Show Hide image

The new ruling class

If the polls are to be believed, the Conservative Party is heading for government in 2010, ending 13 years in the political wilderness. So who are the men, and women (yes, there are one or two), jostling for power around Prime Minister Cameron?

David Cameron, 43

Leader of the Conservative Party
Education Eton College. Oxford University
Wealth £3.2m*
Expected to inherit million-pound legacies from both sides of his family, David Cameron comes from a long line of stockbrokers. A direct descendant of King William IV, he is the fifth cousin twice removed of Queen Elizabeth II, and reportedly got his first job in the Conservative Research Department after one of the Queen's equerries intervened on his behalf. A former member of Oxford's notorious Bullingdon Club, Cameron - who said that the large expenses claimed on his constituency home were an "inadvertent mistake" - was described by Norman Lamont as a "brilliant Old Etonian with a taste for the good life".

* This and other wealth figures are estimates

George Osborne, 38
Shadow chancellor
Education St Paul's School, London. Oxford University
Wealth £4.3m
George Gideon Osborne stands to inherit the Osborne baronetcy of Ballentaylor in County Tipperary, Ireland, as well as a substantial share of Osborne & Little, his father's luxury wall­paper company. Not that he needs the money - he already benefits from a company trust fund, and as a backbencher commanded fees of up to £5,000 per article for the Spectator and Associated Newspapers. A former member of the Bullingdon Club, he is very much part of the old boy network, as shown by last year's scandal involving Osborne, his old friend Nat Rothschild, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and a yacht in Corfu.

Oliver Letwin, 53
Chairman of the Conservative Party's Policy Review/Research Department
Education Eton College. Cambridge University
Wealth £1.5m
Despite earning £145 an hour for consultancy work at N M Rothschild & Son, Oliver Letwin claimed £2,000 in parliamentary expenses to replace a leaking pipe in his tennis court. He once said he would rather "go out in the streets and beg" than send his children to a London comprehensive, and during the 2001 election argued that the Conservatives should cut future public spending by £20bn a year relative to Labour proposals. His suggestion was so unpopular that he was forced to stay out of the public eye for the duration of the campaign.

Andrew Lansley, 53
Shadow health secretary
Education Brentwood School, Essex. Exeter University
Wealth £700,000
Andrew Lansley, who earns an extra £29,000 a year for 12 days' work at a marketing agency, spent more than £4,000 of taxpayers' money renovating his country home months before he sold it and flipped his expenses claim to his London flat, where he spent thousands more. Last year, Lansley caused outrage with a blog entry on the Conservative Party website arguing that a recession could be "good for us", as people could "spend time at home with their families". The potential future health secretary also has some insight into obesity, saying that "people who see more fat people around them may themselves be more likely to gain weight".

David Willetts, 53
Shadow universities and skills manager
Education King Edward VI, Birmingham. Oxford University
Wealth £1.9m
David Willetts makes £80,000 a year from 40 days' work as adviser to Punter Southall, and is also paid as chairman of Universal Sensors Ltd, but he still tried to claim £750 for a shed base and £175 for a dog pen on expenses last year.

Francis Maude, 56
Shadow minister for the Cabinet Office/ chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Education Abingdon School, Oxfordshire. Cambridge University
Wealth £3m
Francis Maude, a former director of Morgan Stanley, juggles an array of non-executive financial positions. These bring him £68,600 a year, but luckily don't require too many hours - Barclays pays him £36,700 for six days' work. Maude, who has railed against the irresponsibility of mortgage lenders, banked £100,000-plus as director of a financial services group that profited from sub-prime mortgages. Despite owning four properties, he claimed almost £35,000 in two years for interest payments on a London flat just yards from his house.

Michael Gove, 42
Shadow schools secretary
Education Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen. Oxford University
Wealth £1m
A self-proclaimed neoconservative and former journalist, Michael Gove still writes a weekly column for the Times, which pays him £5,000 a month. Gove has boasted that it takes him an hour a week to write it. This makes his hourly wage more than £1,100 - 127 times higher than the average salary in his constituency, Surrey Heath. He tops this up through contributions to other titles, including Scotland on Sunday and Building Magazine. Gove is a signatory to the Henry Jackson Society, a "project for democratic geopolitics" that advocates a proactive approach to spreading democracy, by military intervention if necessary. Last year, he described the invasion of Iraq as "a proper British foreign policy success".

Liam Fox, 48
Shadow defence secretary
Education St Bride's High School, East Kilbride. Glasgow University
Wealth £1m
Fox, a former GP, may lambast the public sector for its inefficiencies and "bloated administration", but he is not so thrifty himself. Despite earning £25,000 a year by lecturing for the medical educational firm Arrest Ltd (14 days' work), he claimed almost £19,000 of taxpayers' money for his mobile phone bill. A staunch Eurosceptic and strong believer in the "special relationship" with America, Fox said recently a Conservative government would be "sympathetic" to a request for thousands more troops in Afghanistan.

Andrew Mitchell, 53
Shadow international development secretary
Education Rugby School. Cambridge University
Wealth £2m
Mitchell, an ex-merchant banker racks up £43,500 every year for financial advisory and consultancy roles that involve a few hours' work each week, as well as owning shares worth up to £180,000. But it's obviously not enough - last year he claimed more than £21,000 for cleaning and redecorating his constituency home. In 2004 he asked the Commons Fees Office to pay him £2,000 a month from his MPs' additional cost allowance "until it is exhausted". Mitchell said last year that the recession was an "incredibly good moment" for the party.

Caroline Spelman, 51
Shadow communities and local government secretary
Education Herts and Essex Grammar School, Bishop's Stortford, Essex. University of London
Wealth £1.5m
Caroline Spelman co-owns Spelman, Cormack & Associates, a food and biotechnology business, with her husband. They also own three properties, including a four-storey Georgian townhouse in London, with an estimated combined value of £5m. In 1997-98, she misused the parliamentary staffing allowance to pay her nanny. The expenses revelations this year showed that she received £40,000 for bills and cleaning for her constituency home, despite her husband claiming it was their main home. In 2005, she attacked proposals on revaluing council tax. Ironically enough, for the 2007-2008 financial year she overclaimed hundreds of pounds on her own council tax.

Lord Strathclyde, 49
Leader of the opposition in the Lords
Education Wellington College. University of East Anglia
Wealth £10m
The majority shareholder in the family estate management company Auchendrane Estates, worth roughly £6m, Lord Strathclyde holds down a plethora of paid directorships for hedge funds and investment companies. One of them is Galena, the investment management arm of Trafigura, a controversial oil trader recently found to be dumping toxic waste in Africa. He said that Trafigura's other activities fell "well outside the terms of my remit".

William Hague, 48
Shadow foreign secretary
Education Wath-on-Dearne Comprehensive School, Rotherham. Oxford University
Wealth £2.2m
Earning up to £10,000 for an appearance, Hague is a stalwart of the Conservative after-dinner speaking circuit. As a non-executive director of JCB, he was paid £50,000 a year and went on to a directorship at AES Engineering, receiving £25,000 a year. He has been paid up to £1,041 an hour for his consultancy work, a wage rate 113 times higher than the average among his constituents in Richmond, Yorkshire. Hague reportedly threatened to walk out when Cameron suggested forcing the shadow cabinet to give up second jobs.

Chris Grayling, 47
Shadow home secretary
Education Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Cambridge University
Wealth £500,000
Chris Grayling, worth only half a million, is a real man of the people. The proprietor of four London homes, he still billed a £40,000 second-home refurbishment to the state. So in touch is the former BBC producer with the reality of life in Britain, that he compared the country's streets to those of Baltimore on the US television drama The Wire, and came up with the idea of deterring young criminals by taking away their mobile phones.

Lord Ashcroft, 62
Conservative Party deputy chairman
Education Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Mid-Essex Technical College
Wealth £1.1bn
Lord Ashcroft, the Tories' fairy godmother, has donated millions to the Conservative Party since the 1980s, personally guaranteeing its overdraft when it was reportedly £3m in the red. He makes a habit of political donation, and has been accused of wielding undue political influence in Belize, where he has extensive business interests. He does not say whether he pays tax in the UK, and the Electoral Commission is investigating whether his company fits strict rules on overseas donations.

Dominic Grieve, 53
Shadow justice secretary and shadow attorney general
Education Westminster School, London. Oxford University
Wealth £3.1m
A barrister and QC, Dominic Grieve supplements his income with shareholdings in 13 firms, most notably with £240,000 worth of shares in companies operating in Zimbabwe. Apparently £3.1m doesn't go very far towards keeping a second home - Grieve was forced to bill the government £18,668 in maintenance costs last year. A traditionalist who has voted against bills promoting gay rights, he has praised the Victorian era for its "sense of moral values".

Philip Hammond, 53
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury
Education Shenfield School, Brentwood, Essex. Oxford University
Wealth £9m
Hammond enjoys a lucrative directorship at Castlemead Property, in which he has shares worth £4.9m, but that didn't stop him claiming £23,075 - £8 short of the maximum - for his second home in London. He now promises to oversee swingeing cuts in public spending in an emergency post-election budget. He has said it is "absolutely not the case" that public-sector workers are dreading cuts, feeling instead a "sense of liberation".

Owen Paterson, 54
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary
Education Radley College. Cambridge University
Wealth £1.5m
Paterson, married to the 4th Viscount Ridley's daughter, owns a large country estate in his North Shropshire constituency (he voted strongly against the hunting ban). He is a member of the Cornerstone Group, which published a report describing the NHS as "Stalinist" and calling for it to be replaced.

Jeremy Hunt, 42
Shadow culture, media and sport secretary
Education Charterhouse School. Oxford University
Wealth £4.1m
Hunt is paid £1,000 a month for two hours of business advice to Hotcourses Ltd, an educational guide publisher, and enjoyed a £245,181 dividend payment from the company in 2006. He still felt hard-pressed enough to submit an invoice for 1p for a 12- second mobile phone call.

Gregory Barker, 43
Shadow minister for energy and
climate change
Education Steyning Grammar School, West Sussex. Royal Holloway, University of London
Wealth £3.9m
Gregory Barker, a former adviser to the Russian billionaire and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, reportedly made millions when he sold his stake in a recruitment advertising firm, and continues to rake in cash as director of Flare View, a property investment company, and as an adviser for Pegasus Capital Advisors. He made a £320,000 profit in just over two years by using the second-home allowance
to buy and sell a house in the exclusive borough of Chelsea, in central London.

Philip Dunne, 51
Conservative whip/deputy chairman
Education Eton College. Oxford University
Wealth £5m
Dunne, a super-rich backbencher has had a 20-year career spanning investment banks in London, New York and Hong Kong, as well as Ottakar's bookshop, which he co-founded. The son of Sir Thomas Dunne, the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, he has done all this while looking after the family farming estate.

Brooks Newmark, 51
Conservative whip
Education Bedford School, Bedfordshire. Harvard University. Oxford University
Wealth £3.2m
Yet another Conservative MP with a high-flying background in the world of finance, Brooks Newmark held a senior role at Lehman Brothers, and spent eight years at a British merchant bank. He now owns the investment firm Telesis Management and has shares in two other investment firms, from which he gets undisclosed payments.

Zac Goldsmith, 34
Conservative parliamentary candidate
Education Eton College (expelled). Cambridge Centre for Sixth-Form Studies
Wealth £300m
Son of Sir James Goldsmith and his third wife, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Frank Zacharias Robin Goldsmith is an environmentalist and socialite. An odd combination, perhaps, but both grandfathers were Conservative MPs, so he is walking a well-trodden path.

Michael Spencer, 53
Conservative Party treasurer
Education Worth Abbey, West Sussex. Oxford University
Wealth £250m
A close friend of Cameron's, Spencer owns a 21 per cent stake worth £474m in the money broker Icap, which he set up in 1986. He was caught up in controversy last year when it emerged he had pledged his stake in the investment bank Numis as security for a loan, a legal grey area. When he did sell his shares, he made only £16m - a third of what he would have gained in 2006 when shares were at their peak. It's a hard life.

Research by Samira Shackle, Stephanie Hegarty and George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people

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

The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people