by Martin Odoni
What is more painful; the stupidity or the pointless offensiveness?
Given this weekend is the anniversary of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster, you would think that Kelvin MacKenzie and the Sun ‘newspaper’ would tread carefully at this one time of the year over the subject of Merseyside. They were, after all, responsible for the nadir of British journalism just a few days later, when they published an article titled ‘The Truth‘, which propagated only lies.
The city of Liverpool has never forgiven or forgotten, and the Sun, which through the late-1980’s had sold over fifty-five thousand copies per day on Merseyside, nowadays struggles to sell more than twelve thousand per day there. The Sun has repeatedly offered half-hearted, unconvincing apologies of the “We’re-sorry-we-were-fooled” variety, instead of the “We’re-sorry-we-were-malicious” variety. Hardly surprisingly, they have all been rejected. If the Sun truly holds out hope of recovering sales on Merseyside, it has to behave differently from its average conduct in future. It also has to be very careful indeed in the way it treats Liverpool. This should be so suffocatingly obvious by now, it should not need pointing out.
So Kelvin MacKenzie’s column in the Sun yesterday was as stupid as it was offensive, and I am still trying to decide whether my sense of aesthetics or my intelligence is more hurt by it. MacKenzie was Chief Editor at the time of the notorious hatchet job on Liverpool supporters, and he was the one personally responsible for the headline ‘The Truth‘.
Yesterday’s article was about an Everton footballer, local boy Ross Barkley, and the column demonstrated how MacKenzie is as dominated by crude prejudices as ever he was. Now, to be honest, I am no fan of Barkley, whose behaviour on a football pitch is frequently thuggish and foolish. But MacKenzie’s article was not a critique of that, it was just published abuse.
MacKenzie described Barkley as,
“One of our dimmest footballers… thick“.
Of seeing Barkley’s eyes, MacKenzie argued that he is,
“Certain not only are the lights not on, there is definitely nobody at home.“
He then added a particularly unfortunate insult when writing,
“I get a similar feeling when seeing a gorilla at the zoo“. (Emphasis mine.)
This particular slur has caused considerable anger, as of course ape-references are popular among racists when making derogatory remarks about black people. Barkley himself is not black, but he is mixed race due to a black Nigerian grandfather. To make matters worse, the article was even titled, ‘Here’s why they go ape at Ross‘.
In his own defence, MacKenzie insisted the reference was not racial, and that he had been unaware of Barkley’s background. Just for the record, I do believe him on that. Barkley’s grandparentage is not that widely known, and in the context of the article, MacKenzie just seems to be referring to thuggish behaviour in an individual, instead of trying to imply his bad behaviour is due to his ‘racial extraction’.
But I do not see that as much of a defence really. For while MacKenzie did not use race as grounds for insults, elsewhere in the article he wrote that Barkley is,
“an attractive catch in the Liverpool area where the only men with similar pay packets are drug dealers, and therefore not at nightclubs, as they are often guests of Her Majesty“.
This is what is so cheap and offensive, and it demonstrates that MacKenzie’s past attempts to apologise for what he did in 1989 were insincere. He is still propagating horrible stereotypes in his crude writing, and having spent the previous few lines describing Barkley in Neanderthal terms, he then insults much of the city of Liverpool by arguing that if a male is rich there, he must be a drug dealer.
This is not exactly a racist stereotype, but it is a geographical stereotype. It still condemns people for the condition of their birth, a fact over which they have no control and which will not decisively govern their character either. There may be a technical difference, but frankly, I struggle to see how geographical slurs are morally any better than racial slurs. On a moral and effectual level, it might just as well be racism. And MacKenzie actually wrote all this on the Hillsborough Anniversary weekend! Never mind Barkley’s intelligence, how stupid is MacKenzie?
The Sun has suspended MacKenzie and removed the article from its website. But the mask has already slipped. As I pointed out recently, responding to a very unconvincing article in the Spectator defending the Sun, the behaviour of the Red-Top has not changed. Once again, we have ignorant, careless editorial oversight at the Sun. Once again we have a lazy, prejudicial, hate-spreading smear article aimed at Merseyside, complete with inflaming title. Once again, MacKenzie shows wildly generalised and barely-informed contempt for the entire city of Liverpool. Once again, he has been burned for it.
The scale is different, but MacKenzie does not learn. If he does not learn, he does not change. The Sun continues its careless love of letting smears be printed on its pages. No matter who staffs it, it does not learn either. So it does not change either.
MacKenzie got away with outright sectarian prejudice last year when attacking Channel 4 News for appointing Muslim reporter Fatima Manji to cover the Nice Attack. He was following the childish logic that a Muslim was to blame for the attack, therefore all Muslims are to blame. Here, he argues that if a Scouser can become rich by becoming a drug dealer, most of them will do it the same way. (Everton FC have responded by at last joining Liverpool FC in banning the Sun from its grounds.)
Kelvin MacKenzie remains the prejudiced blot on British morality he has always been. The Sun remains the ritual abuse-of-journalism it has always been. Journalism is there to hold power to account on behalf of ordinary people. The Sun and MacKenzie are there to hold down ordinary people on behalf of power.
April 4, 2017
by Martin Odoni
There are a few periodicals out there that, you would have thought, should know better by now than to make noise about the Hillsborough Disaster. The most obvious candidate is of course The Sun (so-called) ‘newspaper’, whose crude and wilful smear in its notorious ‘The Truth‘ article four days after the tragedy remains possibly the all-time nadir of British journalism. But The Sun is not alone in treating Hillsborough with crass, ignorant and insensitive cruelty.
The Spectator, one of the great outlets for jeering, British-upper-class snobbery dressed up as pseudo-intellectualism, plumbed similar depths as late as 2004. In the aftermath of the brutal murder of Ken Bigley, Simon Heffer – with apparent extra remarks added in by the ineffable then-editor, Boris ‘BoJob’ Johnson – wrote a characteristically down-the-nose, prejudiced and unresearched article attacking Liverpool supporters for supposedly causing the Disaster.
Heffer and/or Johnson stated, with a startling degree of crass ignorance and posh-tonal impatience,
The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon… The police became a convenient scapegoat, and The Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident
The ignorance driving the assertions is most strongly flagged by, but by no means limited to, the description of “the deaths of more than 50.” While it is technically accurate to say that more than fifty people died in the Disaster, it downplays the proportion of the tragedy by half. One can be certain that if Heffer or Johnson were remotely as well-informed about Hillsborough as they were bluffing, they would instead have said either, “more than 90,” or, “almost 100”. As it stands, the reference to “more than 50” makes it sound like they are confusing hazy memories of the Valley Parade Fire of 1985.
