Adrian Lee: Witness – what a Cold War classic teaches us about totalitarianism and radicalisation

27 May

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Seventy years ago, in May 1952, an extraordinary memoir was published that would have a profound impact on the nascent American Conservative movement.

Unusually, the author, Whittaker Chambers, a one-time writer-editor for Time magazine, was a former member of the American Communist Party and a self-confessed Soviet spy.

The 808-page book, entitled Witness, became a bestseller, and was even serialised in the Saturday Evening Post, then America’s most widely circulated weekly magazine.

A cursory glance at the volume reveals the reason for its success: the quality of the writing. Susan Jacoby, author of Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, remarked that Witness was “written with such emotional conviction that it is hard to put down even today”.

Until 1948 few people had heard of Whittaker Chambers. In personality terms, he was not an impressive figure. Chambers, a burly and ponderous middle-aged man, possessed little charm and had no public speaking ability.

Arthur Schlesinger, a writer and historian commented in 1997 on a meeting that he had with Chambers in 1946:

“I was writing a piece on the American Communist Party for Life magazine, and someone told me I should talk with Whit Chambers. I found a squat, lugubrious, unprepossessing, taciturn man initially resistant to my questions and studiously uninformative in his answers.”

Later, Schlesinger succeeded in striking a rapport with him but at the end of their meeting, Chambers informed him that he had originally suspected that he was a communist and was on his guard. T.S. Matthews, Time’s managing editor, remarked of Chambers that there was “a suppressed air of melodrama about him.”

Chambers first entered the public’s conscience by accident. On 31st July 1948, a forty-year-old American, Elizabeth Bentley, answered a subpoena and appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to testify at a public hearing of her activities as a courier for Soviet spies.

Bentley, a middle-class woman with several academic degrees, had joined the Communist Party in March 1935 and had subsequently been engaged in espionage until 1945.

The years of stress had taken their toll and by the mid-Forties she was suffering from both alcoholism and depression. The worse her condition became, the more she feared that her Soviet paymasters would eventually dispose of her. Eventually, she defected and became an FBI informant.

At the HUAC hearing, Bentley (dubbed the “Red Spy Queen” by the press) mentioned Chambers’ name as a former Communist contact and a subpoena for his attendance followed.

Amongst the three Democrats and the three Republicans who attended the HUAC session on 3rd August 1948 was a young, first-term, Californian congressman, Richard M Nixon, who’s career progression would be forever linked in the public’s mind to the events about to unfold.

Ironically, Nixon was not initially impressed with Chambers a witness, describing him later in unflattering terms:

“His clothes were unpressed; his shirt collar was curled up over his jacket. He spoke in a rather bored monotone and seemed to be an indifferent if not a reluctant witness.”

Chambers began by reading from a pre-prepared statement which concluded dramatically: “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism.”

He then went onto describe what he called the “Ware Group”, an underground organisation of the American Communist Party formed in 1933.

Originally established as a Marxist study group, the Ware Group was aimed at recruiting the young graduate elite of the new Roosevelt Administration. Special advisors, senior staffers, lawyers and economists employed within the New Deal agencies were their targets.

This was a huge advancement, as previously the Communist Party had attracted mainly poor, working-class, Eastern European emigres. It was also highly lucrative for the Party, as members were instructed to make “exceptional money sacrifices” each month.

By 1934, it had grown to 75 members, divided into cells. Chambers became the leader of the Ware Group in 1935 and told HUAC that the principal aim of the group was to infiltrate America’s federal government and to place its members in positions of influence.

During the hearing on 3rd August, Chambers mentioned the names of several of the group’s most active participants. One name sent a ripple through the committee room: Alger Hiss.

Hiss was regarded widely as New Deal royalty and one of the most senior high-flyers in the Democratic administration. The 43-year-old graduate of both John Hopkins University and Harvard Law School had served variously at the Justice Department and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, before transferring to the State Department in 1936.

In 1944 he was appointed as Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs and was responsible for drawing up plans for the new United Nations. In February 1945, Hiss attended the “Big Three” Yalta Conference as part of the American delegation.

(Infamously, Yalta determined the east-west partition of post-war Europe.)

Hiss went on to be Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on International Organisation, which created the UN Charter. In 1946 he was appointed as President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On 5th August, Hiss appeared before HUAC and denied ever being a Communist or having personally met Chambers. Democrats vocally supported Hiss and denounce his accuser.

Chambers returned to the committee on 17th August and in the presence of Hiss, repeated his allegations. Hiss threatened Chambers with a libel action should he repeat the allegations in public. Chambers duly obliged on a national radio programme and Hiss responded by filling a lawsuit.

On 17th November, Chambers responded by producing 65 pages of documents stolen from the State Department in 1938, typed on Hiss’s personal typewriter and a series of letters handwritten by Hiss. Experts confirmed Hiss’s handwriting and the typeface of his typewriter.

On 2nd December, Chambers handed over five rolls of 35mm film allegedly taken by Hiss of State Department documents. It was the beginning of the end for Hiss, who by this time had changed his account of events several times.

Because of a statute of limitations, Hiss could not be charged with espionage, however, the Grand Jury indicted him on two counts of perjury. The first trial ended in a hung jury, but on 21st January 1950, after re-trial, Hiss was convicted. He was subsequently given a five-year prison sentence.

