Breaking the Circulation of Elites and The Myth of Our Democracy

Originally published in on 23rd January 2018.

Brexit and Trump represent the rotation of an elite guard. In 2018, we must move toward breaking this elite guard and building a people’s guard of meaningful, participatory democracy.

The under acknowledged reality of the EU Referendum is that the Remain and Leave campaigns were commandeered by and fought largely between two factions of a competing hegemonic elite. That is, those aligned with a more internationalist business-oriented elite (e.g. Cameron, Blair, Clegg et al.) and those aligned with a more nationalist business-oriented elite (e.g. Farage. Johnson, Gove et al.). Broadly speaking, while one faction sought to exploit sentiments of liberalism and pluralism to win votes, the other sought to exploit nationalism and division.

The Circulation of Elites

Perhaps the best theoretical understanding of what’s happened, and this applies to Trump in the US as well, comes from the work of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto established the theory of the ‘circulation of elites’, in which he proposed that a minority will always dominate over the majority, and that history is just the story of one elite replacing another.

For Pareto there were two types of elite rulers: ‘foxes’ and ‘lions’. As historian Hugo Drochon writes, foxes are Machiavellian and dominate mainly by ‘deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force’. Lions, on the other hand, are conservative and emphasise ‘unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes’. In our modern context, we may regard the foxes as the Camerons, Blairs and Cleggs of our world, and the lions as the Trumps and Farages. While one elite never truly eliminates the other, history is the perpetual ‘slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again’, as Drochon writes.

The Myth of our Democracy

The contemporary relevance of Pareto’s theory is clear. The past two years have seen the lions replace the foxes as the dominant ruling elite. However, amongst all of the elite squabbling there has been one very crucial voice missing: the voice of the people. Now of course we’ve seen plenty of public opinion polls, interviews with the public and questions and comments from average Joes on debate shows. However, the problem is that none of these channels of communication are exemplary of meaningful political participation. Moreover, polls, interviews and debate shows are structurally biased, often following the format of elites responding to the latest stats, questions or comments from the public. They do not facilitate actual meaningful public engagement, discussion and ultimately participation in decision-making. Thus, while the public was invited to tick a box and vote for one of two options, serious debate and decision-making regarding the EU Referendum and now Brexit was, and remains, the preserve of an elite few.

This lack of democratic participation is not just an issue surrounding the EU Referendum and Brexit, however. It is a systemic, structural issue plaguing our society. Indeed, contrary to popular assumptions, we do not live in a democracy, not in any meaningful sense of the word. In fact, our electoral system, that is, our system of representative democracy, was never designed to be truly democratic; it was in fact designed to limit democracy. The result is that significant policy rarely corresponds to popular will, and the level of popular participation in policy-making is extremely limited. Generally, the public is excluded from big decisions and policy is overwhelmingly dictated from above by a centralised few in Westminster, some elected, many unelected, who are themselves overwhelmed and co-opted by private interests. Moreover, as government research has itself revealed, a large portion of our public servants form a close-knit community of highly privileged elites, many of them millionaires who harbour personal ties and a revolving door relationship to the private sector. While elections are held, governments fall and a degree of free speech exists, the collective will of the population is mostly ignored. ‘Post-democracy’ is the term coined by the British sociologist and political scientist Professor Colin Crouch to describe this state of affairs.

A People’s Participatory Democracy

This is the reality of our so-called democracy, and this is exactly why we are in desperate need of real democracy: the meaningful participation of the citizenry in the construction of policy at all levels, including national, regional and local. And yes, this includes the democratisation of the workplace – worker ownership, the election of managers, votes on pay, etc. No serious individual believes that if people had the means to participate they would construct a society that facilitates and exacerbates gross inequality, low wages, precarious employment, mass debt, child, adult and pensioner poverty, homelessness, environmental breakdown and perpetual warfare. When you give people the ability to participate in policy-making, to affect change in ways that better their own lives and the lives of their children, then they will generally grasp at it.

For most of our history the vast majority lacked the franchise, and as a result were neglected by elites and had to accept their conditions. With the acquisition of the franchise, however, they were able to demand better conditions and so increase their living standards. As these achievements have stagnated and in many ways regressed over the past thirty-five years, the time has now come – in fact it is long overdue – for the public to demand even greater franchise. In the words of the founding members of Momentum, the UK’s foremost democratic movement right now:

We need to build grassroots power now: the ability for ordinary people to influence and change the world in their interests, through their own institutions. This means developing processes of collective organising that are directed and controlled by those directly affected by decisions. We must maximise people’s participation, agency and empowerment in systems affecting their lives.