In fairness to Johnson, he has publicly apologised several times for the article, although Heffer has remained noticeably tight-lipped. Even the publication of the Report Of The Hillsborough Independent Panel, which proved irrevocably that the version of events put forward in the article was completely false, has not drawn any noticeable words of contrition out of Heffer. The suspicion is that, because of his right wing prejudices, he feels that his words were still true ‘in the eyes of God’, so to speak, and that the bare physical facts have therefore got it wrong.
With that skeleton in the magazine’s insalubrious cupboard, it is unsurprising that, when The Spectator chooses to poke its upturned nose into Hillsborough-related matters, it is about as welcome as a tray of bacon sandwiches at a Bar Mitzvah. Therefore, it is one of the biggest wonders of the last week – and we are talking about a week in which Michael Fallon and Lord Howard threatened war against Spain, so the competition is fierce – that Roger Alton chose to write in The Spectator in defence of The Sun.
To be clear, Alton was certainly not defending The Sun’s coverage of the Disaster back in 1989. Instead he was criticising the decision of Liverpool Football Club back in February to ban the tabloid, and its reporters, from attending Anfield or the team’s training ground at Melwood, in much-delayed response to the journal’s Hillsborough coverage. Alton’s objection is a familiar-sounding one that many a journalist retreats into when he or his fellows get into trouble for writing irresponsibly.
Thanks to the timorousness of one of the world’s major football clubs, and the pusillanimity of the Premier League, a bitter little drama is being played out that could have savage implications for freedom of the press.
Ah, so we are back in ‘freedom-of-speech-means-freedom-to-lie-and-to-hatchet-someone’s-reputation-unduly-without-any-repercussions’ territory once again, are we? While acknowledging that The Sun’s coverage back in 1989 was outrageous, Alton argues that the ban is wrong, not least because it was,
coverage for which the paper and its editors have repeatedly apologised.
Now, this may come as a shock to Alton, but people all over the United Kingdom are well aware of the red-top’s apologies. The problem is not a lack of apologies, the problem is the lack of sincerity in them. As I argued a few years back, The Sun’s apologies can only be accepted under two conditions; –
Firstly, the apology has to take a form where the paper accepts full responsibility for what was published, rather than repeatedly apologising for supposedly ‘being misled’ by the police. That is not a real apology, it is a recital of the word sorry followed by a cynical blame-shift. Yes, the South Yorkshire Police Force undeniably lied and heavily distorted events in order to offload guilt onto the victims of its incompetence. But The Sun was happy to go along with the lies, because they suited the Thatcherite, right wing, anti-northern agenda of its owner and its then-editor. The Sun’s coverage was more malicious than gullible, and to date there has never been any acknowledgement of that from anyone connected with the paper.
Secondly, the apology has to be accompanied by a recognisable change of behaviour. In other words, if The Sun were ever to stop being a controversy-addicted, sexist, racist, voyeuristic, hard-right, stereotype-fuelling smear rag, well, maybe then people could accept that the baser instincts that led it to publish the notorious article were no longer being followed. But all the evidence points to the contrary. The Sun continues to smear and deride decent, honest people – just ask Jeremy Corbyn – it continues to vilify the most vulnerable people in the country, and it continues to be a yobbish, bombastic, jingoistic receptacle of xenophobia and racism, including against refugees. Nothing has changed in the way The Sun conducts itself, therefore the apologies will not be accepted.
Alton drifts onto some dangerously hyperbolic turf as he writes. He mentions,
[Liverpool’s] owner, John Henry, founder of the Boston-based Fenway Sports Group, was not involved. He is said to be ‘embarrassed’, as well he might be since Fenway also owns the Boston Globe, which makes hay whenever President Trump tries a similar stunt.
Irrespective of John Henry’s opinions, which are unlikely to be the best-informed in any event, this comparison is as intellectually-redundant as it is offensive and crass. To try and compare what Liverpool Football Club has decided to do to the behaviour of the current US President is to compare the common cold to malaria. Donald Trump‘s entirely fictitious cries of “FAKE NEWS!” whenever he gets criticised, no matter how fairly, and subsequent attempts to ban journalists who write unfavourably about him from his press conferences, are in a completely different realm from what Liverpool is doing. Liverpool has banned one newspaper for a measurably untrue, crude, vicious, and malignant hatchet job on its supporters, it is not blanket-banning any and all commentators on hearing the first whisper of criticism. Indeed, many would argue that Liverpool FC has been far, far too restrained in its treatment of The Sun. This ban, after all, took the better part of three whole decades after the crime to be imposed, and it applies to only one periodical. This is utterly different from Trump’s egomaniacal, knee-jerk refusal to speak to newpapers and TV channels by the news-stand-load whenever they say something he finds inconvenient.
Alton then drifts into off-colour remarks about the pressure group Total Eclipse Of The S*n, who are behind the advancing boycott, without ever getting to the nub of what he finds objectionable about it. He then makes a number of irrelevant points about the amount of money Liverpool FC receives from the ‘Murdoch media’, as though that gives the club a moral obligation to let The Sun onto its premises. (How like the right wing media to think that morality is measured in money, incidentally.) Alton also bemoans the failure of the FA Premier League to force Liverpool to back down, in the way that the National Football League in the USA forces its franchises to allow full access to the media. He does not pause to consider that, for one thing, the Premier League might agree with Liverpool’s decision, for another, the NFL does not enforce media access on principle but for financial advantage, or above all, that, as the clubs in the US are franchises in a more tightly-knit collective league structure, the NFL has more control over them than the FA or the Premier League can ever wield over their teams.
Alton then finishes on another moment of crass hyperbole by gently implying that Liverpool’s decision is comparable to Nazism, through a paraphrase of the famous Martin Niemoller quotation, when he writes,
[The smear campaign and cover-up seem] an ominous reason, now, 28 years later, to prevent one football reporter from doing his job. Who knows what could come next? First they come for the Sun…
Oh I see. So because The Sun has been banned from one football ground in the entire country, that means that a state police force now stands poised to crash through the front doors of all journalists connected with the tabloid, and march them off to concentration camps, before getting to work on all the other papers?
Is it even necessary to point out how ridiculous and over-the-top Alton’s analogies are? Given how quick the press can be to dish out stick, often for corrupt reasons, it can be astonishing how deep a journalist’s persecution complex can be, or how thin their skin can be. So The Sun has to steer clear of Anfield, therefore The Sun is now a victim? Oh, diddums! Say that to the survivors of Hillsborough. Liverpool FC’s decision does not mean that The Sun will no longer be allowed to keep publishing – not that I would waste any breath complaining about it if it did.
