Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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How Islington shaped Jeremy Corbyn

The Labour leader is sustained by an old north London brand of abstract idealism, dauntless optimism, moral indignation and discomfort with change.

Jeremy Corbyn wore his reddest tie on 10 January, the day he unveiled his new strategy for 2017. It began with autographing a cushion for Good Morning Britain, progressed to the Today programme on Radio 4 and culminated in a journey north to make a speech in Peterborough.

None of this looked comfortable except the cushion. As for the tie, that was consistent throughout. But other things were not. In the morning Corbyn told the nation he would like there to be “some kind of high earnings cap” and “a maximum earnings limit, quite honestly”, but in the afternoon he said that there were better ways of curbing bosses’ pay.

The previous day, journalists had got the impression from Corbyn aides that Labour’s leader would be abandoning his previously absolute support for free movement of people between European Union nations in favour of such migration being more “managed” and “fair”. But when invited to confirm this by BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, Corbyn said the numbers of people arriving from other EU countries would “probably” be brought down if recruitment rules on UK employers were tightened, which wasn’t the same thing at all.

By the time he got to Peterborough, a marginal parliamentary seat Labour will need to take from the Conservatives at the general election in order to form a government, the dominant response to Corbyn’s re-launch message had been one of confusion. Attempts at clarifications came too late to stop a high earnings cap being described as “totally idiotic”, “unworkable” and making “no economic sense” by economists who had worked with Corbyn when his leadership began, but had since bailed out. The one firm conclusion about his stance on EU immigration was that it hadn’t really changed at all.

But through all this derision there shone hope: media mockery was to be expected, as was the lip-biting silence from those many among Corbyn’s fellow Labour MPs who’d long since decided he was useless at his job but ruefully concluded that saying so in public would do them and their party more harm than good. The calculation of Corbyn and his advisers was that, however scornful the reactions his words provoked, they carried at their heart something the great mass of ordinary Britons would recognise as profoundly and refreshingly true; core sentiments that would strike a fundamental chord with many millions of electors who had been longing to hear them for years, often without actually knowing it.

The idea was that Corbyn would tap into a mood for a particular form of national change that has long been suppressed, perhaps for more than half a century. His voice would be the authentic bearer of the true hopes of The People, the cowed majority subliminally craving a shake-up of a status quo that only serves the few. Just as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump had articulated suppressed popular discontent from the Right, so Corbyn would do the same from the Left, sweeping Peterborough and many more grateful towns into Labour hands when the nation next headed for the polling stations.

That day is, of course, to come sooner than expected. Prime Minister Theresa May, burdened with delivering a Brexit she had campaigned against and fearful that her government’s working majority of just 17 might not be enough over the next 18 months, called a snap election, despite previously insisting that she wouldn’t. It looks as though she’ll get away with it. Opinion polls give the Conservatives an enormous lead and May a still more enormous one over Corbyn as the leader better equipped to run the nation. Every shred of evidence points to the election being a disaster for Corbyn’s Labour.

And yet, the hope endures. Not among the dozens of Labour MPs who fear losing their seats or supporters who accept, if only privately, that there is next to no chance of Corbyn forming the next government, but among that section of Labour’s party membership for whom Corbyn is the type of leader they have always wanted. Hope of this kind springs eternal in this small but influential strand of British political tradition. To locate it, we must travel to the north of the capital and the place where Corbynism was born. We will then take a trip through London’s recent political history. There will be cupcakes in Hackney along the way.


Long, long ago, when man of letters and nuclear disarmer Michael Foot was leader of the Labour Party and former viscount Tony Benn thought it should be more left wing, a certain kind of urban optimism flourished in the North London Borough of Islington. It was the early 1980s. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, Britain’s economy was in recession and its biggest city was in decline. Yet in that part of the city, with its elegant Georgian squares, handsome Victorian terraces and southern border with the Square Mile, plans were afoot for a better world.

The borough bore its full share of the societal failings then synonymous with the words “inner city”. A huge municipal response to chronic post-war housing squalor – a 1964 government report had found that most Islington households did not have their own bath, toilet or running water – meant that by 1981, 60 per cent of Islington dwellings were owned by the council. Yet much of the stock was poor. There was high unemployed. The population was falling. For many, the future was not promising.

For some, though, the place was prosperous with possibilities. These took various forms, often focused on property. There was a thriving squatting culture. Hippies, punks, anarchists and gays – pretty much the full range of social deviants – occupied large, old, empty houses, many of them belonging to the council but not in a fit state to let. Some of this became semi-official, run as short-life co-ops with conditional council blessing – it was better to have the dwellings patched up and occupied than left to rot.

Another part of the picture was less marginal. Many skilled working class residents had headed for the New Towns to get a better life, but another kind of pioneer class had moved in. Higher educated and professionally qualified, they bought up and did up the old houses, prizing their “original features”. Small towns and plastic suburbia were not for them. They sought authenticity, diversity, what is today called the “edginess” of big city life.

These strands of Islington life overlapped, intertwined and formed a cradle of liberal comfort amid a wider world that felt more and more reactionary and mean. There was a welcome there for outlaws, dreamers and lost souls escaping the suffocations of conformity. Outsiders were admitted to a world they knew only from TV documentaries or the pages of New Musical Express. There, they encountered reggae shops, avocados, bomb-banners, recreational drugs, large, scholarly houses with stripped floorboards, messy kitchens and lovingly unkempt gardens owned by kindly academics, and jam jars of tampons placed on toilet cisterns for all the world to see.

I know a bit about that world because I lived in it. After drifting to the capital in autumn 1979 and finding a grubby bedsit at the top end of Portobello Road for £15 a week, I made friends across town and found the outsider romance I was looking for. I began making a living writing things. A feature of my Islington life was its array of intersections between popular culture, equality activism and political agitation. A defining mass manifestation of this eclectic weave had been the Rock Against Racism festival held in Victoria Park in the East End in 1978. Part of its legacy was an adaptable template for extra-parliamentary opposition to Thatcherism and all it stood for. This protest paradigm was nothing if not varied, entailing glancing encounters with all manner of grouplets from the Outer Left.

Upper Street, the stretch of the A1 connecting Highbury Corner to the Angel, was dotted with beacons of this ideological matrix. Hindsight lends clarity to its paradoxical, simultaneous embrace of revolution and preservation. Bookshops stocked the literature of radical transformation, notably The Other Bookshop, outlet of the Socialist Action group that produced key lieutenants of Greater London Council (GLC) leader Ken Livingstone, and Sisterwrite, probably the leading feminist bookshop in Britain. Meanwhile, the King’s Head fringe theatre pub insisted more than a decade after decimalisation (and for another decade after that) on charging customers in pounds, shillings and pence.

Agitation both for change and for resistance to it was everywhere. So was a long struggle over history and what it should comprise. In smoky upstairs rooms of pubs, dressed-down dissidents listened to scholars of 19th century working class self-organisation make the case for its relevance to seeing off Mrs T. Ardent audiences of 12 could contain members of at least three feuding Marxist sects. Why they were feuding would forever be unclear. The Islington macramé of leftist fervor, identity politics and conservationist defiance patterned the local Labour Party and permeated Labour nationally.

Then came the general election. In 1983, Michael Foot led Labour to a heavy defeat, its worst since 1918. But for the Islington Left, there was consolation. Though Thatcher’s landslide gave her a huge majority of 144, Jeremy Corbyn was elected to represent Islington North for the first time. Labour lay in ruins. But Corbynism had established its bridgehead.


The ascent to the Commons of the man now mocked by Labour critics as “St Jeremy” was seen as the devil’s work by many, especially after he promptly invited Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams into the Palace of Westminster. The opposite view was that his championing of the gamut of Left-wing causes, from vegetarianism to nuclear disarmament, made him precisely the kind of MP Labour needed more of. He was admired for running his parliamentary office from Seven Sisters, rather than the House. In 1984 he was arrested during an anti-apartheid demonstration outside the South African embassy, and later told the Observer he wanted to transform Labour into “a force outside parliament, mobilising political activity”.

In a broad sense, Corbyn’s form of idealism was in keeping with certain strands of Islington history. Today’s borough was formed from a merger between an older, smaller Islington and its neighbour, Finsbury, home of the pioneering Finsbury Health Centre, designed in the Russian post-revolutionary style by architect Berthold Lubetkin. A Jewish émigré from Georgia, Lubetkin is perhaps most famous for the penguin pool in London Zoo, but other noted works include a bust of Vladimir Lenin. The Russian Communist had lived briefly at 30 Holford Square in Finsbury during the early 1900s. Lubetkin’s sculpture was the centrepiece of a monument erected there by Finsbury council in 1942. It was later displayed in Islington Town Hall.

Britain’s first gay rights demo took place on Highbury Fields in 1970, just a short walk from the Town Hall. Chris Smith, now Baron Smith of Finsbury, won the borough’s other parliamentary seat, Islington South and Finsbury, for Labour in 1983. The following year, he became the first gay MP in Britain to choose to publicly come out. The Guardian and a constellation of smaller liberal and left publications have been based among “Islington Trendies” and their ancestors for at least two centuries.

The borough’s Labour Council, led from 1982 by Margaret Hodge, now the MP for Barking and a dame of the grande variety, fitted in to that tradition too. Like Corbyn, it became synonymous with what the Tory press would later dub the “loony left”. Only lunacy, in their eyes, could account for initiatives such as supporting feminism and antiracism and, in 1985, for being in the thick of an ultimately doomed refusal to comply with the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy, a measure designed to limit local authorities’ powers to raise revenue from taxing property.

Islington Labour was also of a piece with a wider new London Left, especially Inner London north of the Thames, whose power bases included Livingstone’s GLC. But the Islington Left was not the whole of Islington. Significantly, the election that saw Corbyn and Smith enter parliament was also fought by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), founded by a group of leading Labour politicians who had despaired of the state of the party under Foot and formed an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party. A turning off Upper Street takes you to the elegant Canonbury Square, where George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh had lived. I recall passing through it and its diligently nurtured conservation area one day when the 1983 election campaign was at its peak and being hit by a wall of yellow posters. Genteel Islington was also the Alliance’s natural home.

Neither was Islington-style Labour seen by all as good for Labour nationally. As the 1987 election approached, the press secretary of Neil Kinnock, the Foot disciple who’d succeeded him as Labour leader and fought (sometimes literally) bloody battles to revive their party’s fortunes, told the capital’s Labour MPs that a “London effect”, synonymous with high taxes, homosexuality and “extremism” in general, was hurting the party’s chances elsewhere. The term “loony left” was coined, and stuck

That election saw prominent “London effect” politicians become MPs for the first time. Joining Corbyn on the backbenches were Livingstone, who won Brent East, and two immediate neighbours: Bernie Grant, representing Tottenham just two years after being vilified for his response as Haringey Council’s leader to the Broadwater Farm riot, and former Westminster City councillor Diane Abbott, who won Hackney North and Stoke Newington to become the country’s first black woman MP. Each retained seats Labour already held, but the party lost three elsewhere in London. By contrast, it gained 20 nationally. But Thatcher easily captured Downing Street for a third time.

The era stirs mixed feelings. Its mischief and liberality were intoxicating fun – a big city antithesis of small town snobberies. Prejudices were named, challenged and eroded. Even as Labour lost general elections, culture wars were won. Old bigotries became taboo as ripples from those victories spread. To use a maxim Corbyn's defenders still deploy, advocates of those issues were on the right side of history, notably the history of Ireland. A mural immortalising a Peace Carnival held in 1983 still graces a wall at Dalston Junction. Boris Johnson himself has admired it for representing London’s comfort with diversity. May it never be erased.

Yet lefty north London could too easily forget – and still does forget – that it is a very small place. It forgets that not everyone, not even on its own doorstep, subscribes to the mission statements it writes for itself. It forgets that protesting is easier than governing, and that governing entails hard judgments, difficult maths and the fine and sometimes thankless art of compromise.

I recall the mid-1980s meeting at Islington Town Hall when Margaret Hodge and fellow councillors finally set a legal rate as hecklers in the public gallery showered her with paper darts and rude remarks. For them, Hodge was a sell-out. But it was she for whom I felt more sympathy. It wasn’t the chanting missile-throwers who would end up surcharged and disqualified for refusing to set a legal rate. It wasn’t they who would have to pay the price of martyrdom. What would they have done had they been in her shoes when realisation dawned that the job demanded more than waving placards?

As for the “London effect”, it’s important to remember that the Labour Left didn’t advance only in the capital during that time. Liverpool and Sheffield had notable manifestations too. But the capital, then as now, was different, including in the eyes of Labourites elsewhere. A distinguished observer of London’s political scene recalls Livingstone summarising how many north of Watford thought of it: “The home of the metropolitan pervert.”

Church Street

A paradox of the Corbyn heartlands is that they have been nourished and expanded by the example of market failure that exercises Londoners most: the capital’s crackpot housing costs. Back in the early 1980s, it was still just about possible for middling income households, usually of certain middle-class occupations, to first-time buy three-bedroom terraced houses in parts of Islington, do them up by stripping them down, reclaiming prized “original features” from vulgar modernity and seeing the value of their asset soar. Even though “shabby chic”, “conspicuous thrift” and all other style orthodoxies of that part of the bourgeoisie were by then well established in that part of town, it was only a decade earlier that land and buildings had been cheap enough for Islington Council to buy them up by the street load.

But those were the days when London’s population was falling and its long economic boom, fuelled by Thatcher’s “Big Bang” deregulation of the Square Mile, had yet to begin. By the time Thatcher had gone (brought down by her own party over Europe, would you believe?), and the Tories, led by John Major, had won yet another general election, and the luckless Kinnock had been succeeded by Tony Blair – himself, deliciously, a resident of Islington, but one untouched by the lentil bake worldview that had dished up Corbyn – properties “with potential” in that neck of the woods were far beyond the price range of, say, striving freelance writers with pre-school children who’d lived in those Islington terraces on “short life” licence.

People of my age and income had begun looking further east for tatty terraces to reclaim, typically in neighbouring Hackney. In my case this meant scrambling into home ownership in disreputable Homerton with the help of a doubtful endowment mortgage. Local stalwarts of Militant Tendency lived across the road, which was no more than you would expect: in my work I found that any research into revolutionary sects or other dissident fringes usually ended in a chat with someone who lived a ten minute walk away. The more fashionable parts of Hackney had already become too expensive, notably those close to the Islington border by Clissold Park. Stoke Newington, originally a 19th century parish, was already the butt of late 20th century jokes about cystitis sufferers uniting against the Nazis.

By then, the internal illogic of the Left had become as interesting to me as its principles. At Labour Party conferences, rallies of the Socialist Campaign Group were the most fiery and fun. But did the people who declaimed from those fringe stages honestly believe that the miners had won a great victory over Thatcher in 1985 or that people who read the Sun and backed the Falklands war would rally behind rhetoricians with phoney glottal stops and purple hair? I didn’t go on the anti-poll tax demonstration in 1990, although I sympathised with the cause. While others were setting fire to Trafalgar Square, I picked out some new carpet for the stairs. I did, though, later interview some of the protesters, luring them into the McDonalds near Hackney Central station. Their body language screamed resistance, but I thought they ought meet the working-class.

The Tory win in 1992 was unexpected (the pollsters got it wrong). The party promptly fell apart (Europe, again). Blair and his allies invented “New Labour”: slick, clean, media savvy, firmly pro-European and attuned to the implications of Britain’s shifting social landscape. Exploiting Tory disarray, the party won by a landslide in 1997, and by another in 2001, after which billions were invested in health and schools as the economy boomed, and then a third victory in 2005. Under Blair, Labour secured a peace settlement in Northern Ireland, introduced a national minimum wage and devolved power to Scotland, Wales and London too. It also led Britain into war in Iraq and opened to door to unrestricted immigration from eight new members of European Union. The other stuff is remembered less well.

During those years, the Labour Left was eclipsed. True, in 2000 Livingstone became London’s first executive mayor despite Blair’s blatant efforts to stop him. But his pragmatism in that office, along with a global outlook and, believe it or not, considerable public relations skills, had a rather Blairite look. Jeremy Corbyn, though, remained unchanged. From the backbenches, he opposed Blair’s governments with relentless, unswerving constancy. In the Commons, he famously voted against them more than 500 times.

Meanwhile, he has kept on winning Islington North. And, perhaps more importantly, the views he has kept on holding have endured just as successfully. These are, of course, expressed through Corbyn’s politics. But they are about something wider than that too: a mindset; a mentality; a group of attitudes; a set of tastes now entrenched in that spread of North London as a whole.

A couple of years back, one of my children was a member of the swimming club at the leisure centre near Clissold Park. As she doggedly churned out lengths, I would wander nearby Stoke Newington Church Street looking for places to pass the time. It is full of gift shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes that speak a niche consumer language to a large section of the local populace.

Stoke Newington is economically and ethnically diverse. However, Hackney Council’s profile of the Stoke Newington ward tells us that more than half its adult population is educated to degree level or higher compared with 42% of Hackney’s as a whole, 38% of London’s as a whole and 27.5% for all of England. It also shows that nearly two-thirds of those in work are in the top three occupational groups (managers, directors and senior officials; professionals; associate professionals and technical). Church Street is those people’s corridor of commerce, and they want to keep it that way.

Nine years ago, a group of locals campaigned against a branch of Nando’s opening in the building previously occupied by a jazz club. For them, this was a fight against globalisation and “clone town Britain” and part of what one of described as the area’s “long history of non-conformism and dissent”. They didn’t stop the Nando’s, which is still there. So is the host of independent outlets the protesters wished to protect. At the time of my swimming class perambulations, Church Street’s cafes had begun selling luxurious cupcakes, which had just become popular in the patisserie market’s upscale enclaves. So ubiquitous were these delights, I could walk the whole length of Church Street without eating one and still feel as if I’d scoffed a whole box.

One day, looking for trouble, I pointed out on Twitter that the clientele of Nandos was far more representative of the population of Stoke Newington than those of the cupcake cafes. I knew this from experience. In Nandos, there were always children and people who weren’t white or middle-class. This was quite different from the cupcake cafes. A bearded man took me to task. He spoke up for one of the cupcake cafés, which we’ll call Lily’s. I played devil’s advocate for the chicken chain. Our exchange went something like this:

Bearded man: The food in Lily’s is really healthy. Not that mass-produced rubbish in Nando’s.

 Me: I’m sure it is very healthy. But I’m talking about the customers’ diversity.

 Bearded man: Nando’s doesn’t pay enough in taxes.

 Me: I’ve read that. But I’m asking you about their clientele’s diversity.

 Bearded man: Everyone is welcome at Lily’s Café.

 Me: I’m sure they are. But my point is that, at present, Nando’s customers are more economically and ethnically diverse. Do you agree?

 Bearded man: That corporate chain is destroying the community!

 Me (losing patience): OK. Define “the community…”

I don’t know if Bearded Man was an admirer of Corbyn. But I submit that his response to my Twitter challenge revealed several things about the instincts that sustain the Corbynite vision at large. Here are three:

One: an automatic assumption that popular success, in whatever field, can only ever be deleterious, inauthentic and, despite appearances to the contrary, unattractive.

Two: a definition of the common good that risks excluding poorer and marginalised members of society, and might appear a bit presumptuous.

Three: an indignant deafness to inconvenient truths, in this case the obvious social fact that only a certain sort of Stoke Newington person is drawn to Church Street’s cupcake cafés, not “the community” as a whole.

This does not mean that those cafes – or indeed their cupcakes – are not nice. It does not mean that criticisms of Nando’s must be invalid. It does not mean there is no case for better protecting high street distinctiveness and variety. But it does mean that winning any argument along those lines needs to take on board the views and interests of people who may not share the same ones as you, and strike balances accordingly.

Perhaps the Bearded Man position is more nuanced that I’ve given it credit for. Whatever, it is a telling indicator of the pervasiveness and the resilience of values that informed the Corbynite insurgence and still sustain it. It’s no coincidence that Abbott is one of Corbyn’s most loyal supporters. Her seat, just like Corbyn’s, contains many people struggling to make ends meet. Yet it’s the affluent who account for the bulk of Hackney’s increased population this century, just as they make up the bulk of Labour members across the country who joined – or, in the case of nearly one third of them, rejoined – after May 2015, when the contest to succeed Ed Miliband began. Corbynism has revived a credo whose time seemed to have gone. But in Church Street, they’ve kept the faith.


In autumn 2015, straight after watching Corbyn make his first leader’s speech to the Labour Party conference, I sent texts to people I knew who were among his close lieutenants at the time. I told them well done and meant it. No, it hadn’t been visionary oratory, but it was probably the best their man could have done in the dizzying circumstances of his triumph. Convention had demanded a regretful critique of Labour’s glum defeat a few months before, but I didn’t need atonement rituals. Soon, I was enjoying things about Corbyn: early rejections of immigrant bashing and “skiver” blaming; the short shrift he gave journalists who pestered him with inanities. I dared to hope some good might come of him.

That hope disappeared within a month. His obvious need to broaden his appeal to a diffuse mass of British people – the apathetic, the swing voters, those who’d deserted Labour for Ukip or the SNP – were he to lead Labour out of its slough, appeared to be one that didn’t interest him too much. Instead of bringing in advisers who could help him with that complex and evolving task, he drew exclusively from the narrowly like-minded. Instead of reaching out, he withdrew. The people I knew who’d worked for him – people who’ve been around the block and, unlike Corbyn himself, had to deal with the dilemmas that come with seeking and deploying real power – were either sidelined or gave up in despair.

The following summer, a senior London Labour politician who’d backed Corbyn the year before revealed to me that he hoped Owen Smith’s leadership challenge would succeed.

“You’ve betrayed Jeremy!” I teased.

“No,” he replied. “Jeremy has betrayed us.”

I asked him to explain. “The incompetence,” was his simple reply.

Already, Labour was sinking. This was howlingly apparent to all but those in a position to prevent it: the “selectorate” of party members, registered supporters and members of affiliated organisations, mostly unions, who could have voted him out. Corbyn saw off Smith with ease. In consolidating his dominance, he did the same with his party’s impotence.

Yet this calamity seemed as invisible to his army of admirers as it did to Corbyn himself. What did it matter, they proclaimed, if the polls said that support for the party had nosedived? More and more people had joined it, hadn’t they? Thousands were coming to Jeremy’s rallies!

Here it was again: that hope; that optimism; that belief. The sledgehammer truth that people who join political parties and go to political rallies – especially the sorts of people who do so to praise politicians like Corbyn – are not remotely representative of the population as a whole and that their zeal almost certainly puts off more voters than it inspires, did not appear to trouble the enraptured.

They seemed far more concerned with blaming journalists. This became apparent to any who even gently questioned Corbyn’s sanctity or simply failed to adore him sufficiently. A happy clappy social network meme proclaimed “we are his media.” Dear God. Guardian writers received some of the most vicious scorn from such quarters, because their apostasy was deemed the gravest. And yet some of them were among those who clung most firmly to the line that “Jeremy” was the answer to Britain’s ills rather than the end of hope of removing the Conservatives from power for many years. Some are still clinging, if not to Corbyn himself, then to his notion of Labour as a grassroots protest movement, transforming society from below.

Just as amazingly, others from the liberal intelligentsia have devoted thousands of words to upbraiding the Guardian for not backing Corbyn eagerly enough. The reality is that the country’s principal voice of the middle-class left is losing money hand over fist and has rather indulged the Labour leader. It cannot afford to do otherwise – too many of its readers are his congregants. One of the distinctive things about Corbynism’s North London seedbed is that Guardian newspapers aren’t hard to find there. Can this be said of any other part of England? And the Guardian’s office is still in Islington.

So now the one big uncertainty about the election result surrounds how complete the Conservatives’ win will be and how heavy Labour’s defeat. Many have observed that Theresa May went to the country for internal party reasons, needing the protection of an unassailable majority for when the Brexit wheels come off. She’s going about securing it by inviting voters to take a good, long look at Corbyn and in so doing be confirmed that he is nowhere near up to running the country.

Corbyn’s aims look to be very similar: his presentation of himself as the anti-establishment bearer of “straight-talking, honest politics” could hardly be better designed to gratify those who made him Labour leader and will therefore insulate him against the direst recriminations once the slaughter of 8 June has occurred.

That won’t be a lot of use to the dozens of Labour MPs, including around ten in London, who look set to lose marginal seats. It won’t be much help to the millions of British people who might have got a better deal from a Labour government than they will under a Tory one, including thousands in Islington North, where the child poverty rate runs at 38%.

But Corbyn, with his mountainous majority, is unlikely to be one of those out of a job. He won’t be blamed by those whose approval has got him where he is. Rather, they will applaud him for his principles, his pieties, his purity in defeat. He might cease to be the messiah, but his martyrdom will be complete.

Dave Hill is the Guardian’s former London commentator and now publishes his own website about the capital.

Dave Hill writes about London. Find him on Twitter as @DaveHill.


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