Beyond Brexit and Trump, if we are to have any chance of pulling ourselves out of the myriad of messes we now find ourselves in, then breaking the circulation of elites and advancing real participatory democracy must be the imperative. That our democracy is undemocratic is perhaps one of our biggest unkept secrets that we never talk about, and it is high time we elevate the discussion of it into the mainstream.



The Autocracy of Tony Blair: why the former PM has No Right to lecture us on Brexit and democracy

Originally published in the Morning Star on 12th December 2017.

War criminal extraordinaire Tony Blair has once again been waxing lyrical over Brexit. When asked by a journalist recently if his mission is to reverse Brexit, he replied with uncharacteristic honesty and clarity: ‘Yes, exactly so’.

In a slight change of tone from earlier statements where he emphasised that ‘the will of the people should prevail’, this time around he emphasised that ‘the will of the people is not something immutable’, and that ‘people can change their mind’.

Of course, there would be nothing wrong with this statement if it weren’t for the simple fact that Tony Blair is not, and has never been, a supporter of ‘the will of the people’.

To the contrary, he and his centrist disciples have always preferred operating as Blair himself described in an article for the New York Times earlier this year, like self-entitled ‘managers of the status quo’.

Indeed, ever the champion of the ‘will of the people’, he even revealed in 2014 his belief that a ‘government taking effective decisions’ is more important than democracy itself.

This no doubt explains his unwavering support for, and dodgy dealings with, numerous dictators around the globe, and why he and corporate media dictator Rupert Murdoch always had good time for each other. Blair is, after all, godfather to Murdoch’s daughter.

Blair the Autocratic

Here we should recall how, as British Prime Minister, Blair had zero care for the will of millions of people – specifically Britons and Iraqis, but also the international community – who opposed the Iraq War, which we now know he sold to the public on false pretences.

Likewise, he cared little for the will of his own cabinet. As his former minister for international development Clare Short has said, ‘No decisions were made in the cabinet. It didn’t operate in the way that constitutional theory says that it should […] He [Blair] didn’t want any clashing or discussion of ideas’. See also Short’s testimony to the Iraq Inquiry Panel in 2010, where she explains this in greater detail.

Former Mayor of London and longstanding Labour politician Ken Livingston has also spoken of how Blair’s party was one in which ‘dissent really wasn’t tolerated’, and the writer and professor Will Self has said how Blair used ‘the kind of tactics that one associates with emperors or rulers […] who are not democratic’.

It is in fact well documented by politicians, journalists and analysts that under Blair the traditional machinery of party democracy was side-lined; key decision-making was centralised and representative democracy was effectively replaced by what has been described as government by a ‘technocratic, managerial elite’ who formed policy based largely on information drawn from focus groups and polling.

As one professor of politics has written, the key role of MPs during the Blair era became ‘simply to secure formal consent from their constituents for the government’s legislative programme by winning elections, by appearing publicly and in the media to be as generically inoffensive as possible to a broad cross section of the public, and above all by appearing unthreatening to key media outlets’. For a good account of all this, see episode 4 of Adam Curtis’ 2002 documentary The Century of the Self.

Media Obsession and Opinion Management

Blair’s autocratic approach to government is also well documented throughout scholarship for its unprecedented use of information managementPR and spin.

Andrew Marr called Blair’s New Labour the ‘most media-obsessed government’ of modern times, and there is by now a vast body of literature on the relationship between Blair, New Labour and the media, with many commentators and academics likening the extent of the information control and opinion management to a Gramscian project of unsettling proportions.

The effects of all this were to vastly reshape British politics and politicians, and indeed the media’s relationship to them, for decades.

Accordingly, David Cameron would later describe himself as the ‘heir to Blair’, while he and George Osborne would openly refer to Blair as ‘The Master’, asking in times of difficulty: ‘what would the Master have done?’.

And as former Conservative MP Ken Clarke revealed in his memoirs last year, Cameron was a ‘PR-obsessed control freak.

‘Media handling and public relations are now regarded as the key elements of governing’, he wrote, while ‘a small army of […] PR experts […] have far too big a role in policymaking […] Next week’s headlines are given more priority than serious policy development and the long-term consequences’.

Reducing Democracy

While Blair has many legacies, it is perhaps one of his most pernicious to have reduced Britain’s already-limited form of representative democracy to what is effectively a centralised, ‘top down’ government of managerial elites who perpetually seek to maintain power by controlling information and public opinion.

Certainly, Blair is no champion of the will of the people unless, of course, their will happens to align with his.

As the renowned American theologian Reinhold Niebhur wrote, ‘Rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith, and the naive faith requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplifications which are provided by the myth-maker to keep [the] ordinary person on course’.

