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The neo-Georgian Prime Minister

By the time he stands down, David Cameron's Britain will be neo-Georgian – a country that is, in effect, governed by a coterie of wealthy families competing for power.

An endearing story has it that when the aged Stanley Baldwin was asked at a meeting which ideas had influenced him, he replied – much to everyone’s surprise – that his view of politics had been shaped by the Victorian jurist Henry Maine. Baldwin, who had been prime minister three times and had dominated British politics during the interwar years, was not known for having a strong interest in political philosophy. Yet he took from Maine, he said, a belief that guided him through his political life. From a system founded on hierarchy and command, governance was moving towards one based on agreement and consent; society was advancing from status to contract. At this point, Baldwin paused, seemingly deep in thought: “Or was it the other way round?”

A much subtler figure than he liked to appear, Baldwin was most likely pulling his audience’s leg. It is not easy to imagine David Cameron displaying any such self-deprecating wit. Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon begin and end Cameron at 10 (William Collins), their recent account of the Prime Minister’s first five years in power, by asking whether he “has claim to be considered the 21st-century Baldwin”. But the differences between the two are more instructive than any similarities there may be.

Like Baldwin, who knew how to use the power of radio to craft an image of himself as a rather ordinary person who just happened to be prime minister, Cameron has lodged himself in voters’ minds as someone who, despite his privileged background, understands their everyday concerns. Yet there can be few who view him as having Baldwin’s reliably sound judgement. A prime minister who almost triggered the break-up of the United Kingdom with his slapdash management of the Scottish independence referendum and became the first head of a British government since 1782 to be defeated in the Commons on a matter of war (when he lost the vote to take military action in Syria in 2013) does not leave an impression of being a steady hand on the tiller.

While Baldwin’s bluff exterior concealed a sceptical intelligence, there is no reason to suppose that Cameron is anything other than he appears to be – impressively quick on the uptake but, in essence, unthinking. This may be why he has been such a successful practitioner of the Blairite politics of perception management. If there were anything hidden beneath Cameron’s changing appearances, the successive faces he has projected into the world could have looked inauthentic.

These shifts are in character. From urging greater understanding of young offenders in 2006 – a stance mocked as urging people to “hug a hoodie” – he shifted to bewailing “broken Britain” in the run-up to the 2010 general election. Having presented an image of himself as a green crusader, he appointed a climate-change sceptic, Owen Paterson, as environment secretary in 2012. Around the same time, according to Call Me Dave (Biteback), Michael Ashcroft’s and Isabel Oakeshott’s much-discussed unauthorised biography, Cameron protested, during an internal debate about whether British farmers should do more conservation work in return for EU subsidies: “Why should we be the only saint in the brothel?” Soon after the election in May this year, he began dismantling renewable energy subsidies.

Such turns are the stuff of politics. But Cameron carries them off with exceptional ease and the reason for this is not that he is unusually skilful in duplicity. Instead, the figure that emerges from these two, quite different, but in some ways equally revealing books is of someone who does not need to dissemble because there is nothing beneath the surface. More than Tony Blair, whose ability to read the public mood was accompanied by a streak of messianic zeal that eventually destroyed him, Cameron is an archetypal embodiment of the hypermodern leader – prophetically anticipated by the Austrian novelist Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities (1930-43) – who succeeds by going nowhere. Cameron is a devoted moderniser who sees himself as a force for progress. Yet he has no particular destination or direction in mind and moves on easily from accidents that have derailed others. The stench of Iraq will surround Blair for the rest of his days. In contrast, Cameron has left behind his ruinous adventure in Libya with barely a stain on him.

It is often asked what vision of society Cameron promotes, yet it is only when you stop looking for any inner core of beliefs that you begin to get the measure of the man. Ashcroft and Oakeshott report a friend who knew him for more than a decade as observing, “He has rarely expressed any strong views in his life.” It is a trait that has served the Prime Minister well. Unburdened by conventional notions of Tory government, he was able to move quickly to seize the opportunity of power through coalition with the Liberal Democrats.


The same freedom from fixed beliefs probably accounts for his most surprising initiative – pushing through same-sex marriage. A civilising measure that may come to be seen as his most lasting achievement, it was opposed at all levels of his party. It is to Cameron’s credit that he overrode this resistance. Yet even in this case Cameron’s stance was not based on any definite conviction. Having once voted in favour of a Conservative motion to retain a version of Section 28, Cameron shifted his views in the year before he become leader: in 2004, he voted in favour of civil partnerships. Ashcroft and Oakeshott recall how, later, in the run-up to the 2010 election, the Conservative leader “took the bold step of apologising for Section 28, telling a Gay Pride event that his party ‘got it wrong’”. It is hard to resist the thought that for him the matter was primarily one of brand management. However much he has tacked and trimmed, Cameron has remained faithful to the view of politics as a branch of advertising which he learned from Blair.

Written throughout in an off-putting present tense, Cameron at 10 is a half-term report, exhaustively and minutely detailed, which will be indispensable to future his­torians. But most readers will soon tire of its relentless blandness. Significant episodes are often lost in the dull narrative that surrounds them and when the authors venture to make a judgement it is thoroughly anodyne: Cameron, they conclude, is “a figure of real historical interest and substance”. Matthew d’Ancona’s In It Together (2013) is a far more compelling narrative of the coalition years, told with style and verve by a genuine insider.

Widely interpreted as payback for Cameron’s failure to reward Lord Ashcroft with a senior position in government, Call Me Dave has been criticised for the lurid tales it contains of Cameron’s time at Oxford. It is a pity that the authors felt it necessary to dwell on such tittle-tattle. There are more important issues arising from his career than from the undergraduate parties he attended, and Ashcroft’s and Oakeshott’s unforgiving account of his manoeuvrings has a cutting edge that is lacking in Seldon and Snowdon’s recitation of events.

The defining feature of Cameron’s career is a chronic disconnect between words, deeds and consequences. He is at his best when all that is needed from him is little more than a public declaration. He became party leader largely on the strength of a single speech that he delivered from memory at the October 2005 Conservative party conference. In what may be his finest hour, his apology in 2010 for the events of Bloody Sunday, he was brilliantly effective because no further action was required from him.

Cameron’s work as director of corporate affairs for the media company Carlton Communications, his only professional experience outside Westminster and a position he acquired by way of an intervention on the part of Annabel Astor, the mother of his future wife, Samantha, seems to have had a formative impact. In the world of PR, actions are episodic and discontinuous and their consequences ignored unless they have some immediate effect. All that matters is having a serviceable story, which is constructed to serve the purposes of the day, then discarded and forgotten.

Cameron’s defence and foreign policies are a case in point. He has strutted about belligerently, launching regime change in Libya that has left that country a jihadist-infested hellhole, and he still talks of removing Bashar al-Assad from Syria, though the result would be blood-soaked anarchy on a much larger scale. He seems not to have absorbed the reality that the question is out of Britain’s hands now that Russia has intervened and the United States is, in effect, withdrawing from Syria.

Britain’s military capacities have in any case been severely curtailed by the scale of the defence cuts he has implemented. Seldon and Snowdon write limply of Cameron’s foreign policy record: “Some say he lacks the strategic grasp of [Nick] Clegg or [George] Osborne and lacks a vision of Britain’s place in the world of a Thatcher or Blair. He is criticised for making hasty rather than considered judgements.” More revealingly, Ashcroft and Oakeshott cite the assessment of the former chief of the defence staff David Richards, who in the course of the Libya campaign told the Prime Minister that “being in the combined defence force at Eton was not a qualification for running the tactical detail of a complex coalition war effort”.

A certain carelessness runs throughout his approach to policymaking. Having declared the National Health Service his top priority in 2006, Cameron presided over Andrew Lansley’s botched reforms and then seemingly lost interest. Searching for a slogan that could give some sort of rationale to his policies, he fastened on “the big society” but his failure to give the idea any practical content led ultimately to the departure of his policy guru Steve Hilton, who may have taken Cameron’s demand for new thinking too seriously. Today, much of the work of government has been contracted out to Osborne, whose steely intelligence is turning a process of drift into something more like a coherent project.