There is nothing illegal or immoral about a boycott of a newspaper, especially not one that has such a terrible history of hate-mongering as The Sun. For Alton to take the “What about the freedom of the press?” line here is contemptible. This is because one cannot defend The Sun while defending the freedom of the press. They are mutually exclusive positions. The Sun routinely abuses that freedom, and to an extent that would have been hard to imagine before the 1980’s; it constantly hurts the credibility of free press by making its definition inseparable from malicious lies. It degrades and devalues journalism, using it to spread hatred rather than the truth, and to advance the interests of the powerful, instead of to inform the powerless. One cannot defend any entity by defending those that mistreat and manipulate it. To defend the freedom of the press, one must condemn those who corrupt it; to do otherwise is as perverse and amoral as to try and defend the victims of child abuse by speaking up for its perpetrators. The Sun damages the freedom of the press, and it undermines the real purpose of having the press.
As for The Spectator, if it is any better than The Sun, it is only by (slight) virtue of its use of more sophisticated language. For Alton, Johnson, or Heffer, freedom-of-speech appears to mean no more than the right to reinforce their own prejudices, and the secondary right to draw others into the same lazy illusions. This is underlined by the aforementioned presumption and lack-of-research in 2004, and the whiny protests offered this week.
If ending such prejudices will require one day boycotting either The Sun or The Spectator to the point of bankruptcy, I would consider that a worthy price to pay.
by Martin Odoni
The wilful naivety of some Leave supporters (‘Brexiteers’) takes some believing. The strange fixation they have on Nigel Farage – on whom most UKIP voters almost seem to have an adolescent crush – goes hand-in-hand with an unshakeable wish to think that the campaigns to withdraw Britain from the European Union must be correct. It does not matter to them that all informed indicators are to the contrary; it does not matter to them that leaving the EU is likely to harm the British economy. It does not matter to them that it will imperil the rights of ordinary British people (including many UKIP voters themselves). It does not matter to them that ‘The Great Repeal Bill‘ will be the ultimate administrative nightmare, as treaties and trade deals established within the EU have to be renegotiated individually, and many years of EU legislation within the UK has to be cancelled off and then re-issued in a ‘British’ form. It does not even matter to them that the UK is undoubtedly bargaining from a position of weakness. There are even online polls calling for Farage to get a knighthood!
Perhaps the most damning indictment of hardcore Brexiteer stubbornness though is how the official Leave EU campaign’s dishonesty has no impact on their perceptions. Years of scaremongering about immigration led a lot of people to believe that – for better or worse – once the UK was out of the EU, immigration would go down. Once an exit vote had been secured by the 24th of June, that claim went out of the window.
And then of course, there is the notorious ‘Brexit Bus’, which carried the Vote Leave message to all corners of the country that, instead of funding the EU to the tune of £350 million per week, we should fund the National Health Service.
The problem is not only that the figure is deeply misleading, as it discounts the UK rebate, which returns almost half the outlay, which in any event is not really a payment in the sense most people take it to mean.
But worse, it is almost certain that hardly any of that money, perhaps none at all, will be diverted to the NHS. Nigel Farage, not a member of the Leave campaigns, admitted that this was a dodgy promise at best. But again, he waited until the votes had been counted before making the admission. He must have had a hundred chances to debunk the notion publicly during the campaign, but instead, he went on BBC Question Time just over a fortnight earlier and pretty much endorsed the idea.
The defence the hardcore Brexiteers keep coming up with for this fraudulent ‘promise-the-moon-and-deliver-sand’ posture is that the various Leave campaigns did not lie as such. They did not promise anything, they were just stating an ‘aspiration’, therefore they did nothing wrong.
I am very tired of people coming up with these arguments when politicians say one thing and then go back on their word as soon as it gets them what they wanted. Yes technically, saying, as the writing on the Brexit Bus read, “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead,” is not a solid promise – I was well aware of that even before the referendum and frequently sneered at it – but what is important is not so much the precise wording as the intent behind it. Anyone can see that the intent behind that message is to give the idea that funding for the EU can and will be diverted to the NHS after withdrawal. That is all-too-plainly what the slogan-writers intended people to think was meant. It may not exactly be a flat-out lie in the sense of it being an explicit reversal of the plain facts, but it was still intended to make people believe something that was not real. In any way that is important therefore, it was a lie, because the intent was to deceive. Pointing out that it is not expressed as a firm policy pledge is just playing word games.
Hiding a lie within the truth like this is arguably worse than flat-out lying. It is more insidious and more calculated than the sort of crude denials-of-reality and off-the-top-of-the-head contrivances that we get from the likes of US President Donald Trump and his colleagues, which if nothing else are easily debunked.
One might argue that people were fools to believe the notion of £350 million for the NHS, given the real facts were in the public domain, and given that the Leave EU campaign was a not a Government, or even a political party, there was never any way they could deliver on such a promise. These arguments are not entirely without merit. Certainly a lot of people voted in the referendum without really knowing very much about the subject.
But these counters still miss the point. A lot of people genuinely were bound to have trouble telling the wheat from the chaff throughout a campaign of poisonous antagonism and claim-and-counter-claim. There is no doubt that both sides of the argument tried to take dishonest advantage of that confusion. Why were the Leave campaigns not more up-front about their lack of mandate for what form post-Brexit policies can take? Why did Vote Leave even mention the NHS when they knew that, as a campaign, they can and will have no say on how healthcare is funded? That was territory where they simply had no business treading. Again, it was designed to deceive. It was a lie. Just because someone is foolish to believe a lie, that does not absolve the liar.
So long as people keep defending politicians who are on ‘their side’ behaving in this way, all politicians of all shades will carry on doing it. When members of the public endorse that behaviour by helping them quibble over precise wording of a statement while ignoring its spirit, they are giving oxygen to the seedy side of politics that it has long been fashionable to bemoan. That means that we, the public, are as much to blame for that culture as the politicians themselves.
March 29, 2017
by Martin Odoni
It’s Brexit Day!
Yes, it’s Brexit Day!
It’s Br-br-br-br-br-br-br-br-Brexit Day!
(If you have no idea what the reference is, watch this.)
I was genuinely open to the idea of Britain leaving European Union, you know. The EU does have some truly ugly qualities to it, including revolving around a Friedmanite Central Bank that clearly wants to turn the whole continent into a neoliberalism club. Less so for the red herrings about ‘bureaucracy’, which is mainly a codeword Big Business uses when it means it wants to be allowed to do absolutely anything it feels like, without being accountable. But even there, it has to be said that some of the mechanisms in the EU are rather too Teutonic for the good of humanity.
So I have never been against the idea of ‘Brexit’ in principle.
But for me to support the idea of withdrawal, I needed to see a coherent and plausible plan for what the UK would do to reform once it had left. Even up to today, the day we hand in notice of our departure, no such plan has ever been presented. No plan as to how British markets would adjust to the loss of priority trade access to the continent. No plan for resolving the issue of having to renew the Northern Ireland border with Eire. No plan for how to police the borders of the UK as a whole when surrendering the co-ordinating advantages the EU gives with police forces in other countries. No plan even for how to carry out the withdrawal process.
