Outside of North Korea, speeches by political figures are rarely universally showered with adulation. So the mainstream media’s ravings in reaction to Hilary Benn’s speech to parliament on Syria are especially noticeable. Across the spectrum, the speech has been reported as ‘riveting’ (Guardian), ‘extraordinary’ (Mirror), ‘great’ (BBC News at 6, 3 December) and that of a ‘true leader’ (Telegraph).

The reason for such lauding is obvious. Britain’s media is on a double-war footing. The first war is against Jeremy Corbyn, and is countering the threat that Corbyn’s more popular policies may gain even wider support (see my previous blog). The second war is for Britain’s ongoing right to bomb somewhere whenever elites want. The two agendas came together in Benn’s speech – in a single stroke, Benn achieved both the elite’s war aims: undermining Corbyn and helping to win the vote for bombing Syria.

I’ve been monitoring the mainstream media for 30 years and cannot remember a time like this: literally everything is being thrown at Corbyn. The BBC has simply become an attack dog, its reporting so extreme and so full of vilification that it does not even have a pretence of providing the balance that is required of it as a ‘public service broadcaster’. The people who pay for the ‘news’ service the BBC provides (us, of course) are its precise enemy, the target of its disinformation.

Reading the text of Benn’s speech, it is mainly notable for being so predictable. Whenever elites are set on military intervention, they tend to make fancy speeches that will make their actions seem noble (Blair’s Chicago speech in 1999 to justify bombing Yugoslavia is an obvious example; George Bush Senior prattled on about a ‘new world order’ as he gave the order to bomb Iraq back to the stone age in 1990). Hilary Benn’s key point was that Britain has a ‘moral and practical duty’ to bomb Syria and that the UN ‘is asking us to do something’. Thus he was seriously suggesting that Britain would be acting immorally it we didn’t bomb, a position even more extreme than the usual recourse to moralism.

Actually, UN Security Council Resolution 2249, to which Benn was referring, does not simply give Britain a licence to bomb. The text authorises ‘all necessary measures’ to ‘eradicate the safe haven’ that IS has established in Iraq and Syria and to ‘prevent and suppress terrorist acts’. But it does not explicitly authorise force (as in a chapter VII resolution) and also requires ‘compliance with international law’, meaning that countries must act in self-defence. How is bombing IS in Syria acting in self-defence? Given that the Paris attacks were organised in Belgium, maybe Mollenbeek would be a better military target. The likelihood is that if terror attacks are to occur in Britain – as they did after the bombing of Iraq – they may well be conducted by fanatical British Muslims living in Britain not in Syria.

Benn then immediately contradicted his professed moralism by saying that although he had ‘concerns’ about the ‘potential civilian casualties’, ‘unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians’. This view will come as great comfort to the mothers and fathers of British-bombed children in the region – “sorry we killed your kids, but we didn’t mean to”. Is Benn’s reference to simply ‘potential’ civilian casualties not a disgrace in itself?

Benn even had the audacity to quote in his speech a Kurdish leader apparently supporting British airstrikes. These are the same Kurds who have been nearly wiped out in the region in recent decades by Iraqi and Turkish governments being constantly armed and otherwise supported by Whitehall. The Kurds are once again being used as pawns, and will surely be dumped again when their present utility has run out.

‘Our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and justice’, Benn also said, apparently with a straight face, in an appeal to fellow Labour MPs. He also said that ‘We believe we have a responsibility to one to another. We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road’. These claims are not just amusing for anyone with the remotest knowledge of Labour’s postwar and recent foreign policy. They are also tragic – given what Britain is currently doing in relation to Yemen (supporting slaughter), Egypt (supporting a dictator) Bahrain (supporting repression), and Saudi Arabia, to mention just some of the policies that Benn’s wing of the party are not seriously challenging, but could actually do so if they were seriously concerned about human rights. This is not to mention 50 or so other episodes in Labour’s postwar history where it has been on the side of human rights abusers.

The media adulating Benn chose not to ridicule such nonsense despite several other opportunities in the speech. Benn also evoked, for example, the need for ‘solidarity’ with Iraq – a country to which Labour has demonstrated its moral commitments so well these past few years – and even invoked solidarity with ‘our ally, France’ – something which again did not seem to trouble the media xenophobes now praising Benn who are otherwise pouring out malicious anti-European sentiment day in day out.

At the end of his speech, Benn termed IS fascists and called on Britain to stand up to it just like it did against Mussolini and Hitler (he also mentioned Franco, but I will pass by the myth that Labour stood up to Franco because it’s too much a deviation). I think IS are inhuman and monstrous, and are certainly out-an-out terrorists; they clearly have to be countered, but the issue is how. I am not a pacifist and there are times when, in extreme circumstances, military force can be justified as a last resort, in my view. 1939 was such a time. But the invocation of this now, and the idea that IS poses an existential threat is just self-serving war-mongering done to give a moral pretext to yet another unjustified British policy. Desperate British elites have since VE Day wheeled out the fascist threat every time they want to do something drastic that they know may well be unpopular (invading Iraq 2003, invading Egypt 1956 etc).

I have a view that the British people (and indeed, the people of the Middle East) are now sandwiched between two big, real threats – one is posed by actors like IS, who really are contemptuous of human life and much modern civilisation, but the other is the danger represented by the reaction to such threats, by those posing as our defenders. President Hollande’s declaration of ‘war’ against IS is something which fanatical terrorists will surely have appreciated, since it elevates their own cause. Britain’s bombing of Syria may also help IS in drawing Britain and others even further into the region (eventually sucking in more ground troops), to increase the cycle of violence and also help IS recruit more people, and indeed help them claim they are defending their lands from the crusaders. A stronger, more clever strategy is surely to downplay not elevate the IS threat and to pursue a range of ‘normal’ but strengthened economic, legal, political and other measures to combat it. It would also help if we did not support the forces in the region which have helped nurture IS in the first place.

Very sadly, we should fear terrorist attacks in Britain. But it is also the case that British leaders are not genuinely committed to stopping terrorism. They have special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example, which have been the two major state sponsors of global terrorism for the past 40 years (see Secret Affairs) whose money and support have spawned a variety of groups, not least al-Qaida. British elites have no moral consistency and are selective in their choice of enemies, just like Benn was selective in his choice of countering one human rights abuser (IS) but not others (Yemen? Saudi? Bahrain? Egypt? Not to mention Israel). By countering only one threat, others can arise. By allying with some forces to defeat one threat, we can empower others.

The Middle East is on fire and British policies can influence the situation for good or bad. History shows that British and Western policy in the Middle East is not about promoting democracy or human rights, or even peace, but is rather a set of ad hoc, short-termist and often violent reactions to the threat of the day or the ally of the moment- it is partly this lack of any moral consistency that contributes to the mess in the region. Little heed is being given to a broader, long term picture – basically because elites don’t much care about ‘our’ (national) interests, only theirs.

Britain’s air force began bombing the Middle East 100 years ago, soon after airplanes were invented. Whitehall basically invented aerial bombing and we have the longest track history of not only launching the weapons but managing the propaganda. We’re in another terrible cycle.

Cabinet Office, ‘Future Policy Study 1960-70: Part III: The Main Objectives of the United Kingdom’s Overseas and Strategic Policy’, January 1960

‘…Unilateral nuclear disarmament is, of course, within our power. But, although it could be represented as setting a good example, any such action would be gravely damaging to our continued security and would undermine our standing in the Atlantic Alliance and in the world as a whole’.

