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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.


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":

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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The new puritans: What Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have in common

In different ways, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are “puritans”. Each has a strict view of what public life should be – and their manners are a rebuke to the low hucksterism that has disfigured our politics.

A puritan revival is under way. It explains the success of Jeremy Corbyn and, in a subtler way, the rise of Theresa May. It also underpins the hatred of figures such as Tony Blair and Boris Johnson, and the disgust one feels as one gazes at a Mediterranean view, spoiled by the superyachts of plutocrats who wish to proclaim their unbounded wealth and utter lack of taste.

Take Corbyn first. The puritan distrust of theatre is plainly what inhibits him from even attempting, most of the time, to make anything in the way of a witty, let alone flamboyant, retort to the Prime Minister. Corbyn’s supporters admire this, for they, too, are puritans. As the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, recently said, they think he is more upright and honest because he disdains the politics of display. In their eyes, to act a part is to be untruthful and, therefore, sinful: a point confirmed by the pleasure it might give.

Theatre can, of course, be done in many different ways, and whenever one style has prevailed for too long it creates a hunger for something new. Kitchen-sink drama is, at its best, a delightful change from the well-made play or, in Labour’s case, the well-made spin at which Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell excelled. Every politician’s mannerisms become wearisome in the end: Stanley Baldwin’s pious bromides, Harold Macmillan’s Edwardian ­affectations, Harold Wilson’s cheeky chappie act.

But to imagine one can get by, in politics, without putting on a performance of some kind is madness. How else is the audience’s interest to be engaged? I mean the wider audience, which for most of the time ignores politics. When Claud Cockburn arrived in Washington as a young man to work for the Times, he was advised by Willmott Lewis, the celebrated correspondent for whom he would be standing in: “I think it well to remember that, when writing for the newspapers, we are writing for an elderly lady in Hastings who has two cats of which she is passionately fond. Unless our stuff can successfully compete for her interest with those cats, it is no good.”

The same is true of political leaders. But whenever one makes the elementary point to a Corbyn supporter that the Labour leader is not only bad at engaging the interest of people who are more interested in their cats, but does not even conceive that it would be a good idea to do so, the supporter takes this as a compliment to Corbyn. He, at least, is pure enough not to engage in the low hucksterism that has disfigured our politics. He may be wilfully understated, Pooterish and dull, but he can congratulate himself on being unspotted by Blair’s worldliness, greed and pro-Americanism.

The Labour Party has not yet split, but is already divided by a gulf of incomprehension. On one side stand the puritans, whose self-righteousness is fortified by criticism, which to them is proof of their virtue. On the other side stand the careerists, who think it pointless to be in politics unless you are at some stage going to win power, but who cannot tell us the point of doing so. Nobody since Tony Crosland has managed to give a persuasive account of the future of socialism (his book was published in 1956), but Corbyn at least enables his followers to believe that puritanism, understood as a return to the original verities of their faith, has a future, even though the policies needed to achieve this remain elusive.

The new spirit of puritanism can be found in the Conservative Party, too. A ruthless purge of the plutocrats has taken place. By holding the EU referendum, David Cameron, an Old Etonian descended from a long line of stockbrokers, took a gamble that did not pay off. He knew he had to go, and Theresa May has since sacked most of his coterie. One of the few to make the transition from the old regime to the new is Gavin Williamson, who served for three years as Cameron’s parliamentary private secretary. He joined May’s campaign as soon as Cameron resigned as prime minister, became her parliamentary campaign manager a day later, and so impressed her with his ability to marshal Tory MPs that she appointed him Chief Whip in July.

Williamson was educated at state schools in Scarborough, read social sciences at the University of Bradford, worked in the pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent, fought Blackpool North and Fleetwood in 2005, was elected for South Staffordshire in 2010, and in his maiden speech to parliament ­asserted that manufacturers “often have a lot more common sense than bankers”. Under May’s leadership, this sort of proudly provincial background is more in favour than it was under Cameron.

May’s closest adviser, Nick Timothy, is from Birmingham. Both of his parents left school at the age of 14, but he went to King Edward VI in Aston, the grammar school for boys, which he describes as a “transformational” experience with “extraordinarily brilliant teachers”, after which he became the first member of his family to go to university, studying politics at Sheffield. Many people are puzzled that the Prime Minister has taken the risk of deciding to create new grammar schools, and wonder why she has done this. A large part of the answer is surely that she and Timothy think it is the right thing to do. They are true believers who feel themselves called on to show courage in defence of what they know to be right.

