Category Archives: UK Foreign Policy

Book review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell

Book review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 April 2021

FROM Reagan-loving Republican Tom Clancy, to the Conservative Frederick Forsyth and Jonathan Freedland’s rose-tinted views of Democratic presidents, political thrillers are often underpinned by some unpleasant, power-friendly politics.

Which makes Steve Howell’s Collateral Damage a welcome addition to the genre.

The book’s politics are perhaps unsurprising when you consider the author’s position as Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership team during the 2017 UK general election.

However, more pertinent is Howell’s activism in the late 80s – along with being Secretary of UK Local Authorities Against Apartheid, in 1987 he attended a conference in Tripoli, Libya to mark the first anniversary of the US air strikes on the country.

With the US warplanes taking off from UK bases – the first US combat operation launched from British soil since the Second World War – Howell believes the attacks mark the beginning of the era of regime-change wars.

Accordingly, the novel begins with the death of British peace activist and journalist Tom Carver while attending a conference in Tripoli in 1987. Suspecting foul play, Carver’s partner Ayesha, a Palestinian exile, works with young London School of Economics lecturer Hannah and lawyer Jed to uncover the truth.

Fast-paced and carefully-plotted, it’s a short and punchy read, which I devoured in a couple of sittings. While Clancy and Freedland fantasise about grand presidential politics in Washington D.C., Howell’s canvas is much more modest. The action does shift to Libya at one point, but most of the events occur in and around London. He provides some authentic period detail, including passing mentions of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Spycatcher and the unsolved murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan. Of course, there were no mobile phones in the late 80s, with the characters making copious use of phone boxes on the street.

And while the novel’s central twist is very much of its time, unfortunately it continues to have painful relevance today.

Echoing films from the period like 1986’s Defence of the Realm and Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda from 1990, there is a foreboding sense of the British secret state working to protect the powerful in the name of “national security”.

With former Head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove branding Corbyn a “present danger to our country” just before the December 2019 general election, the struggle between the general public and established power continues, it seems.

Collateral Damage is published by Quaero Publishing, priced £8.99 https://www.steve-howell.com/collateral-damage/

It was the Blair and Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who lied about Iraq’s WMDs

It was the Blair and Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who lied about Iraq’s WMDs
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21 December 2020

As the famous quote – commonly attributed to US writer Mark Twain – goes: “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that while the case for the 2003 Iraq war has been largely discredited, an unnerving amount of propaganda spread by the US and UK governments at the time still has some purchase today.

For example, Gerd Nonneman, Professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at Georgetown University Qatar, recently tweeted about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): “Saddam’s aim was to keep everyone at home & abroad guessing.” Similarly a November Financial Times review by Chief Political Correspondent Philip Stephens of two books on UK intelligence matters noted the then Iraqi leader “believed his domestic authority in Iraq rested on a pretence that he still had WMD.”

The thesis that Hussein tricked the rest of the world into thinking Iraq had WMDs is surprisingly common. Appearing on a 2013 BBC Newsnight special Iraq: 10 Years On veteran correspondent John Simpson said “It came as a shock to Blair and Bush to find that Saddam had craftily got rid of his weapons” before the 2003 invasion. And during his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry in 2009, Sir John Scarlett, Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in 2003, argued Hussein wanted to create the impression he had WMD to “project power in the region”.

Compare these claims with public statements from Saddam Hussein and other members of the Iraqi government.

In early February 2003 Hussein told Tony Benn in an interview screened on Channel Four “There is only one truth and therefore I tell you as I have said on many occasions before that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever”. Later that month he referred to “the big lie that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction such as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons” in an interview with CBS News. In December 2002 the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told ABC News “We don’t have weapons of mass destruction. We don’t have chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry”.

As the US Brookings Institution think-tank noted in December 2002: “Iraq has repeatedly denied that it possesses any weapons of mass destruction.”

On 13 November 2002 Iraq told the United Nations it had neither produced nor was in possession of weapons of mass destruction since the inspectors left in December 1998. And two months earlier on 19 September 2002 CNN reported “Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri delivers a letter to the United Nations from Hussein stating that Iraq has no chemical, nuclear or biological weapons.”

What’s going on? Why are supposedly smart and informed people claiming Hussein tried to trick the world into thinking Iraq had WMDs when the evidence clearly shows the exact opposite – that the Iraqi leadership repeatedly denied having WMDs?

The answer is to be found in the part of Nonneman’s tweet preceding his claim about Hussein’s duplicity: “The problem wasn’t [US and UK] mendacity, it was intel being skewed by group think & failure to contemplate alternative explanations.”

If Hussein was deceiving the world, then it means the US and UK governments mistakenly, but sincerely, believed there were WMD in Iraq. In short, there were no lies about WMD. The 55 per cent of respondents to the July 2004 Guardian/ICM opinion poll who said UK Prime Minister Tony Blair lied were wrong.

Like the belief the Iraqi government was deliberately ambiguous about WMD, this thesis doesn’t stand up to elementary evidence either.

As anyone who had a passing interest in the news circa 2002-3 will remember, the UK government’s lies and deceptions on Iraq were numerous, relentless and increasingly blatant.

For example, Blair repeatedly said he wanted to resolve the issue of Iraq and WMD through the United Nations. The historical evidence suggests something very different. In a March 2002 memo to Blair’s chief foreign policy advisor, the UK Ambassador to the US set out a plan “to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and UN SCRs [UN security council resolutions]”. How? A July 2002 Cabinet Office briefing paper explains: “It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community.” The goal, then, was to use the weapons inspectors and the UN process to trigger war, not to negotiate a peaceful solution.

In July 2002 – fully eight months before the invasion and before UN weapons inspectors returned to Iraq in November 2002 – Blair also wrote to US President George Bush, telling him: “I will be with you, whatever.”

The minutes of a July 2002 meeting in Downing Street with Blair and senior government officials – recorded in the leaked Downing Street Memo – highlight further deceptions. The Head of MI6 is summarised as saying “Military action was now seen as inevitable” in Washington. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” The minutes summarise Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as saying the case for war “was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”

Furthermore, the JIC’s Assessment of 21 August 2002 noted “We have little intelligence on Iraq’s CBW doctrine, and know little about Iraq’s CBW work since late 1998”, while their earlier assessment on 15 March 2002 explained “Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programme is sporadic and patchy.”

In contrast, Blair’s foreword to the infamous September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s supposed WMDs boldly stated “I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current”, with the Prime Minister noting “the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.” 

Largely ignored by the media at the time, and rarely mentioned since, is the testimony of Iraqi general Hussein Kamel, the head of Iraq’s weapons programme in the 1980s and 1990s, which was leaked to Newsweek magazine. Speaking to UN inspectors in Jordan in 1995 Kamel, who was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, said “I ordered the destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons – biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed.” However, not only did the Blair government fail to disclose this important information in the run up to the war, Blair shamelessly cited Kamel when he pushed for war in parliament on 18 March 2003: “Hussain Kamel defected to Jordan. He disclosed a far more extensive BW [biological weapons] programme and for the first time said Iraq had weaponsied the programme.”

What does all this show?

First, it highlights the power of what British historian Mark Curtis called “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world”. For example, a 2006 Harris Interactive poll found half of Americans believed that Iraq had WMD when the US invaded in 2003.

Second, it suggests supposedly highly educated, critically-minded members of the elite, such as Nonneman, Simpson and Stephens, are as susceptible to government propaganda as anyone else. Indeed, US dissident Noam Chomsky suggests intellectuals are likely the most heavily indoctrinated sector of society: “By and large, they’re part of the privileged elite, and share the interests and perceptions of those in power.” Chomsky notes “the respected intellectuals in virtually every society are those who are distinguished by their conformist subservience to those in power.”

And finally, it highlights the upside down moral world we live in.  So while Blair, his spin doctor Alastair Campbell and Chancellor Gordon Brown all played a central role in the illegal and aggressive invasion of Iraq that led to 500,000 dead Iraqi men, women and children, millions of refugees and created the conditions for Islamic State to prosper, all three continue to appear regularly in the mainstream media.

In a sane and just world the only public appearances these men would be making would be at The Hague to answer for their crimes.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Ian tweets @IanJSinclair.

How the media ignores the deadly impacts of UK military intervention

How the media ignores the deadly impacts of UK military intervention
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 November 2020

US journalist Glenn Greenwald’s tweet declaring he has “never encountered any group more driven by group think and rank-closing than British journalism” is an evergreen observation.

It’s especially accurate during times of war, with the air campaign waged by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a good case study in support of Greenwald’s assertion.

The UK joined the bombardment following parliamentary votes in support of bombing in Iraq (September 2014) and Syria (December 2015).

The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC after the Iraq vote that the priority would be to stop the “slaughter of civilians” in Iraq.

As always the British media heeded the call up. The Times, Daily Telegraph, Sun, Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Guardian and Observer all backed British military action in Iraq in 2014.

“ISIS have been responsible for appalling atrocities against civilians” and their actions “have greatly exacerbated the refugee crises and mass population dislocations”, an Observer editorial explained.

“Now is the time for anyone of a remotely progressive temperament to call for an intensification of the military campaign against ISIS”, James Bloodworth, then the editor of Left Foot Forward website, wrote in the Independent in August 2014: “Indeed, let more bombs fall on those who behead journalists and enslave Kurdish and Iraqi women.”

Discussing Britain joining the US-led air strikes in Syria on US new channel CNBC before the parliamentary vote, Dr James Strong, a specialist in UK foreign policy at Queen Mary University of London, sang the praises of so-called precision armaments used by UK forces such as Pathfinder bombs and Brimstone missiles. As these weapons are “more accurate than their US or French counterparts” they are “slightly more able to hit what it is aiming at, and slightly less likely to hit things it is not aiming at”, Strong noted. “That means it is slightly better at hitting targets in built-up areas.”

Of course, pro-war – and war-adjacent – journalists and academics are not directed or controlled by the government, as some conspiracy theorists believe. But it’s an inescapable and frightening fact that on many high stakes issues large sections of our supposedly free and questioning media and intellectual class end up holding remarkably similar positions to the British government and foreign policy establishment.

Which brings us to Seeing Through The Rubble: The Civilian Impact Of The Use Of Explosive Weapons In The Fight Against ISIS, the new 46-page report from Airwars, a not-for-profit transparency organisation which monitors military actions and related civilian harm claims in conflict zones, and Dutch peace organisation PAX.

As the subtitle suggests, the report looks at the impacts of the US-led air campaign against ISIS since 2014, focussing on Raqqa in Syria and Mosul and Hawijah in Iraq.

Given their interest in the wellbeing of Iraqi and Syrian civilians when the government was proposing joining the bombing, you might assume British journalists have been tripping over each other to cover and comment on the report. I asked Chris Woods, the Founder and Director of Airwars, about the level of coverage the report has received in the UK media.

“As far as I understand no UK news organisation picked it up”, he tells me on 11 November, though interestingly he notes there has been widespread coverage in the Netherlands. He adds: “It speaks I’m afraid to a worrying complacency towards civilian harm from UK military actions – from parliament, the press and from the Ministry of Defence itself.”

Perhaps the media have ignored the report because it isn’t newsworthy, or of little interest to the British public? Let’s have a look at some of the report’s key findings to see if this is the case.

“Most Western militaries claim that their operations have been conducted in compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and that they are already well-equipped [with precision weapons] to limit civilian harm from explosive weapons during operations fought” in urban areas, the report’s introduction explains. However, the authors note “precision has not prevented significant levels of reported civilian harm in Syrian and Iraqi cities from the use of explosive weapons.”

The report explains the primary effects of explosive weapons are caused by “the blast wave and fragmentation of the warhead after detonation. They cause injuries such as the bursting of hollow organs (ears, lungs and the gastro-intestinal tract), brain damage when the brain crushes into the side of the skull, and burns and projectile wounds from weapon fragments.”

However, the report confirms “The civilian harm caused by explosive weapons use in towns and cities extends well beyond the time and place of the attack. Explosive weapons are a main driver of forced displacement and have a profound impact upon critical infrastructure services such as health care, education and water and sanitation services.”

During the battle to drive ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2016-17 “the 500-pound general-purpose bombs that the US-led coalition used primarily… contained around 200 pounds of high explosive, and were lethal up to a 230-metre radius”, the authors observe. Which doesn’t sound very precise to me. Indeed, in July 2017 Amnesty International concluded that Iraqi government and the US-led coalition “appear to have repeatedly carried out indiscriminate, disproportionate or otherwise unlawful attacks, some of which may amount to war crimes”.

Airwars and PAX estimate between 9,000 and 12,000 civilians died in the fighting – “with most killed by explosive weapons with wide area effects.” Approximately 700,000 people were initially displaced from the city, with the United Nations (UN) estimating around 130,000 homes were destroyed.

Shamefully, the report notes “despite declaring that it had struck more than 900 targets in Mosul during the battle for the city, the official UK position remains that no civilians were harmed in its own urban strikes.”

The report’s conclusions about the US-led coalition’s actions in Mosul are damning: The “unwillingness on the part of most Western militaries to investigate properly whether their own use of explosive weapons in populated areas resulted in civilian harm critically undermines any claim that their implementation of IHL is enough to protect civilians against these weapons.”

Turning to the coalition assault to take the Syrian city of Raqqa back from ISIS between June and October 2017, the report highlights how “by spring 2017, the US-led coalition was acutely aware of the risks to civilians of intense bombardment of heavily populated areas—even while using precision munitions”. Yet “these harsh lessons were not applied at Raqqa, with devastating implications for non-combatants.”

Airwars and Amnesty International conservatively estimate at least 1,600 civilians died as a result of coalition strikes on the city. The local monitoring network Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that 90 per cent of the city had been levelled in the fighting, with eight hospitals, 29 mosques, five universities, more than 40 schools, and the city’s water irrigation system all destroyed. According to the UN, 436,000 people were displaced during the fighting.

The report notes “The great majority of both the urban destruction and civilian harm in Raqqa resulted largely from the actions of just one party to the fighting: the United States.”

Far from not being newsworthy, or of no interest to the British public, the report includes very important information about the huge loss of civilian life caused by US and UK military intervention in Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, given the UK government, supportive MPs and pro-war media outlets bear significant responsibility for this death and destruction you would think they would be particularly interested in the outcome of their policies, votes and journalism. The reality is far more telling. An inverse relationship can be divined: the more responsibility the UK government and media have for the deaths of people around the world the less interest the UK government and media take in these deaths.

All of which suggests the media is as much a well-oiled propaganda machine as it is a reliable news source.

Seeing Through The Rubble can be read at https://airwars.org/. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 October 2020

In the introduction to his first book, The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945, historian Mark Curtis notes two broad approaches are available to those attempting to understand British foreign affairs. “In the first, one can rely on the mainstream information system, consisting primarily of media and academia”, he explains. This approach frames British foreign policy as “fundamentally benevolent”, promoting grand principles such as peace, democracy and human rights.

No doubt this narrative informed the results of the recent Ipsos MORI poll, which found 34 per cent of Brits believe the British Empire is something to be proud of, with just 16 per cent saying it is something to be ashamed of (around 40 per cent think it is something neither to be proud nor ashamed of).

For those interested in discovering the reality of British foreign policy Curtis recommends a second method – studying formerly secret government documents and a variety of alternative sources.

A good illustration of this thesis is the BBC Radio 4 programme Document. Broadcasting at least 57 episodes between 2005 and 2017, Document was an historical investigation programme that used previously secret government records to illuminate Britain’s past. Two episodes on forgotten chapters in British history are particularly pertinent to understanding post-war UK foreign policy – the first from 2009 on the 1970 coup in Oman, and the second from a year later looking at the 1963 “constitutional coup” in British Guiana.

Though it has never been a formal colony, the British had an extraordinary level of influence in Oman, with Sultan Said bin Taimur, the country’s authoritarian ruler since 1932, one of the UK’s most reliable clients in the Gulf. The Sultan’s armed forces were headed by British officers, while “his defence secretary and chief of intelligence were British army officers, his chief adviser was a former British diplomat, and all but one of his government ministers were British”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain explained in 2016.

Studying secret UK government documents and interviewing academics and British officials involved in the coup, Document undercovers a fascinating, if shocking, story of deceitful British interference.

With a rebellion gaining ground in the Omani province of Dhofur, in 1970 the British elite in Oman and the British government itself came to the conclusion Taimur had become a liability.

The Sultan’s son, Sandhurst graduate Qaboos bin Said, was supported in his bid to take power. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, then a soldier in the Sultan’s army, tells Document “[UK intelligence officer] Tim Landon, with Harold Wilson’s government and with PDO – Petroleum Development Oman” and others “plotted to get rid of Said bin Taimur”.

In a July 1970 “secret” document, Anthony Acland, the Head of the Arabian Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), reports Colonel Hugh Oldman, Taimur’s Secretary for Defence, “has now instructed Brigadier Graham, the Commander of the Sultan’s armed forces… to prepare detailed plans for two contingencies.” If the coup is successful the armed forces were to “align themselves with Qaboos and facilitate his constitutional succession to the Sultancy as fast as possible.” In the event the coup failed, the armed forces “would assist Qaboos in gaining control” and “in deposing his father.”

Acland explained Qaboos “is likely to be a much better bet” than Taimur. And as the newly installed Sultan would rely heavily on British support this would likely better protect Britain’s “specific interests in the Sultanate – i.e. [the RAF base] Masirah and oil”, he notes.

“We would of course maintain the public position that we had no foreknowledge”, Sir Stewart Crawford, the most senior British official in the Gulf, states in a secret 13 July telegram to the FCO, about the plan. “The correct form should be observed so as to enable the coup to be presented as an internal matter with the British hand concealed, or at least deniable.”

Just ten days later, on 23 July, Taimur was deposed and replaced by Qaboos. The operation involved the seizure of the Sultan’s palace and the Sultan himself “by a small body of troops loyal to Qaboos, with the assistance of some British officers”, notes Abdel Razzaq Takriti in his riveting 2013 history Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. Taimur, injured in the coup, was quickly flown out of the country by the Royal Air Force and eventually installed in the Dorchester hotel in London until his death a couple of years later.

“Despite Britain’s deep involvement in the coup that toppled Oman’s head of state no questions seemed to have been asked about it in parliament”, Mike Thomson, the presenter of Document, notes.

The UK’s actions in British Guiana in the 1950s and 1960s reveal a similarly disturbing story of colonial arrogance and interference. A British colony since 1814, the popular politician Dr Cheddi Jagan became the country’s Chief Minister in 1953, after leading the socialist-leaning People’s Progressive Party to victory in a democratic election. With British commercial interests – sugar and bauxite, in particular – threatened, Winston Churchill’s government dispatched British forces who forcibly removed Jagan from power, briefly jailing him. Interviewed by Document, Dr Spencer Mawby, an historian at the University of Nottingham, notes “The pretext [for the British military action] itself was dramatic because the British said basically there was a plot to burn down [the capital] Georgetown”.

“Was there?”, asks Thomson. “There was no plot”, Mawby confirms.

Ten years later, with new elections and independence fast approaching, the British made a second major intervention.

It was understood that Jagan, the nation’s premier again after winning the 1961 election, was likely to win the next election and lead an independent British Guiana. This fact was intolerable to the US government, which was worried about Jagan’s politics and the possibility he would align the country with Cuba. Accordingly, the US government successfully pressured an initially reluctant Britain to act to stop Jagan winning the next election.

With communal violence intensifying and an 80-day general strike starting in April 1963 paralysing the nation, the UK organised an independence conference in London, inviting the main political actors in British Guiana to resolve the crisis. Point of interest: Thomson confirms the general strike was likely “orchestrated and financed by the CIA”.

A formerly “top secret” document, recording an October 1963 meeting in the Colonial Secretary’s office, sets out the British government’s plan for the conference, held two weeks later. “It was important to ensure both that the conference and in the meantime that Dr Jagan and [British Guianese opposition leader] Mr Burnham failed to agree”, it notes. The document continues: “It was agreed that when the conference ended in deadlock the British government would announce the suspension of the constitution and the resumption of direct rule.”

With elections in British Guiana previously held under the First Past The Post system, the British government proposed a system of Proportional Representation (PR) for the upcoming election. They did this knowing Jagan would find it difficult to win under PR, and that Jagan would refuse to accept this.  

Thomson summarises the incredible deceit: “This document appears to show that the British government was setting out to deliberately scupper its own conference.”

The UK and US governments got what they wanted. After Jagan rejected the change to the voting method, Britain resumed direct rule and switched the voting system to PR. Jagan was then defeated in the 196 election, with Burham forming a coalition government that was in place when the country became independent Guyana in 1966.

These two historical episodes thoroughly undermine claims of UK benevolence in world affairs. In reality, commercial and geopolitical concerns, not self-serving notions of democracy and human rights, drive British foreign policy. And in the pursuit of this naked self-interest anything goes, including illegal coups, the undermining of democracy, covert action, and the most duplicitous, Machiavellian behaviour one could imagine.

“Are we the baddies?”, asks a German soldier, slowly beginning to realise the reality of his country’s role in the Second World War, in That Mitchell and Webb Look’s famous comedy sketch.

No doubt it will be news to the vast majority of mainstream media commentators and much of the British public, but the historical record clearly shows it is the British government which has been the bad guys in the post-war world.

BBC Document episodes are archived at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006sk3k. Ian tweets @IanJSinclair.

Book review. War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran

Book review. War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August 2020

Currently writing for the Independent and the London Review of Books, Patrick Cockburn is one of the most experienced foreign correspondents working in the Middle East today.

His latest book is largely made up of short-form reportage based on writings and diary entries at the time of the events being covered, alongside some contextualising retrospective explanation.

Covering the first term of the Trump administration, which Cockburn argues has been populated by an unusually high number of dangerous people, the book’s strength lies in its on-the-ground journalism. ‘I have tried to give voice to what the Syrian, Iraqis and Kurds felt about events as they unfolded around them,’ he writes.

Cockburn regularly notes the complexity of the fighting in Iraq and Syria, describing the latter as having ‘the feel of medieval Italy’ where ‘every city and town had its own distinct politics, along with some powerful foreign sponsor.’

In Syria alone, the list of nations involved in the conflict is huge: Russia, Iran, the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia being the main actors.

There is much of interest to peace activists in the book. For example, those who wonder if Western air strikes were the only option for dealing with ISIS will be interested to read that NATO member Turkey allowed around 40,000 ISIS fighters to cross its border into ISIS territory.

Cockburn is also keen to highlight the skewed, propagandistic nature of much mainstream news reporting of the wars, noting ‘copious media coverage of civilian casualties caused by Syrian and Russian airstrikes’ in Aleppo and Ghouta (both in Syria).

In contrast, there has been ‘near silence… amounting at times to a media blackout’ about the similarly huge number of civilian casualties caused by US–UK air strikes in Mosul in Iraq (2016) and Raqqa in Syria (2017).

Visiting Raqqa after ISIS were defeated, he describes the ‘universal destruction’ as ‘similar to that of the carpet-bombed German cities in the Second World War.’

Elsewhere he notes the Western powers have ‘stoked’ the war in Syria ‘year after year’, supporting the armed opposition to the Syrian government, which has been ‘dominated by various Al-Qaeda clones’ since 2013.

Frustratingly there is no bibliography or footnotes, though arguably the first-hand nature of Cockburn’s reporting means these are not essential. This is a small gripe about an accessible, often engrossing, introduction to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East which should be of central concern to anti-war groups and activists in the UK.

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair

Peace News
August 2020

After interviewing more than 36 senior officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations for The War Within, his 1994 book about the movement against the Vietnam War, US historian Tom Wells concluded that ‘the movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.’

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells the movement ‘had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.’

However, despite this huge influence, Wells found ‘few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed’. This failure to appreciate the impact of their actions ‘hurt their cause’, he argued, leading to ‘defections from the movement’ and to ‘lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks.’

‘Moreover, some Americans never protested because they felt it was futile.’

A window

A new report prepared for the UK ministry of defence (MoD) inadvertently highlights how the post-9/11 anti-war movement in the UK has had a similarly important impact on British foreign policy – an influence largely unknown to the general public, and to many activists too.

Published by the RAND Corporation, a US think tank, The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today’s Britain is co-written by top British military historian Hew Strachan (currently professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews) and Ruth Harris (currently a researcher at RAND Europe, previously an RAF officer).

‘The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power’, the authors note.

The outcome of this largely unexamined agreement is that ‘the making of strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.’

This elite stitch-up works well for the government because it believes ‘the public is reluctant to support the cost of defence’ and ‘is unpersuaded of the utility of military force’, Strachan and Harris state. ‘The Whitehall mindset towards the public on matters of defence tends to be one of distrust.’

Why is the public not supportive of UK military action?

‘The prevailing conventional wisdom is that the wars in which Britain has engaged since 9/11 have created a public mood which respects the armed forces but doubts the utility of military force’, the authors explain.

Indeed, while it didn’t stop the UK’s involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is evidence the anti-war movement, by informing and mobilising the wider British public, had a significant constraining influence on the actions of UK forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Limiting Iraq

Discussing the UK military deployment to Iraq from 2003 onwards, major general (ret) Christopher Elliott notes there was ‘a cap on numbers, driven by political constraints rather than military necessity.’ The consequence of this was that the UK had ‘insufficient troops to be effective in the post-conflict phase in Iraq’, forcing ‘commanders in-theatre to react to events, and not to be able to shape them’. (RUSI Journal, 29 September 2016)

In addition, it is likely UK public opinion shaped the timing of the UK withdrawal from Iraq.

Contrary to claims from the UK government, a Telegraph report noted the US military ‘has no doubt’ the UK’s pull-out from central Basra ‘is being driven by “the political situation at home in the UK”.’ (Sunday Telegraph, 19 August 2007)

Speaking at the London School of Economics in May 2012, Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (Bodley Head, 2011), argued the overall British pull-out from Iraq in April 2009 ‘was largely because their continued presence in Iraq was politically toxic’ in the UK.

Limiting Afghanistan

A similar dynamic was evident in Afghanistan, with US general Stanley McChrystal, then NATO commander in Afghanistan, pushing for British troops to be moved out of ‘harm’s way’ because the Taliban would target them in the lead-up to the 2010 British general election.

McChrystal held ‘the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties, including “capacity building”.’ (Observer, 8 November 2009).

Writing in 2013, Strachan provides an insight into the impact of public opinion on the British withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, announced by British prime minister David Cameron in 2010: ‘He [Cameron] explained his timeline not in relation to conditions which he saw as likely to prevail in Afghanistan but in terms of what the British public would demand.’

UK propaganda I

Aware that public opinion can hamper the actions of British forces, the UK military and government spent considerable resources trying to manipulate the public to increase the popularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This fear of the public manifested itself very early after 9/11.

Under the heading ‘Propaganda’, in a declassified October 2001 letter, British prime minister Tony Blair suggested to US president George Bush: ‘we need a dedicated, tightly knit propaganda unit for the war generally [against Afghanistan and later Iraq]’.

What followed in the lead-up to the 2003 US–UK invasion of Iraq was ‘a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world’, according to British historian Mark Curtis. (Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, Pluto Press, 2004)

More specifically, a November 2003 Guardian report revealed ‘a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War’.

According to leaked confidential papers ‘the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.’

In Afghanistan, the military tried to shape the narrative of the war by controlling the media coverage. ‘There is a general policy by the MoD to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons’, a senior officer told the Telegraph in September 2008.

‘If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.’

The Syria vote

The huge post-9/11 UK anti-war movement, peaking with the largest demonstration in British history on 15 February 2003, has had a long tail of influence on UK foreign policy going far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, in August 2013, the British government was set to support planned US air strikes in Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

However, unexpectedly, the house of commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. This was the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since 1782. The UK was forced to cease its involvement in the proposed strikes.

Public opinion was strongly opposed to military action, with a YouGov poll just before the vote showing opposition at 51 percent, and support at just 22 percent (Peace News, October 2013).

‘The spectre of the 2003 Iraq War hung over the Commons’ during the Syria debate. (Guardian, 30 August 2013) When Labour leader Ed Miliband met with the prime minister and deputy prime minister in Downing Street just before the parliamentary vote, a source reported: ‘Ed said to the Prime Minister: “You have to realize that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us”.’ (Guardian, 29 August 2013)

Professor Richard English, a historian at the University of St Andrews, confirms the link: ‘The decision in the House of Commons about Syria was really a decision about Iraq, but a few years late.’ (Guardian, 12 February 2014)

More importantly, in addition to stopping UK involvement in the attack, the parliamentary vote played a crucial role in halting the wider US air strikes.

The day after the parliamentary vote, officers on board US warships in the Mediterranean were expecting launch orders. (Wall Street Journal, 17 September 2013)

However, after speaking with advisers, US president Barack Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the air strikes, telling aides that ‘He had several reasons … including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.’ (New York Times, 31 August 2013)

With opposition building in the US congress, the attack was called off in favour of a joint US–Russian plan to force the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapon stockpiles.

John Kerry, US secretary of state at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017.

‘The president had already decided to use force’, he explained, but ‘the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.’ (Guardian, 6 January 2017)

The government defeat – that is, the democratic process – created panic within the British establishment.

Alistair Burt, minister for the Middle East from 2010–2013, argued: ‘the UK finds itself in quite a mess.’ If the government has to convince a majority in parliament, he worried, ‘to what can government commit itself in discussions with allies, or prepare in advance for regional strategic defence?’ Burt continued: ‘Just occasionally politicians need space and time to take unpopular action that they believe in the long run is in their nation’s interest.’ (Guardian, 7 February 2014)

On 18 December 2013, the chief of the defence staff, general sir Nicholas Houghton, noted in a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute: ‘the purposes to which [the armed forces] have most recently been put has seldom been more deeply questioned. As a nation we have become a touch sceptical about the ability to use force in a beneficial way.’

UK propaganda II

Just after the parliamentary vote on Syria, the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the power of the UK anti-war movement.

Under the headline, ‘MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public’, the report provided a summary of a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: ‘The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties’.

The article went on: ‘Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage “casualty averse” public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.’

Noting ‘the public have become better informed’, the report also recommended the armed forces run ‘a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.’ (Guardian, 27 September 2013)

Since then, UK military interventions have broadly followed these proposals, with Mark Curtis highlighting in 2016 that Britain was involved in at least seven covert wars in the Middle East: ‘Whitehall has in effect gone underground, with neither parliament nor the public being allowed to debate, scrutinise or even know about these wars.’ (Huffington Post, 18 October 2016) (The seven covert wars were in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.)

Chris Cole, director of Drone Wars UK, tells me: ‘The increasing use of air power by the UK rather than the use of ground troops has been remarkable.’

He continues: ‘In Iraq and Syria over the past five years, for example, there have been few troops on the ground but thousands of air strikes. And increasingly, drones are being used to undertake those strikes.

‘In its first five years in service, British Reaper drones fired just over 350 bombs and missiles. In the last five years, however, that has increased by more than two-and-a-half times to almost 1,000 – and that’s an aircraft we are told is primarily used for surveillance.’

Occasional isolated news reports have highlighted that British special forces are operating in Iraq (Independent, 6 November 2016), Yemen (Daily Mail, 23 March 2019) and Syria (Guardian, 7 January 2019), but there has been no sustained media coverage or parliamentary interest.

In September 2013, the New York Times reported how British intelligence had been ‘working covertly’ with Saudi Arabia ‘for months… quietly funnelling arms, including antitank missiles’ to the armed opposition to the Syrian government.

‘Britain’s special forces are more secretive than any of the UK’s Five Eyes allies’, investigative journalist Phil Miller, author of Keenie Meenie: the British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes (Pluto Press, 2020), tells me. (The Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance links the UK to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.)

Miller goes on: ‘This secrecy prevents transparency around unsafe equipment and training accidents, to the detriment of the soldiers themselves and their families. There is no need for this level of secrecy in a mature democracy.’

Ongoing struggle

While I’ve highlighted how the UK anti-war movement has played a key role in constraining, and even stopping, UK military action, it is important to understand these clear-cut successes are relatively infrequent – the government usually wins in this high-stakes confrontation.

In 2014, parliament voted in support of air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq, and then a year later against Islamic State in Syria. At the time of the two parliamentary votes, polls showed clear support for the air strikes amongst the public. (YouGov, 26 September 2014 and 25 November 2015)

The UK then took part in punitive missile strikes against the Syrian government in April 2018 without a vote in parliament.

The election of anti-war, anti-imperialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party represented the best opportunity in a generation to break the elite consensus on foreign policy. In response, large sections of the media waged an unrelenting war against him, with a ‘senior serving general’ even threatening a military coup should he be elected prime minister. (Independent, 20 September 2015)

The Labour Party’s defeat in the December 2019 general election was therefore a huge victory for the elite and their preference for excluding the public from foreign policy decision-making. Despite these setbacks British foreign policy continues to be highly contested, with an ongoing struggle over public opinion and military interventions.

As Curtis argues in his book, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003): ‘It is no exaggeration to say that Britain has visited widespread destruction on many parts of the world, overthrowing popular governments, trampling over human rights, undermining democratic forces in favour of repressive elites’.

The UK ‘gets away with this largely because of the domestic structures of power’, he concludes.

The extent to which anti-war and peace activists are able to effectively organise, shift public opinion and intervene in the elite decision-making process described by Strachan and Harris therefore has enormous ramifications.

Documentary review: COUP 53

Documentary review: COUP 53
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
13 August 2020

Speaking to the BBC in 2011, Noam Chomsky explained “the West has an extremely ugly history” in the Middle East. We may not pay attention to this history, the US dissident noted, but the people in the region negatively impacted by Western military and economic interference don’t forget.

A good example of Chomsky’s truism is the 1953 coup in Iran, the subject of Taghi Amirani’s brilliant new documentary. After Iran’s parliament voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, the CIA and MI6 played a leading, covert role in toppling Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, installing the autocratic Shah (King) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power.

Much like the best political thrillers, the film has a real momentum. It is anchored around newly discovered testimony from MI6 officer Norman Darbyshire, found after some serious detective work by Amirani. Interviewed for Granada Television’s epic 1985 documentary series End of Empire, Darbyshire’s firsthand memories were mysteriously missing when the programme was broadcast on television. However, the transcript of his interview survived. And from this we find Darbyshire, suavely played by actor Ralph Feinnes, admitting to being involved in the kidnapping and killing of the Iranian police chief and, more broadly, confirming the UK’s central role in the coup – a historical fact which has never been officially recognised by the UK state.

As well as interviews with US and UK experts such as intelligence specialist Stephen Dorril and Stephen Kinzer, author of the 2003 book All The Shah’s Men, the film includes fascinating testimony from key members of Mossadeq’s inner circle and other Iranians involved at the time. Look out, too, for some innovative and effective animation telling key parts of the story.

With events involving President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, oil and corporate interests, a nefarious BBC and the British secret services, Kinzer is surely right to argue the coup was “a decisive historic episode” of the twentieth century that deserves to be much better known.

The coup strengthened the voices of those in the US government pushing for more US covert action (e.g. Guatemala in 1954). More importantly, it wrecked attempts to build a more democratic Iran. “As a result of that the Shah of Iran came in, a terrible dictator”, US Senator Bernie Sanders educated viewers during a 2016 Democratic Party presidential debate. “And as a result of that you had the [1979] Iranian revolution”.

Essential viewing.

COUP 53 is being screened online on 19 August, the 67th anniversary of the coup. Visit https://coup53.com/screenings/ to buy a ticket.

Neil Clark and other ‘anti-maskers’ vs. the scientific evidence and public wellbeing

Neil Clark and other ‘anti-maskers’ vs. the scientific evidence and public wellbeing
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
25 July 2020

There is a small, but vocal group of people who are strongly opposed to the wearing of masks to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.

One of the most prominent ‘anti-maskers’ is Neil Clark, a self-professed socialist writer and broadcaster. Clark has been posting increasingly absurd, conspiratorial and very dangerous tweets about masks. Here are a few examples:

  • ‘I’m quite disconcerted by the number of people with “Socialist” on their bios who seem to be v. strongly in favour of mandatory mask-wearing irregardless of the evidence & its long term effects. I never knew mandatory masks was a tenet of socialism. Or are we all CCP nowadays?’ (8 July 2020)
  • ‘Mandatory face coverings, no music, theatre or public performances. The Taliban would feel very much at home in Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland. Perhaps they’ll relocate there.’ (8 July 2020)
  • On masks: ‘it has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with control.’ (10 July 2020)
  • ‘I’d advise any young person or anyone who doesn’t have family commitments to leave the UK & build a new life overseas. There’s no future here under the current Covid insanity. Civil liberties have been destroyed. Our lives trashed. We are no longer a free people. Tyranny rules.’ (10 July 2020)
  • ‘The “Great Reset” is NOT a conspiracy theory. The radical changes to our lives, our working arrangements, the way we interract with one another, (masks & SD), introduced under the cover of Covid, are meant to be permanent. A “New Normal”. Everyone needs to wake up to this.’ (12 July 2020)
  • On the move to make face masks mandatory in shops: ‘Yup. Safety in numbers. If enough people disobey this insane policy will be unenforceable.’ (14 July 2020)
  • ‘Face masks will become the “new normal” for AT LEAST the next year. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. They want all this stuff to stay.’ (16 July 2020)

As anyone inhabiting the real world will know, there is a large and seemingly growing body of scientific evidence, and a broad consensus amongst scientific and medical experts, that confirms mask wearing can help to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Below I have listed some of the expert evidence and advice that supports the wearing of masks, including the World Health Organization, the Royal Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US and Independent SAGE.

Despite this wealth of evidence, Neil continues to oppose the wearing of masks. Indeed, Neil repeatedly quote tweets people who disagree with him, but I have not seen him seriously engage with anyone who opposes his evidence-free position.

Thinking of other people, adhering to scientific and medical evidence and trying to reduce unnecessary suffering — all this seems to fit very well with Socialism. However, ignoring huge amounts of scientific and medical evidence, being selfish and endangering the lives of others certainly doesn’t fit with Socialism. Hard-right Republicanism or Conservatism perhaps, but definitely not Socialism.

Evidence in support of wearing masks to reduce the transmission of COVID-19:

· A study published in The Lancet concludes ‘We encourage consideration of mass masking during the coming phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, which are expected to occur in the absence of an effective COVID-19 vaccine… Mass masking for source control is in our view a useful and low-cost adjunct to social distancing and hand hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic.’ (The Lancet, 16 April 2020)

  • A study in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences concludes ‘that wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission, and this inexpensive practice, in conjunction with simultaneous social distancing, quarantine, and contact tracing, represents the most likely fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.’ (Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, 14 May 2020)
  • ‘Wearing a face mask or other covering over the mouth and nose reduces the forward distance travelled by an exhaled breath by more than 90 per cent, research suggests.’ (University of Edinburgh, 22 May 2020)
  • ‘Taking into account the available studies evaluating pre- and asymptomatic transmission, a growing compendium of observational evidence on the use of masks by the general public in several countries, individual values and preferences, as well as the difficulty of physical distancing in many contexts, WHO has updated its guidance to advise that to prevent COVID-19 transmission effectively in areas of community transmission, governments should encourage the general public to wear masks in specific situations and settings as part of a comprehensive approach to suppress SARS-CoV-2 transmission.’ (World Health Organization, 5 June 2020)
  • ‘Population-wide use of facemasks keeps the coronavirus ‘reproduction number’ under 1.0, and prevents further waves of the virus when combined with lockdowns, a modelling study led by the University of Cambridge suggests.’ Lead author Dr Richard Stutt comments: ‘Our analyses support the immediate and universal adoption of facemasks by the public. If widespread facemask use by the public is combined with physical distancing and some lockdown, it may offer an acceptable way of managing the pandemic and reopening economic activity long before there is a working vaccine.’ (University of Cambridge, 10 June 2020)
  • ‘A new study has suggested that the compulsory use of face masks can slow the spread of Covid-19 cases by as much as 40%. The German report, published as a discussion paper for the Institute of Labour Economics, determined that mandatory face masks can “reduce the daily growth rate of reported infections by around 40%”.The study involved researchers examining the growth rate of cases in regions across Germany in the days following the introduction of masks in shops and on public transport.’ (RTE, 12 June 2020)
  • A study by Virginia Commonwealth University looked at coronavirus death rates in 198 countries in an effort to establish why some had very high death rates and others very low. ‘What we found was that of the big variables that you can control which influence mortality, one was wearing masks’, says Christopher Leffler of Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the study’s authors. ‘It wasn’t just by a few per cent, it was up to a hundred times less mortality. The countries that introduced masks from the very beginning of their outbreak have had hardly any deaths.’ (Global News, 22 June 2020)
  • ‘Cloth face coverings are effective in reducing source virus transmission, i.e., outward protection of others, when they are of optimal material and construction (high grade cotton, hybrid and multilayer) and fitted correctly and for source protection of the wearer’ (Royal Society, 26 June 2020)
  • ‘Everyone should carry a face covering when they leave home in order to tackle coronavirus, the head of the UK’s national academy of science has said. Prof Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said the coverings should then be worn “whenever you are in crowded public spaces”.’ (BBC News, 7 July 2020)
  • ‘Cloth face coverings, even homemade masks made of the correct material, are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 — for the wearer and those around them — according to a new study from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science.’ (University of Oxford, 8 July 2020)
  • ‘Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that anyone symptomatic for suspected coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) should wear a face covering during transport to medical care and prior to isolation to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets. After emerging data documented transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from persons without symptoms, the recommendation was expanded to the general community’. John T. Brooks, MD; Jay C. Butler, MD; Robert R. Redfield, MD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Journal of the American Medical Association, 14 July 2020)
  • ‘The case of two hairdressers who developed symptoms of COVID-19 and then saw 139 clients before they stopped working, apparently without transmitting the virus to any of them, demonstrates the effectiveness of mandatory face mask policies , according to new research’, published in the weekly morbidity and mortality report of the Centers for Disease Control in the United States. (FR24 News, 14 July 2020)
  • “Although we haven’t yet got the gold standard randomised control trial evidence about whether face coverings are effective at preventing the transmission of Covid-19, existing studies are convincing of their benefits.” — Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh (Guardian, 15 July 2020)
  • Independent SAGE recommend the government ‘launch a comprehensive public information campaign to promote effective wearing of face coverings in enclosed public indoor spaces where distancing from others is not possible.’ (Independent SAGE, 15 July 2020)
  • ‘A newly published study’ published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests ‘that universal use of surgical masks helped reduce rates of confirmed Covid-19 infections among health-care workers at the Mass General Brigham health-care system in Massachusetts.’ (Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2020)
  • ‘Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he believes the pandemic could be brought under control over the next four to eight weeks if “we could get everybody to wear a mask right now.”’ (Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2020)

Public opinion and coronavirus: the sleeping giant the government is afraid of

Public opinion and coronavirus: the sleeping giant the government is afraid of
by Ian Sinclair
Byline Times
1 May 2020

“All politicians recognize the force of public opinion”, Richard Gregg wrote in his 1934 book The Power of Nonviolence.

There is evidence this truism applies to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK. “Conservative backbenchers voiced concern in private about the government’s failure to roll out testing faster, saying there was anxiety that the public mood could turn against the government if it appeared there was no end to the lockdown as a result”, the Guardian reported on 2 April. “One senior MP said the party would be watching the polls closely and that he was ‘frankly amazed’ that Johnson’s popularity was holding up. A bit like the virus, there might be a two-week lag before the public comes to fully realise that the government is failing to get the testing issue under control, they said.” The source continued: “The death toll will become totemic. If we get thousands of people dying every day for several days, who knows where this will go. It is frightening, and the prime minister looks like he doesn’t know what to do.”

More explicitly, a “cabinet source” was quoted in the Telegraph on 18 April about the government’s so-called “exit plan” from the lockdown: “They [the government] are waiting for the public to change their mind. We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place – public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.”

So there you have it: according to a “cabinet source” the public played a key role in forcing the government’s hand in introducing the national lockdown on 23 March. A new Ipsos MORI poll suggests public opinion is shifting against the government on the timing of the lockdown, with 66 percent of people saying the Government acted too late in taking stricter measures, up from 57 percent two weeks ago.

Beyond the present crisis, recent history is littered with examples of public opinion and public pressure impacting the actions of government and corporations.

For example, last month the Telegraph reported Shell has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, with its Chief Executive noting “Society’s expectations have shifted quickly in the debate around climate change.” The Tory broadsheet provided the crucial context: “Oil companies have been rocked by the pace at which climate activists have demanded action, forcing them to burnish their green credentials.” The early years of the Coalition government provided another inspiring example of people power, with a Guardian headline in February 2011 explaining ‘English Woodlands Sell-Off Postponed After Public Backlash’. Luckily government plans to sell off a huge chunk of the public forest estate had been leaked in October 2010. A huge movement quickly rose up in defence of our woodlands: 38 Degrees organised an online petition that gained 500,000 signatures, popular local campaigns sprang up in the Forest of Dean and other locations and public figures, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dame Judi Dench, spoke out. Victory was achieved on 16 February when Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons he was not happy with the government’s sell-off plans.

Going back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many people continue to believe the anti-war movement was ineffective. However, there is evidence to suggest the unprecedented large-scale opposition, though it didn’t stop the war, was heard in the halls of power and inhibited UK foreign policy.

In the week before the US-UK attack on Iraq the Spanish Ambassador to the United Nations noted Britain was becoming “nervous” and “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion, according to the Guardian. This fits with British historian Mark Curtis’s belief that in 2002-3 the British public were victims of “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world.” Indeed, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was involved in a media offensive circa September 2003 – “aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq war”, the Guardian reported. Leaked papers from a media seminar held in London reveal “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of Basra headquarters for British troops in the Iraqi people.”

The campaign was not successful. The British public continued to oppose British intervention, while Iraqi public opinion was strongly opposed to the British military occupation in Southern Iraq. In 2005 the Telegraph reported an internal Ministry of Defence poll had found 45 per cent of Iraqis believed attacks against the US and UK troops were justified (rising to 65 per cent in the British controlled Maysan province). Similarly, a 2007 Opinion Research Business poll for BBC Newsnight found 83 per cent of the adults surveyed in Basra wanted British troops to leave Iraq.

British forces pulled out of Basra in September 2007. Reporting from Washington DC in August 2007, the Telegraph’s Tim Shipman noted “the US military has no doubt, despite what [Prime Minister] Gordon Brown claims, that the pullout is being driven by ‘the political situation at home in the UK’”. The report quoted a “senior US officer familiar with [top US] General Petreaus’s thinking”: “Britain is in a difficult spot because of the lack of political support at home, but for a long time – more than a year – they have not been engaged in Basra and have tried to avoid casualties.”

This concern about domestic public opinion and casualties echoes what was happening in Afghanistan. With a UK general election looming, in November 2009 the Observer reported General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, “holds the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties”.

The opposition of the general public to the UK’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, then, played a crucial role in constraining UK forces, almost certainly preventing them carrying out more aggressive operations in those countries.

We must not “forget our own influence, the innumerable times we’ve swayed outcomes”, US author Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2016. Highlighting successful examples of people power in recent history such as the gaining of civil rights for African Americans and how women got the vote, she notes “in all these cases, the people who we mislabel ‘leaders’ only followed the will of the people.”

Returning to the coronavirus crisis, the Guardian reports rightwingers in the government and wider Tory party are pushing for an early exit from the lockdown – due to concerns about the economy. Other news reports suggest the cabinet is split on the issue, with Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab favouring lifting the lockdown sooner rather than later, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock favouring a more cautious approach.

As former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell recently tweeted: “Without mass testing & tracing & with a government that can’t even manage the supply of PPE” locking the lockdown “would be lethal, irresponsible & putting profit before people’s lives.”

So on the question of when to lift the lockdown, public pressure has the potential to leverage influence on government, strengthening the voices of those in government and on its scientific advisory bodies that are more hesitant about sacrificing lives at the altar of the economy. A new poll from Opinium suggests there is a broad public consensus on this, with 67 percent of respondents opposed to opening schools, 78 percent and 81 percent opposed to opening restaurants and pubs respectively, and 84 percent against allowing mass gatherings at sports events or concerts to resume.

It is no exaggeration to suggest the lives of thousands of Britons are hanging in the balance. After all a Financial Times’s analysis of Office for National Statistics figures estimates 48,100 people (as of 30 April) have died in the UK because of the outbreak, while epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College recently warned lifting the lockdown too early could lead to 100,000 deaths.

The question is will concerned citizens make their voices heard and force the government to take the most effective and humane action possible in these difficult circumstances?

Ian Sinclair is the author of ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.