Hence, when the referendum came round last June, I voted to remain. There was, and is, bound to be so much disruption and so many lost advantages, it could only be worth making such a move if we had a clear idea of what we were going to do to adjust, and to this day, still nobody seems quite sure. I simply could not support such a crazed leap into the darkness.
On that note, I still think the Leave campaigns were as shocked as anybody about the result of the referendum, and once it happened, their most prominent members were visibly flapping around awkwardly. You could almost hear them wondering to themselves, “Oh no! What the hell do we do now?”
My own position since last summer has not really changed. If someone who matters can actually come up with a workable, cohesive plan – and they would have to do so in a big hurry – I would be willing to give ‘Brexit’ the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. But the sad reality is that I see no sign of that happening. None at all. All that we are really getting from Theresa May’s Government are descriptions of what will happen by default instead.
Voting to leave was not stupid in itself, but voting for it, when it was totally unclear what shape the process or outcome would take, was an incredibly high risk for little gain, and therefore reckless. But many Leave voters still seem startlingly over-confident that ‘Brexit’ is going to be the best news that the country ever had. They treat every development as confirmation of the onset of paradise, even when the opposite reality is grossly obvious. For instance, I have seen Brexiteers on social media happily telling all-and-sundry it is absolutely fine that David Davis MP, the ‘Brexit Secretary’, has not even assessed the likely impact of Britain leaving the EU without securing a new trade deal. This ‘oversight’ (a little like calling the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki “an unusually hot summer”) is one of the reasons why negotiations are failing to take any coherent shape, as presently, British representatives are not sure exactly what sort of deal to work for.
What causes this ‘Brexit-at-any-cost-has-to-be-better-than-what-we-have’ attitude?
Part of the problem is just flat-out xenophobia, the instinctive unease of knowing that your country is part of something far larger. It can be forgiveable for seeing this relationship as one of a colony controlled by a conqueror, even though Britain has in practise been allowed considerable leeway over which EU rules it must follow – not compelled to join the Eurozone or the Schengen Area for instance (those who voted to leave because they wanted stronger control on immigration never seem to realise that our borders remain regulated) – and has also exercised a strong influence on EU legislation.
The other part of the problem is the ‘Good-ole’-days’ delusion that many, especially in ‘Little England’, have that Britain was a better place before joining the European Economic Community in 1973, and that this move was what ended the country’s old status as a ‘great’ nation.
The truth is very different. In world terms, Britain had been in an inevitable decline since early in the Twentieth Century, having been stagnant since late in the Nineteenth. Two World Wars in the space of thirty years exhausted the country militarily and economically, and left it almost powerless to retain most of the colonies it had accumulated over the previous two centuries. As it struggled to adjust to the dismantling of the British Empire, the UK could no longer obtain vast resources without the inconvenience of having to give something back in return for them. Dependence on legalised theft was replaced with dependence on trade, especially imports, all of which were subject to tariffs and customs bureaucracy.
Indeed, given the troubles of losing an Empire, it is a remarkable testament to the ingenuity of the social democratic consensus of the post-war era that, at the very least, the economy of Britain managed to remain unprecedentedly stable.
But this stability simply softened the pain of lost prestige and power, and these losses inevitably made Britain more vulnerable to prevailing international conditions. So in fact, joining the EEC gave Britain a useful boost, as it gave the country cheap, relatively tariff-free access to a very large foreign market. What is more, given 1973 was also the year of the First OPEC Oil Shock, it arguably happened in the nick of time.
Whether that is precisely true or not, the inescapable reality is that joining the EEC had no bearing on Britain’s decline; it began long before the Community had even been thought of. If anything, joining the EEC helped arrest the slide; the discovery of North Sea Oil did the rest. And there is no way the British are going to get the old Empire back, or become a great power of the type it was before the World Wars. People looking back to the largely-fictitious ‘good-ole’-days’ are pining for something that is simply never going to happen. Irrespective of whether it would be morally right or not to re-establish the British Empire (and of course it would not), it just is not a possibility. Britain’s military in the modern era, while still significant, is completely dwarfed by some of the world powers of today, and those other powers will not allow Britain to embark on a fresh campaign of conquest and colonisation. The booming industrial powers of India and China, for instance, are former victims of the British Empire, albeit in different ways, and remain permanently against it ever coming back.
No, Britain is going to have find its way in the wider world without the violent old short-cut of taking-without-asking. The sad aspect is, in joining the EEC/EU, it had already found a pathway to doing so. But now it has decided to step off that path without firstly making sure the ground around it is solid enough to take its weight.
None of this is to say that doom is a certainty. We might yet make the best of this if someone can come up with a workable plan in a hurry, instead of scaremongering about foreign bureaucrats, or making jingoistic false promises about ‘more money for the NHS’. Perhaps, in the very long term, leaving might even prove to be better than sticking with the EU, if the departure is guided correctly.
But if the process of withdrawal continues on its present, erratic, thrashing heading instead, we are going to be in for some very, very hard times in the coming months. With the unguided action it takes today, Britain is committing itself to a perilous course into the unknown.
Without either an Empire or the EU, Britain needs something else abroad to prop it up, and so far, no one has suggested anything likely to do the job.
by Martin Odoni
After lengthy investigation – and it would appear some very reckless and unjustified arrests in a big show of looking ‘in control’ – the police have concluded that the Westminster Attacker, Khalid Masood, acted alone when he took the lives of five people this week.
The media, and many in the wider public, seem to have determined for themselves that Masood, nèe Adrian Ajao, was a Radical Islamic terrorist operating on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq & Levant (ISIL/’Daesh’). That is a perfectly understandable conclusion to draw. Although born and raised a Christian, he converted to Islam at some point probably between 2001 and 2004. His method of killing, involving driving a vehicle into a crowd of people on Westminster Bridge, has very loud echoes of last year’s attacks in Nice and Berlin. And of course Daesh have claimed Masood as one of their own, calling him “a soldier of the Caliphate”. Open-and-shut case then?
People would do well to show a bit more caution though – yes including you, Andrew Marr – as the idea has now taken such a firm hold that everyone is just taking it for granted. In fact, while on balance Radical Islam is perhaps the likeliest explanation for Masood’s actions, it is by no means a certainty. There are a few details that lead me to having doubts; –
Firstly, after the aforementioned investigations concluded that Masood acted alone, it is perhaps a little difficult to reason exactly how or when he had been radicalised. For one thing, radicalisation is not exactly unknown among middle-aged men, but younger men are far more vulnerable to it. More importantly, it is a little incongruous that Masood supposedly joined a movement that radicalised him, but then he acted completely independently of it. When and how did it happen? He is understood to have spent a couple of years living in Saudi Arabia teaching English, but that appears to be the closest he ever got to the heartlands of Radical Islam. He did feature in a counter-terrorism investigation into an extremist group some years ago, but he was very much a peripheral figure, and it was before Daesh had even existed in any event. He may have had very loose associations with radicalised individuals, but the truth is that we can find ways of saying that about almost anybody. There really is no firm indication that Masood was ever ideologically radicalised.
