Brussels over Britain

Tory politicians' behaviour over the EU shows their contempt for ordinary people -- and their confid

At a time when many people can't find jobs, many others are struggling to pay the bills, and many more are slipping into an ocean of debt, the Conservative Party shows how much it's in touch with the electorate by having the same old fight about Europe.

While Britain sinks into poverty, it's time for the age-old EU hokey cokey. Are we in? Are we out? Are we going to shake it all about? Are we going to have a referendum, or just sit around talking about a referendum? More to the point, does anyone care? People are suffering out there, really suffering, and it's not going to stop anytime soon.

Go and look with your eyes. People can't afford to buy their shopping; they can't afford their electricity bills; people are going to die this winter because they're going to worry about leaving the heating on. And our political masters, with their subsidised bars and canteens and lovely second homes on expenses, are getting worried about our part in European integration. They're more concerned about Brussels than they are about Britain. What more evidence could there be of the contempt in which ordinary people are held by our political classes?

It's a bit of a spectator sport for everyone who isn't in the Conservative Party, a chance to sit back and enjoy watching them bruise each other and get all upset. It's tempting to just chuck the Tories in a room and marvel as they beat each other up. And yes, those of us on the so-called "political left" might raise a familiar smile at the infighting of the Tories. It's a much-worn stereotype that while the right patch over their differences, the left get mired in attacking each other.

Any of us who has, at one time or another, been involved in leftish causes will recognise the familiar scenario: after five hours of arguing over points of order and constitutional wrangling about who is going to be voted into the pencils and paperclips sub-committee, there are only three and half minutes left at the end to discuss how we're going to smash the state. Watching Tories squabbling over Europe is a reminder that they, too, can be irrationally bogged down with the same old arguments.

But no one should take any pleasure from Tory infighting over Europe. Labour shouldn't; their Coalition partners -- so often the human shield against the public when it comes to unpopular policies -- shouldn't; and we shouldn't, either. Because this resurfacing of the Europe question indicates that the Conservative Party is getting its feet under the table of Government and preparing for a second term in office.

They're not worried about electoral defeat in 2015, or the fact that their policies are going to make millions of us miserable and worse off: that they are already back to beating themselves up over Europe means they're pretty confident that they've sold their message and can get on with the business of being in charge -- where they belong, where they are entitled to be, and where they were born to be.

What that indicates is that the Conservative Party are confident about their administration and comfortable enough with it to have a punch-up in public. They believe they've sold the "we inherited this mess" trope successfully enough to the electorate, and are pressing ahead with their Small State, Big Society agenda safe in the knowledge that a large chunk of their potential voters will blame Gordon Brown for any hardship they are enduring right now, and will be enduring for some years to come.

The rift over Europe -- the faultline that runs through the Conservative Party and has done for so many years -- is not going to go away, but that it has popped up so soon in this administration could be an indication of strength rather than weakness. The economy may be spluttering, the dole queues may be lengthening, the struggle to pay the bills may be increasing, but the Tories are so confident that they're in charge, they're happy to play out the same old Europe pantomime. It should worry anyone who hopes for a change of government at the next general election.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?