Hiss maintained his innocence until his death at the age of 92 in 1996. Liberal America refused to accept the verdict and turned its venom against the ambitious Richard Nixon.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, intelligence emerged that pointed to Hiss being an agent for Soviet military intelligence (GRU) and operating under the codename “Ales”. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic Senator, conceded: “Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent and appears to have been regarded by Moscow as its most important.”

Chambers’ memoir, Witness, is a book from a bygone era, but continues to provide insights that are relevant today.

Firstly, it explains how a person who had lost his religious faith replaced it with a utopian political creed. Secondly, it describes how totalitarian states seek to covertly subvert and undermine liberal democracies. Thirdly, the book reveals the process of awakening and de-radicalisation, as the ideology is exposed as a sham.

Finally, it stands as testament to the personal courage of an individual determined to speak the truth, despite facing the wrath of establishment opinion.

Whittaker Chambers became a conservative and a senior editor at National Review. He died in 1961 but was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously by President Reagan in 1984.

William Atkinson: P.J. O’Rourke – the last person to make conservatism cool

16 Feb

William Atkinson is a history teacher.

Despite my immense respect for Charles Moore, I cannot ever imagine him ever entitling a piece “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink”. Not only because British conservatives naturally represent all that is sensible and respectable about politics and the press, but because putting your name to an article like that requires a particular outlook. An irreverence, a silliness, a partiality for various questionable substances – whatever it is, the late P.J.O’Rourke had in spades.

O’Rourke passed away yesterday aged 74. The satirist’s work included time as Editor-in-Chief at National Lampoon (of Animal House fame), as the foreign correspondent (and token Republican) at Rolling Stone, articles for Playboy, and 19 books. Admittedly, most this side of the Atlantic probably know him for complaining about “cow juice” in a 90s’ British Airways ad. Nevertheless, his writing was so ubiquitous you may well have stumbled across him The Spectator or the Daily Mail and never realised he was that same Johnny Foreigner.

What made O’Rourke so notable? His air miles, for one thing. He estimated that Rolling Stone had sent him to over 40 countries. No war, intifada, or coup is seen better than through his habitual lens of the bottom of a glass. His reports were usually as complimentary about those he encountered as his notorious article on ‘Foreigners Around the World’, and his description of the Bosnian Genocide as the “unspellables killing the unpronouncables” naturally garnered criticism. But pieces such as ‘Ship of Fools’, an early 80s effort describing a cruise through the decaying and drunk late U.S.S.R amongst a party of American peaceniks, show him at his hilarious best, as damning of the iniquities of Communism as it is the delusions of his liberal fellow-travellers.

But it wasn’t just O’Rourke’s foreign reporting or driving advice that made him so enjoyable. Having been a student during the late 1960s, O’Rourke indulged in every fad of the Summer of Love: converting to Maoism, experimenting with LSD, and dodging the draft for Vietnam. He was excused thanks to a four-and-a-half-page doctor’s letter, “three and a half pages devoted to the drugs [he’d] abused.” The preface to his collection Give War a Chance is an apology to the poor schmuck who took his place.

Fortunately, O’Rourke grew up, became a registered Republican, and came to consider “socialism a violation of the American principle that you shouldn’t stick your nose in other people’s business except to make a buck.” He embodied the best elements of the American right – the libertarianism, the love of freedom, the ability to look good on television – whilst ditching that terrifying element which carries a Bible in one hand and an assault rifle in the other.

It was in castigating the Parliament of Whores – his name for the U.S. Government – that O’Rourke produced many of the lines that made him the living man with the most entries in The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations.

“The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.”


“One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.”

Useful advice.

Unfortunately for an icon of ‘Gonzo’ journalism, over the last decade, America has become too crazy even for O’Rourke. Despite having once described Hillary Clinton as ‘America’s ex-wife’, “the particular woman who taught the 4th grade class that every man in America wished he were dead in”, O’Rourke endorsed her in 2016. He told listeners on National Public Radio, where he was the resident grouchy right-winger, that Clinton was “wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.” His last books How the Hell Did This Happen? and A Cry from the Far Middle were attempts to explain Trump’s America to a sceptical world.

In a sense, modern America suffers from the success of humourists like O’Rourke. The world of William F. Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal was over-taken by Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert – satirists became the new sages. And when all politics seems a joke, when “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys”, it’s unsurprising if your politicians end up being a joke too. Such is the price O’Rourke paid for five decades’ sterling work at trying to get conservatives to not take themselves too seriously.

Nevertheless, despite his wit, O’Rourke’s finest moment came when describing the fall of the Berlin wall. His description of the moment he saw an East German border guard asking for a piece of that crumbling edifice of totalitarianism deserves quoting in full.

“I looked at that and I began to cry.

I really didn’t understand before that moment, I didn’t realize until just then – we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against life-hating, soul-denying, slavish communism – which had shaped the world’s politics this whole wretched century – was over.

And the best thing about our victory was the way we did it – not just with ICBMs and Green Berets and aid to the contras. Those things were important, but in the end we beat them with Levi 501 jeans. Seventy-two years of communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman. A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps and secret police had been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes.”

We sometimes forget, thirty years on, that the Cold War wasn’t just a dispute between two economic systems, but a fight between freedom and tyranny, liberation and repression, good and evil – and good ultimately triumphed. In his writing, P. J. O’Rourke showed why it deserved to.

