Many voters feel today's candidates all look and sound too similar. But are they really? Picture: Ralph Steadman
Show Hide image

Armando Iannucci: It’s time for a very British revolution

From Labour's mugs to Cameron's debate dodging, the run up to this election has involved a calculated contempt for openness and honesty.

The main purpose of this article is to make me want to vote by the time I’ve written it. Sorry to have to pare this down to personal basics, but I love politics, I believe passionately that everyone should vote, and I still desperately cling by the fingertips to the ideal that a national democratic debate can do some good to people’s lives. So I really do need a reason to vote, and at the moment I’m not sure I have one. I think it’s out there somewhere.

You might feel the same, especially if you’re a first-time voter. I can see you looking at the revolution in Greece and the one brewing in Spain, and then turning back to look at Nigel Farage and thinking: “Really, is that it? A man with a pint of bitter in his hand and in his breast pocket a Top Trumps card about people who are HIV-positive?” I can see you watching the leaders’ debates and thinking: “The conventional parties look – well, so conventional, but why waste a vote on the others unless you’re Scottish?” I hope, by the time I work this thing through my system, to have persuaded myself that there is a point in voting and that this time round there is a glimmer, a faint but tantalising one, that democracy may change for the better if we come out and make our voices heard in significant numbers on 7 May.

But first, why the uphill struggle to find a reason? During the independence referendum in Scotland, I was cheered by the sight of a nation fully engaged, 16- and 17-year-olds taking their vote seriously, people passionately arguing on street corners and in pubs and supermarkets about the merits of autonomous revenue collection, currency zones and the obsolescence or otherwise of Trident. Above all, the 84.6 per cent turnout proved that once again politics was alive, that although the big-party system was crumbling, political engagement was stronger than ever. Hence the hope that something significant was about to take place across the rest of the UK, too.

But cut to the morning after and the cheesy grin of self-satisfaction at a Scottish job well done immediately fell away. David Cameron came out like a sore winner, and, instead of healing wounds opened by the passionate debate, rubbed them the wrong way with his immediate talk of English votes for English laws. There may have been some cause for him to raise the subject, but not then, not there. It was a cynical and clod-hopping conclusion to a debate that had otherwise inspired passion and idealism. It was a childish shout at the end of a grown-up discussion.

The election drew nearer, and so did the boorishness of angry kids at play. Not just the name-calling at PMQs but the sneering, petty-minded headlines about the likes of Ed Miliband’s kitchen and Grant Shapps’s bank account names, signalling that we had come back utterly to how it had always been: a vindictive ground war of insults and gibes in which nothing of substance would be said. When something as stark as the HSBC tax scandal gets reduced in the space of a few days to a discussion of a shadow chancellor’s window-cleaning receipts, you know that the great operation to shut down argument has begun.

Within a few short months politics has gone into retreat. The main parties, spooked by the rise of the SNP and Ukip on either flank, have withdrawn to base. Panicky policies about EU membership, immigration caps and “English votes for English laws” are flung out to appease wavering supporters, leaving those on the margins either to vote anyway or be forgotten. The campaign to appeal to Middle England started off all those years ago as a cynical attempt to identify the core rump of voters who decided marginal seats, and woo them. Now it has become a terrified last stand to cling on to that rump. Meantime, those outside the target (Outer England? All of Scotland and Wales?) have been tempted to disengage from Westminster completely.

This option has become the default of an increasing number of us. In the last two elections, the number of people who didn’t vote was larger than the numbers who voted for the parties that got into power. Party membership has fallen, while an alternative politics has been played out with e-petitions and online campaigning groups as diverse as UK Uncut, 38 Degrees and Mumsnet. One way or another, the usual Westminster personalities don’t connect any more.

Yet here they are on our screens, talking about free schools, and pension pots, and competitive tenders, and pupil premiums, but all these words seem so disconnected from the world of food banks, zero-hours contracts, high energy bills, benefit sanctions, closed libraries, clogged-up A&E units and student debt that is the real economy experienced by so many. Disconnectedness feels like it’s taking a quantum leap, and the noise from Westminster sounds nothing more than the strangled bray of Rump Politics.

I call it Rump Politics, because it is so clearly marked by an admission that it is for the few. Party leaders confine themselves to the issues of those who they know will turn out and vote – the elderly, those in business, those with property – and unashamedly ignore the plight of those they know will never come out – the young, the long-term unemployed, the poor. That is why they feel they can get away with proclaiming tax cuts for one group (those who vote) and welfare cuts for another (those who don’t). In 2010, 80 per cent of the over-65s voted: hence all the talk about protecting pensions. In that same election, only 44 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted: hence university tuition fees.

You can spot Rump Politics in play whenever a party does something that it knows others will hate, but which it also knows those same others will never come out to vote against. Labour’s campaign mug saying “Controls on immigration” is one (it knows that most first- and second-generation immigrants will probably vote for Labour anyway); Cameron ducking head-to-head debates with Ed Miliband is another (it annoys the media, might get a tabloid newspaper to follow him with a man in a chicken costume, but if it starves Miliband of a platform, who cares?).

