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The English question

The political community that is England is neither stable nor settled. But something is stirring among Chesterton’s secret people.

From the late 18th century to the early 20th, Britain’s political class wrestled with an Irish Question: how could the British state govern “John Bull’s Other Island” in a way that kept the native Irish quiescent, without jeopardising its own security? When Ireland was partitioned in 1921 the question disappeared from the British political agenda – only to reappear in another guise during the Troubles in Northern Ireland half a century later. It was not laid to rest until the Belfast Agreement of 1998. More recently, politicians and commentators on both sides of the border have had to come to terms with an increasingly intractable Scottish Question: how should the ancient and once independent Scottish nation relate to the other nations of the United Kingdom and to the Westminster parliament? As the convoluted debate provoked by the coming EU referendum shows, a more nebulous English Question now looms in the wings.

Like the Irish and Scottish Questions, it is the child of a complex history. England became a united kingdom in Anglo-Saxon times. It faced external enemies, notably invading Danes, but its kings ruled their own territory with an iron hand. The Norman Conquest substituted francophone rulers and a francophone nobility for these Anglo-Saxon kings; the new elite spoke French, sent their sons to France to be educated and polished and, in many cases, owned territory in France. Simon de Montfort, once credited with founding the English parliament, was a French nobleman as well as an English one. But the kingdom remained united. The Celtic people who had once inhabited what is now England were driven out by the Anglo-Saxons; Lloegr, the Welsh word for England, means “the lost land”. It stayed lost after the Conquest; and indeed, the Norman rulers of England pushed further into Wales than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors had done.

United did not mean peaceful or stable. Henry II, William the Conqueror’s great-grandson, ruled a vast Continental empire stretching from the English Channel to the Pyrenees, as well as England. Inept kings, uppity barons, an aggressive church, restive peasants, a century-long war with France and bitter dynastic rivalries undermined his achievement. But there was no English equivalent to the powerful, de facto independent duchies of Burgundy or Aquitaine in what is now France, or to the medley of principalities, city states and bishoprics that divided Germans and Italians from each other until well into the 19th century. That was still true after the Welshman Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and seized the English crown as Henry VII. His son (who became Henry VIII) was not content with keeping England united. Having broken with the Catholic Church when the Pope refused to annul his first marriage, he made himself head of the Church in England and proclaimed that the realm of England was an “empire”, free from all external authority.

From the upheavals of Henry’s reign and the subtle compromises of his daughter Elizabeth’s emerged the Church of England – an institutional and theological third way between the Catholicism of Rome, on the one hand, and the Protestantism of John Calvin’s Geneva and Martin Luther’s Germany on the other. The Church of England has spoken to and for the English people ever since. Sometimes it has spoken feebly and complacently, as in the 18th century. At other times it has been outspoken and brave, as in the Second World War, when William Temple was the archbishop of Canterbury, and during the 1980s, when a Church of England commission excoriated the Thatcher era’s “crude exaltation” of “individual self-interest”. Despite (or perhaps because of) the subtle compromises embodied in it, the Anglican Church has been prone to schism. “High Church” Anglicans have stressed its Catholic inheritance; followers of the “low” Church have insisted on its Protestantism. Two charismatic High Anglican priests – John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning – converted to Catholicism and ended as cardinals.

Yet these schisms did not affect the laity or diminish the Church’s role in English life. From the end of the English civil wars in 1660 to the late 19th century, England was ruled by the Anglican landed class, the most relaxed and confident governing class in Europe. A bien-pensant, easygoing and undogmatic latitudinarianism shaped relations between church and state. Doctrinal precision was tiresome, even a little vulgar. Wherever possible, differences were fudged: the very Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church are a fudge. There were exceptions. Gladstone’s restless, sometimes tormented religiosity and baffling combination of high ideals with low cunning could hardly have been less easygoing. And as the 19th century wore on, Protestant dissenters, Catholics and even Jews and unbelievers were slowly incorporated into the political nation. Joseph Chamberlain, who did more to make the political weather than any other leader in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and contrived to split both the Liberal and the Conservative parties, was a Unitarian, contemptuous of fudge.

