Agent Osborne goes rogue

Is the Chancellor an accelerationist sleeper-agent sworn to provoke a socialist revolution?

Nikolai strolled into the stuffy office where the older man stood waiting behind a desk which had stood in the same spot back in Stalin’s day. The older man – Colonel Rakhmetov – gestured him brusquely to a seat in front of him, sat down himself, looked up and said “Sit”.

The Colonel glared at him. “The plan for Agent Gideon began under Brezhnev. Do you have any idea of the resources required to place a mole at the heart of the British establishment, trained from birth to further the cause of Communism? So can you tell me what, precisely, is happening in that miserable backwater right now?”

Nikolai took a deep breath. He was new to this world of hidden communist sleepers, left in place as the KGB became the FSB and knew he had to tread carefully around an officer who had earned his pips back when the letters CCCP still struck such fear into the heart of capitalists that they’d made concessions to the working class.

“Sir, you are familiar with the works of Nikolai Chernyshevsky?”

The wrong thing to say. The Colonel ran nicotine-stained fingers through his hair, glared. “I am. The originator of the doctrine of ‘the worse, the better – that only through a continual worsening of the conditions of the proletariat can they be motivated to throw off their chains. Author of the original “What is to be done?” a work that so inspired Lenin that he named his own book after it. What of it?”

“Well agent Gideon has rather taken the doctrine to heart. Rather than gradually introduce Socialism, as per his original instructions, he’s trying to incite the British working class to revolution. Thus, although government debt interest accounts for only a shade over 3% of UK GDP, he’s inflicted growth-destroying fiscal tightening of more that amount on the country already, with more to come. And to ensure maximum damage, he’s taken the bulk of the money from public sector investment – which he’s halved.It’s killing two birds with one stone sir. You kill economic growth and you also reduce the ability of the country to grow in future.”

The Colonel’s brow wrinkled. He disapproved of initiative, which in his day had meant replacing a long retirement by the Black Sea with an early but short one by the White Sea.

“Yes so I heard. And the riots were surely promising, even if class-consciousness wasn’t entirely obvious in the raiding of sportswear retailers over government ministries and barracks. But now he’s run out of control. But wouldn’t it be more effective to just bankrupt the country by running up debt?”

“Not really sir. All the money in the UK is crying out for a home, so interest rates are extremely low. And the average maturity of the debt is 13 years, so it’s almost impossible to provoke a liquidity crisis – I think our other agents in the banking sector are much more promising in that respect. And without getting completely into the realms of fantasy, it’s quite hard for the government to get rid of a huge amount of extra borrowing without causing some economic growth. But the cuts are excellent for provoking discontent with the public at large.”

“Interesting. Sounds like things are going well. So why did you request this meeting?”

“Well sir, to be frank, it looks like Agent Gideon is going rogue. He’s overreaching, and it can only lead to his downfall. He’s been emphasising the privilege of the ruling plutocracy” – Nikolaj wondered if he should spit, decided against it – “by cutting taxes that only apply to the very elite, insisting on defending the privileges of the bankers who brought the country to its knees. Only someone with his training in Socialist theory would be quite so adept at underlining the injustice and contradictions of capitalism, and it’s only a matter of time before British Intelligence catch on.”

“Yes, I can see why this is an issue, and you were right to come to me-”

“Excuse me sir, but that’s not the worst of it. His latest scheme seems intent on provoking revolution this year, and I fear he’s overreaching. It’s called Help to Buy. Essentially it puts the government balance sheet – which he’s promised can’t be used for even essential infrastructure – to work to boost house prices without really increasing the number of houses being built. So the government can take losses, but all the benefit accrues to the homebuyer.”

“So he pushes up house prices in a country with already expensive prices, increases the risks to the banking sector, pushes more people into loans they can’t afford and spends money without creating any real benefits to society?”

“Yes sir. He did try to get it extended to buy-to-let landlords, but even the Treasury spotted that one. But it will make a nice subsidy for second homes for the rich.”

The Colonel frowned, but paused no more than a second. “We’ll risk it. This is the best chance we have to make England the vanguard of the new socialist revolution. You’re overruled. let Agent Gideon proceed.”

This piece originally appeared on Morski's blog, and is reposted here with permission.

A man resembling Agent Osborne, pictured with Josef Stalin, date unknown. Image: Getty Images/Alex Hern

Pawe? Morski is a fund manager who blogs at Some of it was true…

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder