Category Archives: UK Foreign Policy

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.

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 February 2020

“The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data”, US historian Howard Zinn says in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the 2004 documentary about his life.

A good example of this truism is a recent episode of Witness History on the BBC World Service – with US Colonel Andrew Milburn recounting his time fighting in what BBC presenter Alex Last calls “the Battle for Fallujah” in Iraq.

In the short radio piece – each segment of Witness History is just nine minutes long – Last provides some context for listeners: with the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation creating significant opposition, the city of Fallujah, in the western province of Anbar, had become an insurgency stronghold. In an attempt to subdue the resistance, the US undertook a huge assault on Fallujah in November 2004 – involving 20,000 troops backed by tanks and aircraft.

With a population of 250,000, Last notes there was estimated to be around 2,500 fighters in the city at the time of the attack, along with some 20-30,000 civilians.

“Honestly, it was rare that you saw civilians”, Milburn says about the urban warfare he experienced. “There was a kind of feeling ‘Look there aren’t civilians here, we have got tanks, we have got anti-tank weapons, let’s just use these instead of sending guys into buildings.’”

“That is when most of the destruction happened”, he remembers. “By the end of the battle [in December 2004]… it looked like the second world war. It looked like Dresden or Stalingrad”.

The US and Iraqi government forces lost around 100 killed and 500 wounded, notes Last, with “conservative estimates” of “hundreds of Iraqi civilians” killed.

“It was a pyrrhic victory”, Milburn concludes. “Even as we won the city and we killed thousands of the insurgents there were many, many more being recruited – largely by pictures of us rubbling a city”.

As these quotes suggest, critical consumers can occasionally gleam some useful information from BBC reporting. However, Witness History’s focus is on the US experience, with all the problems that comes with this.

Last’s assertion that 20-30,000 civilians were left in Fallujah is a very low estimate, with a statement at the time from the top US general in Iraq, George W. Casey, suggesting the US military believed 60-100,000 civilians remained in the city at the beginning of the attack. The essential 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Newcastle University’s Dr Florian Zollmann also calls into question the BBC’s estimate of civilian deaths. After conducting a detailed analysis of media coverage of Fallujah, Zollmann suggests the total number of civilian dead was likely around 2,000. For example, in January 2005 the director of the main hospital in Fallujah reported there had been 700 bodies recovered from just one third of the city, 550 of them women and children.

Moreover, the programme omitted any mention of arguably the most important aspect of the carnage – that US forces carried out what would be considered war crimes if they were carried out by Official Enemy states like Iran, Syria or Russia. Indeed in the introduction to his 2007 verbatim play Fallujah academic and playwright Jonathan Holmes argues the US contravened 70 individual articles of the Geneva Conventions in Fallujah.

The scene was set for the slaughter by US Lt Col Gary Brandl, who led the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment into the fight with these words: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him.”

Media reports at the time noted the US military and their Iraqi allies cut off the electricity and water supplies to the city, and, in an early operation, targeted Fallujah’s General Hospital. “Considered a refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda”, the New York Times reported US Special forces and Iraqi troops smashed in doors, with patients and medical staff “rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.”

Testifying at the 2008 Winter Solider hearings, US Marine Michael Leduc explained how the rules of engagement changed for Fallujah – “now, we were operating under the assumption that everyone was hostile.” His battalion officer encouraged Marines to kill anyone using a cell phone and anyone they suspected of “manoeuvring against” them. The US implemented “a strict night time shoot-to-kill curfew”, The Times reported, with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot.”

“Every weapon available in our arsenal short of nukes is turned on Fallujah”, US Army Sergeant David Bellavia wrote in his memoir. This included White Phosphorus, with a 2005 edition of the journal Field Artillery confirming its use in Fallujah by publishing testimony from a US officer: “We used it… as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive].”

With the bloodbath in full swing, the US military blocked aid from reaching the city, with a convoy of food and medicine brought by the Iraqi Red Crescent refused entry to the city, according to the Guardian.

