce spend much of their correspondence discussing when to meet up in London pubs for a drink, according to the Grayzone.

The Foreign Office managed to keep the CDMD unit’s existence secret for two years. The U.K. government has refused to disclose basic information about the CDMD on grounds of national security, although it is now known that it is overseen by the National Security Council.

The CDMD’s existence came to light because of leaks about another covert information warfare operation, the Integrity Initiative.

Notably, the Integrity Initiative was run on the basis of clandestine “clusters,” in North America and Europe, of journalists, academics, politicians and security officials advancing narratives shared with Western intelligence agencies to discredit Russia, China, Julian Assange, and Jeremy Corbyn, the former, left-wing leader of the Labour Party.

Cadwalladr was named in the British cluster, along with other prominent journalists: David Aaronovitch and Dominic Kennedy of the Times; the Guardian’s Natalie Nougayrede and Paul Canning; Jonathan Marcus of the BBC; the Financial Times’ Neil Buckley; the Economist’s Edward Lucas; and Sky News’ Deborah Haynes.

In his emails, Mason appears to want to renew this type of work but to direct its energies more specifically at damaging independent, dissident media – with his number one target the Grayzone, which played a critical role in exposing the Integrity Initiative.

Mason’s “friend” – the CDMD’s head, Andy Pryce – “featured prominently” in documents relating to the Integrity Initiative, the Grayzone observes.

This background is not lost on Mason. He notes in his correspondence the danger that his plot to “deplatform” independent media could “end up with the same problem as Statecraft” – a reference to the Institute of Statecraft, the Integrity Initiative’s parent charity, which the Grayzone and others exposed. He cautions: “The opposition are not stupid, they can spot an info op – so the more this is designed to be organic the better.”

Pryce and Mason discuss creating an astroturf civil-society organization that would lead their “information war” as part of an operation they brand the “International Information Brigade”.

Mason suggests the suspension of the libel laws for what he calls “foreign agents” – presumably meaning that the Information Brigade would be able to defame independent journalists as Russian agents, echoing the establishment media’s treatment of Assange, without fear of legal action that would show these were evidence-free smears.

‘Putin infosphere’

Another correspondent, Emma Briant, an academic who claims to specialize in Russian disinformation, offers an insight into how she defines the presumed enemy within: those “close to WikiLeaks,” anyone “trolling Carole [Cadwalladr],” and outlets “discouraging people from reading the Guardian.”

Mason himself produces an eye-popping, self-drawn, spider’s web chart [see below] of the supposedly “pro-Putin infosphere” in the U.K., embracing much of the left, including Corbyn, the Stop the War movement, as well as the Black and Muslim communities. Several media sites are mentioned, including Mint Press and Novara Media, an independent British website sympathetic to Corbyn.

network-of-influence

Khan and Mason consider how they can help trigger a British government investigation of independent outlets so that they can be labeled as “Russian-state affiliated media” to further remove them from visibility on social media.

Mason states that the goal is to prevent the emergence of a “left anti-imperialist identity,” which, he fears, “will be attractive because liberalism doesn’t know how to counter it” – a telling admission that he believes genuine left-wing critiques of Western foreign policy cannot be dealt with through public refutation but only through secret disinformation campaigns.

He urges efforts to crack down not only on independent media and “rogue” academics but on left-wing political activism. He identifies as a particular threat Corbyn, who was earlier harmed through a series of disinformation campaigns, including entirely evidence-free claims that the Labour Party during his tenure became a hotbed of antisemitism. Mason fears Corbyn might set up a new, independent left-wing party. It is important, Mason notes, to “quarantine” and “stigmatize” any such ideology.

In short, rather than use journalism to win the argument and the battle for public opinion, Mason wishes to use the dark arts of the security state to damage independent media, as well as dissident academics and left-wing political activism. He wants no influences on the public that are not tightly aligned with the core foreign policy goals of the national security state.

Mason’s correspondence hints at the reality behind Cadwalladr’s claim that Assange was the “swirling vortex at the centre of everything.” Assange symbolizes that “swirling vortex” to intelligence-aligned establishment journalists only because WikiLeaks has published plenty of insider information that exposes Western claims to global moral leadership as a complete charade – and the journalists who amplify those claims as utter charlatans.

In part two, we will examine why journalists like Mason and Cadwalladr prosper in the establishment media; the long history of collusion between Western intelligence agencies and the establishment media; and how that mutually beneficial collusion is becoming ever more important to each of them.

Click here to read the original article entitled “British ‘Watchdog’ Journalists Unmasked as Lap Dogs for the Security State” written by Jonathan Cook, published in Mint Press News on June 21st.

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Earlier this month, Russia banned 29 British journalists, including several from the BBC and The Guardian, on the grounds that they were “associated with the defense complex”. That claim was not, at least in all cases, quite as preposterous as was widely assumed.

In part one of this two-part series, we saw how the Guardian’s Luke Harding – one of the journalists banned by Russia – has promoted entirely unsubstantiated smear stories that have hewn closely to the agenda of Western intelligence services. Harding even wrote a prominent Russiagate book and could not defend its basic claims when challenged by independent journalist Aaron Maté.

Although Russia’s ban provoked a predictable, self-righteous backlash from the U.K. media – and was adduced as further evidence of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian tendencies – Moscow was, in fact, mirroring earlier bans by the British authorities and the European Union on Russian state-sponsored media. None of the British journalists now barred from Russia raised their voices in protest at the banning of the English-language broadcasts and the websites of RT and Sputnik.

In popular imagination, cultivated jointly by Western establishment media and Western intelligence agencies, both outlets are staffed by Russian spooks strong-arming a few impressionable Westerners with Stalinist tendencies. The reality is very different. RT wants to have influence in the West, and the only way to achieve that is by recruiting credible Western journalists who have trenchant criticisms of the Western national-security state and its war industries but cannot – for that very reason – find a platform in the establishment media at home. RT might not be the best place to get a neutral view of what Russia is up to, but it had attracted a growing audience in the West by providing an outlet for disillusioned Western journalists who are ready to paint a realistic picture of the failings of their own states.

One of RT’s journalists, for example, was Chris Hedges, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He has had a long and distinguished journalistic career and has won major journalism awards. Nonetheless, six years of his Emmy-nominated “On Contact” programme for RT America – interviewing major public figures – was erased from Youtube’s channel overnight.

In part one, we considered the cases of two celebrated British journalists – Paul Mason and Carole Cadwalladr – who were revealed to be covertly colluding with Western intelligence services. Not only that, but they had used those contacts to try to harm other journalists who have been taking on the British and U.S. security states. They had been effectively recruited – or in Mason’s case, possibly recruited himself – to a covert, and dirty, information war. The paradox is that, while Cadwalladr and Mason have been accusing – without evidence – journalists in the West of colluding with foreign intelligence agencies, they themselves have been colluding with their own intelligence services to smear other reporters. If Russian intelligence needs a troll farm to spread disinformation, Western intelligence can rely, it seems, on compliant celebrity journalists in British mainstream outlets to do the same work.

Circling the wagons

Neither Cadwalladr nor Mason is likely to pay a price for their actions. In fact, they can expect to be rewarded – a sign that this kind of covert collusion is desired by establishment media, not least liberal outlets like the Guardian that try to create the misleading impression that they are somehow oppositional to the security state.

That should come as no surprise – and not just because these types of collusion work to the joint benefit of the establishment media and the intelligence services. The media outlet gets an exclusive – often one rooted in a smear operation by the state, as with Cadwalladr’s story of Farage meeting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (documented in part one) – which they do not need to stand up beyond the simple attribution to a “well-placed”, anonymous “source”.

Meanwhile, the intelligence services set the news agenda, including with smears that target those trying to hold them to account, but cannot be scrutinized over such claims because they can shield behind anonymity. In such cases, the so-called Fourth Estate serves as simply a stenographer for the state. It amplifies the state’s self-serving allegations but adds a veneer of legitimacy through its own supposed verification via publication.

The media’s collusion, however, is not just servile. With the advent of the internet and social media, the establishment press and the intelligence services have found their interests more in tune than ever before. Independent media of the kind that seeks to hold state power to account – such as, for example, MintPress News or the Grayzone, about which Mason was so keen to spread disinformation (again, documented in part one) – or foreign channels like RT that give a platform to independent Western journalists, are treated as a threat by both the intelligence services and the establishment media.

But whereas foreign channels like RT can be easily vilified because of their ties to “enemy” states, and shut down on those grounds alone, it is more difficult to make the case for censoring independent media. It requires first a concerted campaign of Western disinformation and smears to undermine independent journalism – as we shall examine later in this article.

The powerful see such smear campaigns as vitally important. Because it is free to report stories of state crimes the establishment media mostly avoids, independent media exposes the establishment media for what it really is: the public relations arm of the state. It shows the extent to which serious, critical journalism is absent from the mainstream. And as a rival source of news, independent media leaves readers more aware of what the establishment media is choosing not to cover – and hints at why.

Paradoxically, the more effective independent media has become, the more the establishment media has circled the wagons to protect itself from this upstart media, labeling its competitors’ coverage “fake news” and “Russian disinformation”. Meanwhile, the new establishment media monopolies emerging from the digital revolution – Silicon Valley platforms like Facebook/Meta, Google/Youtube and Twitter – have gradually joined this assault, changing their algorithms to make it ever harder for people to read independent media.

Recruited to spy

If the suggestion of widespread collusion with the intelligence services by our most celebrated journalists and the establishment outlets they work for sounds improbable, consider this:

Jon Snow, who gained national treasure status in the U.K. after serving as Channel 4 News’ front man for many years, revealed in 2015 that the British intelligence services had tried to recruit him 40 years earlier, when he was an up-and-coming broadcast journalist. He was asked to spy on “left-wing” television colleagues, in return for a secret, tax-free salary that would match what he was already being paid by his employer.

Most journalists are not likely to talk of such approaches, either because they have accepted them or because disclosure might harm their careers. Snow left it until very late in his own career before mentioning the incident. But there is no reason to imagine such approaches do not continue to be made on a regular basis.

I have never written of it before – it seemed too self-aggrandising, and until now not particularly pertinent to any piece I was writing – but a decade or so ago, I was quietly “sounded out” by a British diplomat. He wanted to see if I would supply the Foreign Office with off-the-record information on my specialist subject: the Palestinian minority in Israel. I refused, and the official dropped contact.

Given that I am a left-wing, freelance journalist far from the center of power, I was left wondering how common it is for better-placed, more mainstream journalists, ones who mix regularly with British officials, to be on the receiving end of such offers. Presumably an initial, low-key approach like the one made to me is intended to see how amenable a journalist might be to becoming more involved with the intelligence services. Mutual trust is gradually built.

On the CIA payroll

Back in 1977, Carl Bernstein, who was, alongside Bob Woodward, one of the world’s most famous journalists thanks to their reporting of the Watergate scandal, turned his attention to the extent of collusion between the U.S. media and the CIA. His engagement with this contentious subject likely damaged his career – at least compared to Woodward, who spent his later years continuing to make a name for himself hanging around the Oval Office relaying insider gossip.

Bernstein’s interest in the relationship between the intelligence services and journalists probably derived from his own Watergate experiences. Ultimately, he and Woodward got their scoop – later turned into a book, then a film called “All the President’s Men” – not only through hard graft but because they were used as pawns in a high-level power battle.

As would become public knowledge in 2005, Deep Throat, the insider who gave them the leads they needed to bring down President Richard Nixon, was Mark Felt, then the FBI’s associate director and a loyalist of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Felt had a score to settle with Nixon after he was passed over for the top job at the bureau when Hoover died.

Woodward knew Felt from his navy days, and had cultivated a relationship with his man in the FBI long before Watergate. Those long-term ties had presumably assisted them both: Felt because he could release stories that helped the bureau secretly shape the public narrative, and Woodward because he had access to information that gave him an edge over rival journalists.

Bernstein’s mammoth investigation in 1977 for Rolling Stone exposed the collusion between the CIA and journalists – collusion that had parallels with that between Woodward and Felt. Bernstein found evidence in the agency’s files that at least 400 U.S. journalists had “secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency”.

Bernstein observed:

“Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors without‑portfolio for their country. Most were less exalted: foreign correspondents who found that their association with the Agency helped their work; stringers and freelancers who were as interested in the derring‑do of the spy business as in filing articles; and, the smallest category, full‑time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad.”

CIA documents also showed, as Bernstein reported, that “journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements of America’s leading news organizations.”

The agency particularly valued its relationship with more liberal U.S. outlets like The New York Times, Time magazine and CBS News, who were seen as more credible as vehicles for its information war. The CIA-recruited journalists signed secrecy agreements, pledging never to divulge their relationship to the agency. But in fact, as Bernstein makes clear, the existence of these CIA-journalists was an open secret in most newsrooms.

Bernstein suggests it was easy for the CIA to recruit journalists to carry out its covert work, and get editors to cooperate or turn a blind eye, because of the paranoid political climate produced by the Cold War. Journalists did not feel they were taking a side; they were supposedly involved in an existential fight to defend the right of people to live in freedom.

One has to wonder how much has changed in a world where the aggressively promoted threats of Islamist extremism, Russian “imperialism” and a more nebulous “clash of civilizations” obsess the West’s political class. Journalists are as susceptible to those fears as their predecessors were to the Cold War, and doubtless as easily manipulated.

In the shadows

Investigative journalist Nick Davies dedicated a chapter of his 2009 book “Flat Earth News” to assess how deeply the Western intelligence services had penetrated the media, at home and abroad. Ultimately, Davies concedes, it is almost impossible to know, given that such collusion necessarily happens in the shadows.

Back in the mid-1970s, around the same time as Bernstein’s work, two Congressional committees – led by Senator Frank Church and House Representative Otis Pike – had set out to investigate the matter. This was the period, we should note, when Snow was being incentivised to spy on colleagues in the U.K.

As Bernstein points out, the Church Committee mostly covered up what it found; refused to question any of the journalists involved; accepted highly redacted, or “sanitized”, documents; and was heavily swayed by senior figures from the CIA, such as William Colby and George H. W. Bush. The Pike Committee fared little better, and publication of its findings were suppressed in the U.S.

Both Congressional investigations had been triggered by concerns, post-Watergate, about the dangers of presidential abuse of the CIA’s powers and the need for greater Congressional oversight.

Under this pressure, the CIA promised to wind down its activities and banned direct payments to journalists. But the powerlessness of Congress to truly get to grips with what the CIA was up to suggests that the agency likely refashioned the program in new ways.

In any case, the agency’s ability to control media coverage probably grew easier over time with the concentration of media ownership. The handful of giant corporations that now control almost all mainstream media in the U.S. share most of the security establishment’s concerns, just as ordinary journalists did during the Cold War.

A paper in every capital

Nonetheless, in his book, Davies pieced together what he could from the available documents. They showed that in the post-war period the CIA had employed at least 800 covert journalist “assets” – reporters, editors, media owners – around the world, pumping out its disinformation. The figures included only those on the agency’s payroll, not those who cooperated with it, shared its aims, or were influenced by its briefings.

These journalists were likely operating as part of a wider CIA covert information war known as “Operation Mockingbird”. The aim was to conceal the agency’s covert or illegal foreign operations, such as its overthrow of democratic governments in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, and control the media’s coverage of foreign policy fiascos such as the failed U.S.-directed invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961.

To achieve these deceptions, as one CIA official admitted to the New York Times, the agency had investments in a large number of newspapers and TV stations around the world, and even covertly set up its own media outlets. “We had at least one newspaper in every foreign capital at any given time,” he said.

Operating outlets abroad meant the CIA could manipulate more convincingly the domestic news agenda. Once it had placed a false or skewed local story in an outlet it secretly owned – such as The Tokyo Evening News or Chile’s South Pacific Mail – news agencies like Reuters and Associated Press, as well as major U.S. TV stations and newspapers, could be relied on to pick it up and spread the CIA’s disinformation around the world. The agency could quickly turn the world’s media into its own echo chamber on any major topic. Thus, just as mockingbirds mimic the songs of other birds, so the media came to repeat CIA talking points.

In 1983 John Stockwell, a former head of the CIA’s Angola task force, explained on camera the ease with which the CIA channeled its propaganda through witting and unwitting journalists. “I had propagandists all over the world,” he observed. Referring to his involvement in a disinformation campaign against Cuba, he said:

“We pumped dozens of stories about Cuban atrocities, Cuban rapists [to the media]… We ran [faked] photographs that made almost every newspaper in the country… We didn’t know of one single atrocity committed by the Cubans. It was pure, raw, false propaganda to create an illusion of communists eating babies for breakfast.”

According to Stockwell, the CIA secretly sponsored the publication of thousands of propaganda books promoting its preferred angles on Vietnam, communism and U.S. foreign policy. Some of the authors, noted Stockwell, “are now distinguished scholars and journalists”.

The Pike Committee estimated conservatively from the limited documents it gained access to that almost a third of the CIA’s budget was spent on propaganda operations. It noted that the figure might be much higher. Even so, the sum was more than the combined budgets of the world’s three largest news agencies: Associated Press, UPI and Reuters.

The CIA and its British counterpart, MI6, could boast numerous agents in the foreign bureaux of all three international news agencies. The CIA even created its own news agency, sending stories to 140 newspapers around the globe.

CIA agents were also found to have been working in the most prestigious U.S. media outlets. The New York Times employed at least 10 of them. At various times, Newsweek’s editor, foreign editor, Washington bureau chief and a host of reporters were on the CIA’s books. Time magazine, Reader’s Digest and the Christian Science Monitor all cooperated closely with the agency. American television networks routinely allowed the CIA to monitor their newsrooms.

Davies cites a report in the Guardian from 1991 that the CIA was found to have made payments to 90 British journalists. MI6 presumably had a separate, and at least as large, cadre of senior U.K. journalists on the payroll.

During that period, Britain ran its own propaganda unit, the Information Research Department (IRD), which cultivated journalists in similar ways to the CIA. Its task, according to Declassified U.K., was “to discredit human rights figures, undermine political opponents overseas, help overthrow governments, and promote U.K. influence and commercial interests around the world.” The British government also used the IRD to damage anyone perceived to be a domestic opponent.

Earlier this month, Declassified U.K. revealed that, in 1971, the Australian government set up its own unit modeled on Britain’s IRD and recruited senior Australian journalists to collaborate with it.

Credulous reporting

It would be foolish to imagine that, in this more complex information age, the U.S. and U.K. intelligence services’ influence over journalists has diminished. Both Cadwalladr and Mason’s cases illustrate how intimate those ties still are.

The New York Timeslet go” one of its star reporters, Judith Miller, in 2005. Her reports of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction – coverage that was critical to rationalizing the 2003 invasion of Iraq in violation of international law – were utterly discredited by later developments. There were no WMDs in Iraq. Western inspectors had consistently said this, but their voices were drowned out by pro-war media. Miller, who claimed she was given special Pentagon security clearance, had been fed stories by U.S. intelligence agencies. She had acted as an uncritical conduit for CIA disinformation that was then repeated by other major outlets.

She was far from alone in channeling fake news from intelligence agencies in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. The New York Times apologized for its mistakes, promising it would learn from the episode. But it has been just as credulous in regurgitating the intelligence services’ claims in recent U.S. proxy wars and regime change attempts – in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Venezuela and elsewhere. Miller was not sacked because she served as a willing channel for Western disinformation. Rather, real-world events required the New York Times to make someone a sacrificial victim for its all-too-obvious failings over Iraq. She was the ideal scapegoat.

Institutional collusion with the intelligence services has also become all too evident at the Guardian, the New York Times’ U.K. counterpart. Declassified U.K. has documented how the the Guardian has been increasingly co-opted by the British intelligence services after its publication in 2013 of the Edward Snowden leaks. Among other things, those leaks revealed that the U.S. and U.K. were operating secret and illegal mass surveillance programmes.

At that time, the Guardian, unlike other British media outlets, had a well-publicized opposition to taking part in the supposedly voluntary D-notice system, run by the Ministry of Defense, to regulate information that might threaten national security. After the initial Snowden revelations from the Guardian, the D-Notice Committee issued a notice against further publication of information released by Snowden. Most British outlets either ignored the leaks or offered minimal coverage. The Guardian, however, defied the government’s advice.

Shortly afterwards, officials from GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the National Security Agency, arrived at the paper and ordered it to destroy the laptops containing the Snowden material. The paper complied, with deputy editor Paul Johnson overseeing the destruction. Soon, the D-Notice Committee was able to report that “engagement” with the Guardian was strengthening and there was “regular dialogue” with its staff. The “culmination”, as the committee referred to it, was Paul Johnson’s agreement to sit on the committee itself.

When in 2015 the Guardian appointed a new editor, Katharine Viner, whose background was in fashion journalism, the security services appeared to seize the chance to lure the newspaper into greater cooperation. A year later the paper boasted that it secured the “first newspaper interview given by an incumbent MI5 chief in the service’s 107-year history” – MI5 being Britain’s domestic intelligence service. The article was co-written by Johnson and headlined on Russia – what else – as a “growing threat” to the U.K. The Guardian would follow up with exclusive interviews with the heads of MI6 and with the U.K.’s most senior counter-terrorism officer. All were softball interviews in which the British security state was allowed to set the agenda.

Under Viner, a host of investigative journalists with experience of covering national security issues departed. A former Guardian journalist told Declassified U.K.,

“Effective scrutiny of the security and intelligence agencies – epitomized by the Snowden scoops but also many other stories – appears to have been abandoned… [It] sometimes seems the Guardian is worried about upsetting the spooks.”

Instead, the paper has focused on targeting those who are in the crosshairs of the intelligence services – most obviously Julian Assange, whose publication of leaked official documents in 2010 exposed U.S. and U.K. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent years, as the U.S. has sought Assange’s extradition so it can lock him out of sight for up to 175 years, the Guardian has run a series of barely credible stories that appear to have been supplied to it by the intelligence services and clearly serve its interests. Those hit-pieces include articles written by Carole Cadwalladr and Luke Harding, and were discussed in part one.

As Declassified U.K. noted, the Guardian was also key to injecting credibility into a relentless media campaign to smear the then left-wing leader of Britain’s Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn. He was variously portrayed as a national security threat, a traitor and an antisemite. Again, the fingerprints of the security services were all over these stories. They had begun with an anonymous army general, interviewed by The Sunday Times, warning that the military “would use whatever means possible, fair or foul, to prevent” Corbyn becoming prime minister. The Guardian’s uncritical echoing of evidence-free claims of an antisemitism problem in Labour under Corbyn was particularly damaging because so many of the paper’s readers were traditional Labour voters.

Disappearing neo-Nazis

The intelligence services’ cultivation of ties with journalists in an increasingly digital, more defused media environment is likely to be as covert as ever. But there are occasional, brief glimpses of what they may be up to. As mentioned in part one, it emerged in 2018 that national clusters of journalists, along with academics and politicians, were working with the opaque Integrity Initiative, a covert operation supposedly against “Russian disinformation” supported by the British Foreign Office and Defense Ministry. The Initiative’s registered address in Scotland turned out to be an abandoned, semi-derelict mill. Its real offices were eventually tracked down to a plush part of central London.

The Integrity Initiative’s British cluster included some well-known names in British journalism. Its real aim was – once again – to paint independent media and left-wing politicians critical of Western wars as in the pocket of Russia and Vladimir Putin. The Initiative was also found to have been involved in efforts to bring down Corbyn.

The media’s memory-holing of the Snowden revelations and its silence on Assange’s persecution – despite the very obvious threat posed to a free press – are themselves an indication of the degree to which the establishment media share the aims of the security state and are complicit in its narrative manipulations.

Coverage of the West’s recent proxy wars have provided further clues as to the extent of that collusion. It has been hard to ignore the establishment media’s uncritical promotion of narratives in Syria and Ukraine that look suspiciously like they were crafted by Western intelligence agencies. That has involved some stunning about-turns in their coverage that should set alarm bells ringing with observers.

In Ukraine, that has been evident in the media’s frantic efforts to obscure its own recent concerns about neo-Nazi groups like the Azov Battalion being integrated into the Ukrainian military, and portray any attempt to remind us of that earlier coverage as Russian disinformation.

Those maneuvers echo similarly desperate moves by the establishment media to obscure the fact that groups allied to al-Qaeda and Islamic State ended up comprising the bulk of the “rebel” forces in Syria. Only a short time earlier, both had been regarded as the West’s most fearsome foes.

Russia was revived as the West’s number one enemy about the time the media – and the intelligence services – found themselves unable to continue fearmongering about Islamist extremists because those groups needed to be transformed into our allies in Syria.

In both conflicts, it has been hard not to notice too how easily the establishment media has been swayed not by facts on the ground but by what look more like branding exercises guided by Western marketing firms.

Ukraine’s president, Volodomyr Zelensky, reportedly took time out of his schedule last week to brainstorm with “marketing professionals” at Cannes about how to use “creative ingenuity” to keep the war in the spotlight, after earlier opening the film festival. Last week too, he made an appearance on a giant video screen at the popular Glastonbury music festival in the U.K. On each occasion, wore his now-signature designer wartime outfits.

White Helmets ringfenced

Similarly, the White Helmets have received unquestioning adulation from the Western media. A hagiographic documentary on their work was even awarded an Oscar. Yet the mysterious emergency rescue outfit appears only to work in areas of Syria controlled by jihadist groups the West has previously opposed for their human rights abuses and mistreatment of women and girls.

Liberal media has gone all-out to ringfence the White Helmets – and their jihadist allies – from journalistic and academic scrutiny. Independent journalists brave, or foolish, enough to try to break through this cordon sanitaire have found themselves smeared, and accused of spreading disinformation on Russia’s behalf. Western intelligence agencies have every incentive to malign these critics because the White Helmets are a central pillar upholding claims that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, assisted by Russia, used chemical weapons against his own people in rebel-held areas.