Secondly, it is high time everybody grasped that just because Daesh claim a crime as one of their own, that does not mean that it genuinely is. Daesh wants the world to fear it. It especially wants Western countries to be afraid, as it hopes to intimidate the West into abandoning ‘The Holy Land’. Therefore, so long as it sounds plausible, Daesh will always claim these sorts of crimes as their own; it makes the organisation sound like more of a threat than it really is. But the reality is that the investigations have found no direct, practical link between Daesh and Masood. He might well have carried out the attack as an act of support for Daesh, he might well have done it after being inspired by Daesh (although actual evidence for either has not yet been uncovered), but the signs are that he did not do it as a part of their organisation. He did not appear to act under Daesh’s specific instructions, he certainly did not act in co-ordination with Daesh. Nor indeed did he act in co-ordination with anyone else. He acted alone. It is only by appending a very, very broad definition of what constitutes a member of Islamic State that the claim can really be sustained.
This leads directly into the third of my reasons for doubt, and it is quite a major sticking point. The truth is, as yet, no one really knows precisely why Masood did what he did, because he did not appear to leave an explanation behind for it. This may sound like a minor point, but it is fairly important to my mind, because it is where his modus operandi deviates from the norm; it is quite unusual for a Radical Islamist not to leave behind an explanation, usually by video recording, for his actions. Not unheard-of, but unusual. The London Bombers of 2005, just for instance, made prior video recordings of themselves explicitly pointing to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as their justification for the attacks. So far, no explanation for Wednesday from Masood, written or spoken word, has been found. No political or religious motivation has been established. Given the extent of the police investigations, it seems highly likely that they would have found it by now if he had provided one. As Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police commented yesterday,
“There is a possibility we will never understand why [Masood] did this. That understanding may have died with him.”
Analysis of Masood’s history suggests a man with serious problems controlling violent and criminal impulses, dating back to long, long before he became a Muslim. He spent three terms in prison, all before he converted to Islam, including twice for stabbing victims in the face with knives. In both cases, it seems more-than-possible that the attacks were intended to be lethal, but also they foreshadow his killing of PC Keith Palmer on Wednesday. Masood further had an extensive history of substance abuse, including cocaine and steroids, which were bound to have long-term effects on his mental health. Perhaps paradoxically, after his conversion, he for some years showed signs of bringing his behaviour under control.
So while Radical Islam is one strong possibility, another strong possibility cannot yet be ruled out. If we look at the Westminster Attack in the context of the rest of Masood’s life, instead of in the context of popular hysteria against Muslims, we see an equally consistent pattern. The possibility is that Khalid Masood was just an unstable man who, having spent some years battling to bury old impulses, finally reached the end of his tether. He may simply have been carrying out a mindless act of last-gasp despair similar to the massacre by Derrick Bird in Cumbria a few years ago.
Nobody called Bird a terrorist, or assumed some kind of ideological motive for the Cumbria Shootings. Given Masood was attempting to force a way into Parliament, it seems more likely in his case, but we should at least be cautious about it. It is possible he took inspiration from the Nice and Berlin Attacks when choosing his method, but not necessarily when deciding to attack in the first place; Masood may have only decided to drive into the crowd on Westminster Bridge on a sudden mad impulse for all we know. (The fact he was carrying a knife on Wednesday tells us nothing, as it is clear from his previous convictions that there was nothing unusual about him carrying a knife.)
We really do not know why Masood did what he did on Wednesday, and as he was gunned down, the odds are that we never will. Without finding more information first, any attempt we make to fill that void will be a mixture of prejudiced speculation and fevered guesswork. Such an exercise is not only futile, it will potentially blind us to better information, should it become available.
In the end, such impatient guessing games will only reveal more about the people playing them than they will ever reveal about Khalid Masood.
March 6, 2017
by Martin Odoni
If, as seems inevitable after last month, Article 50 is activated in the next few weeks and the United Kingdom starts the process of withdrawal from the European Union, it is perhaps ironic that it should happen in a year ending in -17. For the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics was established 100 years ago this year, after a pair of Revolutions in the old Russian Empire, and was the world’s first Communist/Socialist country (at least in its objectives). It lasted through until 1991, when it collapsed in circumstances that should sound uncannily familiar to anyone closely studying what is happening to the UK right now.
There was a lot to be said against the Soviet Union down the decades. Despite its established aim of fairness and equality, the nation proved to be an oppressive, at times expansionist, dictatorship. It was one of the most dreadful regimes on Earth during Joseph Stalin’s era as General Secretary of the Communist Party. (Not officially the Head of State, but in practise whoever held the office of General Secretary was the man – it was always a man of course – in charge.) Stalin is estimated to have taken the lives of over twenty million people during his rule. Thanks principally to him, the very name ‘Soviet Union’ tends to cause lips to curl back in disapproval.
There is another side to this however. Although there was very little freedom in the USSR, it did take relatively good care of its population, by the standards of wider Russian history. Life had been utterly miserable for the vast, vast majority of ordinary people during the centuries of the old Russian Empire. While Stalin had shown no real concern for the well-being of the man-in-the-street – and considerable paranoid concern for his own physical safety – his successor from 1953, Nikita Kruschev, made a genuine-if-modest attempt to liberalise society, and the standard of living had improved a lot between the 1950s and the 1970s. Irina Lobatcheva, author of Russia in 1990’s, recalls,
In 1960s-1980s the Soviet society provided majority of Russians with a decent life, free of fear of unemployment, with plenty of opportunities for self-fulfillment and career advancement. Everyone had a right to a month long vacation which one could spend in recreation hotels, sanatoriums, or touring the USSR for a very affordable price. Medical care was free, as well as any education, numerous children clubs and summer camps; even day-care centres cost next to nothing. Simple life, overall confidence in the future, guaranteed pension. The ideological load had almost waned after the death of Stalin: the state security had little effect on our lives compared to its influence in 1930s-1950s, when harsh competition with the rest of the world demanded from the new socialist state extraordinary repressive measures.
NB: Apologies for the poor syntax and punctuation of the above excerpt. The published translation into English of Russia in 1990s was not compiled very well, and it has to be said that the book sometimes reads a little like the output of a website subjected to Google Translate. I considered making corrections but ultimately decided against it as it would be dishonest.
One can certainly question whether Stalin’s repressive measures were really as necessary as Lobatcheva implies, but her points about the standard of living in the USSR, at least compared with what preceded it and what succeeded it, are accurate and frequently overlooked in the West. Life may not have had much in the way of civil liberty in the Soviet Union, but it had been no freer or less brutal under the Tsars of the Russian Empire, and at least under the Communist Party, levels of starvation and destitution hugely declined for the first time in centuries.