This is Blair’s political philosophy in a nutshell. He sees himself as the rational myth-maker, keeping the ordinary people in check, and his penchant for fostering ‘necessary illusions’ and ‘emotionally potent oversimplifications’ is precisely why he’s acquired the nicknames ‘Tony Blur’, ‘Phoney Tony’, ‘Tony Bliar’ and ‘Teflon Tony’ (because dirt never sticks to him).

It’s also why he’s managed to convince the world for so long that he’s left-wing. With remarkable self-delusion he’s even managed to convince himself.

But he’s not left-wing. He is in many respects ultra-right-wing, not least because of his disdain for the will of the people.

We should always remember that when Margaret Thatcher was asked in 2002 at a banquet what she thought her greatest achievement was, she replied: ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds’.

As Blair himself put it, ‘On a personal level she [Thatcher] was immensely kind and generous to me when I was prime minister […] I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done’.

Of course, chief among these things was New Labour’s extension of the neoliberal economic model, which has not only done immense harm to the social and economic fabric of British society, but has also led to the huge transfer of power from the public to the unaccountable private sphere.

Renowned British sociologist and political scientist Professor Colin Crouch has coined the term ‘Post-democracy’ to describe our current political situation.

He writes that while elections are held, governments fall and a degree of free speech exists, the collective will of the population is mostly ignored by ‘small circles of a politico-economic elite’ who overwhelmingly control the levers of power.

This is the way that Blair likes it. It’s the system he’s helped to construct and, as a member of the super-rich, borderless global elite, it suits him just fine.


Democracy, Hypocrisy and the Liberal-Leninist Aristocracy

Most liberal elites love to present themselves as passionate advocates of democracy, but in truth, many harbour a distrust of the masses and a desire to concentrate serious decision-making power in the hands of a few. Reactions to Corbyn, Brexit and Trump have highlighted this.

Generally, across civilisations there exists a divide between those who have faith in the ability of ordinary folk to participate in the management of societal affairs and those who think societal affairs should be managed by an elite few. The point was summarised by Thomas Jefferson in 1824 when he observed that ‘men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties’: ‘democrats’ and ‘aristocrats’. Democrats, he said, ‘identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests’. Aristocrats, on the other hand, ‘fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes’.

While most contemporary elites – that is, broadly speaking, professionals across government, business, cultural management and the more articulate sectors in general – like to present themselves as democrats, the truth is that many are, in thought and practice, aristocrats. Take a politician like Theresa May, for example, who while espousing her belief in ‘putting power in the hands of the people’ earlier this year, was simultaneously trying to exclude from Brexit policy-making the very body through which the people are represented – Parliament. Or take Donald Trump, who while claiming at his inauguration to be giving power ‘back to […] the people’ was simultaneously filling his Cabinet with bankers and Wall Street tycoons. But such aristocratic behaviour is not merely confined to conservative elites like May and Trump. As the unique political events of recent times have highlighted, Jefferson’s aristocrats are pervasive among liberals, too.

In the UK last year, many were revealed among so-called ‘liberal metropolitan elites’ whose attitudes towards Brexit voters betrayed a sharp distrust of the masses. They protested that ‘ignoramuses’ and ‘know-nothing voters’ (as the supposedly liberal Professor Richard Dawkins referred to them) should not be entrusted with such important decisions. Brexit voters, as the Guardian and New Statesman journalist Laurie Penny wrote, were just ‘frightened, parochial lizard-brain’ people. A similar attitude was betrayed by liberal elites in the US, whose patronisation and mocking of Trump supporters in the build-up to the election likely disaffected more undecided voters than it did galvanise them (as was the case with the Remain campaign’s ‘patronising’ videos for the EU Referendum). A more direct form of aristocracy, however, came from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), who were exposed for conspiring with Hillary Clinton’s campaign team – in an utterly anti-democratic move – to rig her nomination and disadvantage Bernie Sanders’. Moreover, Clinton’s own anti-democratic tendencies were exposed when audio was released of her commenting on a 2006 Palestinian election that didn’t go her way: ‘We should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win’, she said.

Back in the UK, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party revealed an abundance of aristocrats amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). They, together with most of the political and media establishment, worked tirelessly to undermine and block his democratic election as leader simply because they thought they knew better than the majority of the membership who voted for him. As the Cambridge-educated former Labour MP Tristam Hunt said to students at his old university following Corbyn’s election: the party is ‘in the shit’ and it’s the responsibility of the ‘top 1% [to] take leadership going forward’. Ex-Blair advisor John McTernan asserted that if Corbyn wins he should be removed ‘swiftly and quickly’. When asked about the potential reaction of the grassroots voters to such an anti-democratic move, he retorted: ‘yeah but who cares about the grassroots? […] it doesn’t really matter what the grassroots say’. Then there was the deputy leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson who condemned the 2014 decision of Ed Miliband to push through the ‘one member, one vote’ system that enabled Corbyn’s election. The decision gave Labour members the full democratic power to elect their leaders, a decision Watson called a ‘terrible error of judgment’. Ironically, if the same system ruled the US elections, Clinton would now be president because she, like Corbyn, overwhelmingly won the popular vote. But unlike Watson, the PLP and most of the UK liberal media who scorned the popular voting system when it failed to produce the Labour leader they wanted, US liberals after Trump’s election were itching to adopt it. Of course, direct democracy is only favourable when the result swings your way.