If the White Helmets are a credible, neutral humanitarian movement – a Syrian version of the Red Cross – then the media might be justified in treating their claims of atrocities by Assad uncritically. But if they are really a partisan rescue service involved in rebranding Islamist extremism to promote the goal of Western-sponsored regime change in Syria, then the media needs to be skeptical and scrutinize their every assertion. The establishment media has adopted the first approach, ignoring any indication that the White Helmets might not be quite what they seem.

That failure has been thrown into especially stark relief by the media’s extraordinary refusal to publicize the testimonies of whistleblowing inspectors at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Those whistleblowers say their findings at one site of an alleged chemical attack, at Douma in 2018, were rewritten by their own management under threats from the U.S.

The media’s silence is all the more astounding given that Jose Bustani, a former head of the OPCW, and Hans von Sponeck, the U.N.’s former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, have found the whistleblowers’ allegations credible and urged that they be investigated.

The story, if confirmed, has the potential to unravel much of the narrative in Syria jointly promoted by the Western intelligence services and the establishment media. Which is why any effort to examine it more closely is being crushed. If Douma was a staged attack rather than one carried out by Assad’s forces, as the whistleblowing inspectors’ evidence suggests, it would implicate the White Helmets in the deception – and possibly the murder of the civilians alleged to have been gassed in Douma. It could also mean that other chemical attacks assigned to Assad might have been the responsibility of jihadists.

That is why the stakes are so high. It may also explain why there has been an incessant stream of stories in liberal media outlets shoring up the Western narrative by smearing once again as a Russian asset any journalist tackling the subject in a critical manner.

The media’s defamation campaigns have been assisted by various, “expert” bodies, seemingly cut-outs covertly funded by Western governments, such as Bellingcat, the Institute for Strategic Studies (the parent “charity” of the Integrity Initiative) and, most recently, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. These organizations produce smear-laden reports on which the establishment media builds its hollow case against independent media.

This month, the Guardian ran the latest of its evidence-free smear pieces designed to silence independent journalists and protect the White Helmets. The article accuses independent journalists of being part of a supposedly Russian-backed disinformation “network”. The piece implicitly discredits the OPCW whistleblowers by ignoring their existence and instead attributing their claims to “a core of 28 conspiracy theorists”.

Despite its grand claims, the paper provides no evidence of any collusion between Russia and the named independent journalists, or even between the journalists themselves, that might justify labeling them a network, let alone a Russian-backed one. Nor does the article provide any examples of what disinformation these journalists are supposedly spreading – apart from their questioning of the actions of Western states.

Aaron Maté, who is named, has been one of the main channels by which the OPCW whistleblowers have been able to make public their concerns about the organization’s tampering with their findings in its final report. And yet the Guardian makes no mention that Maté’s supposed “disinformation” is actually sourced directly from OPCW inspectors themselves. The Guardian article is, in fact, exactly what it accuses independent media of being: pure disinformation (from Western intelligence agencies).

The BBC has been ready with the smears too. It ran an extraordinarily lengthy, though flimsy, podcast series trying to shore up the humanitarian credentials of James Le Mesurier, a former U.K. military intelligence officer who founded the White Helmets in 2014. Shortly after he had been accused of embezzling donor money, Le Mesurier fell to his death from an apartment in an Istanbul building, in what was judged to be a suicide.

The BBC series, “Mayday”, however, spent an inordinate amount of time trying to deflect attention from these facts. Instead, it sanitized Le Mesurier and the White Helmets’ reputation, implied independent journalists and academics had tipped Le Mesurier into suicide through their criticisms, and, like the Guardian, sought to discredit the OPCW whistleblowers.

MI6 could not have done a better job. When Maté posed a series of questions over the programme’s “smears, gaping omissions, leaps of logic, and factual errors”, Mayday’s producers went to the ground. The BBC journalist who fronted Mayday, Chloe Hadjimatheou, repeated the formula last month for BBC Radio 4 with “Ukraine: The Disinformation War”, covering much the same ground and defaming many of the same targets. Once again, Hadjimatheou has failed to respond to criticisms.

Real-world Marvel Universe

There are a whole raft of reasons why journalists working for the establishment media end up parroting the narratives of Western intelligence agencies engaged in an information war against critics that very much include independent media.

It would be naïve in the extreme to imagine that the establishment media severed its well-documented connections with the intelligence services back in the 1970s. Some journalists are doubtless still on the payroll and operating covertly, even if that number is probably small. Most, however, don’t need payment. By temperament and circumstance, they are extremely susceptible to the West’s sophisticated influence campaigns.

The tools at the disposal of Western security services, so ready to accuse Russia of using troll farms, grow all the time. The West has its own troll armies, enthusiastically spreading the work of intelligence cut-outs like Bellingcat and the Institute for Strategic Studies.

Last year, Newsweek revealed an undercover army of at least 60,000 operatives run by the Pentagon that used “masked identities” to exert influence on the digital world: “The explosion of Pentagon cyber warfare, moreover, has led to thousands of spies who carry out their day-to-day work in various made-up personas, the very type of nefarious operations the United States decries when Russian and Chinese spies do the same.”

There are a variety of reasons why journalists working for establishment media outlets so readily follow scripts written for them by Western intelligence agencies. In part, journalists successful in establishment media are products of lengthy selection processes effected through their upbringing, social class and education. Those who reach influential media positions are sympathetic to, and easily swayed by, the kinds of narratives that present Western states as the good guys fighting evil foes and Western crimes as unfortunate mistakes that cannot be compared to the atrocities committed by enemies. Like the public, Western journalists are socialized to interpret events as though we inhabit a real-world Marvel universe where our side is a mix of Captain America and Iron Man. As Noam Chomsky once observed to the BBC’s Andrew Marr during an interview:

“I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

In any case, Western journalists work inside large media corporations where they will not survive long unless they submit – mostly unconsciously – to the dominant corporate culture. Further proving Chomsky’s point, Marr claimed on another occasion that his “Organs of Opinion were formally removed” when he began working at the BBC. It was an extreme, fundamentalist view that suggested Marr believed he and the BBC – funded by, and accountable to, the British state – were able to divine absolute, eternal truths that they then disinterestedly passed on to viewers.

In fact, as the consolidation of corporate America continues, the situation for critically-minded journalists working in the establishment media grows ever worse. Media corporations have diversified their interests in ways that entrench them even more deeply in a neocolonial ideology that seeks both absolute control over global resources and their exploitation, and profits from the war, surveillance and security industries that enforce that control.

It is no accident that media corporations produce Hollywood fare that encourages the Western public to identify with superheroes and reduces the world to black-and-white struggles. Independent journalists trying to question this simple-minded narrative are easily cast as Thanos.

Read More:

https://www.mintpressnews.com/pentagon-leaned-hollywood-sell-war-afghanistan/278568/

On top of that, any journalist trying to look into the darkest corners of Western foreign policy can be herded back into the fold through threats – if not from their editors, then from the security services, as the Guardian’s Paul Johnson experienced at first hand. The security state has plenty of tricks up its sleeve. Complicit social media can punish independent-minded reporters through its algorithms, starving them of readers. Complicit online financial services like PayPal can punish independent journalists by starving them of income, as happened to MintPress and Consortium News. And if all that fails, there is always the example of Julian Assange, whose head has been displayed on a pike in London over the past decade – as was once the norm in Medieval times for those who angered the king – initially outside the Ecuadorian embassy and now outside Belmarsh high-security prison.

In the circumstances, it is surprising that there are any journalists left who are not simply regurgitating what the intelligence services tell them. The rapid rise of independent media may soon look like a brief, digital aberration in our media landscape – unless we dig in and fight the security state to keep the spirit of critical journalism alive.

Click here to read the second part of Jonathan Cook’s investigative series entitled “How Spooks and Establishment Journalists are Circling the Wagons” as it was originally published by Mint Press News on June 30th.

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Jonathan Cook is a MintPress contributor. Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

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thought(s) for the day: eleventh hour musings on Election 2015

A few hours ago I picked up a somewhat blunt pencil at a polling station in the constituency of Sheffield Central and cast my vote. Around the country an estimated 30 million other people will have done likewise by the time the polling stations close at 10 pm. Following which, we must wait, expectantly.

It is too late for persuasion and so this article is purely for the record – I meant to post sooner but simply couldn’t finish it (not satisfactorily — and though it needs further polishing I’m out of time, sorry). Yet the message I have been wishing to convey is a comparatively simple one. That whatever else happens, the Tories and their Lib Dem lackeys must be defeated.

This atrocious Con-Dem Coalition government has failed our nation in every conceivable way, and even if we choose to judge only by economic performance (I have included something on this as an addendum). Indeed, were it not for Rupert Murdoch and his central role in a far dirtier campaign than any since the 70/80s, both government parties would surely have been routed in this election. Shockingly, the Tories may yet hold on to power:

It’s forty years since anybody has won power in a UK general election without the backing of Rupert Murdoch. He’s not happy about the prospect. That’s the explanation for the surreal juxtaposition of the Sun covers from England and Scotland: 1

Image and text taken from one of a sequence of excellent articles written by John Lanchester and published by the London Review of Books.

Under other circumstances, I would have voted for a genuine anti-austerity alternative, either TUSC or Left Unity, however, given the nature of our “first past the post” (FPTP) electoral system, I have opted instead for Labour. The rest is (just) details…

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Five years ago, as the last dregs of the constituency results trickled in at about 4 o’clock, it became clear that there would be no overall victory in the General Election. Instead we had drifted to a stalemate: a hung parliament. And given how our peculiar (and extremely unfair) FPTP system habitually returns majority governments, this state of post-electoral limbo was difficult to grasp, especially as we crawled off late to bed. Next day there was an almost palpable sense that something important had been left undone. Electorus interuptus.

Many of us felt relieved nonetheless, that the Tories had not prevailed with an outright majority, given how the polls had been consistently forecasting a Tory win. At least they had until about a fortnight prior to polling day, when this happened:

Get used to it. The whole 2010 general election changed on the night of Thursday 15 April. It may now stay changed until polling day. Our ICM poll today maps the key elements of this new emerging electoral landscape. The Conservatives, until recently the likely winners on 6 May, now only have 33% support, ensuring a struggle to win enough votes or seats for victory. Labour, previously battling to get on terms with the Tories, have now slumped to 28%, third in votes for the first time since 1983, though strong in seats, courtesy of the first-past-the-post system. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, given and seizing their chance at last, have surged 10 points into second place. It is possible that what Lord Tebbit yesterday dubbed “the Clegg bubble” may burst between now and 6 May, of course. But don’t rely on that. It is just as possible that another strong performance in this week’s debate will give the Lib Dem wagon another hearty push, send their rivals into tailspins and have Whitehall mandarins scrabbling for Lib Dem telephone numbers. Either way, politics has changed. There is a new electoral reality. And about time too. And doesn’t it actually feel rather good? 2

So began an effusive Guardian editorial, and not since David Steele instructed his party members to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”, had centrist hyperbole touched such feverish levels. That in-your-face mantra “get used to it” repeated maniacally at the beginning of every paragraph, and all under a banner that read like a flaccid, if truculent, Lib Dem cry for electoral justice: “Labour would come third by popular vote yet still have the most seats – such a result would plunge British democracy into crisis”. As it transpired, of course, the Tories ultimately prevailed instead, limping into office on the arm of Nick Clegg’s hasty acquiescence, and in spite of the fact that the Lib Dems had actually polled rather disappointingly – as usual.

You may recall too that five years ago the party still had their unique selling point – that long-held and dependable commitment to overhaul our unfair FPTP system and replace it with PR (much more to their own liking). But this didn’t happen. Even as the Lib Dems hitched their own ride into office on the back of the Tory’s miserable failure (a decade in opposition, yet unable to defeat one of the least popular governments in modern history), the Lib Dem leadership still didn’t manage to negotiate a referendum on PR… let alone actually get PR!

Nothing monumental occurred in Election 2010. Labour didn’t come third whether by number of seats or in proportion of outright votes. Quite contrary to the Guardian’s excitable speculation, our democracy was no more “in crisis” post-election than before.

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Election 2015 is different. This time around a hung parliament is anticipated and there has been almost non-stop speculation on the eventual makeup of our next coalition. In fact, since the campaign proper started, the media have been collectively hung up on hung parliament. So can we trace the roots of this monomania?