Jeremy Black: The politics of Agatha Christie

5 Feb

Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.

‘Jesus Christ, will you look at this? Next thing Poirot himself will appear on the scene.’ Set in 1957, John Banville’s Snow (2020) readily deploys the fictional Harry Hall, the chain-smoking head of an Irish forensics team, in order to use Poirot to locate Ballyglass House. Later in the book, Christie recurs: ‘Maybe they all did it. Like in the book by what’s her-name,’ says Sergeant Jenkins.

Thanks largely to ‘recovered memory’ through the distorting mirror of visual accounts, Christie has become the classic Golden Age detective novelist, one of poison not politics, a plotsmith within the paradigm of a world of order and stability, in which the murderer disrupts an order that the detective restores.

Well no. That was not Christie’s world, nor that of her readers, and her corpus offered politics aplenty. Much was anti-Communist, but Christie ranged widely to include the familiar leitmotif of the unscrupulous secret gang trying to conquer the world; to incorporate Nazi threats and, with Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), to suggest a reborn Nazi movement behind international terrorism.

How far this was a matter of personal knowledge in part through her first husband, and how far familiar themes of the period is unclear. One former spy with whom I discussed the matter offered ‘Agatha Christie was a great novelist and a sincere Christian with the sense of evolving (or involving?) times and moods. But she was a woman who know plenty of dirty little secrets too.’

Christie was to voice the fears seen with other writers, notably John Buchan in The Three Hostages (1924), in which he discerned ‘wreckers on the grand scale.’ In The Secret Adversary (1922), Christie’s second novel, ‘Bolshevist gold is pouring into this country for the specific purpose of procuring a Revolution,’ ‘the Bolshevists are behind the labour unrest,’ and a Labour government would be dangerous.

Although set in South Africa, the theme of deadly revolutionary organisation behind strikers is prominent in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). Anxieties continued. The paranoia of the period focused on Socialism as well as Communism. In 1929, Partners in Crime, a collection of very different short stories, finds Tommy Beresford and Tuppence up against Moscow’s agents, reference to Bulldog Drummond, and Colonel Kingston-Bruce complaining about ‘A most pestilential fellow – an arrant socialist … A dangerous sort of fellow.’

The Big Four (1927) captured the widespread atmosphere of disquiet and, in the case of this novel, international conspiracy. Poirot presents the conspiracy as his great case. The commercially very successful novel in fact was based on short stories published in The Sketch from January to March 1924, but, for the readers, the background was the General Strike.

Poirot refers to ‘The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that break out in some … there is a force behind the scenes which aims at nothing less than the disintegration of civilization… Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets.’

This theme, which suggested that the centre of conspiracy and action was closer than the Soviet Union, as indeed is revealed to be the case, is not a tangential one to the plot or the tone, but is developed throughout the book, and helps give it a character toward the end that is similar to that of the Ian Fleming novels. The theme of Li Chang Yen, the malevolent Chinese master-criminal in The Big Four, echoes Dr Fu Manchu and prefigured Fleming’s Dr No.

That is not, however, the approach that is taken today toward Christie novels. Indeed, this is one of the many respects in which subsequent presentation, while often successful in its own terms, artistically and/or commercially, does not necessarily take you far toward an appreciation of the original work, or, indeed, offer anything for that. The Big Four is the classic instance of this process.

It was presented in 2013, in the BBC David Suchet Poirot series, which has acquired a form of definitive, or at least iconic, status for the visual Poirot, not least as providing the largest number of Poirot performances. In that series, the story, set on the eve of World War Two, and with the Peace Party playing a major role, was presented in part as a delusion. This made the text pointless

In The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), the standard theme of Bolsheviks and Jews is thrown forward in the first scene.

In The Coming of Mr Quin (1924), reprinted as part of The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930), Lady Laura Evesham is worried about the ‘grave uncertainty’ of the political situation.

Meanwhile, in a valuable corrective to the implications of some of the post-war thriller writing, the Labour government of 1924 had demonstrated that Labour could rule without bringing in socialism. There were no serious upsets and financial policy was particularly prudent, with the orthodoxy of Philip Snowden making him an ideal Treasury-minded Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Far from introducing a capital levy or wealth tax, Snowden was a supporter of tax cuts. The Labour government kept the TUC at a distance and used emergency powers to defeat a strike by London tramwaymen. In 1924, John Hoode, the Minister of Imperial Finance, was murdered in the library of his country house in Philip MacDonald’s detective novel The Rasp, only for the killer to be unmasked by Colonel Anthony Gethryn, formally of the Secret Service.

In The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), the impressive Superintendent Battle appears for the second time. One of her talented policemen, he is present in five novels from 1925 to 1944. Battle has a list of secret societies in London. They include:

‘The Blood Brothers of St Sebastian. The Wolf Hounds. The Comrades of Peace. The Comrades Club. The Friends of Oppression. The Children of Moscow. The Red Standard Bearers. The Herrings. The Comrades of the Fallen – and half a dozen more.’

‘The sinister Mr Mosgorovsky’ is proprietor of the Seven Dials Club, and one of the members is an American with ‘an inflection of Irish,’ another a German, and one ‘the lady who may be any nationality – for choice Russian or Polish.’ The dangerous international gang, is, Bundle Brent, the young heroine, notes, ‘the sort of crowd I always imagined until tonight only existed in books,’ which is a type of reference that Christie frequently makes as a locator of action and attitudes. Secret papers are part of the plot.