The Liberal Leninist Elite

But there’s another irony to the aristocracy of certain members of the PLP, and it’s to do with how they alleged last year that some of Corbyn’s supporters were ‘Trotskyites’, ‘entryists’ and ‘Bolsheviks’ attempting to infiltrate their party. The fact is that the centrist, Blairite faction of the PLP who’ve been attempting to subvert the democratic election of Corbyn, are themselves closer to the Bolshevik-Leninist position than they know. Indeed, the Bolshevik-Leninist ideology holds, quite simply, that a revolutionary ‘vanguard party’ of intellectuals – the clever and more capable people – ought to lead the masses to their utopian future because the masses are too ignorant and incapable of doing it for themselves. This is quite clearly an aristocratic and elitist doctrine opposed to democratic participation and self-determination, exemplified by Lenin’s dissolving of the factory committees and elimination of workers’ control following the Bolshevik revolution – an ‘unquestioning subordination to […] the single will of the leaders of labour’ is necessary to achieve the aims of the revolution, Lenin argued. Such ideology is far from liberal or left; it is in many respects ultra-right. Mainstream left thinkers of the day like Anton Pannekoek, Karl Korsh and Paul Mattick recognised this about the Bolsheviks. Bertrand Russell and Rosa Luxemburg both expressed worry about the Leninists centralising power, as did Trotsky before he joined them. Yet it’s an ideology incredibly similar to the kind held by the centrist, Blairite wing of the PLP and many liberal elites throughout the West. In fact, just as the Bolshevik-Leninists had consolidated power in the Soviet Union, prominent American intellectuals across the Atlantic were espousing very similar views about the role of the masses in society.

The Intelligent Minority

Take the acclaimed liberal intellectual Walter Lippmann who, in his influential works Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), wrote that ‘the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class’. ‘Executive action is not for the public’, he said; they should remain just ‘interested spectators of action’ who are called upon occasionally to align themselves with ‘someone in a position to act executively’ – the ‘responsible men’.

Then there was Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud who is known widely as the Father of Public Relations due to his pioneering work in the field of thought-manipulation and mass-persuasion. In his influential book Propaganda (1928), he argued that because the ‘average intelligence’ of the public is so poor, it is imperative that they be ‘managed by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide’ them.

Or take Professor Harold Lasswell, the highly influential political scientist and leading scholar in the field of communications and propaganda. He wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (1930-35) that we ‘must put aside democratic dogmatism about men being the best judges of their own interest since men are often very poor judges of their own interest’.

In the same decade, Reinhold Neibhur, leading American theologian, professor and public intellectual who was highly influential among Roosevelt-Kennedy liberals (he also happens to be Barack Obama’s ‘favourite philosopher’), wrote in his seminal work Moral Man and Immoral Society: Study in Ethics and Politics (1932) that ‘Rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man, he follows not reason, but faith, and the naive faith requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplificaions which are provided by the myth-maker [Lippmann’s ‘responsible men’] to keep [the] ordinary person on course’.

Certainly, it’s not hard to see the ideological thread running through these views, the Bolshevik-Leninists’ and many of today’s liberal elite. In essence, they all manifest a distrust of the masses and a desire to keep them from participating in serious decision-making – they are all aristocratic in the Jeffersonian sense. Of course, a crucial difference between the Bolshevik-Leninists and Western liberals is that while the former sought authoritarian repression (later morphing into Stalinism) to manage and keep the ignorant masses at bay, the latter sought to control them through techniques of manipulation and mass-persuasion – techniques now practiced and extended across PR, marketing, advertising, mass media and the entertainment industries more generally.

It’s no coincidence that today’s political elite, both liberal and conservative, harbour immensely close ties with and rely heavily on experts across these industries to manage and bolster their ‘brand-image’, to control and distribute information and to generally mould public opinion in their favour. Lippmann called this the ‘manufacture of consent’, while Bernays similarly called it the ‘engineering of consent’ – ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society’, he wrote (if this sounds Gramscian, it’s because it is!).