Kruschev introduced a major stabilising influence on day-to-day life in 1961 when he imposed indefinite price controls on essential goods; the same number of rubles that could buy a loaf of bread in 1961 could still buy an equivalent loaf in 1986. This had an unfortunate effect in the wider economic picture, as the costs of manufacture were rising constantly, and to keep manufacturers and farmers funded, the Government was forced to keep printing more and more money, causing international inflation of the ruble.
After Kruschev was effectively overthrown by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1964, he was replaced by his Ukrainian deputy, Leonid Brezhnev, a comparative doctrinaire hardliner who lacked imagination or energy. Brezhnev had positioned himself to take over by blaming Kruschev’s policies for the country’s mounting economic difficulties. Once in office, Brezhnev spent the remaining eighteen years of his life in Government doing very little to change them. Meanwhile, he restored repressive powers to the state police force, the KGB (‘Chekhists’), that Kruschev had taken away from them, and restarted the Stalinist practise of imprisoning political and cultural dissidents.
In the 1980s the ailing Soviet economy began to break down. One key cause of this was intervention in a civil war in Afghanistan, between the communist Government in Kabul and Islamist guerrillas, beginning in 1979. It proved to be a calamitous ten-year mistake that ultimately took a terrible toll on Soviet resources without ever achieving a victory to which to point. The sluggish economy was crippled by the burden of trying to support a failing and unending war-effort. Necessary production capacity that should have been used for consumption goods was instead allocated to manufacturing military supplies. At home therefore, industries that had advanced over a century’s-worth between 1929 and 1945 were stagnating once again, and producing fewer and fewer goods, as the ongoing price-controls slowly transformed currency inflation into a production deficit.
To add to the terrible burdens on the Soviet economy, in 1986, the entire population of Pripyat in Ukraine had to be evacuated permanently as a result of reactor unit 4 at the local nuclear power station, Chernobyl, exploding, condemning the region to literally thousands of years ahead of inhospitable radiation poisoning. The phenomenal resources needed to prevent the spread of the radioactive fall-out, to rehouse over 30,000 people, and to adjust to the enormous loss to the electrical power supply on the Soviet Union’s western frontier, were perhaps a final tipping point.
Brezhnev was long dead by this time; he had died in 1982 at the age of 75, and had been replaced by a former KGB chief, Yuri Andropov. At 67 when coming to office, Andropov was another old man rather stuck in his ways. His main policy platform was a necessary but largely ineffectual campaign to end political corruption within the Communist Party. It did not help the stability or conviction of the Soviet economy that he died a little over a year after taking over. His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was even older (72 years old) than Andropov, and was already in dire health when he became General Secretary in March 1984. He too died after just over a year in office.
In 1985, a young (by Soviet Union standards anyway) new General Secretary was elected, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first leader of the USSR to be born after the Revolutions of 1917. At 54, he was not such a hardline stick-in-the-mud as his predecessors, and while he remained a dedicated communist, he recognised the urgent need for reform. He embarked on two side-by-side programs of reforms. The first, going by the name of Perestroika, very roughly translating as ‘restructuring’, was a campaign to reform the economy, including loosening the state controls over industry and the markets. The second, going by the name of Glasnost, very roughly translating as ‘open-ness’ or ‘transparency’, was a campaign to reform the country politically.
Glasnost allowed far greater freedom of expression, making it easier for people to speak out about the hardships they were increasingly facing, and making it easier, in turn, for the Government to identify failings that needed correcting. But it also made it a lot easier for fundamentally different ideas about the way the country should be governed to proliferate. (The USSR had, to this point, been a one-party state, but Gorbachev legalised the formation of political parties other than the communists.) One idea that became popular among pro-reform groups was that life in the West was much better than life in the USSR. TV and photo images began to appear in Russian media in the mid-to-late 1980s of the glossier side of life in the USA. Spectacular technology, colourful, glamorous ‘showbiz’ lifestyles.
Of course, there was no mention of the uglier side of Western life, including the tendency not to take much care of the poorest, or the horrendous poverty and misery of, say, being black in Ronald Reagan’s America. Naturally, Western life looked superior when the focus was on the rich and privileged in the richest, most privileged country.
Therefore, growing numbers of Russian people around the turn of the 1990s, fed up of waiting hours in queues just to buy bread, began to get the idea that the way the USA operated was the way the USSR should do things too. So the reformers began to push for, not a reformed communist economy, but a full-scale free market economy.
This was not what Gorbachev wanted. Despite his reforms, he remained a communist, and was deeply suspicious of what might happen if state controls of the economy were loosened to the degree found in the USA. But growing public unrest, and pressure from a reformer faction within the Communist Party itself, gradually dragged him into changing the market more severely than he had intended.
Gorbachev’s reform programs were not helped by the fact that he had no coherent plan in place, and he was largely improvising. That he recognised the need for reform had made him the best option for General Secretary, but that really just showed what a collection of dinosaurs the other options had been. Knowing something needed to change was a step up from his colleagues, but knowing how to do it was another matter. With no clear framework for reform, his every policy decision could lead to problems, and they frequently did.
Furthermore, the reformer faction had gained a figurehead in the shape of Boris Yeltsin, who was developing a popular reputation as an ‘anti-establishment’ figure after taking the unprecedented step late in 1987 of resigning from the Politburo. Gorbachev had responded to this by firing him from his secondary role as First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party, while the Communist Party started smearing Yeltsin in the media. All of this just seemed to increase Yeltsin’s popularity, while motivating him to seek revenge on Gorbachev. Over the next several years, Yeltsin piled pressure on Gorbachev to increase the scope and pace of reforms.
In 1990, Gorbachev created new fundamental reforms to the political system. As part of a reorganisation that ended the permanent link between the Communist Party from the Executive branch of Government, a new office was established of ‘President of the USSR’, to which Gorbachev was elected in March. At a secondary level, the Russian Republic was given a Presidential office of its own. Yeltsin, to Gorbachev’s despair, was elected to the role in May. If Gorbachev was worried, conservative Marxists within the Communist Party were horrified. They had spent the last four years or so becoming increasingly alarmed by the amount of authority the party had surrendered due to the reform programs. Yeltsin, their ideological nemesis, was now in a position of real power within the largest federal Republic in the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev had appointed Gennadi Yenayev, Chairman of the nation’s Trade Unions Council, to become the Soviet Union’s first (and only, it would transpire) vice-President. He was a known conservative who opposed the reform programs. If Gorbachev expected gratitude from the hardliners for making such an appointment, he was soon to be disillusioned. For in the summer of 1991, Yenayev led a group of the hardliners in Moscow in a poorly-planned attempt to overthrow Gorbachev, and to restore pre-Perestroika communism.
The coup, or ‘Putsch’ as it was called, failed, due to its dependence on support from the military, which in the event refused to open fire on the civilian population of Russia. Opportunistically, Boris Yeltsin spotted the chance to shine by very publicly heading up civilian resistance to the coup. In one major moment of showmanship, he actually climbed onto a tank outside the Russian Parliament building and addressed a crowd of resisters from there.
