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John Pilger: Britain, America and the war on democracy

From the Chagos Islands to Pakistan, innocent civilians are pawns to America, backed by Britain. In our compliant political culture, this deadly game seldom speaks its name.

Lisette Talate died the other day. I remember a wiry, fiercely intelligent woman who masked her grief with a determination that was a presence. She was the embodiment of people's resistance to the war on democracy. I first glimpsed her in a 1950s Colonial Office film about the Chagos Islanders, a tiny creole nation living midway between Africa and Asia in the Indian Ocean. The camera panned across thriving villages, a church, a school, a hospital, set in phenomenal natural beauty and peace. Lisette remembers the producer saying to her and her teenage friends, "Keep smiling, girls!"

Sitting in her kitchen in Mauritius many years later, she said: "I didn't have to be told to smile. I was a happy child, because my roots were deep in the islands, my paradise. My great-grandmother was born there; I made six children there. That's why they couldn't legally throw us out of our own homes; they had to terrify us into leaving or force us out. At first, they tried to starve us. The food ships stopped arriving, [then] they spread rumours we would be bombed, then they turned on our dogs."

In the early 1960s, the Labour government of Harold Wilson secretly agreed to a demand from Washington that the Chagos archipelago, a British colony, be "swept" and "sanitised" of its 2,500 inhabitants so that a military base could be built on the principal island, Diego Garcia. "They knew we were inseparable from our pets," said Lisette. "When the American soldiers arrived to build the base, they backed their big trucks against the brick shed where we prepared the coconuts; hundreds of our dogs had been rounded up and imprisoned there. Then they gassed them through tubes from the trucks' exhausts. You could hear them crying."

Lisette, her family and hundreds of the other islanders were forced on to a rusting steamer bound for Mauritius, a journey of a thousand miles. They were made to sleep in the hold on a cargo of fertiliser - bird shit. The weather was rough; everyone was ill; two of the women on board miscarried.

Dumped on the docks at Port Louis, Lisette's youngest children, Jollice and Regis, died within a week of each other. "They died of sadness," she said. "They had heard all the talk and seen the horror of what had happened to the dogs. They knew they were leaving their home for ever. The doctor in Mauritius said he could not treat sadness."

This act of mass kidnapping was carried out in high secrecy. In one official file, under the heading "Maintaining the Fiction", the Foreign Office legal adviser exhorts his colleagues to cover their actions by "reclassifying" the population as "floating" and to "make up the rules as we go along". Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court says the "deportation or forcible transfer of population" is a crime against humanity. That Britain had committed such a crime - in exchange for a $14m discount off a US Polaris nuclear submarine - was not on the agenda of a group of British "defence" correspondents flown to the Chagos by the Ministry of Defence when the US base was completed. "There is nothing in our files," said the MoD, "about inhabitants or an evacuation."

Today, Diego Garcia is crucial to America's and Britain's war on democracy. The heaviest bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan was launched from its vast airstrips, beyond which the islanders' abandoned cemetery and church stand like archaeological ruins. The terraced garden where Lisette laughed for the camera is now a fortress housing the "bunker-busting" bombs carried by bat-shaped B-2 aircraft to targets on two continents; an attack on Iran will start here. As if to complete the emblem of rampant, criminal power, the CIA added a Guantanamo-style prison for its "rendition" victims and called it Camp Justice.

Wipe-out

What was done to Lisette's paradise has an urgent and universal meaning, for it represents the violent, ruthless nature of a whole political culture behind its democratic façade, and the scale of our own indoctrination in its messianic assumptions, described by Harold Pinter as a "brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis". Longer and bloodier than any other war since 1945, waged with demonic weapons and a gangsterism dressed as economic policy and sometimes known as globalisation, the war on democracy is unmentionable in western elite circles. As Pinter wrote, "It never happened . . . Even while it was happening it wasn't happening." Last July, the American historian William Blum published his updated "summary of the charming record of US foreign policy". Since the Second World War, the United States has:

1) Attempted to overthrow more than 50 governments, most of them democratically elected.
2) Attempted to suppress a populist or national movement in 20 countries.
3) Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.
4) Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
5) Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.

In total, the United States has carried out one or more of these actions in 69 countries. In almost all cases, Britain has been a collaborator. The "enemy" changes in name - from communism to Islamism - but mostly it is the rise of democracy independent of western power, or a society occupying strategically useful territory and deemed expendable, like the Chagos Islands.