Liberal Hypocrites 

What is perhaps most contemptible about all of this, however, is the deceitfulness with which many apparent ‘liberals’ operate; presenting themselves in public as passionate advocates of democracy, while in private seeking to concentrate power and manipulate popular opinion in their favour. ‘I agree the will of the people should prevail’, declared Tony Blair in response to Brexit, while simultaneously forming a cross-party coalition of elites (including Nick Clegg, Richard Branson, Bob Geldof, Lord Alan Milburn, Chuka Umunna) aimed at influencing the will of the people and reversing Brexit (incidentally, the agency managing the PR strategy and marketing for the project is Freud Communications, headed by PR mogul Matthew Freud – great-grandson of Sigmund and relative of Edward Bernays).

Similarly in the US, Hillary Clinton declared that Donald Trump was ‘threatening our democracy’, yet only a few months prior she herself had undermined the democratic nomination of Sanders, despite virtually every poll indicating that he had a better chance of beating Trump than she did.

And as the influential Labour Lord and ex-Blair cabinet minister Peter Mandelson admitted earlier this year, he was working ‘every single day […] to bring forward the end of [Corbyn’s] tenure in office’. In other words, he was working every single day to overturn the democratic decision of the majority of the Labour membership.


What is so evident in all of this is that, despite how they present themselves in public, many liberal elites are just as aristocratic as their conservative counterparts. They too harbour a distrust of the masses and a desire to concentrate serious decision-making power in the hands of a few. While this could remain relatively concealed during a period of political consensus, the collapse of that consensus, which Corbyn, Brexit and Trump represent, has revealed it with striking clarity. It would seem that, faced with their faltering ability to dominate the political sphere, many liberal elites have sought desperately and unflatteringly over the past two years to undermine and block the democratic participation of the masses who no longer want – nor have faith in – their leadership capabilities.

Indeed, if there is anything we can take from the political events of recent times, it’s that if liberal elites wish to play any serious role in the politics of tomorrow, then they really ought to start listening and reacting to the masses. In other words, they really ought to start becoming democrats.

Bring on the new radical form of participatory democracy!


Why Theresa May Won’t Face Corbyn in a Televised Debate

Televised debates are conventionally an opportunity for personality to shine over policy and for those involved to assassinate the character of their opponents in front of millions (à la Trump/Clinton). There are two problems here for May: one) she lacks personality (she’s clunky and often quite awkward), and two) assassinating Corbyn’s character simply won’t stick with a British audience – they’ll see through it. In addition, she has an appalling record of dodging questions and responding with empty, prearranged statements that end with petty quips about Corbyn’s personality or the divisions within his party. She can get away with this during PMQs because only about 350,000 viewers tune in to watch it each week (although shared clips on social media have, to some extent, helped expose this).

So the simple reason why May won’t – or at least thus far has refused to – partake in a televised debate with Corbyn is precisely because she fears that she’ll lose. Corbyn isn’t like conventional politicians. He doesn’t engage in character insults, he sticks to policy and actually has quite an appealing personality – he carries an air of sincerity that most mainstream politicians lack. These qualities are exactly why he thrashed his opponents in the debates for the Labour leadership contests. Moreover, as poll after poll shows, large majorities of the population actually align with his policies, which is obviously petrifying for his opponents, who simply want to distract from them at every turn.

So yes, it makes perfect sense that Theresa May wouldn’t want to subject herself to the potential loss she’d undergo from a televised debate with Corbyn. Her PR team will most certainly be doing everything they can to keep public pressure off of her. They will also have been doing everything they can over the past 24 hours to play down the scandalous and cowardly refusal. And if you want the subtlest but not insignificant example of media double standards, then just imagine what the scale of the reaction to Corbyn refusing a debate with May would have been. Needless to say, it would be a national scandal, splashed across every front page, with panel discussions galore on all major news programmes.


The British Elite’s Unquestioning Acceptance of Questionable Claims

This article was published in the Morning Star on 25th April 2017. See here.

Despite a distinct absence of evidence, virtually the entire British media declared Assad guilty of chemical weapons use and Trump justified in using air strikes earlier this month

On April 4 2017, reports came from the community of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians in an airstrike.

Two days later, on April 6, the Trump administration broke international law by unilaterally launching its own airstrike, firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at the very airbase from which Assad was said to have launched his strike from.

Trump declared: ‘there can be no dispute that [Assad] used banned chemical weapons’.

The Pentagon reiterated, saying that the US response was ‘in retaliation for the regime of Bashar Assad using nerve agents to attack his own people’.

Unsurprisingly, the British government quickly announced its full support for ‘the US action’ which it said was ‘an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime’.

Thereafter, virtually the entire political and media establishment in both the US and Britain (and beyond) aligned itself with the US government.