We have the polls, of course. And the polls have been quite consistently indicating two outcomes for this election, certainly since the turn of the year. Firstly, north of the border, the forecast has been that Labour will be mauled by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) – and the size of that mauling seemingly gets bigger every time they run the latest poll (a daily occurrence for some reason) – and secondly, south of the border, the polls suggest Labour are unable to take the lead over the Tories. But then why should we trust the opinion polls? History testifies to their unreliability – as when the Lib Dem share was blown up out of all proportion in 2010:

In the run-up to the UK general election few people would have predicted a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition goverment – and fewer still that the Lib Dems would actually lose seats despite their popularity in the polls. […]

A record total of nine polls based wholly or mostly on interviewing conducted in the final few days of the campaign were published during its final hours. Their success at anticipating the eventual outcome can only be regarded as ‘mixed’. […]

The exit poll caused such surprise because its projection for the Liberal Democrats was at variance with the predictions of the final polls, which had suggested that the much-vaunted surge in favour of Nick Clegg’s party had carried through to polling day. It was on this point that the polls were wrong, significantly overestimating Liberal Democrat support for the first time in recent polling history. 3

The reliability of polls obviously depends upon people telling complete strangers how they intend to behave at a moment in the future. But then, the only thing at stake when you are cornered by a pollster is your street cred. As a consequence, it turns out, that those polled are inclined to say they will vote for the more exotic alternatives, but then, when it comes to making any real commitment, people tend to revert to habit. Their final X put beside the devil they already knew:

Twenty-seven per cent. That’s the number of people who told ICM/Guardian this January that they intend to vote for what we used to call ‘another’ party. It’s probably not news to anyone that UKIP, the SNP and the Greens are all making the kind of in-roads into traditional voting patterns that many commentators think could result in a complete overhaul of the political map. […]

Will all these people who tell pollsters that their cross will go against an emerging party actually turn out and vote for them? Here are a few examples of when the answer was ‘no’. Most will remember Cleggmania in 2010. Some final polls had the Liberal Democrats on 29% and the average was more than 27%, but the Lib Dems ended up with roughly the same 23% they achieved five years earlier. […]

I’ll leave you with a couple of stats. ICM re-interviewed UKIP and Green intenders after the 2010 election to understand what they ended up doing: only 60% of UKIP intenders voted for them, only 42% of Green intenders voted for their own pre-election choice. 4

Trust in polls also depends upon having trust in the independence of the polling agencies themselves, so what are we to make of fact that this time around many of the polls are sponsored by former Conservative Party Deputy-Chairman, Lord Ashcroft – a man with such a unenviable record for dodgy dealing that he is better known to many as “Lord Sleaze from Belize” (Belize being the tax haven he calls home):

[But] by and large, Lord Aschcroft’s increasing influence over British politics has passed unchallenged. And that’s strange, for a number of reasons.

Firstly it’s strange because there are legitimate questions to be asked about the accuracy and reliability of what have euphemistically become termed “The Ashcroft Polls”. As I say, there was a lot of comment over the weekend about the new Sheffield Hallam poll. But it wasn’t new. It was first published back in November, and at that time showed Nick Clegg 3 points ahead. That week, Antony Wells of Yougov identified errors in the published data, leading Lord Ashcroft to revise Clegg’s lead down to three points behind. Lord Ashcroft then reviewed two other polls, one for Thanet South and another for Doncaster North. A published lead of 5 points for the Conservatives in Thanet should in fact have been 1 point. A published 29 point lead for Labour in Doncaster should in fact have been 30 points.

Nor was this the first time mistakes like this had been indentified [sic]. The Doncaster poll was also first published back in November. It generated a lot of excitement at the time, because it showed Ed Miliband only a relatively slender 12 points ahead of UKIP in his seat. But again, Anthony Wells identified an error in the data. And once it had been corrected, it showed Ed Miliband 29 points ahead, not 12. [that’s quite a discrepancy!]

So writes Dan Hodges in an article published in The Telegraph (traditionally the most rightwing broadsheet of our Tory-centric press). Hodges wonders if Ashcroft, a Conservative peer, might have an agenda of any kind…

What does Lord Ashcroft want? Not a quiet life, certainly. Last week saw him again setting the political agenda, with a raft of constituency polling in Scotland showing Labour heading for electoral annihilation and the SNP poised to emerge as kingmakers after the poll.

And what possible interest could a former Conservative Party Deputy-Chairman and a Tory peer have for providing evidence that “Labour is heading for electoral annihilation”? None at all that I can think of… although as Hodges points out:

Yet just because he has no clear agenda, it doesn’t mean he has no agenda. While donating to the Tory party, he tried to focus his efforts on specific candidates and constituencies. As he said back in 2005: “I much prefer to be involved, to make sure that my investment is wisely placed.”

Lord Ashcroft wants something. It may be an improvement in the nature of our national political discourse. It may be a more informed electorate. It may just be a ring-side seat for the greatest political show in town. 5

Or maybe this “something” Ashcroft wants is connected to his longstanding association with the Conservative Party… who knows, hey?

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Let us cast our minds back again, to recall how a majority of voices in the media had been quite insistent that the country was heading for ‘another’ Tory victory – I put ‘another’ in inverted commas because although it was routinely presented as something of a repeat performance, little mention was made of the rather awkward fact that the Tories don’t in fact enjoy a majority, having failed to hold one since the heady days of John Major’s government.

Nevertheless, twelve months ago the mainstream was chock-full with opinion that the Tories were all-but home and dry in the forthcoming General Election, until that is, out of a less than clear blue sky, there were UKIP successes first in the council elections and then more spectacularly in the Euro-elections. This dent to Tory morale was swiftly followed up with the Tory to UKIP defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, and consequently, an already precarious Tory minority was suddenly a lot more wobbly.

Like an oil tanker changing course, the media apparatus corrected its position, a little. Given that a Tory majority was no longer such a nailed-on certainty, they concluded in unison, we could, in all likelihood, expect a hung parliament. It is this prospect of another hung parliament that the media has latched on to ever since, as if majority governments per se have become an endangered species.

Indeed, “rainbow coalition” has since become the media’s main infatuation, endlessly touted, not merely as inevitable, but as vital to ensuring some renewed vigour in our clapped-out political system. Politics, the media commentators have been routinely informing us, is so completely transformed from five years ago, that (to steal from the Guardian editorial again) we’d better get used to it. To a political landscape that is more “diffuse”, more dynamic, and just more damned interesting (apparently)! We have seldom witnessed such certainty about uncertainty.

Since the election officially kicked off (what feels like a lifetime ago) all of our TV channels have thus been emblazoned with multicoloured logos. Of course, the media enjoys offering its audience the perception of a broader variety of choices. Variety generates interest, which in turn sells election coverage.

In our deeply consumerist society, in which political alternatives are sold to us as party brands, any perception of broader variety actually suits politicians too. As in other branches of sales, greater choice translates into increased customer demand, which means our faltering interest in party politics gets a shot in the arm. The rainbow graphics serve this end: portraying a more multifaceted election. It’s a win-win for both politicians and the media alike, helping each to flog more of the other…

But could the news media be subliminally urging us to vote for a coalition government? I’ve put a question mark there, but only because there is no recognised punctuation mark to more perfectly convey a raised eyebrow. Certainly there are agendas lurking extremely close to the surface. (In fact, long before I finished writing this, one in particular had erupted through that surface altogether!)

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Tory strategy has been to hurt Labour on two interconnected fronts. Firstly, they aim to weaken them in England scaring voters with the spectre of a Nationalist threat having influence at Westminster. Secondly, they talk up the SNP in Scotland to further undermine Labour. Both increase the prospect of Cameron remaining in Downing Street after the election. This is smart short-term electoral tactics, but one far removed from the pro-union message in the indyref. 6

So writes Gerry Hassan, Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland – but I’ll come back his article later.

Now, when I came across this many weeks ago, I thought it sounded far-fetched enough to need supporting. So I had intended to frame it in such a way as to gently convince the skeptical reader. For instance, I had decided to refer back to BBC’s weekly political panel show, Question Time, when on April 2nd, journalist Peter Hitchens raised the issue of what he saw as “an unholy alliance” forming between Conservatives and SNP. Hitchens was the first political commentator to draw mainstream attention to the strategy.

And why, I then wondered, was Chief Tory Whip, Michael Gove (on the same outing of QT) also gushing with enthusiasm and praise for SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s performance during that same night’s “seven leaders debate” (on ITV immediately prior to QT). What had brought the Tory bigwig Gove to be waxing altogether lyrical about the remarkable talents of (presuming we accept the hype) such a progressive radical as Sturgeon?

Furthermore, it wasn’t just Gove who had been wooed over by SNP leader Sturgeon. A fortnight later, on the QT broadcast immediately following the five leaders debate on BBC1 (a debate which both Cameron and Clegg declined invitations to join, preferring to keep their heads down), it was Conservative Party Chairman, Grant Shapps, who was overeager in his praise Sturgeon’s follow-up performance, saying he thought “frankly she ran rings around Ed Miliband”.

So in short, I had noted this canoodling long ago (about the time I first began drafting the post), but then, all of a sudden, what was merely alternative speculation had breached its allotted confinement and the mainstream were pumping for all it was worth, while every man and his dog jumped in to offer their two pennies (Tory old guard being particular keen to chip in). Soon we had John Major, Michael Forsyth, Malcolm Rifkind and even Norman Tebbit all at it. For instance, Tebbit, who is highly critical of this no longer covert Tory strategy said on April 21st:

“What I find puzzling now is the prime minister’s position that the SNP is far worse than Labour because, if so, as there are not many seats in Scotland where the Conservative Party has a chance to win, the logic would seem to be that Conservatives should vote tactically for Labour as the lesser of two evils.

“I think it’s a huge scare tactic against Labour and whether the particular seat in the House of Commons is occupied by a Labour member or an SNP member perhaps it’s not a great difference.

“Having bungled the Scottish referendum it seems pointless to just irritate Scots by shouting at them from Westminster – the English are irritated into voting for UKIP, by being shouted at from Westminster – and the Scots are irritated similarly.’ He said, “the risk to the union comes from the SNP, not from anyone else.” 7

*

Although we can actually trace a love-in between influential figures from the centre-right (Tory right, if you prefer) and leading lights of the SNP much further back again. The love that dare not speak its name is not the novelty it might first appear:

Murdoch and [former SNP leader] Salmond, the Scottish first minister have always had a friendly relationship. In February 2012 Murdoch tweeted: “Alex Salmond clearly most brilliant politician in UK. Gave Cameron back of his hand this week. Loved by Scots.”

In notable contrast to the aloofness which characterises how Westminster MP’s now deal with Murdoch and News UK, Salmond is still (even in this post-Leveson and phone-hacking environment) ready to admit to affection for the media magnate – who had a Scottish grandfather.

Asked by Alistair Campbell in April’s GQ if he liked Murdoch, he stated: “I do. He is a remarkable man. What is wrong with this relationship? Why shouldn’t politicians engage with people in the media?”

And, let’s remember too, that it was Murdoch’s Sunday Times which on September 7th published the famous YouGov opinion poll which put the “Yes” vote two points ahead in the independence referendum – the only poll during the referendum to put “Yes” ahead, and coming at such a critical moment in the immediate run-up to the vote itself. Not that polls can ever be rigged, of course, how dare anyone suggest such a thing…

Whilst on the evening before that rather remarkable poll, Rupert Murdoch had tweeted: “London Times will shock Britain and more with reliable new poll on Scottish independence. If right on 18th vote everything up for grabs.”

And then the next day followed up with: “Salmond’s private polls predict 54-46 Yes. Desperate last ten days ahead for both sides. Most powerful media, BBC, totally biased for No.”

But on this occasion, it was the polls that were wrong (yet again), rather than the BBC. So, aside from the fact that he’s a politician, why exactly has Alex Salmond been kissing up to Murdoch? (Or is it the other way around?) John Jewell, who is Director of Media Studies at Cardiff University, makes the following observations in a fascinating article (from which the quotes above are also drawn) entitled “How Rupert Murdoch is sticking his oar into Scotland’s independence referendum”:

We know from the Leveson Inquiry and subsequent admissions that Salmond planned to lobby the UK government on Murdoch’s behalf in News Corporation’s bid to take over BskyB completely in 2010.

We know, too, that Murdoch and Salmond met in Edinburgh 2012, in a meeting described by the first minister’s office as “very constructive”. Under discussion was: “News Corporation’s substantial economic footprint in Scotland … and the potential for further investment within the country.”

Rumour had it at the time, in speculation fuelled by former Murdoch acolytes Andrew Neil and Kelvin Mackenzie, that Murdoch was prepared to move BskyB to Scotland in the event of independence.

Jewell adds:

Tittle tattle maybe, but there is no denying that the proposal to cut corporation tax in an independent Scotland to 3p below the UK rate would prove attractive to any multinational company. 8

Click here to read the full article at The Conversation.

I do agree with Murdoch on one point here – perhaps the only point we could ever possibly agree on – which is how the BBC is “totally biased”. But then, no matter how hard ‘Aunty’ tries to pretend otherwise, she is, and always has been, a willing arm of the British establishment. Come the independence referendum, and given the first B in BBC, it would be astonishing if they had been otherwise; any break-up of the Union immediately prompting the likely break-up of the corporation itself. Turkeys and Christmas, anyone?

So doubtless the BBC were one-sided during the referendum, although I would say that their coverage since has been more than favourable to the SNP. By contrast, of course, Rupert Murdoch’s own considerable media empire operates as the very epitome of impartiality, as everyone knows…

No, sorry, I meant this one:

Strange hey. How The Scottish Sun is backing “the Nats” as the gallant underdogs, whilst simultaneously The Sun (its sister tabloid in England) talks up our wonderful Tory government and frets about how it might be “brought down by the few dozen MPs of the left-wing [a swearword in The Sun] Scottish Nationalists” who will usher into power their “puppet” Ed Miliband. Now this really is balance – isn’t it?