National Archives, CAB 21/3847

Cabinet Office, ‘Future Policy Study 1960-70: Part III: The Main Objectives of the United Kingdom’s Overseas and Strategic Policy’, January 1960

‘We have the capacity to play a world-wide role only if we are willing as a nation to devote our actions and resources to this purpose. There are many desirable ways of using our resources at home, especially the improvement of our standard of living through better social services and the increasing our of wealth through productive investment. But we cannot exert influence in the world unless we devote resources sufficient to underwrite our external responsibilities…

Our partnership with the United States is an existing source of power and is capable of still further development…We shall become increasingly dependent on their support, as perhaps they will on ours, and our status in the world will largely depend on their readiness to treat us as their closest ally…

Economically, though Commonwealth Preference will be a wasting asset, Commonwealth countries will be important to us because of the high proportion of our trade for which they account and the network of trading and financial interests based on past associations and on sterling. The Commonwealth association is a very important source of political influence which buttresses our standing as a Power with world-wide interests…

We must never allow ourselves to be put in the position where we have to make a final choice between the United States and Europe. It would not be compatible with our vital interests to reject either one… We must therefore work to ensure the continuation of the United States presence in Europe and the development of a wide economic and political community of interests embracing both the United States and Western Europe. In so far as the United Kingdom can help to keep Western Europe steady in the alliance we shall enhance our own standing in American eyes. This is the core of our policy and we must be prepared to adapt our plans and actions to it. If we can uphold it successfully, our influence on the United States will be considerable and we shall not need slavishly to follow their line, though we should always consider their susceptibilities before making policy decisions… the preservation of the Atlantic Alliance is, in the last resort, the most basic of all our interests…

To the extent that our position in the Persian Gulf area safeguards the supply of oil and preserves the political status quo, we are serving a general interest. In addition there is a particular United Kingdom interest at stake – the profits made by the United Kingdom oil companies from their operations in the area…  At present the United Kingdom is committed to the protection of the Ruler of Kuwait and other Persian Gulf Sheikh. It is quite certain that if we withdrew this protection or showed our intention of so doing, the local rulers would hasten to make the best terms they could with their larger neighbours… While we have at present no alternative to maintaining our political obligations to the Persian Gulf Rulers, and particularly to the Ruler of Kuwait, it should be the object of our policy over the next ten years to create a situation in which they can be terminated without undue damage to the security of our oil supplies and the general political stability of the area… In the meantime, to prevent revolutionary pressures from building up, we should continue to encourage the Persian Gulf rulers to modernise their regimes’.

National Archives, CAB 21/3847

Joint Intelligence Committee report, “Nationalist and radical movements in the Arabian Peninsula”, 10 February 1958

‘Arab nationalism, including the urge towards greater Arab unity and the removal of any foreign control, is already the most powerful emotional force in the area and it is beginning to penetrate even the most remote corners of the peninsula…  The maintenance of our interests in the Persian Gulf states is dependent on continued stability in the area. At present only the Rulers can provide this. No alternative regimes are in sight, certainly not regimes which could provide the stability on which the maintenance of British interests depends. A failure to support any one of the Rulers would weaken the confidence of the others in our ability and willingness to protect them. It is on this confidence that our special position in the Gulf chiefly rests’.

National Archives, CAB 158/31

It is delightful to see Labour voters defy the establishment by finally electing a leader on the centre ground of British thinking. Opinion polls suggest that Jeremy Corbyn’s policies of nationalising the railways, energy companies and Royal Mail, along with opposition to the Iraq war and British intervention in the Middle East are all supported by a majority of the public.

These views stand in marked contrast to the neo-liberal, military policies of the Conservative and ‘mainstream’ Labour parties at home and abroad. These extreme positions, which are contributing to unprecedented domestic inequality, the draining of wealth from the world’s poorest countries and terrible military interventions (and not least the rise of Islamic State), have amazingly been allowed to be presented as the centre ground or ‘liberal democratic’ – an astonishing propaganda achievement for policy planners.

The threat of popular democracy is something I’ve tried to document in all my books because it comes through crystal clear in the government planning record, visible in declassified files, thousands of which I’ve looked at in my research. The threat that policies made by and for the elite could be derailed by popular opposition has long been regarded by British planners as a serious threat; in the Cold War, more serious, for example, than the Soviet threat, which was anyway rarely taken seriously in private after the early 1950s .