Conservatives praised Trump for his ‘presidential’ response, while liberals who’ve spent months deriding him as an incredulous fool and a dire threat to democracy applauded him. Remarkably, only one out of 46 major editorial newspapers in the US opposed his airstrikes, while in the UK, as professor of journalism Roy Greenslade observed, the most ‘identifiable theme in almost every leading article and commentary’, from both liberal and right-leaning publications, was: ‘Well done Donald’.

Lack of Evidence

Given the near unanimous support for Trump’s airstrikes from all these apparently clever people, one might be forgiven for thinking it was a foregone conclusion that Assad had used chemical weapons and that the US response was therefore justified.

However, the reality is quite different. Aside from the genuinely horrific reports, pictures and videos of victims that came through from Khan Sheikhoun, which prove nothing about who was responsible, no evidence was presented proving Assad was behind the use of chemical weapons, and still none has been presented to this day.

This was pointed out immediately after the events by a number of very credible sources, including Scott Ritter and Hans Blix – both former chief UN weapons inspectors to Iraq – and the former British ambassador to Syria Sir Peter Ford.

Despite this absence of evidence, virtually the entire British media and political elite declared Assad guilty. No enquiry, no questioning of the Trump administration’s official narrative – just pure acceptance of the casus belli.

Legitimate Questions

While the Assad regime is most certainly deplorable, there is, contrary to the mainstream narrative, good reason to believe that it wasn’t responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, and that Russia and Syria’s explanation – that Syrian jets struck a rebel warehouse containing bombs and other toxic substances – may have some legitimacy.

For starters, consider the sources. The reports emanating from Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, which blamed Assad for the attack and which Western media reported widely, came largely from pro-rebel sources – namely, the White Helmets, an organisation with proven ties to Jihadist rebels, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Nusra Front.

Verifying any of those sources as ‘independent’ so soon after the attacks would have been very difficult given that the region is occupied by jihadists (yes, the same ‘terrorists’ we’re supposed to be at war with) who’ve been at the center of the anti-Assad movement in Syria since 2011.

As journalist John Wight wrote: ‘No Western journalist or news crew would dare set foot there, or indeed in any part of opposition-controlled Syria, knowing that as soon as they did they would be kidnapped and butchered’.

Then consider the timing. Why on Earth would Assad risk provoking international outrage by using chemical weapons against the rebels when he was already beating them with conventional ones?

Furthermore, why would he do it just days after the US announced that removing him was no longer their priority, and days before the European Union was set to hold its important doner conference in Brussels on the future of Syria? It would be an act of complete and utter political and diplomatic self-harm.

If anything, Assad had much to lose from committing a chemical attack, while the rebels had everything to gain from its provocation of foreign US intervention against him.

Then there were the inconsistencies with the reports coming out of the rebel-held region. For example, it was reported by Kareem Shaheen in the Guardian that all that remained amongst the rubble was ‘a faint stench that tingles the nostrils and a small green fragment from the rocket’.

Yet, as the BBC reported: ‘Sarin is almost impossible to detect because it is a clear, colourless and tasteless liquid that has no odour in its purest form’.

More questions lay around the lack of protective clothing worn by the White Helmets in the images being fed to Western media.

As former chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq Scott Ritter observed, if military grade Sarin was used, as reports were claiming, ‘the rescuers would themselves have become victims’. While there were some accounts of this, they were, as Ritter notes, at the site of the attack where claims of a ‘pungent smelling’ chemical were made.

Herd Mentality

Remarkably, in the face of these legitimate questions, virtually the entire British media and political elite willingly chose to accept the reports of possible Al-Qaeda affiliates and the assertions of the Trump administration, which based its own evidence on the same questionable reports.

We know this because on Tuesday April 11 the White House released a declassified intelligence report outlining why it believed Assad was responsible for the chemical attack.

To the White House’s own admission, the report cited a  ‘wide body of open-source material’ and ‘social media accounts’ from inside the rebel-held region, including footage from the White Helmets.

Reviewing the report and alleged evidence against Assad, weapons scientist and professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Theodore Postol said that it ‘contains absolutely no evidence [emphasis added] that this attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft’.

He added: ‘I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun’.

In a subsequent and more detailed review of the report, Postol concludes that it ‘contains unambiguous evidence’ that the White House made ‘false and misleading claims that could not possibly have been accepted in any professional review by impartial intelligence experts’.

This of course adds credence to the claims that Syrian jets, using conventional weapons, may have struck a rebel warehouse containing toxic substances.

As Jerry Smith, former UN weapons inspector in Syria and the official who led the UN-backed operation to remove Assad’s chemical weapons in 2013-14, said to Channel 4 news: ‘if it is Sarin that was stored there and conventional munitions were used, there is every possibility that some of those [chemical] munitions were not consumed and that the Sarin liquid was ejected and could well have affected the population’.

