The Treasury. Photograph: Getty Images
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Where would you rather live: small-government Somalia or big-government Sweden?

Critics of “big government” talk as if it’s beyond question that the state’s involvement with our lives is a bad thing.

Whisper it quietly, but I quite like big government. These days, it’s unfashionable to say so. From New Labour to Blue Labour, from compassionate conservatives to neoconservatives, the consensus is that big government is bad government: slow, inefficient, intrusive, bureaucratic, overbearing, anti-democratic and anti-growth.

“The era of big government is over,” President Bill Clinton (Democrat) declared in January 1996. Conservatives rejoiced. But guess what? By September 2008, big government was back. “We must act now,” announced President George W Bush (Republican), as he unveiled his $700bn bank bailout plan. This champion of free markets went on to bail out the auto industry and, in effect, nationalise the mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Here in the UK, as the former chancellor Alistair Darling revealed in his memoir, it was big government that prevented cash machines from being switched off and cheques being torn up. Banks were nationalised; multibillion-pound loans and guarantees were offered.

So, why this disconnect between rhetoric and reality? Why this constant railing against the positive power of collective action? The public doesn’t like big government, say fans of . . . small government.

Yet how else to explain our ongoing love affair with the (scandal-ridden) National Health Service, which in its structure and funding is big government pure and simple? Why else are so many of the people whom voters tell pollsters they admire most – doctors, nurses, teachers, soldiers, the police – usually employees of big government?

Not yet convinced? Polls also show significant public backing for the renationalisation of the railways. And not just the railways: a 2009 poll found two out of three voters supported taking the electricity, gas, water and telecommunications industries back into public ownership. (Come back, Michael Foot – all is forgiven.)

Small-government supporters claim that countries with high levels of public spending grow more slowly. Yet, as the Columbia University economist Xavier X Sala-i-Martin concluded in his 1997 study I Just Ran Four Million Regressions, “no measure of government spending . . . appears to affect growth in a significant way”.

In his 2004 book Growing Public, the University of California economist Peter Lindert agrees – countries with high levels of government spending don’t perform any worse than countries with low levels of government spending.

But doesn’t big government crowd out the private sector? Stifle free enterprise and innovation? Not necessarily. Consider the arguments of Mariana Mazzucato, the Sussex University economist and author of The Entrepreneurial State. “Where would Google be today without the state-funded investments in the internet, and without the US National Science Foundation grant that funded the discovery of its own algorithm?” she wrote in the Guardian in April 2012. “Would the iPad be so successful without the state-funded innovations in communication technologies, GPS and touchscreen display?

“Where would GSK and Pfizer be without the $600bn the US National Institutes of Health has put into research that has led to 75 per cent of the most innovative new drugs in the last decade?”

Critics of big government say it crushes community spirit and civic engagement. Again, the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. “Among the advanced western democracies, social trust and group membership are, if anything, positively correlated with the size of government,” the Harvard academic Robert Putnam observed in his acclaimed book Bowling Alone (1995). “[S]ocial capital appears to be highest of all in the big-spending welfare states of Scandinavia,” he wrote.

Ah yes, Scandinavia. Despite having, I accept, much smaller and more cohesive societies than the US or the UK, the highspending, high-growth Nordic nations continue to baffle and frustrate Anglo-Saxon small-staters. Take the UN’s first ever World Happiness league table in 2012: Denmark, where government spending accounts for 58 per cent of national income, topped the list, followed by Finland (54 per cent) and Norway (44 per cent).

Here in the UK, public spending may have peaked at 50.8 per cent of GDP in 2009, in the wake of the bank bailouts, but since 2010 the austerians of the Conservative-led coalition have been cutting spending year on year. Using the latest IMF figures, Peter Taylor-Gooby, a professor of social policy at the University of Kent, has calculated that by 2017 government spending, as a proportion of GDP, will be lower in the UK than in the United States – 39.1 per cent to 39.3 per cent – for the first time since records began. “I was astounded,” Taylor-Gooby tells me. “Even after the First World War, and the round of cuts then, we didn’t go this far.”

Meanwhile, those who pine for a leaner, meaner, smaller state cannot answer the simplest question: how would small government have paid for the bailout of RBS, Lloyds and the rest? The Treasury has coughed up roughly £850bn to prop up the UK’s financial sector, according to the National Audit Office. Can small government tackle the threat of runaway climate change and the rising costs of adaptation and mitigation? It is forecast that the global warming bill will run into trillions of pounds. It may be fashionable to want to roll back the state, but ask yourself this: where would you rather live, “big-government” Sweden or “small-government” Somalia?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March