The sheer scale of suffering, let alone criminality, is little known in the west, despite the presence of the world's most advanced communications, nominally freest journalism and most admired academy. That the most numerous victims of terrorism - western terrorism - are Muslims is unsayable, if it is known. That half a million Iraqi infants died in the 1990s as a result of the embargo imposed by Britain and America is of no interest. That extreme jihadism, which led to the 11 September 2001 attacks, was nurtured as a weapon of western policy (in "Operation Cyclone") is known to specialists, but otherwise suppressed.

While popular culture in Britain and America immerses the Second World War in an ethical bath for the victors, the holocausts arising from Anglo-American dominance of resource-rich regions are consigned to oblivion. Under the Indonesian tyrant Suharto, anointed "our man" by Margaret Thatcher, more than a million people were slaughtered in what the CIA described as "the worst mass murder of the second half of the 20th century". This estimate does not include the third of the population of East Timor who were starved or murdered with western connivance, British fighter-bombers and machine-guns.

These true stories are told in declassified files in the Public Record Office, yet represent an entire dimension of politics and the exercise of power excluded from public consideration. This has been achieved by a regime of uncoercive information control, from the evangelical mantra of advertising to soundbites on BBC news and now the ephemera of social media.

It is as if writers as watchdogs are extinct, or in thrall to a sociopathic zeitgeist, convinced they are too clever to be duped. Witness the stampede of sycophants eager to deify Christopher Hitchens, a war lover who longed to be allowed to justify the crimes of rapacious power. "For almost the first time in two centuries," wrote Terry Eagleton, "there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life." No Orwell warns that we do not need to live in a totalitarian society to be corrupted by totalitarianism. No Shelley speaks for the poor, no Blake proffers a vision, no Wilde reminds us that "disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue". And grievously no Pinter rages at the war machine, as in "American Football":

Hallelujah.
Praise the Lord for all good things . . .
We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of fucking dust . . .

Into shards of fucking dust go all the lives blown there by Barack Obama, the Hopey Changey of western violence. Whenever one of Obama's drones wipes out an entire family in a faraway tribal region of Pakistan, or Somalia, or Yemen, the American controllers sitting in front of their computer-game screens type in "Bugsplat". Obama likes drones and has joked about them with journalists. One of his first actions as president was to order a wave of Pre­dator drone attacks on Pakistan that killed 74 people. He has since killed thousands, mostly civilians; drones fire Hellfire missiles that suck the air out of the lungs of children and leave body parts festooned across scrubland.

Remember the tear-stained headlines as Brand Obama was elected: "Momentous, spine-tingling" (the Guardian). "The American future," Simon Schama wrote, "is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation." The San Francisco Chronicle saw a spiritual "Lightworker . . . who can . . . usher in a new way of being on the planet". Beyond the drivel, as the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg had predicted, a military coup was taking place in Washington, and Obama was their man. Having seduced the anti-war movement into virtual silence, he has given America's corrupt military officer class unprecedented powers of state and engagement. These include the prospect of wars in Africa and opportunities for provocations against China, America's largest creditor and the new "enemy" in Asia. Under Obama, the old source of official paranoia, Russia, has been encircled with ballistic missiles and the Russian opposition infiltrated. Military and CIA assassination teams have been assigned to 120 countries; long-planned attacks on Syria and Iran beckon a world war. Israel, the exemplar of US violence and lawlessness by proxy, has just received its annual pocket money of $3bn together with Obama's permission to steal more Palestinian land.

Surveillance state

Obama's most "historic" achievement is to bring the war on democracy home to America. On New Year's Eve, he signed the National Defence Authorisation Act, a law that grants the Pentagon the legal right to kidnap both foreigners and US citizens secretly and indefinitely detain, interrogate and torture, or even kill them. They need only "associate" with those "belligerent" to the US. There will be no protection of law, no trial, no legal representation. This is the first explicit legislation to abolish habeas corpus (the right to due process of law) and, in effect, repeal the Bill of Rights of 1789.

On 5 January, in an extraordinary speech at the Pentagon, Obama said the military would not only be ready to "secure territory and populations" overseas but to fight in the "homeland" and "support [the] civil authorities". In other words, US troops are to be deployed on the streets of American cities when the inev­itable civil unrest takes hold.

America is now a land of epidemic poverty and barbaric prisons - the consequence of a "market" extremism that, under Obama, has prompted the transfer of $14trn in public money to criminal enterprises in Wall Street. The victims are mostly young, jobless, homeless, incarcerated African Americans, betrayed by the first black president. The historic corollary of a perpetual war state, this is not fascism, not yet, but neither is it democracy in any recognisable form, regardless of the placebo politics that will consume the news until November. The presidential campaign, says the Washington Post, will feature "a clash of phil­osophies rooted in distinctly different views of the economy". This is patently false. The circumscribed task of journalism on both sides of the Atlantic is to create the pretence of political choice where there is none.

The same shadow is across Britain and much of Europe, where social democracy, an article of faith two generations ago, has fallen to the central bank dictators. In David Cameron's "big society", the theft of £84bn in jobs and services exceeds even the amount of tax "legally" avoided by piratical corporations. Blame rests not with the far right, but with a cowardly liberal political culture that has allowed this to happen and which, as Hywel Williams wrote following the 9/11 attacks, "can itself be a form of self-righteous fanaticism". Tony Blair is one such fanatic. In its managerial indifference to the freedoms that it claimed to hold dear, bourgeois Blairite Britain created a surveillance state with 3,000 new criminal offences and laws: more than for the whole of the previous century. The police clearly believe they have an impunity to kill. At the demand of the CIA, cases like that of Binyam Mohamed, an innocent British resident tortured and then held for five years in Guantanamo Bay, will be dealt with in secret courts in Britain in order to "protect the intelligence agencies" - the torturers.

This invisible state allowed the Blair government to fight the Chagos Islanders as they rose from their despair in exile and demanded justice in the streets of Port Louis and London. "Only when you take direct action, face to face, even break laws, are you ever noticed," Lisette said. "And the smaller you are, the greater your example to others." Such is the eloquent answer to those who still ask, "What can I do?"

I last saw Lisette's tiny figure standing in driving rain next to her comrades outside the Houses of Parliament. What struck me was the enduring courage of their resistance. It is this refusal to give up that rotten power fears, above all, knowing it is the seed beneath the snow.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

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Extreme Scottish nationalists: hunting lapdogs and traitors

The Scottish government has pledged to keep the next referendum debate "informed" - but not all independence supporters agree. 

This is one of a two-part series. For the article on extreme Scottish unionists, click here.

In 2014, David was fresh out of university and in his first job. A Labour MP, Jim Murphy, had decided to tour Scotland, with the plan of holding 100 public meetings in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. David, a Better Together campaigner, was part of his team.

Initially, the meetings were rowdy, but civil. But that began to change, as the same group of Yes supporters turned up in high street after high street. 

Then one day, David found himself in Kirkcaldy, a coastal town north of Edinburgh once known for its linoleum factories. The Yes supporters were waiting.

“It was genuinely terrifying,” David remembers. “The Nats had formed a tortoise formation the way Romans do with shields, but with Yes placards. They were just advancing towards us.

“You just think ‘this is mental’”.

Read more: The extreme Scottish unionists

That day in Kirkcaldy would ultimately lead Murphy to suspend his tour, after an onlooker pelted him with eggs. But for David and the other campaign workers, this wasn’t the worst of it. 

Yes supporters would frequently abuse them as “traitors”, “quislings”, and tell them to “go back to England” (the campaigners I interviewed were both Scottish). They filmed them at meetings, and began to identify David in particular as “Murphy’s lapdog”. He received a death threat, and the police advised him to step down from the frontline campaign. 

“The worst thing that happened  was when I had one day off in the campaign,” says David. “I was walking down Sauchiehall Street [one of the main shopping streets in Glasgow] with my mum.

“I had my No badge on, and as I passed a Yes stall this man pointed at me and went “there goes Murphy’s lapdog’.” 

“They crowded around me. One asked my mum: ‘Are you proud of your son? A traitor to your country?’”

Ultimately, the “traitors” were in the majority. Scotland voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK, and David found a new job. But with a second Scottish referendum looming, he worries this behaviour will return. 

But where does this aggression come from? Unlike the traditional left and right, the independence movement does not have an obvious extremist reference point. Were the Yes centurions in Kirkcaldy merely caught up in the heat of the moment, or representative of something else? 

Settlers and swords

Screenshot from the Siol Nan Gaidheal website

The Scottish National Party likes to present itself as the moderate, liberal face of civic nationalism. But in the early 1980s, when it was a protest party, the modernisers rubbed shoulders with ethno-nationalists like the Siol Nan Gaidheal.

Gordon Wilson, the SNP leader at the time, called them “proto-fascists” and kicked them out of the party.

“People throw plenty of abuse about the SNP’s nationalism,” Wilson says when I call him. “But it has never countenanced any solution except the democratic route.

“When people come along with objectional views on that or ethno-nationalism they get hammered.”

But the SNP and the independence movement are not one and the same. Siol Nan Gaidheal survived its expulsion, and still exists today in a rejigged guise. Its latest incarnation, according to its website, seeks "to liberate the Scottish people from the worst excesses of English/British Cultural Imperialism" but will "leave party political action to the Scottish National Party". However, during the Scottish referendum, The Telegraph reported that Siol Nan Gaidheal activists were deliberately disrupting Jim Murphy's tour. 

SNP modernisers have also tried to play down the jingoistic elements of Scottish nationalism. “The one thing you always have to keep an eye open for is militarism,” says Wilson. “Thankfully the Siol Nan Gaidheal were only equipped with swords and dirks.”

Violent Scottish nationalists may have had more in common with a historical re-enactment society than the IRA, but they could still be intimidating to their targets.

Recently, the Daily Record reported on Sonja Cameron, who was a member of the group Settler Watch in the early 1990s (“white settlers” is a slur for English-born Scots; Cameron herself was originally German). The group daubed the homes of English families with graffiti. 

Cameron’s onetime friend, Andrew McIntosh, took more drastic measures. Dubbed “the tartan terrorist”, he was jailed for 12 months in 1993 after carrying out a letter-bomb and bomb hoax campaign. 

"Go back to England"

As Wilson is keen to stress, these cases occurred in the 1990s (although embarrassingly for the SNP, Cameron’s story recently came to light after she passed the party’s vetting process for council candidates). 

Most of the post-2014 independence movement subscribes to a blend of Scottish patriotism, mixed with anti-austerity and anti-Westminster rhetoric. 

Its leaders have tried to distance themselves from anti-English sentiment ("English people for Scottish independence" is a popular Facebook group). Nevertheless, on the ground, the feeling persists. Another Better Together campaigner I spoke to told me about an incident on Murphy's tour: “This English photographer was just taking pictures, he didn’t express a point of view, and these men shoved him and shouted ‘You go back to England’."

A second strand of extremism overlaps with sectarianism. The links between Scottish independence and Catholicism are not exclusive – Murphy, the beleaguered Better Together campaigner, is a practising Roman Catholic – but have been talked up by some political tribes. The press officer for Scottish bishops, Peter Kearney, also appeared to handle press enquiries for SNP top dog Jim Sillars during the referendum campaign. (You can read about sectarianism and the pro-union campaign here).

David Scott, of the anti-sectarianism charity Nil By Mouth, says some independence campaigners used “dog whistle” language to appeal to a sectarian base. He points to former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond’s claim that Catholics voted Yes, and the links drawn by grassroots groups between Scottish independence and the Irish republican movement. 

This kind of language is likely to increase if the polls are tight, Scott says: “Particularly as you get closer to elections, in my experience, politicians will tell you anything to vote. A nudge and a wink saying ‘I’m one of you’.”

In fact, it seems after the referendum, this kind of rhetoric has not gone away. In March, Brian Wilson, a former Labour MP and director of Celtic, accused independence campaigners of a “deliberate attempt to sectarianise Scottish politics”. 

A new religion

Setting out her demand for a second independence referendum in early March, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged that any vote would be about “informed choice”.  She has previously condemned abuse by independence supporters as “wrong”. 

According to Scott, Sturgeon “doesn’t do faith” in the way her predecessor did, which may leave the twigs of sectarianism unkindled for now. The discipline the SNP leadership wields over the party is legendary. 

The Better Together campaigners I spoke to, however, are not optimistic about the quality of a second debate. 

David, the campaigner who received death threats, believes the independence movement itself has become “the closest thing to a religion”. 

He says the atmosphere of the Scottish referendum is incomparable to the EU referendum, divisive as it was: “In the depth of feeling and level this went to, it was a world apart from the EU referendum.”

As for his colleague, a veteran Labour campaigner who had “never experienced that sort of hatred” before, she has only one thing to say about a second referendum: “I think it will be worse.”

Read more: The extreme Scottish unionists

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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