Certainly, it’s not inconceivable that the rebels were storing – or that they even planted – chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun in anticipation of the Assad regime bombing the location.

Reports that rebel groups were in possession of and had used chemical weapons in Syria were confirmed back in 2013 by UN special investigator Carla del Ponte.

As a leading member of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria in 2013 that was investigating alleged chemical weapons usage by Assad, del Ponte stated that ‘we have no indication at all [emphasis added] that the Syria government had used chemical weapons’.

To the contrary, she added, it appeared that chemical weapons were ‘used by the rebels’. It’s also worth pointing out here that the oftcited example given by media personnel and politicians that Assad previously used chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, Damascus in 2013 is also unproven.

While confirming unequivocally that chemical weapons were used, the subsequent UN investigation into the allegations produced NO evidence that it was Assad who used them, and thus DID NOT conclude such a thing.

This point is highly significant given that so many prominent media and political figures falsely hold up Ghouta as an incontrovertible example of Assad having used chemical weapons in the past.

Intellectual Timidity

Let’s be clear, Assad is a despicable dictator. No moral human can defend him or his regime. But this is no reason to abandon rational thought and to cease asking challenging questions about the reasons for bombing an already war-torn country.

While Assad may indeed be behind the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, the evidence thus far is flimsy and open to reasonable doubt, something shamefully not reflected in the mainstream.

Has the experience of Iraq taught us nothing?! Indeed, the failure of our political and media elite to ask the simplest of questions regarding the narratives that came from both Idlib province and the Trump administration (which are still being reiterated) betrays the obvious fact that they are utterly incapable of independent critical thought.

As the former chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq Hans Blix asked following Trump’s airstrikes: ‘If you had a murder and you strongly suspect one fellow, do you go to judgment and execution straight away?’

No, of course you don’t. Yet this is exactly what our highly educated cultural and political opinion leaders have done – they’ve gone straight to judgement off of the fanciful claims of the US government and dubious sources without any critical analysis of the evidence – or lack of – in front of them. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?



Book Review: ‘The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service’

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, April – May 2017 | Issue 2604 – 2605

Historically there has been a general consensus across British politics and among British political commentators that the BBC is, by and large, an independent, left-leaning institution that serves the public interest. But, as readers of PN will know, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace, this is a myth.

Since its inception, the BBC has overwhelmingly served the interests of the government and elite sectors in society, a fact backed up by virtually every significant scholarly study on the matter.

In this incisive new book, Tom Mills has compiled extensive historical data (from archival research, interviews, autobiographies and secondary sources) to reinforce this analysis.

Mills starts with the 1926 General Strike, when the BBC infamously sided with the government against workers. Thereafter, he explains, the BBC was indeed ‘afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent’. However, this was only ‘on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government’. As the founding director-general Lord Reith put it, the government ‘know that they can trust us not to be really impartial’.

Into the 1930s and the Second World War, Mills shows how the BBC willingly subordinated itself as an instrument of government propaganda, banning not just fascists and communists from its broadcasts, but also conscientious objectors. During this period the BBC became a ‘fully effective instrument of war’, as Reith’s successor Frederick Ogilvie stated. It was also during this period that senior BBC staff allowed MI5 to politically vet its employees (a practice that astonishingly continued until 1985). In the post-war years, Mills shows how the BBC not only distributed Cold War propaganda in ‘close cooperation’ with the government, but domestically it served to marginalise peace movements and critics of war, cancelling programmes due to government pressure and generally promoting a line favourable to established interests. The Suez Crisis, Falklands War and Gulf Wars are all explored as examples. On issues of economics, the BBC’s neoliberal shift during the 1980s is particularly interesting. Mills outlines how, following the arrival of deputy director-general John Birt in 1987, a ‘small coterie’ of radical Thatcherite reformers helped restructure the organisation, leading to a ‘remarkable growth in business and economics journalism’ and a decline in the representation of workers and their interests.

This ‘neoliberal, pro-business, right-wing’ turn, as Mills describes it, was accelerated into the 1990s and 2000s, and was plain to see in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis when elite, pro-business sources dominated reporting. Indeed, the historical record explored by Mills leads him to conclude that the BBC is ‘no more free from the powerful interests which now dominate British society than it was in the 1930s, the last time Britain was as unequal as it is today’. It’s a conclusion hard to disagree with after reading this book, especially given the way the BBC has reported on the anti-war, left-wing socialist who is currently leader of the opposition. The contemporary relevance of this book cannot be overstated. A must-read for anyone interested in British politics.

Verso, 2016; 272pp; £16.99

‘Opposites Attract’: Britain and the Bad Guys

This article was published in the Morning Star on 8th April 2017. See here.

With Theresa May away pandering to Middle Eastern dictators this week, it’s worth recalling that the British Establishment has always courted deplorable people – from Fascists in the 1930s to Trump in 2017. As long as they serve the commercial interests of British business then they have a place at the table.

Like all Prime Ministers, May presents herself in public as a person of integrity and principle – she claims to uphold ‘British values‘, to be a feminist, a champion of working people and equal opportunity, a proponent of freedom and democracy, she’s apparently against unnecessary wars, repression, torture and injustice (unless it’s for ‘defence’ purposes, of course).

Donald Trump, however, seems a world away – he is a public showman, a billionaire, an obvious misogynist who’s bragged about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’, he has repressive, warmongering and authoritarian tendencies, and he has shamelessly harnessed racism, xenophobia and division to win the presidency of the United States, among other reprehensible things.

So when asked about how she’ll manage the differences between herself and Trump, what might we expect May to say? ‘He’s a despicable man’, ‘I intend to avoid him at all costs’, ‘Britain will refuse to do business with him because we are a nation of principle’? No, of course not. When asked this very question in January 2017 she responded: ‘Haven’t you ever noticed, sometimes opposites attract?’

Opposites most certainly do attract, especially when it’s in the commercial interests of Britain for them to do so. In fact, Britain’s commercial interests have always trumped its principles. This is why May and her predecessors have supported the royal family of Saudi Arabia, a repressive, authoritarian, human rights abusing regime of billionaires who permit the beheading of criminals, the stoning of women and the funding of Islamic terrorism around the globe.

They’re also engaged in a campaign of terror in Yemen right now that’s killed over 10,000 civilians, a campaign that May’s government supports and has continued to provide weapons for. How are ‘British values’ being upheld here? Or how are they being upheld when May visits Turkey and brokers a £100m arms deal with its authoritarianhuman rights abusing, free speech supressingmisogynistic, ISIS sympathising president Erdoğan? And then there’s British support for Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt under Sisi (and previously Mubarak) – all are repressive, authoritarian human rights abusers who the British government happily trades with (particular commodities include oil and weapons).

Or lest we forget Britain’s collusion with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi under Tony Blair, which helped broker a £550m deal for Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell to explore for gas in Libya. Or Britain’s support for Saddam Hussein under Margaret Thatcher, who continued selling him arms despite knowing he’d used chemical weapons against Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war between 1980-88 and had committed genocide against the Kurds in 1988.

Or Thatcher’s faithful support for the brutal and murderous Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who she affectionately described as Britain’s ‘true friend’.

Then there was her support for General Suharto of Indonesia, whose dictatorship has been described as ‘one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century’. After coming to power in a military coup in 1965 his regime tortured and killed around 500,000 people and in his subsequent invasion and occupation of East Timor in 1975 he killed around 250,000 more. Thatcher described him as ‘One of our very best and most valuable friends‘, while Elizabeth Windsor received him on a State Visit in 1979.

Or further still, how about Thatcher’s problematic stance on apartheid South Africa, in which she opposed sanctions and condemned Mandela’s African National Congress as a ‘typical terrorist organisation’?

Oh, and then there was Britain’s support for the Shah of Iran from 1953 to 1979. The Shah, another brutal dictator, came to power after the British, under Winston Churchill, helped the US overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh because he wanted to nationalise its oil industry. Where were the so-called ‘British values’ of freedom, justice and democracy then?

Indeed, it’s important to understand, in the light of May’s kowtowing to Trump and the Queen inviting him on a State Visit, that the British Establishment has always pandered to, and supported, the most despicable people when it has suited the interests of British business.

A most outrageous example of this, which has been tactfully erased from most British history books, came in the 1930s when a large portion of the British Establishment, by way of finance, weapons and diplomacy, supported fascism at home and in Germany and Italy. From the Royal Family to Churchill, fascism was of little concern until it directly threatened British interests. As the renowned British historian AJP Taylor wrote:

‘Every politician extolled the virtues of democracy, especially at the expense of Soviet Russia. Despite this rhetoric […] Ramsay MacDonald wrote friendly personal letters to the Fascist dictator Mussolini; Austen Chamberlain exchanged photographs with him and joined him in family holidays; Churchill sang his praises in newspaper articles’.

Or take Lord Reith, the founding director-general of the BBC. He openly admired both Hitler and Mussolini. As early as 1933 he declared that ‘I am certain that the Nazis will clean things up and put Germany on the way to being a real power in Europe again […] They are being ruthless and most determined’. Dare we even remind ourselves of the following footage of a seven-year-old Elizabeth Windsor giving a nazi salute with her mother, sister and uncle in 1933. It’s certainly a powerful, if controversial, illustration of just how normalised and accepted fascism was among the British establishment during that period – that is, before it threatened our own national interests.