And then Christie subverts it, Superintendent Battle revealing that secret criminal organisations headed by a ‘mysterious super-criminal,’ while ‘common enough in books’, are less so in real life. Moreover, Mosgorovsky in fact is Britain’s secret ‘anti-Bolshevist agent’, while the American is pro-British, rather than the IRA sympathiser he appeared.

In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) politics is to the fore. Reginald Barnes, the former Home Office intelligence link, the sort of individual Christie frequently deploys because they are narrative facilitators, refers to:

‘a book with a lurid jacket that lay on a table close at hand: ‘I read a lot of these spy yarns. Fantastic, some of them. But curiously enough they’re not any more fantastic than the real thing. There are beautiful adventuresses, and dark sinister men with foreign accents, and gangs and international associations and super crooks’ I’d blush to see some of the things I know set down in print – nobody would believe them for a minute!’

Politics remains a theme throughout the novels, with the anti-Communist themes repurposed and transposed, although, as in Passenger to Frankfurt, not always successfully. To leave the politics out is to misunderstand and misrepresent Christie and her milieu.

Daniel Hannan: Why is the West falling behind? Because we are abandoning meritocracy.

19 Jan

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Even in Pakistan’s remote mountain passes, you keep stumbling upon China’s spoor. By the side of empty roads, you find monuments celebrating the unlikely alliance between the world’s first purpose-built Muslim country and the last Communist power. On the edge of villages, you find Chinese-funded social projects. More and more, you find highways, dams and factories springing up along the path of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

I spent early January in those sparse highlands. Like most visitors, I was struck by the beauty of the landscapes and the warmth of the people; but also by an uneasy sense that a country with the strongest demographic and cultural ties to us has drifted into the orbit of a nearer and fiercer star.

Pakistan has its own reasons for cosying up to China, which it has long seen as a counterweight to India, and to which it is closely tied commercially. But something similar is playing out across swathes of Asia, Africa and, now, Latin America. Countries which, 20 years ago, looked to the West culturally and politically – countries which wanted to think of themselves as a law-based, propertied, multi-party democracies – have found an alternative model.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s clever and charming prime minister, recently put it this way:

“Up until now, we were told that the best way for societies to improve themselves is the Western system of democracy. What the CPC has done is that it has brought this alternative model. And they have actually beaten all Western democracies in the way they have brought up merit in their society.”

Merit. That’s the key. Allocating positions through talent rather than by birth, caste or status was a big part of what originally elevated the Anglosphere and a handful of related European states over their rivals. Now, just as the West is letting go of the idea, the world’s greatest autocracy has taken it up.

I have been thinking a lot about merit since reading Adrian Wooldridge’s magnum opus, The Aristocracy of Talent. I had vaguely intended to review it last year, but I was enjoying it too much, and wanted to savour each chapter.

Wooldridge, who recently moved to Bloomberg after a career at The Economist, has written one of the great books of the decade. Here, meticulously researched and in arresting prose, are definitive accounts of Plato’s authoritarian philosophy and the way later generations interpreted it, of China’s mandarinate, of the rise of IQ tests and much else. But what comes across most strongly is just how downright weird the concept of meritocracy is.

For most of human history, hierarchy and heredity were seen as the natural order. Wooldridge begins with some lines by our national poet:

How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!

I remember Michael Portillo getting into terrible trouble when he quoted that passage. Yet, until an eyeblink ago, almost no one seriously questioned the world-view that Shakespeare was articulating. It seems to have been hard-wired into us as social primates. Even when we imagine future worlds – think of Star Wars, Dune or Foundation – we people them with emperors and princesses.

Wooldridge shows how English-speaking nations, in particular, replaced kin-based models with open selections and exams. He reminds us of how recent and, by global standards, how unnatural this system is. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its chief supporters were on the Left. The Webbs and their followers saw a rational, socialist state as resting on meritocratic appointment, while many conservatives protested that abandoning the older social order would leave people deracinated and unsatisfied.

Oddly, from our present perspective, some of the biggest supporters of IQ tests and unadjusted exams in the United States were black sociologists, including Horace Mann Bond, Charles Johnson, Howard Hale Long and J. St Clair Price, all of whom saw the ability to rise by talent as an antidote to racism.

Judged by economic outcomes, meritocracy worked. Countries that tried it got richer than countries that didn’t. The Anglosphere went more or less the whole hog, but most places ended up with hybrid systems. Pakistan, for example, took from Britain the common law, individual property rights and a civil service open to talent. It also retained clannish voting patterns, resting on strong extended families.

As long as Western nations had open institutions, they tended to outperform their rivals. But, as Wooldridge shows, they are now turning against the creed that elevated them.

The assault comes simultaneously from both sides. There is a Trumpy/populist/Know-nothing line of attack which holds, roughly speaking, that a bunch of effete pointyheads, removed from the general population, are imposing their Leftie values on the decent majority. And there is a woke line which holds that groups rather than individuals are what matter, and that if, say, blind assessments result in more Asian than black students getting into a particular university, then those assessments should be racially weighted.

There is a third and more subtle critique, which posits that meritocracy is a hoax. Rich parents, themselves products of elite universities, invest resources in rigging the system in favour of their children, sending them to expensive private schools and buying them opportunities to ensure that they go to the same universities and perpetuate the cycle.

This line often comes from beneficiaries and exemplars of the system being decried. Professor Daniel Markovits of Law at Yale Law School argues in The Meritocracy Trap that “merit is nothing more than a sham”, a way to transmit inherited privilege. Harvard’s Michael Sandel agrees. In The Tyranny of Merit he laments the decline of manual jobs and argues that a new trans-national elite has arisen, bringing hopes of social mobility to an end for most people. The same theme is taken in Britain by David Goodhart who holds, in Head Hand Heart, that the overvaluation of cognitive skills (head) over manual (hand) and caring (heart) has led to the creation of a graduate oligarchy.

There is something in this analysis. The solution, though, might be more meritocracy. The domination of elite schools by the wealthy could perhaps be addressed by crammer-proof aptitude tests. The under-valuation of non-academic skills is widely acknowledged, and huge efforts are being made to boost technical education.

Far more dangerous is the notion that openness to talent is intrinsically racist. Woke critics don’t want to improve meritocracy. They want to return to the pre-modern idea of group rights, collective identity and advancement by caste. A theory that was, until perhaps eight years ago, more or less confined to campus, has, with astonishing rapidity, taken over most of our institutions. Company boards, charities, schools, churches, political parties, local authorities, NHS trusts and, most of all, the civil service – all now recruit and promote on the basis of physiognomy as much as aptitude.

You know who isn’t bothered about “equality, diversity and inclusion”, though? China. That’s why it’s on course to become the world’s largest economy. No wonder ambitious politicians across Asia and Africa are learning Mandarin. No wonder up-and-coming cadets want to train at the PLA National Defence University rather than Sandhurst.

The way for any society to get rich is to allow people to rise to the level of their talents, to remove obstacles of birth, tradition and clan, and thus to marshall its human resources with maximum efficacy. We used to do that very well. Now, others have taken our place.

David Green: Britain’s investment in China, not China’s in Britain, is the bigger threat to our national security

3 Aug

David Green is Chief Executive Officer of Civitas.

The former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, now a UK trade adviser, has warned the Government not to allow Chinese companies to buy British manufacturers that are vital to our national life.

He is surely right, but China buying our companies is not the biggest threat to our national security. It is money flowing in the opposite direction from UK companies to China. A recent analysis by the Department for International Trade shows that the stock of foreign direct investment (FDI) from China into the UK was £3.2 billion in 2019. The total stock of FDI by British companies in China was £10.7 billion.

When a company dominated by the Chinese Communist Party takes over one of our high-tech firms, we lose the technological lead, and the expertise falls into the hands of organisations that might be committing human rights violations against their own people, or who have links to the Chinese military.

The same is true when our companies build factories in China. The expertise changes hands, and companies fall under the influence of the Communist Party. There is no such thing as a genuinely private company in an authoritarian dictatorship. Managers must do as they are told.

Many Americans are now concerned about the flow of funds from America into China. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) estimated that in December 2020 total American investment in China exceeded $1 trillion, mainly in the previous six years. The vast majority was portfolio investment, defined as amounting to less than a 10 per cent stake in the voting shares of the recipient company. These funds may not provide a controlling interest, but they help Chinese companies to out-compete Western rivals and to support the Chinese military build-up.

The total stock of US FDI (involving more than 10 per cent of the voting shares) was $198 billion in 2019 (including Hong Kong). Accurate figures for portfolio investment are not produced, but the US Treasury put it at $163 billion in 2017.

That figure, however, ignores the flow of funds through offshore tax havens, notably the Cayman Islands. In 2017, AEI estimated total portfolio investment at $745 billion, including investment in the numerous Chinese entities registered in the Cayman Islands. Investment via the Caymans surged after the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

At present, US Treasury figures treat funds flowing to the Caymans as investments there, when it serves merely as a conduit. AEI has called for full transparency, so that the final destination of funds is known. We should do the same, not least because the Cayman Islands is a British Overseas Territory.

There is a tendency to see the relationship with China through the prism of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but Russia was not closely integrated with Western economies. It was rare for Western firms to invest in Russia and, forced back onto its own meagre economic and cultural resources, communism was unable to withstand Western competition.

Since joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001, China has become deeply integrated and has found a way of getting Western companies to fund their own ultimate destruction. A big chunk of China’s growing GDP has been the result of Western investment. The Cold War made the struggle for freedom and democracy against authoritarian dictatorship seem like a battle between economic systems. We can now see that we are in a moral struggle for human freedoms, civil rights and the ability to transfer political power without bloodshed.

Chris Whitehouse: One elderly recipient burst into tears with joy that we had made the delivery. My own story of anti-communist smuggling.

29 Mar

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy.

Reading the article by Harry Phibbs about his youthful exploits smuggling leaflets into the then communist Soviet Union, I admit it, I too was a smuggler. In my case a smuggler of books into the then communist Czechoslovakia through an informal network in which my contact was Alex Tomsky [see here and here] who was a senior figure in the charity, Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, particularly, back then, in the then Eastern Bloc. Tomsky was known by Margaret Thatcher and lent her a book every month for three years.

I made the run to Prague three times (1988-1989), each time accompanied by a different friend, two of whom I cannot name, but the third trip was with David Paton, now Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University.

The deal was simple. A benefactor (not the charity itself) would pay the flight and hotel cost for a budget weekend break in Prague. As book-runners, we would place our own things in the hand luggage, but the main suitcase was filled with books. Our task was to take that suitcase through customs checks and then deliver it to an address we were given.

We were assured that there was not much chance of us being caught, books not being as detectable as, say, drugs or explosives; and that if we were caught the outcome would likely be an interview with the authorities, a night in the cells, then deportation. It seemed a great prospect for an adventure, with little downside. But, for those to whom we were delivering the books the risks were much greater. Their interrogation would no doubt be much more robust and intense, and the subsequent spell in prison, indefinite.

The books were a variety. Bible tracts to political pamphlets; George Orwell classics to Ivan Klima and first editions of Czech writers whose manuscripts had been smuggled out of the country on trips by other smugglers. The recipients were yearning for this content to feed their craving for news and for new ideas, for hope that the situation might change.

One elderly recipient actually burst into tears with joy and relief that we had made the delivery – then a sobering dark cloud descended on a young Chris Whitehouse. As the books that we’d smuggled were unpacked, I realised with a shock that one of those pamphlets was one of which I had been the author, on the subject of abortion law reform. That somebody would be willing to risk a long prison sentence, in God knows what conditions, for something that I had written and published with no thought of its value, was a truly humbling moment.

We met a wide range of subversives, from Catholic priests to punk underground bands, from intellectuals to the publishers of samizdat leaflets; and we got an early liking for real Budwar and Pilsner Urquell beers long before they were widely available in the West, even meeting for drinks with the team who were working closely with Vaclav Havel who went on to be President of the country with the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia following the “velvet revolution” in 1989.

The only downside for this trip was that at that time, wheels on suitcases were not that common, and I’m sure my arms stretched a little carrying that full case of books through customs trying to make it seem so much lighter than it was.

But this was not my first experience of communism and the excitement of visiting the Eastern Bloc. My first visit was to communist Poland in 1981 as a guest of the “official” trades union movement in that country. To be fair, they treated us well, with time in both Warsaw and Lodz, followed by a trip to Gdansk where we were allowed to meet the local Solidarity leader, soon to be President, Lech Walesa. We hadn’t expected this, and had come unprepared, so we took a collection in Western currency (then worth in cash much more than the official rate) to contribute to the movement’s funds. Our guides were shocked, but there wasn’t much they could do about it.

Martial law was declared in Poland that same year, but communism fell in November 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down on 9th November. I had also visited the Wall, in 1981, whilst on a trip to East Germany with the British East German Friendship Society that offered a week-long tour to foster relations between the two peoples for just £100. I wasn’t, needless to say, a supporter of the communist government of that country, but at that price, who could decline? Every town we visited had a prominent display of opposition to the deployment of cruise missiles by the United States of America.

Crossing the East German border on a train at midnight, whilst it was being searched by guards with Alsatian dogs was an experience I’ll never forget.

On all those visits, the strongest emotions were of excitement on my part, but of fear and resentment amongst the people. We weren’t to know it at the time, but those were the dying years of the Soviet Bloc. The people we met weren’t without hope, not anywhere we went, but they were definitely without expectation.

Greed can have good consequences, generosity bad ones. What counts isn’t the motive. It’s the result.

24 Mar

At the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, we will risk the following.  Hitler believed his persecution of the Jewish people was right – morally justified.  That he believed he was doing good does nothing to make the Holocaust less evil.  Ditto Stalin and the Kulaks, Mao and the Rightists.

Now imagine a vaccine producer – to take a topical example – who is driven entirely by greed.  His motive does nothing to lessen his product’s effectiveness.  It doesn’t lop even a single life off the list of those saved.

By the way, it’s unlikely that he would be driven entirely by anything.  Most of us aren’t.  We’re powered by a mass of motives, the mix of which we can’t identify: greed, altruism, fear, compassion, anger, lust, shame, love – and perhaps, above all, by the elemental urge to “keep going”, as the sergeant yells at the shell-shocked First World War soldier in Ted Hughes’ radio play The Wound.

To be clear: greed isn’t good in itself, but its by-products can be.  Generosity, by contrast, is good in itself, but it’s by-products may not be.  What good comes of generously giving the addict money for the fix that will kill him?

Whatever you may say about Boris Johnson, he never fails to give us all something new to talk about – in this case, his half-remark about those vaccine firms yesterday, quickly made and just as quickly withdrawn.  As he sometimes does, he was offending the spirit of the age.

Which crowns virtue signalling as the ultimate virtue.  What matters isn’t what you do, but what you say – the signal you send.  It shows that you have the right motive, and everything else follows.  Except, as we’ve seen, that it doesn’t.

If you want societies that seek to impose virtue by force, leave the rest of us to muddled old Britain, and try Jim Jones’ Jonestown, with its murders and mass suicides, or Mao, Stalin, Hitler – and so on.  Compared to the lot of them, a greedy capitalist is a study of morality.

The Soviet Union. My part in its downfall.

22 Mar

Saturday’s Daily Telegraph magazine included a fascinating account by Kirsty Buchanan of the “Moscow mules”. It documented how a Russian émigré based in Lewisham, George Miller-Kurakin, recruited young Conservative activists to undertake clandestine missions across the Iron Curtain in order to smuggle in materials to assist those operating in opposition to the Communist regime.