It’s a calculated contempt against openness and honesty. Rump Politics thrives on keeping silent, saying nothing, giving nothing away, above all not engaging with anyone who your algorithms tell you won’t vote. It’s a contempt perhaps best symbolised by Iain Duncan Smith’s refusal to set out how the Conservatives plan to cut £12bn from the welfare budget. This isn’t just him, it’s not a clumsy misspeak; it’s part of a concerted strategy that can no longer be bothered to conceal itself. Here’s David Gauke, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, as early as 20 March, talking about that same spending plan: “We’ll set it out nearer the time, which will be after the election.”

There are two operations of Rump Politics at play here. One is the calculation that alienating the welfare claimant is a risk worth taking. He or she will either vote for another party or, more likely, not vote at all.

The second manifestation is less obvious but more deadly: it’s to turn the concept of an election completely on its head. If we see a general election as a collective democratic decision about the future of our government, those who drive Rump Politics do their best to shut down that alarmingly open and unpredictable view by redefining elections as referendums on the past. Hence, it’s all about what has been achieved, or, if you’re in opposition, what has been ruined, while giving as little coherent information as possible about what will be done in the future. The more the parties fighting Rump Politics can get you to focus on what has happened, the less obligation they have to stick to anything too particular in the future. The past is knowable, the future dangerously not.

In the last election, the three main parties succeeded so magnificently in drawing a curtain of silence around their future plans for government, that the dominating policies of the past five years have all been ones that simply were not discussed in the election campaign or mentioned in the party manifestos. These policies were: £9,000 university tuition fees, the bedroom tax, the total reorganisation of the NHS and 40 per cent cuts in local government. Put together, it’s a stark programme. Not an iota of it was mentioned during the 2010 campaign. This time round, both the main TV debates were conducted before the parties published their manifestos. No wonder they felt like talks about nothing. Is it any wonder that people feel disconnected from Westminster? If what government does is not discussed with the people first, what is the point of the people engaging in the vote to determine government?

But here is where I see the potential for something truly transformative and why I cling on, only just, to a hope that this time things are not going according to the old script. First off, the safety-first strategy of Rump Politics is not winning. In the first few weeks of the campaign, what has dominated the agenda has been the very issues the party leaders have tried to hide. What we remember are Cameron’s unease and inarticulateness when asked questions about food banks and zero-hours contracts, Osborne’s obfuscation when asked about Tory plans for welfare cuts and Miliband’s rather unconvincing attempts to portray himself as tough on immigration. The agenda is not the one foisted on the electorate by the campaign managers: the alternative politics of the internet has become a useful adjunct to the conventional politics of the TV studio. The public has turned into Jeremy Paxman and is refusing to let these questions go away until fully answered. It is as if the possibility of alternative homes for our vote has reinvigorated us and encouraged us to persevere with our inquiries.

Second, the old campaign strategies aren’t working. The best example of this is the Tory divide-and-rule of old, putting up posters showing Miliband in the SNP’s pocket. After Nicola Sturgeon’s performance in the leaders’ debate on ITV, the Tory threat of “Vote Labour, get SNP” turned into an unexpectedly positive idea to those who rather liked the idea of a progressive alliance of parties winning the election. Holding out the prospect of another party in power as a threat to distract the electorate from looking at your own agenda has gone the way of the VCR and the Squarial.

It’s as if the old Labour-bashing ploys dug up from the 1980s suddenly looked to the electorate like a set of battered and tatty sofas, completely out of place in a much more sophisticated environment. An electorate that is angered by, but not deaf to, politics is keen to listen and has an appetite for grown-up and sophisticated argument. Simple slogans don’t cut it any more: they’re so 1990s.

Third, there is no last-minute mass return to the two main parties, nor a mass abandonment of the minor parties. The Cameron policy of retreating from debates and flooding the airwaves with “fringe” groups has woken us up to the possibilities of alternatives that look grown-up and sophisticated rather than eccentric and doomed. It has reassured us that a multiparty system is not a madhouse. Threatening the electorate with a rainbow alliance of parties no longer works as a threat when that looks both credible and appealing.

Fourth, and this is important if you believe in progressive politics, Ukip has found its natural limit. Its poll numbers are simply not rising. Nigel Farage, the man obsessed with setting caps on numbers, has reached his own natural cap of support. Yes, some may find his arguments over immigration numbers and European bureaucracy appealing, but he also seems to have invigorated those who oppose his views. So, while the main parties may try to ape his “tough” stance on immigration, others feel emboldened to stand up and confidently outline the benefits that immigration has brought to this country’s culture and economy. Ukip has tried to simplify the arguments: a sophisticated electorate has asked to hear something more nuanced.

The reasons I have outlined give me some confidence that Rump Politics may not win the day. That while we’ve been abandoned as an electorate, we have grown into something hardier, something that no longer feeds off the binary views of a conventional system. But we have to come out in numbers. We have to work at it. If we want to make it absolutely clear that the British voter is sick of pat phrases, simple solutions, focused bribery and panic thinking, then we have to keep pestering and badgering, keep asking for more detailed answers.

We also have to vote confidently with our heart for whoever comes closest in our constituency to echoing what we feel. If that leads to a messy, disruptive result on 8 May, then so be it. If it forces the controlling elite of Westminster leaders to see they no longer have control, then great. It could be a very British revolution: peaceful but determined, thoughtful yet unique.

Armando Iannucci is the creator of the comedy series “The Thick of It” and “Veep”. He tweets @Aiannucci

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
Show Hide image

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

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special