Unlike Cameron and George Osborne, they are confident that they are in touch with people of modest means, who cannot dream of paying school fees. It does not occur to them that, with their own fond memories of grammar schools, they may be out of touch with state education as it has evolved over the past 20 years. Towards the end of May’s time there, Holton Girls’ Grammar School in Oxfordshire was turned into the comprehensive Wheatley Park School, and the transition was not, at first, a success.

Timothy drafted May’s first statement as Prime Minister, in which she said: “If you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise . . . The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”

This rhetoric does not exactly make May a puritan. She is an Anglican, which is an altogether more complicated thing. Her father trained for the priesthood in the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, in West Yorkshire, which promulgates an austere and deeply felt Anglo-Catholicism, with roots in Christian socialism. The Prime Minister’s dress sense cannot be described as austere, but her attitudes usually are. At Mirfield, a monastic foundation, one gets up awfully early, in order to attend the first services before breakfast.


Boris Johnson is the least puritanical figure in British politics. He nevertheless helps to illustrate the rise of puritanism: respectable people often say how entertaining he is and even start laughing as they relate his exploits, but then remember how serious they themselves are and add that his amusement value is, naturally, a disqualification for high office. Johnson is a star performer in the theatre of politics, capable (as he showed during the 2012 London Olympics) of eclipsing his rivals, and this summer he helped swing the referendum result for Brexit. A senior figure in the Leave campaign said that when Johnson attacked President Barack Obama for coming to Britain and telling us how to vote, the polls moved in Leave’s favour, even though (or perhaps in part because) the attack was condemned by high-minded commentators.

Johnson was given the job of Foreign Secretary in order to help reunite the Conservatives, because he might be good at it and also because he had the wit, as soon as Michael Gove deserted his campaign, to recognise that May was going to win the leadership election. But the losing side in the referendum had immediately blamed Johnson for its defeat. It accused him of not only populism, but opportunism: telling lies, stirring up racism and wrecking the economy in order to seize power for himself. For the first time in his life, Johnson’s enemies didn’t just scorn him, they hated him.

Long ago, when he went to Brussels as a correspondent, his rivals accused him of embroidering his news stories for the Daily Telegraph in a way that was not strictly true. This was intensely annoying for them, especially when they were hauled out of bed to follow up reports that turned out to be inaccurate. They were not prepared to accept the defence that Johnson had made these imaginative embellishments in order to dramatise a deeper truth – namely, that Jacques Delors, the then president of the European Commission, was grabbing power at the expense of the nation states.

Puritans cannot accept that it is permissible, or even praiseworthy, to draw a caricature in order to show what a person is really like. They possess a painful literal-mindedness. Their aim is to purify religion by stripping away the corruption of later centuries and getting back to the simple, honest faith of the first believers.

In the United States, a country founded by puritans, each president arrives promising to return the republic to a state of pristine perfection by cleansing Washington of crooked lobbyists. The new president’s mission is to protect the people from the politicians. After a while, it becomes apparent that the president is, after all, a politician, too, and the process starts all over again.

In Britain, the desire to purify the system recurs at similarly frequent intervals. Before the 1970 general election, the then Conservative leader, Edward Heath (the subject of A Singular Life, an absorbing new study by Michael McManus), promised to sweep away the “trivialities and gimmicks” that had characterised Harold Wilson’s six years as Labour prime minister. Douglas Hurd, who was working for Heath, said this declaration, made in the foreword to that year’s Tory manifesto, was entirely sincere:


There runs through it a note of genuine puritan protest, which is familiar in British history, sometimes in one party, sometimes in the other. It is the note struck by Pym against the court of Charles I, by Pitt against the Fox-North coalition, by Gladstone against Disraeli, by the Conservatives in 1922 against Lloyd George. It is the outraged assertion of a strict view of what public life is about, after a period in which its rules have been perverted and its atmosphere corrupted.


To many people’s surprise, though not his own, Heath won the 1970 election. Yet his puritanism was insufficient to guide him through the difficulties that followed, and in 1974 he was out of office again. His astounding bad manners to colleagues, which the following February helped bring about his downfall from the Conservative leadership (won by Margaret Thatcher), sprang in part from his puritanical refusal to accept that courtly behaviour, with its connotations of idleness and insincerity, could ever be worth bothering about.

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Adventures of Boris Johnson”, out now in an updated edition (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories