Neil O’Brien: Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists

11 Jan

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

“Defoe says that there were a hundred thousand country fellows in his time ready to fight to the death against Popery, without knowing whether Popery was a man or a horse.” William Hazlitt, 1830

When supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building last week, many people in Britain probably thought that it was just the latest manifestation of a special sort of craziness that has gripped America. That sort of thing surely couldn’t happen here. Or could it?

The same evening, to far less fanfare, the Metropolitan Police arrested 21 people outside Parliament. On new year’s day, doctors leaving St Thomas’s hospital were greeted by a large crowd of protestors chanting “Covid is a hoax”.

These things are connected. They show that the same forces at work in the US are in some ways, already at work here.

Let me wind back a bit. Obviously, I mainly blame Trump for what happened in Washington. He did everything he could to incite the riot, in a brazen attempt to reverse his election defeat.

But other people made this possible too. The ragtag army of wannabe revolutionaries smashing up the seat of Americas democracy were radicalised by a whole ecosystem of shock jocks, social media cranks and conspiracy theories.

They’ve ended up living in a world of alternative facts, in which Trump is the sole bulwark against diabolical global conspiracies, and the President is the victim of an election “stolen” by a shadowy “elite”. In a world of such illusions, almost anything can be justified.
None of this is new. Trump was in a sense following the playbook of Lord George Gordon, who in 1780 whipped up fears of shadowy Catholic conspiracies, sparking vicious riots that left hundreds dead or wounded.

New forms of media often fuel revolutions. The printing press led to the reformation and wars of religion. The Cahiers to the French Revolution. The “Big Character Posters” spread the madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

New technology has again changed things. First, Twitter, Whatsapp and online news have simply made political organisation much easier. The ‘colour revolutions’ in eastern Europe and ‘Arab spring’ were early demonstrations of their viral power.

But now the second shoe is dropping. What we are seeing now is the power of these technologies to create communities of radicalisation. Islamism is the most obvious example. A constituent of mine who lives in a pretty, sleepy village (with a lovely tearoom) was recently charged with seven terrorism offences. More and more, attacks come from those who have radicalised themselves online.

But Islamists are just one community of radicalisation. I was chatting to an apparently normal man this summer, when conversation turned to the coronavirus. He told me, with a matter-of-fact air, that it was all a hoax, set up by the New World Order who were planning a Great Reset, in which Big Business would take over and we would all be microchipped. I’ve had several similarly alarming conversations.

When people got their news from mainstream TV and radio news with strong legal obligations to be neutral, people were exposed to both sides of most stories. As has often been pointed out, people can much more readily be wound into a frenzy if they get their information from Whatsapp groups, people they follow on twitter and from agenda-driven ‘news’ sites.

But the idea of “filter bubbles” doesn’t really do justice to what new media is enabling. People aren’t just passively consuming news they agree with. People are building communities. People they ‘know’ from chat and comment threads. Making likeminded friends on twitter.
Indeed, conspiracy theories like QAnon represent a kind of enjoyable ‘game’: crack the code to understand the shadowy conspiracy!

The US has gone further down the road of polarisation than other places. People increasingly live with in neighbourhoods with likeminded people. The national conversation has been curdling for decades into extreme left and extreme right bubbles, with disastrous effects on politics.

The same technologies are having similar effects here. If we had faced the current pandemic in, say, 1992, how would you have got news about it? Perhaps there would have been a “Covid-92” page on Ceefax.

But if you’d wanted to spread the idea that vaccines are poisons, dreamed up by Bill Gates, you had nowhere to go but Speakers Corner really. So the man I met this summer, who so readily absorbed all this nonsense, would simply have been unlikely to encounter such ideas. These days, someone like Toby Young can set up a website to give people a dose of covid-sceptic propaganda every day. Crank “scientists” can rapidly gain a huge following on twitter.

Social media has changed how we live. In my first job in politics, working for Business for Sterling in 2000, I used to fax a press summary each morning to about 20 people. At the time, there was a well-written Eurosceptic newsletter called Eurofacts, which was photocopied and posted around to about 1,000 people once a month.

Until the next month, that was your hit of single-currency-scepticism. You had to go off and think about something else. Sure, some newpapers campaigned hard on both sides of the euro question. But reading the papers, even daily, just couldn’t absorb your attention in the way social media does.

Looking back, those were the mild-ale days of political communication. These days, people can become hooked on the crack cocaine of issue-driven social media.

Take the SNP cybernats. They can read a daily newspaper promoting Scottish independence, then go on a website or twitter all day to chat with other cybernat friends and wind each other up.Did you hear the one about the “secret oilfields” the UK government is mysteriously covering up, to do down Scotland? When people form such intense groupthink bubbles, they can come to believe almost anything.

We can’t uninvent social media, which also has many benefits. But we do need to adapt to it. In the US, fringe ideas like the QAnon conspiracy theory built up online. But their spread has been accelerated by the willingness of broadcasters and politicians to flirt with them to gain clicks and exploit their energy.

If we are going to avoid our national conversation going the same toilet, we need strong mainstream media. But we also need those in positions of power in the media to behave responsibly.

For example, one of the best selling papers in the UK recently ran a piece promoting the views of an “NHS worker” who claimed hospitals were “empty” and Covid was a “hoax”. If it had taken a quick look at her Facebook page, they’d have seen her celebrating the burning down a Jewish-owned bank, as part of a “great awakening”.

We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting. Parts of Britain’s media have spent the Coronavirus pandemic doing everything they can to downplay the seriousness of it and set bogus stories running by publishing the claims of cranks. Professional contrarians have fed people misleading nonsense to get clicks: carrying on their business-as-usual, even in a life-or-death situation. As hospitals hit crisis point, they should reflect on their actions.

The attempted putsch in Washington didn’t come out of nowhere. It has been decades coming. It happened not just because of one man, but because people in positions of power made short-termist decisions to feed the beast, and play along. Don’t think it couldn’t happen here.

Britain’s relationship with the EU: no love affair, followed by a bad marriage and a stormy divorce

12 Dec

Reluctant European: Britain and the European Union from 1945 to Brexit by Stephen Wall

This book could also be called “Life as a Continuous Negotiation”. It shows with great clarity that when Britain entered the European Economic Community, as it was then known, the advocates of joining indulged in wishful thinking, as more recently did the advocates of Brexit.

There was no love affair before this marriage, no honeymoon after it, and the divorce is proving pretty painful too.

In 1979 Helmut Schmidt, an anglophile German Chancellor, asked Oliver Wright, the British Ambassador in Bonn, why the British had spent the six years since we joined haggling like Italians about sums of money which ought to have been beneath our notice.

There had been years of haggling before we joined, and there was a lot more haggling to come, for Margaret Thatcher was only just beginning her campaign for the British rebate.

Stephen Wall, who joined the Diplomatic Service in 1968, saw much of this haggling at first hand, for he was an adviser to five Foreign Secretaries and three Prime Ministers, and also served for five years as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU.

How did he stand it? This book is intended mainly as a dispassionate account of Britain’s European policy over the last 75 years: an aim it more than meets.

But it also offers hints on how to survive official life. One method is to enjoy the comic side of things. Here is one of the best anecdotes with which Wall enlivens his text:

“My father-in-law [Norman Reddaway], a young diplomat in the post-war British Embassy in Rome, had accompanied his Ambassador in 1950 when the latter, on instructions from London, called on the Italian Foreign Minister to persuade him of the ill-advised nature of the proposed Coal and Steel Community. The Minister, Count Sforza, listened politely. At the end of the Ambassador’s reasoned case, Sforza smiled tolerantly. ‘My dear Ambassador,’ he said. ‘There are times at the opera when you should enjoy the music and not worry about the words.'”

There is much to be said for the Sforza approach. Enjoy the music and don’t bother to translate the lyrics.

It was not, however, an approach which Wall and his colleagues felt able to adopt:

“We British worried intensely about ‘the words’. With no overarching written constitution, the words of Parliamentary Acts were all we (and the courts which interpreted them) had to rely on.”

One detects the note of suppressed hysteria which runs through the story of Britain’s relationship with Europe. It mattered desperately to get it right: here is the principal, and entirely honourable, motive which drove so many members of the Diplomatic Service to devote their careers and very considerable minds to the problem.

And yet, as Wall’s account brings out, brains were not enough to arrive at a solution. He starts in the Frick gallery in New York, staring at the Holbein portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

Here are “the two sides of the schism that was the Reformation”: Cromwell “the piggy-eyed, clever thug”, versus a representative of European civilisation:

“More was a Renaissance scholar… He was the friend of the Dutch philosopher and scholar Erasmus. They both saw themselves as part of an international, and especially European, cultural and spiritual order: that of Christendom. For More, the son of a lawyer, and himself the most senior guardian and dispenser of the law in the England of his day, the Church and State were umbilically linked and the laws of God and the laws of Man had to be in harmony. When Henry VIII sundered that harmony by declaring himself Head of the Church and breaking from the authority of Rome he was not, in More’s eyes, simply rebelling from a pontiff who was more of a temporal ruler than a spiritual one. Henry’s action was, as More saw it, an assault on the very foundations on which the English state was built.”

Wall is descended rather wonderfully from Norman foot soldiers who settled in Derbyshire, where their name “gradually morphed from Du Val to Wall” and they became yeomen farmers.

His mother was a Catholic, he was brought up as a Catholic, and he points out that the EEC was “largely conceived by Catholic Christian Democrats”, who signed the Treaty of Rome on 25th March 1957, the Feast of the Annunciation:

“For Britain, on the other hand, the idea of a supranational authority – beyond the control of national parliaments – was, and remained, conceptually alien and politically nigh on impossible to contemplate. We live with that political reality to that day.”

Wall is too intelligent and fair-minded to suggest that all virtue lies on the European side of the divide. He describes how the six founding members of the EEC created, “in an act of pre-emptive and ruthless self-interest”, the Common Fisheries Policy, before the British, the Danes, the Norwegians and the Irish, all of whom had large stocks of fish, were allowed to join.

The budget was likewise rigged against the British, who found themselves paying for a system of agricultural support for French farmers, an injustice which took many years of haggling to put right.

In 1987, Julian Bullard, the British Ambassador in Bonn, wrote a dispatch to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which included the words:

“I would plead that at least more thought should be given to the style of British policy in Europe. The plain speaking of the House of Commons does not translate well into Continental languages, especially in countries that live by coalition and compromise.”

Over 30 years later, what Bullard said remains true. Abrasive language of the kind often heard in Westminster just doesn’t register in Germany: is politely discounted as simply not serious.

Yet if one adapts one’s tone to take account of German susceptibilities, one is liable to make no impact, and to lose one’s British audience.

Wall admits that Margaret Thatcher made a remarkable impact not only in Europe, especially in that part of the Continent still held by the Soviet Union, but in the United States:

“A visit to Washington by Prime Minister Jim Callaghan rated a few lines in The New York Times. The first visit of Thatcher as Prime Minister, for which I was the gofer late in 1979, dominated the headlines and the TV news. Her address to both Houses of Congress electrified the audience. I spent the first ten years of my Foreign Office career doing my bit to represent a country in visible decline: widely seen as the sick man of Europe. All that changed with Thatcher.”

Tony Blair emerges less well from this account than one might expect. He contributes a single, mendacious paragraph to his memoirs on the subject of joining the euro, is heard by Wall agreeing to misrepresent Jacques Chirac’s views about Saddam Hussein, fatefully promises a referendum on a new European treaty, and pretends that he shares the vision of the EU’s founders.

The moral of this admirable book is that forms of words, however carefully chosen, are not enough to bridge the divide that runs through Britain, and has done since the Reformation.

So although Wall says almost nothing about Boris Johnson, for whom he never worked, he does draw the impassable chasm into which any Prime Minister is in danger of tumbling: one to which the present occupant of Number Ten sometimes seems, with his carefree insistence that politics should be enjoyable, to be applying the wisdom of Count Sforza.