This pincer attack is the same Tory strategy again, of course. The singular intention to reduce the Labour share of the vote with both editorials effectively saying (in differing ways) that SNP stand on the verge of a landslide victory. North of the border this message continues: “Get used to it” (where have we heard that before?); whereas the southern edition scaremongers that “If the Tories cannot get the votes to stop them [meaning SNP] ruling the roost down here, we are in for five years of mayhem and misery”.

Yet the oddest part of this now wide open agenda is what Peter Hitchens, speaking on BBC’s weekly political panel show, Question Time, on April 2nd, described as “an unholy alliance” between Conservatives and SNP. According to Hitchens, himself a dyed-in-the-wool, old-style Tory (a firebrand reactionary and someone I try not to agree with), there is an unmistakable and curiously overt New Tory attempt to bolster SNP support with the deliberate intention of breaking the Union – the very thing the old party (formally known as the Conservative and Unionist Party) served to protect. A week earlier, writing in his Daily Mail blog, Hitchens even had this to say:

Which UK party do the Scottish Nationalists most want to do well in the coming election? Might they prefer the Tories? And might the Tories, deep down, also prefer a Scottish exit from the UK to the continuing Union they claim to support? Is this the love that dare not speak its name?

The reason, Hitchens claims, is that otherwise there will never be a future Conservative government in Britain ever again (and here’s hoping):

The Tory party’s best hope of a getting a Westminster majority again is to get rid of Scotland.  A UK shorn of Scotland would produce a Tory majority Parliament and so at least temporarily halt the slow but accelerating death of the Tory Party.  But time is short. The core Tory vote is (literally) dying in droves as it is composed almost entirely of older voters. It is not being replaced. And as the new mass migrants become UK citizens, they are unlikely to become Tory voters.  The break must happen soon if the Tory party is to regain its lost ability to govern with an absolute majority, and all the fundraising and other advantages that come with that status.

He concludes:

What if the Tories and the SNP both ended up helping each other to get what they wanted – a Tory majority government at Westminster, and Scotland gone from the UK? A phrase from my childhood – ‘accidentally on purpose’ – springs to mind. 9

*

It is curious that, for different but clearly interconnected reasons, there has been a surge in the support of not one, but two nationalist parties. Nationalists with diametrically opposing outlooks. Yes, UKIP and the SNP are exceedingly strange adversaries. So let us briefly turn from the SNP to consider their grotesque ugly sister nemesis, UKIP.

UKIP and their leader Nigel Farage are hard to separate – impossible, in fact. He dominates his motley UKIP crew more than any British political leader since the days of Margaret Thatcher – and comparison with Thatcherism does not end there. Like Mrs T, Mr F somehow manages to blame the EU for most of our society’s many ills, but then placing blame on an outside menace is a tried and tested demagogic strategy. And as it goes, the EU presents him with a perfect target. Its unelected commissioners are indeed in the pockets of multinationals, while the ECB operates as an unprincipled organ of the financial oligarchs. The people of Greece or Spain or Portugal are in the best position to judge the works of the EU Commission or the ECB – two-thirds of “The Troika” – and a majority would agree that the agencies are not only incompetent and heavy-handed, but callous, corrupt and parasitical. And in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, it is better if you don’t mention the role of the Germans…

One protester recently took her complaint directly to former Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs and current President of the ECB, Mario Draghi. Interestingly, Forbes magazine last year nominated Draghi as 8th most powerful person in the world, but they had yet to see him cowering beneath his table when confronted by a smallish woman throwing confetti and demanding that he “end ECB dictatorship”:

A very reasonable demand.

Even Farage’s poisonous alarmism about an insidious invasion by Bulgarian migrants is rooted in a more justifiable concern. For why have consecutive British governments dropped our nation’s border controls with countries significantly more economically deprived than we are? This policy was bound to lead to increased downward pressure on pay and conditions for workers at home, whilst boosting the profits of the exploitative bosses and gangmasters. But none of this is anywhere near to the top of UKIP’s true concerns. Immigrants are the scapegoats, and this anti-Europe line is UKIP’s preferred wrapper, just as the Union Jack is its other wrapper. No amount of make-up can disguise UKIP’s frothing at the mouth.

On the one hand, Ukippers claim to be libertarians, which in Britain translates more than loosely as Thatcherite – free market and pro-austerity – whilst, on the other, they feign to be radicals when are very evidently reactionaries, and thus more Thatcherite still – a mix of Alf Garnetts and Colonel Blimps (more often Major Blimps and Captain Blimps). Little Englanders who simply can’t abide Johnny Foreigner. Which is why UKIP appeals mainly to those who would love to be able to vote for Thatcher, if only she wasn’t quite so dead… and why they offer very little in the way of true opposition to Labour. Instead, the serious threat to Labour’s vote is decidedly north of the border. UKIP, meantime, pose a genuine threat to the Tory’s share of the vote – and in splitting the traditional Tory vote, I personally wish them every success!

The big thing that connects the rise of UKIP with the rise of the SNP is that many who have traditionally voted either Labour or Conservative are likewise desperate for real change. In offering themselves up as alternatives, UKIP and SNP are trying to pool support from disaffected voters with drastically alternative outlooks. But beware: all nationalism feeds upon division.

There was a time, not so long ago, when SNP were shunned by those on the left (as nationalists customarily are) and disparaged for being “Tories in tartan”. But the great wonder of nationalism is that by tying oneself to a flag rather than being anchored to a secure political creed, one is able to flutter freely and change direction at a whim. A quick overhaul of political livery and the flag is still billowing beautifully. Thus the SNP, on seeing how the wind had turned, adroitly put on the guise of an anti-austerity party. Tartan Tories no longer, but relaunched as McSyriza.

Likewise, UKIP, once just a sad and lonely hangout for embittered True Blue Tories, have recently been trying quite hard to reposition themselves within the main current of our times. After all, given how the European Commission and the ECB are two of the worst pro-austerity bullies – this is irrefutable – then anyone who opposes them must be anti-austerity almost by exclusion, or something. But as a tactic, this has its limits, especially when the leader of your party, the son of a stockbroker, is himself an unrepentant City of London commodity trader. Never mind though, the austerity card can still be played, occasionally and with extreme caution. Meanwhile, to get around the background checks, Farage prefers to highlight how he actually held down a “real job” unlike all those Oxbridge pretenders from the other parties – which they are, every other one (approximately) holding a degree in PPE from Oxford University (a degree that puts strong emphasis on that E and with neo-liberal silently prefixed). So no wonder our choice of political alternatives has become dreary, and so narrowly defined. Such a shame our nation is no longer led by real men who drink pints and smoke fags and do “real jobs” like former City of London trader Farage…

As an illustration of this tightening political convergence, just think about TTIP for a moment. Here’s a quick reminder of what we know about TTIP:

Now, if we ask Nicola Sturgeon whether she and her party are in favour of the so-called “free trade agreement” she will reply that she is, although with reservations. She will point out the need for ‘robust’ negotiations ensuring exclusions for the NHS. Ed Miliband will say almost precisely the same thing, if similarly pressed. Alternatively, if you ask Nigel Farage this question, keeping in mind that we are talking about a clandestine EU treaty that will effectively mark the beginning of the end to the very existence of the nation state, rather than challenging it, he instead recommends the UK negotiate our own (secret) free trade deals with America, but in half the time it takes to cut through all of the red tape from Brussels.

In short, there are no mainstream parties large or small that are not captured and beholden to the corporatocracy. All five are sold out to differing degrees (to be fair, the Greens are officially opposed to TTIP but their limited record in power in Brighton is extremely poor and the “Green surge” is, in any case, a will-o-the-wisp). So voting in this election can only be a damage limitation exercise at best. Which brings me to ask simply this: which of the parties is the lesser of these evils? In England the answer is rather obvious, but in Scotland… back to Gerry Hassan:

Beneath this the differences between Labour and SNP are less than first appear, but magnified by language, tribalism and intense electoral competition.

A British Election Survey at the end of last year showed that SNP voters thought they were the most left-wing of Scotland’s mainstream parties and their party the most left-wing with Labour as significantly to their right; while Labour voters thought the same of themselves and their party, and placed the SNP to their right. 10

So, when it comes to which of the two is the more radical (a tallest dwarf contest if ever there was one) it is all in the eye of the beholder, whilst what actually encourages some Scottish voters to discriminate for and against goes back to the positions each assumed during the independence referendum: Labour penalised for its partnership with the Tories (as if it really had a choice given the circumstances) in the “Better Together” campaign.

*

A friend said to me recently, that if we don’t trust the polls, then what do we have to go on? Not much. Mostly, we have those election results in the European, council and bi-elections, all of which came as bad news for anyone hoping to see the return of a Tory government (coalition or otherwise). So the post-referendum rise of the SNP has been a tremendous boon to flagging Tory morale. But what are we to make of the media’s role in other ways?

The media has been hypercritical of Ed Miliband from the very beginning. But given that so much of the media (especially the press) is Tory supporting (much of it overtly so), this ought to come as little surprise. Nor should it have come as any surprise that the same media once gave Tony Blair the thumbs up. Murdoch’s press, in particular, praising him to the rafters. But then, Blair was not merely an establishment favourite, he also managed to ingratiate himself into the Murdoch household to such a degree that he was honoured as godfather to Rupert’s daughter, Grace:

Is any of this reminiscent of another of today’s leading political figures?

In contrast to Blair, Ed Miliband has been dismissed as a nerd who looks like Wallace and worse, he struggles to eat a bacon sandwich with the least bit of conviction (incidentally, he should have sacked his own advisors for that preposterous stunt). He’s just too weak, they tell us, to lead the country. But worse, apparently he quite literally “stabbed his own brother in the back.”

Understood properly, what the media are reminding us here is how the New Labour baton was supposed to have been passed to elder brother David, the designated and rightful heir to the kingdom of Tony Blair. However, Ed somehow got in the way… whatever happened to primogeniture? Neither the establishment, nor the media that speaks for it, have forgiven such impropriety.

Leading the charge against the usurper has been a familiar face. The boss of News Corp who recently tweeted: “Cameron’s Tories bash vulnerable Miliband for months with no effect on polls. Need new aspirational policies to have any hope of winning.”

And according to an article in The Independent, Murdoch may be out to get Ed for reasons other than mere party politics:

It is understood that Mr Murdoch reminded executives that Labour would try to break up News UK, which owns The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times. The party has suggested that no owner should be allowed to control more than 34 per cent of the UK media, a cap which would force News UK to sell one of the titles.

It has also pledged to implement recommendations in the Leveson report for an independent press regulator backed by statute, bitterly opposed by Murdoch. Mr Miliband has made “standing up” to Mr Murdoch over the phone-hacking affair a central plank in his attempts to persuade voters that he is a strong leader. A source said: “Rupert made it very clear he was unhappy with The Sun’s coverage of the election. He basically said the future of the company was at stake and they need to get their act together.” 11

Miliband is weak? Well, not if he really does stand up to Murdoch and News Corp. In any case, as Murdoch unhappily concedes, the Tory strategy of playing the man instead of the ball has largely failed.

Two and a half years ago I personally heckled Ed Miliband during a speech he made at a rally in London. I make no apologies. After all, how dare anyone climb onto the stage of an anti-austerity protest and call for cuts. So it pains me to say that we must hope Miliband is our next PM.

But Ed Miliband is not Tony Blair, and he has already shown backbone when it matters. When he held his ground and – along with the support of a number of Tory defectors (I like to give credit wherever it is due…), though no support from Lib Dems (…but not to forgive easily) – was able to defeat the government on a vote for war, something unheard of. The Nato attack against Syria was thwarted largely thanks to Miliband; winning a Commons’ vote that spared countless lives. Of course, having opposed not only Obama, but the entire Anglo-American war party, he immediately took more flak. The “special relationship” was supposedly damaged beyond repair, the media bleated in unison in the weeks that followed. Warmongering gibberish peddled by a news media drunk on decades of senseless bloodletting.

*

Our public services are close to breaking point (some will say already past it), so what if anything will survive another five years of Tory cuts? And harsher, deeper cuts, as they have kept on promising us. Meanwhile, how divided will the nation be once more wealth has been transferred from the destitute to the superrich, even as the national debt continues rising because of “austerity”. New Labour are very much responsible for this trend too, but in fairness to Ed Miliband, he was hardly central to their neo-liberal programme. I believe we should at least give him a chance (I never said the same for Tony Blair).

My expectations of Labour remain low, but a change of political direction is as desperately as it is urgently required – and what begins as a small change might be accelerated as other nations such as Greece push the same demands. In the longer term, we can obviously do much better than New Labour, but just how “New” Labour is Ed Miliband? When asked why he voted against brother David, he replied that his own political outlook is radically different. I hope there is truth to this – although if Ed Miliband is elected into office, then we must be ready to hold his feet to the fire.

I try to steer clear of making predictions on this blog (for obvious reasons) but I am about to make a slight exception… I believe that Labour can win this election, and that even an outright majority should not be ruled out of hand. After all, prior to the last election our FPTP system delivered majority governments time and again. Has politics really changed so much in just five years? Of course, it could be that the Tories get a majority instead, however, there are other reasons to believe that Labour are more likely to win. Threefold reasons and ones that have next to nothing to do with Ed Miliband himself.

Firstly, the collapse in the Lib Dem share will most likely return to Labour. Secondly, UKIP have wounded the Conservatives – a right-wing split that is reminiscent of the SDP splitting the left in the 1980s. Although I seriously doubt UKIP will gain many, if any, seats (I certainly hope they don’t, but neither did the SDP), even without taking seats they may undermine the Tories who hold marginal seats. Thirdly, one victory which the Lib Dems did achieve during their miserable stint in government was to block Conservative attempts to redraw constituency boundaries. This was in tit-for-tat retaliation after the Tories reneged on their Coalition commitment to House of Lords reform. 12 However, the consequence of this is very much to Labour’s advantage:

Labour can reach a Commons majority with a smaller lead in the vote than the Conservatives can, all else being equal. The past two elections illustrate this: in 2005, Tony Blair turned less than three percentage points into a Commons majority of more than 50, while five years later David Cameron fell nearly 20 seats short of a majority despite a seven-point vote lead. This advantage to Labour has several sources – Labour constituencies tend to have fewer people, turnout is lower in Labour-held seats, and Labour has traditionally lost fewer seats to third parties. The Labour vote is also more “efficient”. The ideal in our system is “win small, lose big” – the fewer votes spent on crushing victories or narrow defeats, the better the return of seats to votes. Labour’s vote is closer to this ideal – fewer mega-majorities, and a better record of wins in tight races. 13

Thus the stage is set. UKIP poised to steal votes away from the Conservatives and hopefully to finally break the party in two. But, and this is the real sticking point, the SNP will undoubtedly grab votes from Labour. So the outcome is actually dependent upon the results of these two lesser battles: Conservative v. UKIP and Labour v. SNP.

I appreciate that many in Scotland will be encouraged to vote SNP either to punish Labour or else in the hope of landing a better deal for Scotland – and why not be self-interested. But let’s face facts, SNP are not Syriza, nothing like them – and perhaps, as I suspect, more closely akin to the Lib Dems of five years ago. As one who fell for the Lib Dem scam, I feel obliged to (rather belatedly) caution you.

Should the vote in Scotland go solidly the way of the SNP then it may pave the way for an unthinkable outcome – Conservatives failing to win a majority (as they likely will) yet winning most seats overall and somehow thereafter cobbling together a second Tory coalition. Can we even begin to imagine how ruined our nation (Scotland very much included) will be if there are five more years of rule by the Tories? I sincerely hope we are not about find out.

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Addendum:

The national debt figures are out – £1.2 trillion and rising – and although I hate to say it, the Labour Party has a valid point to make. If you don’t adjust for inflation, Osborne has borrowed more in under four years than the Labour Party borrowed over 13 years.

So wrote Fraser Nelson, editor of Conservative mouthpiece The Spectator magazine in an article published in November 2013. To back his claim, the same article featured this graph captioned “Osborne borrows more in 5 years than Labour did in 13”:

Nelson concludes:

Is this recovery real, or another debt-fuelled illusion? The annoying truth is that we just don’t know. 14

For a multitude of reasons we really do know… Indeed, many of the reasons are outlined in an article published almost a year later, as the general election campaigns were just beginning to limber up, by Telegraph (another Conservative mouthpiece obviously) finance correspondent Liam Halligan. He begins with some basic bean-counting:

When the Tories took office, total government debt was £811bn. On last week’s figures, it’s now £1,451bn – an 80pc rise in just five years, with a lot more to come. This national debt matters. It must be serviced with regular interest payments, diverting money from front-line public services. Even at rock-bottom interest rates, the Government spends as much on debt interest annually as on defence. As the national debt escalates, courtesy of £100bn-plus annual deficits, and as interest rates inevitably rise, we’ll soon be spending more on government debt service than on state education.

Halligan then gets stuck into the meat of his own worries (of which I am only providing a taster):

I remain deeply concerned about our national debt, not only because of the absurdity of vast debt service payments, the damage to coming generations and the incentive politicians have to “inflate the debt away”. I also worry that our vast liabilities could ultimately spark another systemic meltdown, not least because such a high share of UK government debt is now owned by foreign creditors. And that makes our public finances extremely vulnerable if there’s a considerable weakening of the pound.

This issue has been on my mind for a while, but recently crystallised while talking to friends at the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think-tank, where I’ve long served on the advisory board. As a result of quantitative easing, around a third of the UK’s gilt stock is owned by the Bank of England. That’s right, 32pc of our government bonds have been bought by our central bank, using virtually printed money. That’s helped to rig the market, keeping interest rates artificially low.

All of which sounds like a “debt-fuelled illusion” to me, and Halligan is justifiably concerned that “such a high share of UK government debt is now owned by foreign creditors”. He continues:

The UK recently chalked up the largest external trade shortfall in our history, with our so-called current account deficit registering well over 5pc of GDP. While our imports have long outweighed our exports, our net income on overseas government investment and assets has recently swung from a surplus of 3pc of GDP to a deficit of over 2pc.

A lot of the explanation for that is the vast interest payments the Government now makes to the raft of foreign creditors propping up our public finances. 15

The systemic failures which led to the banking crisis of 2008 have never been remedied and instead the can was kicked down the road. What Gordon Brown started, the Con-Dem coalition have simply continued, and as a consequence of complete lack of reregulation of the financial markets, we can expect that the next crisis, whenever it comes (and the can might yet be kicked a lot further) will be far bigger than the first. Meanwhile, as the debt burden mounts, there can be no significant economic recovery so long as further money is simply wasted on banker bailouts and debt repayments instead of being invested in infrastructure and services. “Austerity”, meaning cuts to all government spending aside from its debt repayments, is a form of wealth transfer from the poor to the rich.

This is why the Con-Dem government have failed by every single count including their own narrowly determined neo-liberal measures. So that not only do we have a million people who have been so impoverished over the last five years that they are now dependent upon food banks; and a workforce so blighted and demoralized by the insecurity and unreliability of zero hour contracts; and even our mediocre GDP figures bolstered on account of drug use and prostitution (two commodities set to grow as the depression deepens); but worst of all, the imposed “austerity” hasn’t diminished the deficit, let alone the debt. In fact, the only real growth this country has seen has been in the wealth gap:

The UK is the only G7 country to record rising wealth inequality in 2000-14. Wealth inequality has risen four times faster in the seven years after the crash compared with the seven years before. The rich in the UK are becoming richer faster than ever. Wealth inequality rose under Labour; it rose faster under the coalition. 16

Under the circumstances, I find it hard to comprehend how either the Tories or their lickspittle accomplices, the Lib Dems, could possibly be re-elected, even with the might of Murdoch’s media empire behind them. Certainly bribery may help and Cameron has been offering temptations like there’s no tomorrow: “right to buy” houses, free childcare and even a quick bonanza from the sale of shares in Lloyds. Fiscal responsibility? For the price of re-election, “austerity” be damned! Hopefully there really will be no tomorrow for this atrocious Tory government, but if they do somehow manage to limp across the line and survive for another term in office then here’s the genius who will be back in charge of rescuing broke(n) Britain:

*

Update:

The punch in stomach surprise of a Tory majority shocked and sickened many of us, and not only those on the left. Right-wing commentator, Peter Hitchens, was also called to account over his prediction (referred to and reprinted in the piece above) that the Tories would probably never be able to achieve such a result. In an extended reply to his critics entitled “Groundhog Day Comes Round Again” [published Friday 8th – the day after the election] he wrote:

I never for a moment imagined that Big Money and Big Lies could so successfully scare, cajole and diddle the electorate of this country. I grew up in a Britain both better-educated and more honest than the one we have today. Perhaps that is why I could not see this possibility. I have not seen, in my lifetime, a campaign so dishonest, so crude, so based in fear and so redolent of third-world and banana republic political tactics.

On which, I entirely concur. Indeed, I find that Hitchens, whose political perspective differs from mine by very nearly 180 degrees, frequently offers a more perceptive and interesting take than other mainstream commentators when surveying the bigger picture. Looking beyond his old school, reactionary opinions, which leave an altogether bitter taste in the mouth, his broader analysis of the wretched state of contemporary politics too often strikes a major chord – as here:

The truth is that both major parties are now just commercial organisations, who raise money wherever they can get it to buy their way into office through unscrupulous election campaigns. They then presumably reward their donors once they are in office. The electorate are a constitutional necessity for this process, but otherwise their fears, hopes and desires are largely irrelevant. They are to be fooled and distracted with scares (‘The other lot will privatise the NHS!’ ‘The other lot will nationalise your children’s toys and then wreck the economy!’ ) or with loss-leader cut-rate offers, like supermarkets (‘Vote for us and get a cheap mortgage!!’ ‘Vote for us and have your rent frozen!’) . Even if these wild pledges are implemented, the customer will pay for them through higher taxes elsewhere, just as with supermarket loss-leaders.

By playing our part in this ludicrous pantomime, we license it to continue forever. I have thought for years that the key to ending it was simple and obvious. We could revenge ourselves on these fakes by refusing to vote for them. The arrival of new parties, UKIP on one side, the Greens on the other, made such a revolt and redemption even easier.

But I must now admit that the people of this country actually seem to prefer to live the same experience over and over again, and seem astonishingly ready to believe the crudest propaganda. I seethe with frustrated amazement at the Tory claim to have fixed the economy, so blazingly untrue that in commercial advertising it would get them into serious trouble with the authorities.

Ailing GDP figures just before the election were barely mentioned in the media, but easily-obtained statistics on productivity, trade, manufacturing and construction, are all bad and the Tories have missed their own target (whether wise or not) on deficit reduction. In any case, the Tory record on the economy is dreadful.

Likewise, Hitchens is quite correct in his assessment of the Tory’s (not so) secret romancing of the SNP:

A Tory Party really concerned about the loss of Scotland would have done as Norman Tebbit suggested, and urged its supporters to vote Labour to stop the SNP. Instead, to the dismay of elder statesmen and experts such as Michael Forsyth, it talked up the SNP, paying elaborate compliments to Nicola Sturgeon after the leaders’ debate (George Osborne and Michael Gove were observed doing this). To claim, while behaving in this fashion, that the Tory Party is a bulwark against the SNP and Labour is in their clutches is absurd. The SNP are delighted by the Tory victory, which makes it all but certain that they will get a repeat landslide in next year’s Scottish general election, with a manifesto commitment to a second referendum, which I think they will then win. Let us see how Mr Cameron now copes with the SNP’s sweeping victory, for which he must take so much of the blame.

At least the Sun newspaper was brazenly open about its ludicrous inconsistency, campaigning for a Tory (and supposedly Unionist) victory south of the border, and for the unquestionably separatist SNP north of it.

Click here to read Peter Hitchens’ full post-election article.

*

1 From an article entitled “Episode 18: Panic Stations”, written by John Lanchester, published by the London Review of Books on May 5, 2015. http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/05/05/john-lanchester/episode-18-panic-stations/ 

2 From an editorial entitled “General election 2010: All change for new politics”, published by the Guardian on April 20, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/apr/20/general-election-2010-poll-editorial

3 From an article entitled “General Elecion 2010: Did the opinion polls flatter to deceive?” written by Martin Boon & John Curtice, published by Research magazine on July 6, 2010. http://www.research-live.com/opinion/general-election-2010-did-the-opinion-polls-flatter-to-deceive?/4003088.article

4 From an article entitled “Bursting the polling bubble” written by Martin Boon, published in Research magazine on February 12, 2015. http://www.research-live.com/blogs/election-blog-bursting-the-polling-bubble/4012895.article

5 From an article entitled “Lord Ashcroft’s polls are not what they seem” written by Dan Hodges, published by The Telegraph on February 9, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11401622/Lord-Ashcrofts-polls-are-not-what-they-seem.html

6 From an article entitled “The tartan tsunami and how It will change Scotland and the UK for good” written by Gerry Hassan, published March 20, 2015 on the OpenDemocracy website. https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/gerry-hassan/tartan-tsunami-and-how-it-will-change-scotland-and-uk-for-good

7 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/election-2015-32394920

8 From an article entitled “How Rupert Murdoch is sticking his oar into Scotland’s independence referendum” written by John Jewell, published in The Conversation on September 10, 2014. http://theconversation.com/how-rupert-murdoch-is-sticking-his-oar-into-scotlands-independence-referendum-31531

9 From an article entitled “The SNP and the Tories – is This the Love that Dare not Speak its Name?” written by Peter Hitchens, published in The Mail on March 23, 2015. http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2015/03/the-snp-and-the-tories-is-this-the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name.html

10 From an article entitled “The tartan tsunami and how It will change Scotland and the UK for good” written by Gerry Hassan, published March 20, 2015 on the OpenDemocracy website. https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/gerry-hassan/tartan-tsunami-and-how-it-will-change-scotland-and-uk-for-good

11 From an article entitled “Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election” written by Adam Sherwin and Oliver Wright, published in The Independent on April 21, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/rupert-murdoch-berated-sun-journalists-for-not-doing-enough-to-attack-ed-miliband-10191005.html

12

Plans to redraw constituency boundaries before 2015, backed by the Tories, have been defeated in the House of Commons.

MPs voted by 334 to 292 to accept changes made by peers, meaning the planned constituency shake-up will be postponed until 2018 at the earliest.

It was the first time Lib Dem ministers have voted against their Conservative coalition colleagues in the Commons.

The two parties have been in dispute since proposed elections to the House of Lords were dropped last year.

From an article entitled “Conservatives lose boundary review vote” published by BBC news on January 29, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21235169

13 From an article entitled “Election 2015: how Labour gains from UK electoral system in a tight race” written by Robert Ford, published in the Guardian on March 15, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/mar/15/election-2015-hung-parliament-majority-coalition-labour

14 From an article entitled “Osborne increases debt more than Labour did over 13 years” written by Fraser Nelson, published in The Spectator on November 21, 2013. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/11/the-tories-have-piled-on-more-debt-than-labour/

15 From an article entitled “It’s time to come clean about our national debt”, written by Liam Halligan, published in The Telegraph on October 25, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/11187727/Its-time-to-come-clean-about-our-national-debt.html

16 From an article entitled “Growing wealth inequality in the UK is a ticking timebomb” written by Danny Dorling, published in the Guardian on October 15, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/15/wealth-inequality-uk-ticking-timebomb-credit-suisse-crash

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the rise of UKIP calls for new strategies from the left

Behold the rise of Ukip: an Alan Partridge thought experiment that has broken out of the lab and infected millions. Yes, millions. I’ve just read that Ukip have utterly triumphed in the local elections, and are now in full control of the government, the police, the NHS and the armed forces. Nigel Farage is scheduled to be coronated at Westminster Abbey tomorrow afternoon live on BBC1, complete with Dimbleby commentary and Red Arrow fly-past.

So begins Charlie Brooker’s razor-sharp lancing of the hype surrounding UKIP’s unexpected gains in last year’s local elections, published May 5th 2013 in the Guardian‘s “Comment is Free”. And for all those dismayed to see the spectre of small-minded xenophobic conservatism making its stealthy return, I thoroughly recommend reading the whole piece, not only because it will very likely put a smile back on your face (if only briefly), but also because beneath the comic veneer Brooker brilliantly exposes a deeper malaise. That, as Brooker puts it (and it would be a shame to try to paraphrase and loose the vim of his original):

There’s something fundamentally unconvincing, not to mention nauseating, about the wet-eyed brand of pleading and apologetic earnestness repeatedly adopted by Miliband and Clegg. It’s as though, having accurately detected a general level of public revulsion with politics, they have decided the best tactic to worm their way back into our affections is to repeatedly say sorry for existing while tugging at our sleeves. Brr. Horrible. In the words of Ferris Bueller: “You can’t respect somebody who kisses your ass. It just doesn’t work.”

Already seen by most people as incompetent and ineffectual, our would-be leaders have presumably been advised (since, after all, they can’t tie their own shoelaces without advisers to guide them) to present themselves as pathetic and joyless to boot, and so, as Brooker further notes, nothing like as attractive as those more loveable chumps Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, who are in the habit of bumbling around like a couple of jaunty Mr Toads:

By contrast, Farage, like Johnson, appears to be genuinely enjoying himself most of the time, like a delighted Aquaphibian guffawing in a bumper car. And this enjoyment instantly endears him to a huge section of the population on a level that transcends – or at least sidesteps – politics. Many people who hate Nigel Farage the reactionary throwback find themselves liking Nigel Farage the chortling oaf. Being a chortling oaf not only makes you critically bulletproof – oafish chortling being a perpetual escape pod – it functions as a kind of cloaking device, somehow obscuring the notion that you’re a politician at all.

All of which is totally bang on the nail in our postmodern, and, superficially, post-ideological age. A time in history when ideology, by which I mean “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy”1 has not literally been abolished – since this is impossible – but monopolised. Captured to such an extent that holding any semblance of an alternative that is antithetical to the neo-liberal hegemony is assiduously avoided by all career politicians. “There is no alternative” being pretty much all that any of them have to say to us, and the only differences being tone. Would you prefer to have the pain soothed away, or would you like us to hit the pain hard where it hurts and get on with your lives! It’s all a matter of PR, and in these days when politicians are justly reviled – as loathed and distrusted as double-glazing salesmen once were – then as Brooker goes on to say, “the best way to succeed as a politician is to pretend that you aren’t one.”2

On the one hand then, UKIP’s success might be judged as just the latest indication of a growing popular disaffection with the established Con-Dem-Lab triumvirate. A protest vote that was additionally amplified thanks to an exceptionally low turnout, which BBC news reported as being down 10% from the previous local elections in 2009, but equally because a great deal of the polling took place in Conservative heartlands. In other words, here was a protest vote against all the parties although most especially the government. A shot across the bows from the traditional Conservative base.

So why did the results in May appear to be such a big surprise? After all, as George Galloway memorably remarked following his own more stunning victory in the previous year’s Bradford West by-election, our mainstream parties represent little more than “three cheeks of the same arse”. The local election results were merely illustrating, therefore, how Galloway’s analysis chimes not only with voters sold-out by New Labour, but across the entire political spectrum – Middle England beginning to feel almost as disaffected and disenfranchised as the Old Labour north has felt for decades.

And sharing in this common resentment, neither group is mistaken, for we have all been abandoned to a small crony capitalist elite: the corporations and the less than one-percent who own them. Both working classes and middle classes alike being wrung out and hung up to dry. Of course, the squeeze is tightest at the bottom, and unquestionably so, but this is usual. The poor and the destitute always hit earliest and hardest whenever depression comes to the door; those at the bottom unlucky enough to be our canaries in the pit. And we have three parties prepared to let those at the bottom perish – the Tories doing what comes naturally, and the others sheepishly still towing the neo-liberal line. Our race to the bottom is, however, a trickle up process.

The surprise, if any, is how UKIP have convinced enough of the public that they represent any kind of alternative at all, let alone one worth voting for. And it is interesting perhaps that UKIP are more and more frequently compared to the “Tea Party” in America. A comparison that is, in many ways, a good one. The “Tea Party” having been promptly and effectively co-opted by the Koch Brothers, and thereby steered back into line behind the rest of the reactionaries in the Republican Party. Its supporters slowly ditching their more serious and justifiable grievances and fighting on only to protect the constitutional right to bear arms, whilst simultaneously leading the call for extreme measures as advocated by the discredited Austrian School economists and mad proto-fascist patron saint, Ayn Rand. The “Tea Party” suddenly leading the call for “austerity” like a bunch of turkeys demanding to have Christmas every day.

At the beginning, however, (and you need to rewind many years) the “Tea Party” were offering a more serious alternative: the emphasis of the movement initially placed not on ultra-extreme free market economics, but on the reestablishment of constitutional rights undone by the Bush administration, of bringing the troops home from the wars, and of fundamentally challenging the Federal Reserve system. To my memory, UKIP has never argued for anything half so significant or genuinely progressive. In fact, it has never remotely challenged the status quo other than in its stated demands for a fast-track out of Europe.

Indeed, scratch the surface, and leaving aside for a moment their stance on Europe and European (specifically Eastern European) immigration, there is barely a pimple’s worth of difference between the Tories and their lesser rump UKIP. Just take a peek at UKIP’s hastily cobbled together manifesto (something I imagine few bothered to do, including the millions who eventually voted for them) and judge for yourself.

What you’ll find is that UKIP are certainly extreme, but this extreme is mostly a matter of degree rather than programmatic difference. More eager to slash state spending than the Conservatives – aside, that is, from military expenditure which UKIP somehow proposes to increase by 40% in order to buy three new aircraft carriers and to arm four new submarines with US nuclear missiles. And keener on “austerity”, with welfare cuts and more privatisation, especially of the NHS, ensuring an altogether speedier strangulation of the public sector. Finally, and presumably for good measure, UKIP say they intend to be tougher on the sentencing of offenders with boot camps and more prison places. Of course, there is no specific targetting of the white collar criminals still loose inside the City of London (as if there might be!) and no indication whatsoever of any effective measures for resolving the deepening financial crisis. They are, to extend Galloway’s metaphor, the fourth and most grotesque cheek of that same arse.

Understandably, there are many who now fear a knee-jerk reaction and a consequent lurch to the right, with both the Tories and New Labour expected to fall into line when it comes to tightening restrictions on immigration more generally and to “reviewing arrangements” for already residing immigrant populations. The justification routinely trotted out, that such actions are needed to keep in check the potential rise of the far right, and so this mainstream shuffle to the right just the necessary compensation.

One person who spent many years studying the European extreme right is Daniel Trilling, journalist and author of “Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right”. In an interview with Greek Independent Press he explained how his own research and analysis brought him to a subtly though substantially different conclusion:

But [Ukip’s] real effect lies in pushing the whole of mainstream political discourse to the right. We saw this with the BNP, where government ministers would make increasingly reactionary statements about immigration the more success the BNP had. And it’s happening now with Ukip – all three main party leaders (Cameron, Miliband, Clegg) have recently made speeches where they promise even tougher restrictions on the rights of migrants than Britain already has. But it’s a vicious circle: far from neutralising public concerns over immigration, this merely antagonises them.

[Interviewer:] Do you have fears that the far-right ideology will become even more well-established in Europe?

I do, but the point is this ideology does not come from the far right itself. What far right parties do is parasitical on mainstream ideology. They exploit the resentments, and the racism, and the political disillusion that circulates among the rest of society. And they do not need to be in power to have an effect: what far-right parties can do is provoke our liberal elites into taking ever-more authoritarian positions. That’s the situation we find in many countries, from Britain, which detains more refugees than any other country but Australia, to Greece, where the Samaras government is pursuing a crackdown on leftists and on independent media and telling people “you have to trust in us otherwise extremists will come to power”. We should oppose fascists, but we should also fight against the pressure to let technocrats take control of our lives.

In the same interview, Trilling also outlined why he believes UKIP should not be muddled together with other far-right groups:

Ukip employ a similar discourse to the BNP, but their underlying ideas are different. They’re not fascists, but a break-away section of the centre-right Conservative Party who think Britain should leave the EU and are exploiting anti-immigration sentiment to achieve this goal.

Ukip’s appeal comes from posing as an alternative to the current, “corrupt” political elite. Many people vote for them to send a message to the mainstream – that they’re not happy – but would never realistically expect Ukip to be a party of government.3

Click here to read the full interview.

In any case, UKIP has always and only ever really been a one-trick pony – the rest of their manifesto stuffed together simply to plug up the holes. And so I feel that Charlie Brooker is particularly astute in drawing his comparison directly between Farage and Johnson, since above and beyond their similarly oafish exteriors, the similarities extend, as with the parties they represent, and hugely outweigh any differences – differences being more to do with timescales, if anything, than actual agendas – UKIP ready to lead us into a more authoritarian and socially unjust future, and in half the time of the Tories.

All that said, in a twisted kind of way I must confess that a part of me was rather pleased to see the mainstream parties all take a hit in the council elections, and obviously the Conservatives especially so. It reminded me of the election of Rosie Barnes in the famous Greenwich by-election of February 1987, except in a better way. That Greenwich by-election being a signal moment when the short-lived breakaway SDP made their first genuinely impressive gain, and thereby inflicted such a terrible injury to the Labour Party they’d grown out of. A gaping wound and sustained internal bleeding from which it has never properly recovered. Maybe these latest election results will be similarly remembered: as the moment the Tories suffered an equivalent blow. The opening up of a similarly festering wound, and one that has been ripe for a very long time.

After all, the Conservative party and its base support have been deeply riven for more than twenty years, with the almost but never quite fractured halves mostly bickering over questions relating to Europe. Irreconcilable divorce between the europhiles and the eurosceptics having been on the cards ever since Thatcher was ousted, and the biggest surprise being how such a clearly disjointed party have managed to sustain apparent cohesion for so long. A more acrimonious schism perpetually waiting in the wings, but never the sufficient push to cause the ultimate break up. But now, and all of a sudden, it seems as if just such a blow might finally have been landed, and especially so since Old Tory stalwart (emphasis on whichever syllable you prefer) Lord Lawson added his own considerable weight to further exacerbating the internal discord:

His intervention is sure to further embolden eurosceptic MPs demanding a tougher line to halt the rise of Nigel Farage’s rampant anti-EU Ukip in the wake of last week’s local elections.

Farage has said Lord Lawson’s comments “legitimises the Ukip position and exposes serious divisions in the Tory Party”.4

Click here to read the full article published by the Huffington Post.

So hopefully then, the Conservative Party is about to rupture once and for all. Meanwhile, and if it turns out that UKIP’s minor success also more broadly helps to reinvigorate the old debate over our membership of the European Union, then this too, I very much believe, is greatly to the good. The pity being that it has taken a party as odious as UKIP to raise the profile of what is indeed an important issue, and, most unfortunately, by flying the divisive banner of anti-immigration above their own brand of euroscepticism, UKIP’s position very much detracting from and altogether hampering what needs to be a more serious and rounded debate.

In saying this, I appreciate that some readers will recoil almost as a reflex from my own euroscepticism, but then I am happy to jump out of my allotted box as a liberal leftie (or should I say democratic socialist? – both labels having been equally sullied). In any case, I recognise that it is nowadays a fashionably held opinion that those who are “anti-European” (which incidentally I am not) must all be alike, think alike and even look alike. That any objection to the grand designs of the European Union should be left to little Englanders and modern-day Colonel Blimps. But actually such stereotyping is wrong and not only for the usual reasons that stereotyping goes wrong. Such pigeonholing on this occasion happening to rather conveniently shut out much of the opposition that would otherwise come from the disgruntled left.

Since when it comes to deeper consideration of the EU and of our membership within it, the debate should more properly focus on the capture of the political system itself. A transfer of power away from independence and democratic governance and into the hands of unelected technocrats. This is actually the nub of the European issue, rising high above and far beyond any smokescreen about immigrant numbers coming from Bulgaria. Indeed, the loss of democratic national sovereignty is obviously affecting residents all across the EU member states, including those only recently liberated from the former Eastern Bloc. So if we are ever to seriously challenge the rot at the heart of the EU there needs to be greater solidarity between its peoples rather than renewed infighting.

I think that it is helpful at this juncture to retrace the history of Britain’s entry and EU membership so far. Not only to reveal how perceptions of ‘Europe’ have been significantly altered over the decades, but also to illustrate more clearly, and to back up what I merely claimed above, that many aspects of permissible political alignment come down to little more than slavishly riding on the popular bandwagon of whatever happens to be the trend of the day. Those on both sides of the political spectrum being guilty of this, since, after all, most people are highly susceptible to manipulation of this kind. But losing our way to such political peer pressure is surely one of the biggest reasons we happen to find ourselves in an increasingly terrible mess.

When the UK first joined ‘Europe’ in January 1973, the decision had been a purely executive one; the agreement signed behind our backs by the Conservative government of Edward Heath. But then the European Economic Community or EEC (as the organisation was originally known) was merely a burgeoning association of trading nations, and usually known more simply as the “Common Market”. So this was not a change affecting our rights or our constitution, certainly not to begin with, but apparently little more than an expanded free trade zone – and after all, the UK were already founder members of the European Free Trade Association or EFTA, along with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland. The United Kingdom along with Denmark only ceased to be EFTA members when both then joined the EEC in 1973.

In these early days of EEC membership, the British public was just as divided on the issue as they are today, and, for the most part, this division in opinion fell along the traditional political fault-line of left against right. Back in the 1970s, however, it was socialists and trades unionists who, concerned by the top-down rule of bureaucrats in Brussels, were the most outspoken opponents. It was then much harder to find opposition within the rank and file of either Conservatives or Liberals (the Liberals being the only party to remain consistently “pro-European”).

A few years on, and with the 1975 referendum, the British electorate were at last given the chance to formally express their support or otherwise for the European project. Not to vote on whether or not to join, of course, since by then it was already a done deal, but on whether or not the UK should leave. So a loaded question obviously, and one further biased due to emphasis on the purportedly grave economic risks of an exit. Thus, with the deck fully stacked in favour of EEC membership, the nation went out to vote, and hardly surprisingly chose to stay put. 67% voting in favour, out of a 65% turnout.

But then something strange happened. Gradually, and throughout the following decade, the political poles were shifted around. The left becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of forming greater ties with our European partners, whilst the conservative right have grown ever more concerned and disaffected. The reason for these shifts actually aren’t hard to understand at all.

Thatcher loathed Europe, although what she really despised was the worker rights and other guarantees of social justice being snuck in through Europe’s backdoor. As a consequence, her almost rabid hostility towards European federalism (federalism being the big new F-word of the 1980s) being almost sufficient in itself to bring many on the left on board when it came to recognising the virtues of the fledgling union. Surely if this was the only route to achieving social justice then it was better to have more of it. Yet even so, a few on the left held on to their previous mistrust of Brussels. Tony Benn, offers perhaps the best example, having remained unflinching in his objection to Europe’s inherent lack of democratic process. And here it is worth remembering that the “No” campaign of the ’75 referendum had been backed not only by Benn by other significant members on the left wing of the Labour Party, including cabinet ministers Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle.

More recently, the EU (which was formally established to replace the EEC after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and again without any national referendum in Britain) has revealed how the organisation’s fundamentally neo-liberal credentials never went away. Barely disguising its own shameful part in the agonies of “austerity” now being foisted on Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy, with these measures insisted upon by “the Troika” of which two of its three parts are the EU itself. These actions serving to highlight what many progressives had failed to understand (and for many years, myself included), which is that the EU was never intended as a socialist project at all, or even an inherently ‘liberal’ one. Rather, and primarily, it has been a vehicle for concentrating power to the advantage of an already powerful financial and corporate elite. Which is why some on the left have remained just as strongly opposed to the EU as many on the right.

The following is NOT taken from UKIP’s manifesto:

Membership of the European Community/Union has contributed substantially to the unprecedented decline of industries in Britain, mass long-term unemployment and inability to trade on the world market. Besides huge contributions to the EU budget we have to purchase high priced food, thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Because of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) we no longer have control over the fishing grounds around Britain with consequent loss of most of the fishing industry and fish stocks and pollution of the sea. Membership of the EU has entailed a switch away from taxing income and profit to consumption through the imposition of VAT. The burden of these costs and taxation is mainly carried by ordinary people especially those with low incomes or the unemployed.

The Treaty on European Union, Euro-federalism and EU Constitution will guarantee further decline as a result of which Britain will become an offshore area of a supranational state. The aim of European Union to be consolidated through the EU Constitution is to have its own military forces and be ruled in secret by unelected governors of an unaccountable European Central Bank, an appointed Commission and committees such as the European Council. These bodies consist of a majority of representatives of member states not answerable to our Government, Parliament or electorate and would be taking decisions which may not be in the interests of Britain.

Rather, it is taken from the “Statement of Aims” of a lesser know left-wing organisation called the Campaign Against Euro-federalism or CAEF. A statement that continues as follows:

Corporatism and fascism are also menaces which emanate from the drive to a European Union. Racism has been encouraged by the Schengen agreement which is now part of EU law with parallel legislation on immigration and asylum in Britain.

Yes, not everyone who opposes the EU is automatically against international cooperation. Nor is everyone who opposes the open border Schengen Agreement a rabid nationalist.5

In any case, internationalism, as CAEF correctly point out, is quite different to European federalism. Internationalism involves the strengthening ties between sovereign nations, rather than the more aggressive dissolving away of borders between them. And European federalism further undermines the independence of the people of those nations (its member states) by passing executive powers that were held by democratically elected governments into the technocratic hands of an appointed commission.6 The EU – as it exists, rather than how we might like it to be – better understood, not as a grand project for furthering international cooperation, but as one of the vital organs of a fully globalised world.

CAEF write:

Internationalism means the right to self determination and national democracy for all nations and nation states of the world which includes close relations with our friends in EU states and co-operating with peoples in all countries of the world.

And hear, hear to that!

*

Final thoughts on Clegg v. Farage:

I actually wrote the above article just over a year ago, but then decided to hold it back. However, with the forthcoming Euro Elections and in the aftermath of the well hyped Clegg v. Farage tallest dwarf competition, now seemed an opportune time to post it.

When Nick Clegg originally challenged Nigel Farage to debate on our membership of the European Union, he was basically on a hiding to nothing. Whereas Farage clearly relished the invitation to steal a little of the media limelight again, as Clegg crossed the stage to his podium, the diminishment of his own political standing was instant. But worse was to follow. In this latest and seemingly most desperate attempt to reverse his party’s fortunes, Clegg’s performance has instead accelerated their transformation back into political minnows.

In truth, the downfall of Nick Clegg began long ago with his failings as a politician and party leader becoming quickly apparent once he conceded to the (unduly) prompt signing of the Coalition pact. After all, prior to the election, the Lib-Dems had been gaining considerable ground on both of the major parties, and largely by virtue of winning over disaffected voters who had been traditional Labour supporters (such as myself). However, by immediately committing his party to its role as silent partners in a de facto Tory government, we all felt betrayed.

During the lead up to that last General Election, support for the Lib-Dems was also bolstered thanks in part to the lasting legacy of their former leader Charles Kennedy who had maintained a principled stance on the Iraq War. On top of which, the Lib Dems were gaining popularity with many voters because of their perceived honesty when it came to “tackling the financial crisis” – or perhaps more accurately, Vince Cable was then trusted as someone more economically literate than any of our other foremost politicians. Back then, Cable was a rare exception – a politician the public actually warmed to.

But Clegg, with the assistance of weak and disingenuous Vince Cable himself, has since managed to lose all of that hard-won goodwill by completely selling out. On health “reforms”, on welfare “reforms”, on privatisation schemes, and on their support for drastic cuts to our few remaining public services, all made worse again after the party’s complete acquiescence when it came to voting in support of air strikes against Syria… and sorry, but did I mention university tuition fees? For any who may have forgotten, here is Nick Clegg’s most heart-rending and sincere apology to us (in the form of a musical remix obviously!):

Prior to taking office, the Lib-Dems had also been synonymous with one electoral issue above all others – their call for significant changes to the democratic process as such, with future elections made fairer under a Proportional Representation (PR) system; a proposed change that was obviously very much in their own self-interest of course. Had Nick Clegg, by more carefully brokering the Coalition deal, succeeded in negotiating and then winning a referendum on PR, rather than losing the chance forever after a quickly forgotten poll on some unheard of compromise called AV (Alternative Vote), his own party might still be sitting closer to the political high table. So here he sold out even those most loyal to his party.

The reputation of the Lib-Dems is now damaged almost beyond repair. They have become the scrawny bully’s mate who hangs around and simpers to their overbearing and obnoxious mate. They are not merely unpopular, but deeply distrusted, and most especially by those whose support they captured over the years, switching allegiance out of frustration, and then finally getting a nasty taste of what they inadvertently voted in.

So in response to their continuing decline in recent polls, the party’s bigwigs evidently felt that they needed a serious makeover – a new focus of some kind and a distinguishing policy that could mark them out as being different from their big Tory buddies. Advocacy of the European Union was that the singular issue, if only because it was one policy area where political differences between the Coalition partners remained intact. Clutching at straws, the party has therefore decided to concentrate on EU membership and move to promote this as their electoral issue of greatest importance, which given the general level of apathy surrounding British attitudes to the EU was a strange decision under the best of circumstances. And how deeply Clegg and his beleaguered party must be regretting their strategy move right now.

In any case, Nigel Farage won the recent debates comfortably, but this had less to do with Farage himself arguing the anti-EU corner effectively, and was mostly down to Clegg’s failure to show up. Rather than pointing to the wonderful benefits of EU membership (and no doubt there are some benefits, although the positives are, in my opinion, far outweighed by the negatives), he instead warned us repeatedly in the debates that “we can’t turn the clock back”, that “an exit would cost jobs”, and moreover, that Britain (or whatever remains of it after the Scottish referendum) might lose much of its political clout. Tired, old rhetoric that plays solely to people’s anxieties.

But then, of course, if the EU was half as good for us as Nick Clegg believes, after more than forty years of membership shouldn’t the debate be settled by now. So Clegg’s own position is most untenable because of his determined preference not to allow a long overdue national referendum and thus his refusal to allow any real contest over Britain’s membership of the European Union. If he actually believed he could win in such a genuine debate – one that puts more on the line than his already dismal ratings in the opinion polls – surely he would jump at the opportunity… as would Ed Miliband.

1 Definition taken from online Oxford Dictionary. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/ideology

2 From an article entitled “Nigel Farage – or how to succeed in politics without really trying: Many people who hate Nigel Farage the reactionary throwback find themselves liking Nigel Farage the chortling oaf – they can almost forget he is a politician at all” written by Charlie Brooker and published by the Guardian on May 5, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/05/nigel-farage-succeed-politics-charlie-brooker

3 From an article entitled “Bloody nasty people: British journalist Daniel Trilling explains the Golden Dawn conundrum in the context of the European far right” published by Eleftherotypia’s Epsilon magazine on May 7, 2013. http://www.enetenglish.gr/?i=news.en.politics&id=831

4 From an article entitled “Lord Lawson Slams Nick Clegg’s European Union ‘Poppycock’” published by the Huffington Post UK on May 7, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/05/07/lord-lawson-european-union-nick-clegg_n_3229023.html?utm_hp_ref=uk

5 Not that Britain is as yet signed up to the Schengen Agreement. And it is worth noting that France and Germany, countries that did join the Schengen Area, unlike the UK, did not then give full access to migrants from the ten countries (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) after they entered the EU in May 2004. Indeed, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden immediately opened their doors to Eastern European workers.

6 The European Commission, which is the EU’s executive body, is comprised of an appointed cabinet of 28 “commissioners” with administration provided by a further 23,000 civil servants.

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