During the Vietnam War, Harold Wilson was terrified that public opposition would stop his ongoing private support for the US bombing campaign – something which the mainstream media still refuses to acknowledge. In various wars in the Middle East over the decades, the files are full of examples of how planners have had to resort to propaganda to counter public concerns. What elites have feared, especially during controversial policies such as military interventions, is that public opposition will become so great that they might actually have to change policy.

British elite strategy is at least consistent – abroad, Whitehall is more or less permanently opposed to democracy in regions where it has special interests, especially the Middle East where its allies are dictatorships: witness the striking levels of current support for the repressive rulers of Egypt and Bahrain, not to mention the ongoing special relationships – which are as deep as that with Washington – with the feudal regimes of Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Here, the support of any real democracy – other than the show elections promoted in Iraq and Afghanistan – is off the agenda, since it would likely yield up popular forces even more opposed to Western power. It is a great shame that the British elite opposition to democracy is still not well-understood or explained by academics and journalists. The public is continually fed the message that ‘we’ support democracy – at home and abroad – just because this is what Cameron, Blair or Brown say.

The fear of Corbyn on the part of the elite is palpable in the literally hysterical right wing and ‘liberal’ media coverage, well documented as ever by Medialens. The BBC has given up even pretending to be a public service broadcaster in its coverage of Corbyn, with virtually every news piece that I have heard or seen in recent days simply smear and propaganda. BBC Panorama’s recent attempt to character-assassinate Corbyn – which received many complaints (presumably from the loony centre) – was merely part of a campaign. Tom Mills, an incisive analyst of the BBC, notes that the Panorama programme ‘should be understood as part of a broader pattern in which the BBC’s political output has overwhelmingly reflected the interests of a political Establishment in which it is deeply embedded’.

Indeed, Corbyn and his supporters are being routinely presented by the BBC as ‘hardliners’, which, if true, makes the British taxpayers who pay for this nonsense reporting to be hardliners too. In the mainstream media, anyone who does not back the extremists’ agenda – of supporting the US, Israel, military intervention, NATO, arms exports or transnational corporations – is regarded as outside the ‘centre ground’. So flogging arms to despots, sending young British kids to die in wars and retaining the ability to destroy the entire planet is perfectly OK – anything different is extreme. To a Martian, mainstream British political culture would surely be hilarious.

The Guardian is an integral part of this. Former British ambassador Craig Murray has described ‘the panic-driven hysterical hate-fest campaign against Corbyn by the Guardian’ and he is hardly exaggerating. Guardian editorials and pieces by Jonathan Freedland, Polly Toynbee, Martin Kettle and some others, are all ridiculing the ‘unelectable’ Corbyn and helping to position him as a loony lefty. Similarly, Guardian news reporter Nadia Khomami, explaining ‘what does Jeremy Corbyn think?’, writes that Corbyn has ‘said he supports Israel’s right to exist but opposes what he describes as the country’s “occupation policies”’. The use of ‘what he describes as…’ and the use of speech marks are revealing, perhaps like writing about Al Qaeda’s ‘terrorist attack’ on 9/11.

Since Corbyn’s policies are generally popular, they are a direct threat to the elite consensus, and three stand out in foreign policy. First, the idea of holding Blair to account under international law for invading Iraq will strike terror into the minds of the Foreign Office and Ministry of Offence. These people reserve the right to bomb the gyppos every once in a while and they are not going to accept the idea of being held to account for this. The public have long been bombarded by the notion that we, as opposed to, say, Burkina Faso or Iran, have the sovereign right to intervene in other countries’ affairs. It really says something very serious about how primitive Britain is when the idea of holding our leaders to account to the law is regarded as hardline.