In truth, opposition to the Putsch among the population was not nearly as large as the Western media likes to portray it; with growing political chaos, including the collapse of the so-called ‘Eastern Bloc’, and ever-worsening shortages of goods in the shops, Gorbachev’s popularity had rapidly eroded. So while there was a disapproving recognition that what the plotters were doing was anti-democratic, there was no great wish to defend the Soviet President. But still, the opposition proved just strong enough, and once it was clear that the military would not support Yenayev, the ‘Putsch’ quickly collapsed, and the conspirators surrendered.
In the weeks that followed, Yeltsin got enormous praise and adulation, both at home and in the West, for rescuing Gorbachev and for thwarting the hardliners. Seeing the opening to complete his revenge on Gorbachev, Yeltsin used the hype, in effect, to seize control.
Knowing that the coup had effectively severed his relationship with the Communist Party, Gorbachev felt compelled to resign as General Secretary. Yeltsin then shut down the party by ordering nationalisation of all its assets and suspending all of its activities inside Russian boundaries. At the same time, most of the different Republics of the Soviet Union began declaring independence, rendering the Soviet Presidency a powerless role. All its authority was devolved to the Heads of State of the individual Republics, including Russia itself. As Yeltsin was President of Russia, and Russia was the largest of the Soviet Republics, this made him more powerful than Gorbachev.
From there, Gorbachev had no option but to terminate the Soviet Union completely. On Christmas Day, 1991, he formally resigned the office of President of the Soviet Union, and the USSR had been formally dissolved.
The USA and its allies had always hated and feared communism, and so were delighted to see the USSR break up. The hope in the West was that, under Yeltsin, Russia would go further than Gorbachev had so far dared, and try to create a full free market economy. To this end, the USA despatched groups of right-wing economists to Moscow to advise Yeltsin on how to transition to full capitalism. Their advice was to remove state operations within the market entirely, including remove all price controls set by the Government. All businesses were to become completely privately run.
The problem was, the price controls that the Soviet Government had imposed since the early-60’s had kept people’s money safe. As mentioned before, the price of a loaf of bread in 1989 was the same as it had been in 1962. The price of all manufacturing goods had been subsidised by the Government, so prices in the shops did not have to go up. At the end of 1991, all these price controls were removed, and all state interference in the market was ended, including the subsidies for manufacturers. Manufacturers and retailers were now free to set their own prices for all of their goods.
Frankly, almost anyone could have predicted what was to happen next, yet somehow the very people who were supposed to be the experts were completely unprepared for it. The manufacturers of goods were no longer being subsidised by the Government, and no longer being regulated by the Government either. They were given freedom, therefore, to put prices up. So they put prices up. A long way up. And so the shops had to put their prices up as well to make an honest profit. It meant that the Russian currency, the ruble, became almost worthless within weeks. People’s life savings were used up in weeks as desperation led them to pay massively inflated prices for the most basic items.
Prices had quadrupled before the end of the first week, and they just kept ballooning up and up and up. This was partly due to the well-intentioned but ill-advised decision of Viktor Geraschenko, chairman of the Russian Central Bank, to try to offset the sudden price-jump by increasing the size of the money supply, which simply led the ruble to inflate even faster.
Within a year, Russia was in chaos. Vast numbers of people were struggling to afford food, it had become so expensive. Entire industries were teetering on the brink of shutdown as markets were unable to sell goods to a population whose income was no longer adequate to afford them. By August, industrial productivity across Russia had declined by worse than forty percent. Many people resorted to selling their most prized possessions just to get the extra money they needed to buy bread.
Tiny numbers of entrepreneurs who happened to be in the right place at the start of the 1990s were now able to hog all the consumption goods, and with the markets cornered, they could hold the population to ransom. Wealth was absorbed by these tiny handsful of people, while millions of others went hungry. The hoarders would eventually become known derisively as ‘The Oligarchs‘.
The privatisation of state assets led to the development of a voucher system so that the public could own shares in former public property. But because of the desperation of hunger, many people ended up desperately selling off their vouchers in exchange for the money they needed to buy food. The vouchers were almost invariably sold to the Oligarchs, cementing their grip and control over the new Russia.
While the Oligarchs counted their ever-growing stockpiles of money and assets, the state had become so weakened as the 1990s wore on that before long it was largely powerless even to enforce the law. Business in Russia had leapt from one extreme to the other. Gone were the days of excessive state-intervention, to be replaced with a kind of ‘frontier law’, rather like the Old West; if a businessman had trouble with a strong competitor on the market, the solution was literally to hire a bounty hunter and have the competitor blown away. It was almost possible to measure how successful a businessman in Russia was by the number of bodyguards he needed surrounding him.
The courts in Russia became largely useless. Officials within Government were open to bribery as they were desperate for money themselves, which meant that any Russian with a genuine grievance could not expect help from the law unless they were rich enough to buy a court’s time. And even then, if the defendant was richer, the case would almost certainly be dismissed. With most of the old ‘Soviet’ councils disbanded, every local state office was now basically operating as a front for the Russian Mafia, including the courts. Crime and disorder were everywhere. The majority of people across Russia were living in horrendous poverty, of a kind hard to imagine in the UK or the USA, and many had to turn to crime themselves just to avoid outright starvation.
While all this was going on, the political instability of the previous decade proved to be ongoing. Indeed, there was a near civil war between different branches of the Government. Yeltsin was still President, but the Russian Parliament (‘Supreme Soviet’), dominated by former members of the Communist Party (leaders were Aleksandr Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov), wanted him impeached over his handling of both the economy and the new constitution of the Russian Federation. In response, Yeltsin issued a controversial Presidential decree, Decree Number 1400, dissolving the Supreme Soviet. He did have the authority to do this under the constitution, but he was also compelled under the same laws to call a Presidential election to happen within three months of the dissolution, which he refused to do. Therefore, the Soviet refused to stand down. In October 1993, the two factions started firing at each other.
On 2nd October, tens of thousands of civilians gathered outside the Parliament building – the Russian ‘White House’ as it is known – to protest as Yeltsin’s military forces approached. After a lengthy stand-off, the military opened fire. A prolonged and convoluted skirmish across central Moscow continued through the 3rd and 4th of October, at the end of which, the official number of civilians killed was one hundred and forty-nine. The real death-toll, we will probably never know, but from eyewitness accounts, it seems likely to have been well in excess of a thousand. Thousands more were injured, thousands of others were arrested and/or tortured.