However, the style and mood of English governance were still quintessentially Anglican. Fudge prevailed. Trollope’s political novels are a hymn to fudging. Disraeli, ethnically Jewish, though baptised into the Church of England, was a fudger to his fingertips. In his low-cunning moods, even Gladstone was not above fudging. After the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 the monarchy itself rested on a mountain of fudge: the monarch was an Anglican in England, but a Presbyterian in Scotland. The English and Scottish parliaments were merged into a British parliament, but because England was far more populous and far richer than Scotland, it was the English parliament writ large, and embodied English constitutional doctrine. Equally, the Scots became junior partners in a new British empire, ultimately controlled by the Anglican elite. It won the race for empire against France, but the stiff-necked, pernickety legalism of successive London governments drove its colonies on the seaboard of what is now the United States into revolt and eventual independence.

The Anglican elite learned their lesson. Thereafter, imperial governance was English governance writ large. From an early stage the colonies of settlement, later known as the “white dominions”, were, in effect, self-governing. At first sight, India, “the brightest jewel in the British crown”, was an exception. It was acquired by force and maintained, in the last resort, by force. The Great Rebellion of 1857, once known as the Indian Mutiny, was brutally suppressed. In the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, Brigadier General Dyer ordered his troops to fire on an unarmed and peaceful crowd; they went on firing until their ammunition was exhausted. But the most astonishing feature of the British Raj is that a tiny sliver of British soldiers and administrators somehow managed to govern a subcontinent populated by roughly 250 million subjects. Force alone could not have done this. The Raj depended on indirect rule, on adroit accommodation to local pressures. It would not have survived without the collaboration of Indian elites, and the price of collaboration was a willingness to temper the wind of imperial power to the shorn lamb of Indian hopes and fears.



The Anglo-British story echoed the Indian story. The political, administrative and financial elites in Westminster, Whitehall and the City of London viewed the kingdom they presided over through an Indian lens. British subjects in the mother country were treated like Indian subjects in the Raj. Force lurked in the background, but most of the time it stayed in the background. The Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which mounted cavalry charged into a crowd of as many as 80,000 people demonstrating for greater parliamentary representation at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, was a paler precursor of the Amritsar Massacre; the Rhondda township of Tonypandy, where hussars helped crush a “riot” by striking miners in 1910, lived on in the folk memory of the labour movement for decades. Yet these were exceptions, just as Amritsar was an exception.

Co-option, accommodation and collaboration between the governing elites and lesser elites beyond them were the real hallmarks of British governance. The French saying that there is more in common between two deputies, one of whom is a communist, than there is between two communists, one of whom is a deputy, also applied to Britain. In the cosy Westminster village, insurgent tribunes of the people, from the popular radical John Bright to the fulminating socialist Michael Foot, slowly morphed into grand and harmless old men. Outside the village, subjects were inescapably subjects, not citizens, just as their Indian counterparts were. Sovereignty, absolute and inalienable, belonged to the Crown-in-Parliament, not to the people. And the whole edifice was held together by layer upon layer of fudge.

Now the fudge is beginning to dissolve. The Raj disappeared long ago. The fate of steelworkers in South Wales depends on decisions by an Indian multinational whose headquarters are in Mumbai. The empire on which the sun never set is barely a memory. Unlike her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, the present Queen is not an empress; she has to make do with leading the Commonwealth. In law, the Crown-in-Parliament remains absolutely sovereign and the peoples of the United Kingdom are still subjects, not citizens. But legal principles and political realities diverge. The Anglo-British state whose capital is London and whose parliament stands on the fringes of the Thames is no longer the sole institution that shapes and reflects the political will of the people over whom it presides. There are now four capital cities, four legislatures, four governments and four political systems in the United Kingdom.

The devolved administrations in the non-English nations of the kingdom control swaths of public policy. The parties that lead them vary enormously in ideology and history. The Scottish National Party, which has governed Scotland for nearly nine years, stands for an independent Scotland. In Wales, Labour has been the strongest party since devolution, but it and Plaid Cymru (the “Party of Wales”) have already formed one coalition and may well form another after the elections to the Welsh Assembly next month. No great changes are likely. Almost certainly Wales will continue to be a social-democratic candle in a naughty world. Since the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland has been governed by a power-sharing executive, representing both the republican tradition, embodied in Sinn Fein, and the loyalist tradition, embodied in the Democratic Unionist Party. The sovereign Westminster parliament has the legal right to repeal the devolution statutes, but doing so would amount to a revolution in our uncodified constitution and would destroy the Union.

England is a stranger at the feast. It towers above the others in wealth, in population and in political clout. It has almost 84 per cent of the UK population. Scotland has just under 8.5 per cent, Wales just under 5 per cent and Northern Ireland less than 3 per cent. Yet there is no English parliament or government. In times past, English people have often treated the words “English” and “British” as synonyms, but devolution to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures and administrations has made a nonsense of this lazy conflation.


England and the English now face the primordial questions that face all self-conscious political communities: “Who are we?”, “Who do we want to be?” At bottom, these questions are philosophical, in a profound sense moral, not economic or institutional. They have to do with the intangibles of culture and sentiment, not the outward forms that clothe them. In stable and settled political communities they are rarely discussed. They don’t need to be. But the political community that is England is neither stable nor settled. Fuelled in part by resentment of the alleged unfairness of the devolution process and in part by the psychic wound left by the end of the Anglo-British empire, an inchoate, grouchy English nationalism is now a force to be reckoned with. St George’s flags flying on 23 April; the extraordinary rise of Ukip; David Cameron’s panic-stricken attempt to “renegotiate” Britain’s role in the European Union – all tell the same story: the “secret people of England”, as G K Chesterton called them, are secret no longer.

But that is not an answer to my questions. It only shows that they are urgent. At the moment, two answers hold the field. The first – the answer embodied in the Cameron government’s “Project Fear” over the UK’s membership of the EU – is essentially deracinated. For the globetrotting super-rich, the financial services sector, the Bank of England and the managers of the Union state, England consists of London and the more salubrious parts of the south-east. The answer to the English Question is that there is no such question. The notion that the English have to decide who they are and who they want to be is a backward-looking fantasy. Globalisation has overwhelmed the specificities of English culture and experience. The English buy and sell in the global marketplace and they face global threats. Membership of an EU made safe for market fundamentalism offers the best available route to security and prosperity in an ever more globalised world.

The second answer – the answer implicit in Eurosceptic rhetoric – is romantically ­archaic. At its heart is a vision of England as a sea-girt and providential nation, cut off from the European mainland by a thousand years of history and a unique constitutional arrangement. It harks back to Shakespeare’s hymn to England as a “jewel set in the silver sea”; to Henry Newbolt’s poem “Drake’s Drum”, evoking the memory of gallant English mariners driving the top-heavy galleons of the Spanish Armada up the Channel to their doom; and to Nelson dying gloriously at Trafalgar at the climax of his greatest victory. It fortified Margaret Thatcher during the nail-biting weeks of the Falklands War; it inspired Enoch Powell’s passionate depiction of post-imperial England as the reincarnation of the England of Edward the Confessor: an England whose unity was “effortless and unconstrained” and which accepted the “unlimited supremacy of Crown-in-Parliament so naturally as not to be aware of it”. As Powell saw more clearly than anyone else, this vision rules out EU membership.

No one with progressive instincts can possibly be satisfied with either of these answers. The great question is whether there is a better one. I think there is, but I can’t pretend that it is easy or comfortable. It is republican in spirit – which does not entail getting rid of the monarchy, as the many Continental monarchies show. It embodies a tradition stretching back to England’s brief but inspiring republican experiment during the civil wars of the 17th century, and before that to Renaissance Italy and Republican Rome. Central to it is the notion of “neo-Roman liberty”: of liberty as freedom from domination, from dependence on another’s will. John Milton was its most eloquent English exponent, in prose and verse, but it also inspired Tom Paine’s contempt for hereditary rule and the “foppery” that went with it. In the 20th century its most engaging champion was R H Tawney, the ethical socialist, economic historian and foe of the “religion of inequality”, its “great God Mumbo-Jumbo” and the “servile respect for wealth and social position” it inculcated.

The goal is clear: a republican England in a republican Britain and a republican Britain in a republican Europe. The obstacles are formidable. As the founders of the American republic discovered, republican liberty entails federal union, combining diversity at the base with unity at the centre; and for that there are few takers. But Gramsci was right. Pessimism of the intellect should go hand in hand with optimism of the will. There is all too much pessimism of the intellect on the British left. It is time for some optimism of the will.

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

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 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war