Several of those whose exploits were recounted in the piece subsequently went on to fame and fortune, some holding important positions in public life. I was also mentioned.

We read for, instance, of the contribution of the man who is now the Minister of State at the Department of Education:

“Letter-posting was also an important part of the couriers’ work: providing dissidents with facts to help counter Soviet propaganda. Nick Gibb was a young graduate of 21 in 1982 when he was sent to Leningrad, now St Petersburg, to deliver up to 100 letters, which were strapped to the inside of his legs under ‘horrible baggy black cord trousers’ and tucked into his boots in order to evade Soviet customs.

“Posing as an ordinary tourist on a £200 Thomson’s package tour, the future minister checked into the Leningrad Hotel and spent the next few days walking the city streets posting letters into the blue boxes for domestic mail, a handful at a time so as not to attract attention.

 “‘I had to learn the rudiments of the Russian alphabet so I could follow street signs,’ he recalls. ‘It was my first foreign trip alone. I remember standing on the banks of the River Neva watching these great ice blocks flowing down river and thinking, “This time yesterday, I was in my flat in London and now here I am.” It was exhilarating and, yes, it was fun.’

“Like many of the recruits, Gibb had been trained by a German ‘handler’, known only to the young activists as Alex. They would meet in a café near Victoria Station and meticulously go over the details needed to evade detection. The grandson of a Russian émigré, Alex is now 75 and lives in Frankfurt. He still works for the NTS publishing house Possev, which printed many of the works smuggled out by couriers and which the KGB once tried, unsuccessfully, to bomb.”

His younger brother Sir Robbie, subsequently the Number 10 director of communications, was also recruited. Along with his then girlfriend, now Lady Gibb.

Most of those who went over were involved in the Federation of Conservative Students. My own mission took place when in 1982 when I was a 16-year-old schoolboy [see photo above].

It was organised by Miller-Kurakin and Julian Lewis – now the Conservative MP for New Forest East MP and the chairman of the powerful Commons Intelligence and Security Committee.

It was unusual in that, rather than it being imperative for me to evade capture, Miller-Kurakin and Lewis were most anxious that I should be arrested by the KGB. I achieved this, ahead of schedule – though my collaborator Peter Caddick-Adams did not, despite ostentatiously handing out leaflets on the Moscow underground.

The point was to generate publicity in the West to undermine the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – which had been holding mass demonstrations and gained the support of the Labour Party for a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

The content of the leaflets – concerning ending the arms race – was printed in English and Russian. They were written by Lewis, but despite his hawkish views there was nothing specifically pro-NATO or anti-Soviet in them. They were simply peace leaflets – support for multilateral disarmament. What was the Soviet response when the message was put forward to their own people?

I was arrested by the KGB at Moscow Airport. This was after I had been caught attempting to smuggle in leaflets “down my socks”. Actually, they were surgical stockings. The bulge of the leaflets was not obvious as I was wearing unfashionable flared jeans.

However, when I was taken off to be body-searched the game was up. For whatever reason, the Soviet authorities were on the look out for me. The plan which was thwarted had been for me to go to the GUM department store and to be detained after spraying the leaflets down from the balcony.

Then I was placed in a bedroom in an army barracks; I was held for just over 24 hours before being deported. I was given nothing to eat or drink. There would be various interrogators coming and going asking me who had sent me and who else was in my group. I recited some comments I had rehearsed about wishing to see someone from the British Embassy and quoting some sections of the Soviet Constitution and the Helsinki Final Act about freedom of expression.

At one stage, I was told I would be put on a flight home in half an hour, but hours later that had not happened. Eventually, I was sent home after being told that I was “banned for life” from returning and that I was “a registered enemy of the Soviet Union”.

I later read in Brian Crozier’s memoirs that the CIA provided the funds. Crozier was a magnificent “cold war warrior” involved in an array of initiatives – open and clandestine – to defeat communism. On my return. home the media coverage was considerable.

The most frequent question was whether my parents knew about it – they did and had been astonishingly sanguine, regarding it as my decision. I was particularly pleased to do an interview for the BBC Russian Service – which I felt rather made up for the failure to reach any Russian members of public.

Various people over the years have said how “brave” we were. Perhaps there was an element of youthful bravado. Certainly there was plenty of fun and excitment.

But the overwhelmingly probability for us was that even if arrested we would be rapidly deported to resume our lives of safety in the west. Far greater courage was shown by those citizens of the Soviet Union who worked to resist the totalitarian system they were living under.

There were parallel operations, of course. Sir Roger Scruton’s work with dissidents – especially in what is now the Czech Republic – is well documented. Sir Roger, a great pessimist, told me that he never expected to see the fall of Communism in those countries during his life time, despite devoting a considerable proportion of his energy to working towards such an outcome.

Such pessimism was understandable. During the era of “detente” (or appeasement as some of us considered it) the Soviet Empire expanded. Many western commentators – with faux sophistication – cynically advanced the theory of moral equivalents. Only during the Reagan/Thatcher era did we really recover our self belief.

Those of us referred to in Buchanan’s piece tended to be more optimistic. Miller-Kurakin convinced me that, while monolithic, the Soviet system would not be permanent. That could not be taken for granted. Though neither can the cause of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law – as the way Russia has regressed under Putin makes all too clear.

Miller-Kurakin sadly died in 2009 aged only 54 – I wrote an obituary about him which appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

Our efforts may have been individually modest. But while retaining a sense of humour is always useful, we needn’t be unduly self-deprecating. Small actions are cumulative – and the Soviet system eventually was brought down.

What do the 16-year-olds of today make of it all? Given the sanitised account of the Soviet Union they will have been taught in school, any of them reading Buchanan’s account may be a bit surprised. I hope, at least, it might convey an understanding that the Left does not have a monopoly of idealism. So often Conservatives are traduced as having base motives. To quote from The Prisoner, an iconic libertarian TV series with a considerable following among some of the “Moscow mules”:

Observer: “I have my duty to everyone. Have you no values, Number 6?”

Number 6: “Different values.”

Daniel Hannan: Trade sanctions are a counterproductive foreign policy tool – which play into the hands of oppressive regimes

17 Feb

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative Life peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

What can one country practically do to halt crimes against humanity in another? The answer is far from obvious. At one end of the scale, it might decide that it has an absolute duty to intervene against genocide, and that the only choice is therefore to invade the offending state, with or without a coalition of allies, halt the killings or be defeated in the attempt. At the other, it might conclude that there is nothing much it can do beyond moving a condemnatory resolution at the United Nations, offering sanctuary to refugees and possibly withdrawing its ambassador.

Obviously, there is a huge spectrum between those two approaches. But there is surprisingly little discussion of what the optimum point on that spectrum is – the point at which exercising proportionate pressure is likeliest to result in a policy change in the other country. Perhaps inevitably in an age of performative anger, some commentators are more interested in signalling their horror at human rights abuses than in pondering the most effective way to tackle them.

The very first vote I cast in the House of Lords (electronically, under the current lockdown rules) was on this issue. An amendment moved by the crossbench peer, Lord Alton, would effectively have allowed British courts to determine whether any country trading with us was guilty of genocide and, if so, to trigger economic sanctions.

No one has ever accused Alton, a former Lib Dem MP, of performative anger. He is a decent and thoughtful man who manages – a rare thing in politics – to be moral without being moralistic. His amendment has attracted supporters from every party in both chambers – most of them, too, actuated by good and sincere motives. But, in the end, it seems to me that their proposed remedy is misplaced.

Ministers argue that issues of this kind ought not to be referred to courts. The question of whether another country is committing such atrocities within its borders as to constitute crimes against humanity should be one for our elected government. If, as would surely sometimes happen, our judges ruled that there was insufficient evidence to make a determination, the offending regime might seize on that judgment as vindication: “Britain has cleared us of genocide”.

All this is true, as far as it goes. We should be very careful about drawing judges into political questions – and drawing them into issues of foreign policy would be quite a step. But it seems to me that there is a more fundamental objection to the proposal. Put simply, trade sanctions are a terrible foreign policy tool. They are not so much useless as counterproductive, serving to hurt ordinary people in the other country as well as your own while propping up the regime of which you disapprove.

At the very least, trade sanctions – including the suspension of a free trade agreement, which we might consider the softest trade sanction – push people in the targeted state towards their leaders. One reason why Communism survived in Cuba when it fell in most of the world was that American sanctions had created a siege mentality. The embargo allowed Fidel Castro to tell his countrymen that their poverty was caused, not by Marxist economics, but by the yanqui blockade.

Vladimir Putin knows how to exploit the same phenomenon, triggering constant conflicts which are primarily intended, not to absorb bits of Georgia or Ukraine, but to foment confrontation with the West, so keeping Russians in a mood of defensive and angry patriotism – precisely the state of mind that makes them likeliest to rally to Putin.

More than this, though, economic sanctions create lucrative opportunities for elites within the countries at which they are aimed. In an open and competitive market, with low barriers to entry, prices fall – to general benefit. The more restricted or distorted a market becomes, the more opportunities are created for monopolists, especially those who are politically connected. States subject to sanctions – Iran, Russia, Venezuela – form a nexus, doing deals with each other which allow a few brokers to get very rich while doing nothing for the general population.

To see what I mean, think back to the oil-for-food regime that operated during the UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein. Notionally designed to allow food and humanitarian supplies into Iraq, it became a racket, allowing favoured Ba’athists and their allies in other countries to make a fortune.

If trade sanctions don’t work, what does? As I said at the start, that is not an easy question. But it surely makes sense to target sanctions at the guilty, something Western countries have become much more adept at doing over the past 20 years. Micro-sanctions vary in severity: travel bans, asset seizures, arrest warrants – possibly even, in extremis, Eichmann-style judicial kidnappings. As a general proposition, though, keyhole surgery must be more effective than hacking blindly with a cleaver.

I was struck, during that first House of Lords debate, by how many people still see trade in essentially mercantilist terms – as a favour to be bestowed rather than as a growth strategy. That fundamental misunderstanding distorted the coverage of the EU-UK trade talks. (“Why”, asked commentators “should the EU grant us access to their markets?” – as though doing so were an act of kindness.) But, more seriously, it distorts our approach to unfriendly regimes.

We often stumble into trade sanctions because of the most dangerous sequence in politics: “Something must be done; here’s something; let’s do it”. In fact, commercial restrictions take from the many to give to the few – and the tyrants know it.