In the next few days, the Russian media tried to spin events as the military ‘heroically’ rescuing the country from ‘Marxist thugs’, ‘terrorists’, ‘bandits’ and ‘gangs of assassins’, all roused into armed insurrection by the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin himself delivered a very cynical address on television while the insurgency was going on, calling the protesters ‘mercenary troops’. In reality, only a tiny proportion of ‘mercenaries’ were armed at all, and a great many of them were older generation Muscovites peacefully protesting against the effects of the Government’s ‘Shock Therapy’ economic reform program.
The whole bloody chapter demonstrated that Yeltsin was as capable of deceit, ruthlessness and authoritarianism as any Soviet leader or Tsar had been before him. The end of communism in Russia was not the end of brutality or oppression in Russia. Communism was clearly not in itself the reason for the decades of tyranny after all, and ending it was not bringing about the promised social liberty. Society was not freer; what oppressed people was now crime and poverty rather than harsh policing. Even the markets were not freer; markets had merely exchanged domination by the Soviets for domination by the Oligarchs
None of this was what people had expected at all when they had struggled for an end to the grip of communism two years earlier. Many were left wondering why on Earth they had sided with the reformers back in the early-1990s at all. For sure, times had often been hard under communism, but at least back then, more often than not, they had enough to eat, the money in their pockets was not completely useless, and crime and disorder were largely kept under control. Now the Russian people were living in a kind of purgatory. It was only a return to state authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin that brought an end to it.
The scary thing is – and I realise this may not seem obvious at first glance but stay with me – I see worrying parallels between what happened in Russia a quarter of a century ago, and what is starting in Britain now.
See the USSR and the European Union.
See the Russian reformers and the Leave EU campaigners.
See Mikhail Gorbachev and David Cameron.
See Boris Yeltsin and Nigel Farage.
I am quite serious about the parallels; –
The USSR was a stagnant, bureaucratic mess. The Union arguably was beneficial to its members, but at the same time, it did a lot of harm to them in certain ways. The EU is sometimes weighed down by its own bureaucracy. It is often stagnant because of the constant squabbles amongst its members. And while sharing a common market and many laws with the EU does its member-populations a lot of good, its treatment of some countries such as Greece shows it also does harm in a lot of ways.
The Soviet reformers promised the Russian people the moon around the turn-of-the-1990s. They promised far greater freedom, unlimited prosperity, happy lives-of-plenty for everybody. The Leave EU campaigners have promised the people of the UK the moon. They have promised far greater freedom, an end to bureaucratic inconvenience, more prosperity, less money taken from British pockets to go to Brussels; happy lives-of-plenty for everybody.
Mikhail Gorbachev was a Soviet leader who saw a need for reform, promised change for the better, an open, freer relationship between the peoples of the USSR, a revival of the economy and of industry. But once he was in power, he had no coherent plan in place to bring it all about, and so largely resorted to improvising, reacting, blundering, and making it up as he went along. His programs attempted to find a middle ground between all-out reform and staying-the-course, and the compromise fell flat. Ultimately, Gorbachev’s reforms were rejected by the Russian people, who chose all-out departure from communism. David Cameron was a British leader who was rather forced into trying to reform the UK’s relationship with the EU. He promised change for the better, an open, freer relationship between the British people and their neighbours on the continent, and negotiated amendments to the treaty with the European Union. His program attempted to find a middle ground between leaving the Union altogether and allowing the relationship to remain unchanged, and the compromise fell flat. His deal was rejected by the British people who chose all-out departure from the EU.
Boris Yeltsin was a popular, charismatic, ‘everyman’ figure in Soviet politics, with a reputation for being anti-establishment, and he demanded a major shift of the country towards the Right. A cynical showman wanting change entirely for the advancement of his own interests, he convinced substantial numbers of people to support him, and eventually led them to force a fundamental change of the country’s entire way of life. Nigel Farage is (sadly) a popular, charismatic, ‘everyman’ figure in British politics, with a reputation for being anti-establishment, and he demanded a major shift of the country towards the Right. A cynical showman wanting change entirely for the advancement of his own interests, he convinced substantial numbers of people to support him, and eventually led them to force a fundamental change of the country’s entire way of life.
Gorbachev had no coherent plan for reform before the death of the USSR, and neither did Yeltsin after it. The UK Independence Party had no coherent plan in place for what to do after leaving the EU, and it has become painfully clear in the months since the Referendum that the Conservative Party lack one either. Gorbachev and Yeltsin despised each other, despite having much common political ground. Cameron and Farage despise each other, despite both being right wingers.
Furthermore, if you look at the Oligarchs, and if you then picture what most of the key figures in the Leave campaign would like to become i.e. stinking-super-rich while the rest of the people are ground into abject poverty, and there is little distinction to be found. (There seems little doubt that Farage’s own wish when seeking to leave the EU has been to make it easier to exploit workers, and to get richer quicker.)
With the majority of Britons who expressed a preference voting to leave the EU, they have done to themselves what the Russians did when they fought to end communism. The British have cut their own lifeline, under the delusion that disconnecting it will make them ‘freer’.
But a baby does not become free and independent when the umbilical is cut. The baby requires a fully-working pair of lungs in order to breathe without the help of its mother, and even then will need the mother’s care for years and years to come. The UK, with its almost total butchery of key industries since the 1980s, has removed its own lungs, and, in the shape of its largely-parasitical Financial Services Industry, transplanted a couple of balloons in their place. It is only with the umbilical cord of Globalisation that such an industry can keep Britain breathing in and out. This is one of the reasons why leaving the EU, at least before we revive critical industries that Margaret Thatcher discarded, is foolish.
Now, I need to stress that what happened to Russia will not necessarily happen to Britain, but it is something that needs to be guarded against; many EU regulations that quarter-informed Britons endlessly moan about present an obstacle to ‘Oligarchism’ (for want of a better word), and these regulations are going to be repealed in the UK when ‘Brexit’ goes ahead. Perhaps the parallel that makes a British repetition of early-90s Russia likelier than it should be is that far too many Leave supporters assume, just like the Russian reformers before them, that the changeover will work simply by default. It will not. It can be made to work for the betterment of the country, but it must be made to work, it cannot be left simply to work itself. The process will be too easy for opportunists to subvert that way.
So too many are not guarding against a repetition of what happened in Russia, and there are some hawkish people out there who, for reasons of pure greed, actually want a repetition. They have been allowed to control much too much of the public discussion to this point, partly because, as I say, there is no plan in place for leading the country in an alternative direction. Just like there was no plan in place in the former Soviet Union.
Destitution, political chaos, economic turmoil, war, mass-deprivation. Yes, these can be avoided, but more of the UK population need to work to avoid them. At present, too many are either assuming that leaving the EU will solve everything by itself, or sulking about the referendum result and looking for ways to derail the process rather than to guide it to a satisfactory conclusion. How effective was Yenayev’s attempt to simply ‘undo’ all the changes in 1991, rather than to influence their outcome?
The reformers v the hardliners.
The Leavers v the Remainers.
As Mark Twain is (wrongly) credited as saying, “History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”