The second red line policy is obviously Trident. When Britain first acquired nuclear weapons in the late 1940s, the main goal, shown in the declassified files, was to ensure that Britain was seen to remain a great power, especially in the eyes of the new superpower, the US. The primary goal remains, with various largely fictional threats deployed at various times to justify it. Reducing nuclear weapons would put Britain below France (France!) in the great power league, demeaning to the chaps in Whitehall clinging on to the remnants of imperial power.

Third, Corbyn’s questioning of NATO will, along with the other two red lines, be ringing alarm bells in Obama’s Washington, which will no doubt be heavily deploying its (many) assets in the British political scene to counter them. The media regularly states that Corbyn wants to withdraw from NATO, but I have not found such a statement, and I assume this is another smear. Corbyn has, however, said that NATO should have been wound up at the end of the Cold War (more loonyism) and that NATO’s expansion eastwards contributed to the Ukraine crisis. The latter idea is surely wacky, as explained by US mainstream academic John Mearsheimer, who recently wrote that ‘the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis’ due to NATO and EU enlargement, and that ‘Putin’s pushback should have come as no surprise’.

Luckily, there are some exceptions to the tirade of abuse being heaped on Corbyn (including some in the mainstream media) and it is from this rational true centre ground that I am optimistic that some kind of response can be made. Along with the unions and social movements, I hope that organisations like NGOs, with whom I regularly work, see the importance of defending Corbyn’s lines of thinking, and recognise the urgency of this.

Some development charities have sadly been collaborating with the extremists, partnering with UK- based transnational corporations and participating in Whitehall’s privatisation offensives in Africa, thinking this to be normal and that there is no alternative. Britain’s ‘development’ policies under Conservative and Labour have become vehicles for promoting British big business abroad . My view is that Cameron’s support for 0.7 per cent is due to recognizing how useful the aid programme is in supporting British commercial and foreign policy objectives. Development policy has played almost no role in the Corbyn surge but this is another area where he must challenge current policies and develop hardline policies in the centre ground, and deserves to be strongly supported.

Richard Slater (High Commissioner, Uganda) to Alex Douglas-Home (Foreign Secretary), ‘The first six months of General Amin’s government’, 6 August 1971

‘Amin’s performance as leader of the government has been patchy… As a leader of the people..he has grown in stature and his personal popularity is an important asset…the real problems are tribalism, indiscipline in the army and general lawlessness…Amin has a genuine regard for Britain and is sincerely grateful for the help given him. One purpose of his visit to Britain was to say thank you in person. Despite some obvious deficiencies he remains a net asset from Britain’s point of view… Amin is described in our pre-coup personalities report as ‘not particularly pro-British’. I think this judgement should be revised….After studying him closely for six months, I have no doubt in my mind that he has a genuine affection and respect for the British army, which rubs off on to Britain as a whole… I am sure that he is sincerely grateful for what we have done and offered to do – early recognition, help over the funeral of the ex-Kabaka, military and police training, the development loan and so on… He certainly has a capacity for self-deception; and his resistance to unpalatable truths is aided by a slow-moving mind. This, combined with political immaturity and over-confidence, makes him something of a liability. But he is at present much more of an asset. So long as he stays in power, Ugandan reactions to controversial British policies in Africa will be containable and the influence of the moderates in the OAU will be strengthened. It remains therefore a British interest to see his regime consolidated, while bringing what influences we can to bear on his policies.’

National Archives, FCO 31/1017/ JEU 1/1


Report for Global Justice Now

Britain’s overseas aid programme is being reconfigured to promote the privatisation of education and health in developing countries. The Department for International Development (DFID) has become the world’s leading donor in spearheading a push for profit making companies to manage and deliver schooling and health care in Africa and Asia. British taxpayers’ money is increasingly being used to pave the way for private companies to access new markets in basic services and thus to profit from the current gaps in the public provision of these services. This briefing exposes DFID’s strategy and warns of the dangers to the real need – which is to ensure better public education and health services that genuinely serve poor people.

For the full report, click here


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