What is emerging isn’t exactly Thatcherite, or neoliberal. Instead, it is a variety of mercantilism, with government not retreating from the marketplace but actively reshaping it so that it better serves the interests of trade and wealth accumulation. The current push to expand Britain’s economic links with China shows Osborne and Cameron using the power of government to guide the market in a way that would horrify any disciple of Milton Friedman. Strangely, this neo-mercantilism goes with a remarkably sunny attitude towards globalisation. It is hard to envision Margaret Thatcher being happy with the role of Chinese money and expertise in Britain’s strategically sensitive nuclear industry. Britain’s openness to world markets has direct social and economic costs – including the imminent loss of the country’s steel industry – and geopolitical risks are being disregarded casually. There is no sign of Palmerston’s realistic perception that today’s friends are also Britain’s rivals, and that they may some day become its enemies.

The Britain Cameron will leave behind when he departs for a life of chillaxing and shooting won’t be one modelled on a version of Victorian values. It will be neo-Georgian: a country that is, in effect, governed by a coterie of wealthy families that collude and compete for power and influence.

Cameron made a shrewd bid for the centre ground in a powerful speech at the Manchester party conference this month. But it is hard to reconcile this liberal rhetoric with policies that deepen social divisions, such as the withdrawal of tax credits for the working poor, that further limit social mobility by axing student maintenance grants and remove vital supports for the most vulnerable people in society, which will be the result of scrapping the Disability Living Allowance (a measure framed during the last Thatcher administration and implemented by John Major). Rather than widening opportunity, these are policies that will make personal independence harder for many people to achieve. The end result will be a society in which opportunity is concentrated in a single, self-perpetuating oligarchy.

A glimpse of what this “chumocracy” would produce appeared in Cameron’s honours list in August – a brazen exercise in cronyism that included a peerage for Douglas Hogg, the MP who claimed over £2,000 in expenses for clearing his moat. If the bandwagon rolls on, an 18th-century politics of patronage will become entrenched in 21st-century Britain. But there is a high hurdle to be overcome before this can be set securely in place. The obstacle does not lie in the political system, given that (aside from some restive Tories) the government has no effective opposition. In a performance reminiscent of Peter Sellers’s Chauncey Gardiner in the film Being There, the Labour leader has emerged from the walled garden of the hard left to wander around the country, dispensing gnomic observations about peace and kindness. It’s a surreal kind of theatre rather than a new type of politics. There is no risk to Cameron here.

It is the promised referendum on Europe – Osborne advised against it, according to Seldon and Snowdon, though the Chancellor denies this – that could destroy Cameron’s dream of making a graceful exit from government. In a fit of absent-mindedness that he may now regret, he let it be known that he would not be standing for a third term. However, he may not last long enough to have the choice. The future for him and for Osborne depends on their ability to return from Brussels with something that can be sold to increasingly mistrustful voters as a fundamental change to Britain’s place in Europe. If the bluff fails, all bets are off. Cameron could hardly survive as leader, and Osborne would be deeply damaged. It is not surprising that Boris Johnson seems to be edging towards supporting Brexit.

Ashcroft and Oakeshott devote many pages of their book to Cameron’s shifting attitudes to Europe, concluding with a reference to his “fundamental Euroscepticism”. The evidence they assemble points in a different direction. For Cameron, Europe has never been much more than a question of party management. The referendum was a wheeze, designed to put off the matter until another day, but now that the day has arrived, he finds himself trapped in a course of events over which he has little control.

The Conservative Party is no longer divided on Europe in the way it used to be. It is solidly Eurosceptic, and whatever Cameron and Osborne bring back from Brussels will be viewed with suspicion. At the same time, public opinion has hardened. As the EU stumbles, saddled with an unworkable currency and paralysed by the migrant crisis, its image as a safe option is giving way to the actuality of a failed experiment. It can no longer be taken for granted that pragmatism favours a continuation of the status quo. Despite all his bluster about renegotiation, this is what the Prime Minister will be offering.

It remains to be seen whether it will be enough. Seen from a longer perspective, David Cameron may turn out to represent the end of an age. If he manages to squeak through the referendum and resigns before the next election as he has promised, he will outlast Stanley Baldwin in the number of years he spends in Downing Street. Yet the politics of image management works only until reality breaks in. The last of the Blairites, Cameron may not be far from reaching that point with his gamble on Europe.

John Gray is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister

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

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister