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Fantasy politics

Labour holds on to power in the general election, just. David Cameron survives an attempted coup. Th

Who would have thought that 2010 would be the most dramatic year in British politics in a generation? It started, after all, with the Conservatives still riding high, 10 points ahead in the polls despite signs of a limited Labour revival. In January, the media consensus still pointed to a comfortable Tory victory, if not by a landslide, then with a clear overall majority.

Labour's problems seemed to deepen when, as British soldiers continued to die in Afghan­istan, Tony Blair appeared before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. The panel focused on the 2002 memo from his foreign policy adviser David Manning, outlining the then prime minister's commitment to "regime change". Blair once more offered an impassioned "moral" case for Saddam Hussein's removal but - as the country was again reminded of the inconsis­tencies behind the decision to invade - support for Labour fell below 30 per cent in the polls. Meanwhile, the Tories, who had supported the invasion, were flatlining in the late thirties and the Liberal Democrats, who had opposed it, rose surprisingly to the mid-twenties.

Emboldened, Nick Clegg chose the occasion of the London summit on Afghanistan, on 28 January, to call for troop withdrawal. In doing so, he spurned the private advice of Paddy Ashdown, preferring to follow the example of Charles Kennedy, who had bravely stood against the Iraq action seven years earlier.

As popular enthusiasm for his party increased, Clegg faced repeated questions over which way he would jump in the event of a hung parliament. At first, he stuck to the policy of "equidistance", insisting that he would back whichever party had the most votes. However, as the election drew near, Lib Dem sources began to brief journalists that Labour was the party's more natural ally.

Brown remained personally unpopular during the early months of the year but his con­fidence grew as it became clear that a group of disillusioned MPs, led by Charles Clarke, would not rebel against his leadership. Rediscovering his ruthless streak, Brown incessantly highlighted David Cameron's proposed cut in inheritance tax for the country's 3,000 richest estates. The Conservative policy was reported to have divided the shadow cabinet, but Cameron defied calls for a U-turn and confirmed that a higher tax threshold would be a firm Tory manifesto pledge - to the delight of Labour strategists.

At the end of February, with the gap between the parties narrowing, Brown ruled out a 25 March election. The following month, Alistair Darling delivered Labour's boldest Budget since coming to office in 1997. Called the second People's Budget, after that of Lloyd George in 1909, it placed those earning £100,000 or more in the 50 per cent income-tax bracket. It widened the divide between Labour and the Tories further by raising inheritance tax to 60 per cent for estates worth more than £1m, in order to balance out extensive public expenditure cuts.

As Labour continued to shore up its support base, the Sun stepped up its vilification of Brown, focusing on his alleged "health" problems and at one point asking on its front page: "WOULD YOU TRUST THIS MAN WITH YOUR KIDS?" But the tactic backfired, as it had done with Brown's letters to parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and Rupert Murdoch's most populist outlet found itself firmly on the wrong side of public opinion.

It was against this backdrop that Britain went to the polls on Thursday 6 May for the most closely fought election since 1992. By polling day, Labour had secured the support of only the Mirror, the Independent on Sunday and, in spite of internal divisions, the New Statesman. Exit polls on the BBC and ITV predicted a Tory victory of between 30 and 50 seats; only Sky News forecast a hung parliament.

It was all the more shocking, therefore, when the following morning it emerged that Labour had scraped through as the largest single party in parliament. (Elsewhere, the BNP failed to gain a seat and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party lost in Buckingham to the newly popular reforming Speaker, John Bercow.)

It was a spectacular turnaround for Brown, written off by almost everyone in Westminster since the "election that never was" in the autumn of 2007. Even his own MPs dared not believe that he could win an unprecedented fourth term for Labour. Election analysts declared that when the voters got to the polling booths, they opted for the "devil they knew".

The recriminations were immediate. First, Cameron, who had warned against Tory complacency but always expected victory, took the unusual step of demanding a rerun of the election. Some Tory MPs called on the Queen to intervene, and public pressure increased on the Lib Dems to form a coalition with the Con­servatives. After several days of consultation, Clegg said he would back the will of the people and that he was prepared to give Brown the "benefit of the doubt".

The Tory party was ravaged by infighting of a kind not seen in a decade. Cameron's attempts at "modernisation" had failed to win the election, according to his detractors. On the major issues, from Europe to tax to immigration, he had fought shy of challenging his own party, as Neil Kinnock did with his battle against Militant in 1985, or as Blair did with his campaign to abolish Labour's Clause Four in 1994. Pre-election talk that Cameron had brought his party to the centre ground turned out to be misguided, but that perception had remained.

And so, having already tried the "core vote" strategy of William Hague and Michael Howard, the Tories were left feeling as if they had nowhere to turn. David Davis challenged for the party leadership from the backbenches but Cameron narrowly survived.

Meanwhile, Brown reshuffled his cabinet. Yet again, he tried to make his old ally Ed Balls chancellor but the increasingly popular Darling held his ground once more, after winning plaudits from finance ministers around the world for his handling of the economy. Instead, Brown rewarded his political saviour Peter Mandelson with the job of Foreign Secretary, which he had long coveted. Mandelson's predecessor, David Miliband, declined an offer to become Home Secretary and returned to the back benches.

This inevitably renewed talk of a leadership contest and, by the end of the year, four names were in the frame: David Miliband, Balls, an increasingly impressive Harriet Harman, and James Purnell. But Brown defied them all. Bolstered at last with a mandate of his own, he pressed on until the end of the year, winning an electoral reform referendum. He also called Alex Salmond's bluff, rescuing the Union with a Scottish referendum that resulted in a resounding 70-30 vote against independence.

Then, surprising everyone, Brown oversaw a smooth transition of his own, handing what he called the "Labour torch" to a new generation. With supreme irony, having secured his domestic legacy, he won the EU presidency Blair had failed to win, after the unimpressive Herman van Rompuy was forced out when his attempts to block Turkish accession were opposed by member states, including Britain.

In December, the new Prime Minister, Ed Miliband, walked unchallenged in to No 10 and immediately recalled his brother, David, to serve as his deputy.

Last year I said . . .

-Gordon Brown would resist calls for a general election in 2009.
-The economies of both the US and the UK would get worse before they got better.
-Afghanistan would prove Barack Obama's nemesis: there would be renewed bloodshed and no resolution to the conflict.
-Abandoning the ideological commitment to tax cuts remained David Cameron's best hope for a "Clause Four moment", but he would retreat into tax and spending cuts and neo-Thatcherite monetarism.
-Europe would remain a headache for Cameron . . . after Ireland narrowly
voted Yes in a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in the autumn. Cameron would have to decide whether to ditch his own commitment to a referendum.
-Alistair Darling would remain Chancellor of the Exchequer.
-Ed Miliband would emerge as the up-and-coming politician of 2009 and come to be regarded as Brown's natural successor.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

Share your thoughts on his political predictions for 2010 at his blog

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on

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 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on