Furthermore, Associated Press reported that “hundreds of men trying to flee the assault on Fallujah have been turned back by US troops following orders to allow only women, children and the elderly to leave”.

Also unmentioned by Witness History is the key role played by UK forces. The British infantry battalion The Black Watch was redeployed from southern Iraq to the area surrounding Fallujah – to replace US marines sent into the city. “They have been used to block off insurgents running weapons into Baghdad and to plug escape routes for those fleeing the US assault on Fallujah”, a November 2004 BBC News article reported.

BBC World Service journalists may see themselves as part of an “impartial, accurate, trustworthy” news organisation, as a former World Service director once said. However, in reality their reporting, such as this episode of Witness History, often follows a propagandistic framing of Western foreign policy.

As Warwick University’s Professor Susan Carruthers noted in her 2000 book The Media At War, in wartime “the media have generally served the military rather well”.

Zollmann confirms this maxim very much applies to Fallujah, with his study comparing the US offensive in the Iraqi city to human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

His analysis shows how Fallujah was “framed in terms of reciprocal war and fighting” – remember the title of the Witness History episode: “The Battle for Fallujah”.  There was some critical media coverage, he notes, but this “was placed in an ideological context, which still assumed that ‘allied’ countries constitute legitimate and positive forces.”

This “politicised discourse” has huge ramifications, he argues, serving “to obscure the well-documented fact” US actions in Fallujah “also shared the properties of massacres and war crimes.”

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, is Zollmann’s damning conclusion. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

With the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media downplaying US-UK crimes it falls to those concerned citizens who are aware of the real history of Fallujah to make sure this dark chapter in US-UK foreign policy is never forgotten.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Trident nuclear weapons

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Trident nuclear weapons
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
21 November 2019

During Labour’s game changing 2017 general election campaign it is worth remembering one particularly difficult moment for Jeremy Corbyn – when he was questioned by the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about whether he would press the “nuclear button” during BBC Question Time’s Leader’s Special.

“Jeremy had begun to look uncomfortable,” Steve Howell, then Labour’s deputy director of strategy and communications, noted in his book about the campaign.

This challenging episode won’t have gone unnoticed by the other political parties, of course. Earlier this month the Guardian noted the Conservative’s 2019 general election campaign will target Labour seats “by painting Corbyn as a threat to national security.” Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson was quick to mimic the Tories, launching her campaign by arguing the Labour leader “would be a threat to our national security”.

With these predictable attacks only set to get worse as polling day nears, it is worth reminding and arming ourselves with the facts and arguments against the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system – which Corbyn has rightly opposed all of his political life.

First, it is important to highlight the sheer immorality of retaining and threatening the use of nuclear weapons. “In view of the fact any major nuclear exchange would create a nuclear winter that would kill most of humanity, it’s worth noting that the position that you would launch nuclear weapons is to the right of Thanos”, comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted recently about the fictional Marvel comics supervillain.

Boyle may well be referring to the 2013 report from the US organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility which argued a limited, regional nuclear war would significantly reduce yields of staple crops across the world, putting around two billion people at risk of famine. Which certainly puts Swinson’s assertion on Channel 4 News that should would press the button into perspective.

Second, Trident – often described as our “nuclear deterrent” – does not guarantee our so-called “national security”. Infact it likely makes the UK, and the rest of the world, less safe.

“Even though governments frequently invoke deterrence as a rationale for retaining nuclear weapons, its relevance has sharply diminished if not completely vanished”, concluded the 2006 Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission led by former Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.

The concept of deterrence has a number of dangerous flaws: it is only a theory, and therefore cannot be proven; it requires effective communications between belligerents – the threat of a retaliatory strike must be relayed, understood and believed; and it requires decision makers to act rationally at times of extreme pressure. Writing in 2013, ex-Defence Secretary Des Browne notes “deterrence only works against those with a known address, it is not a viable strategy for meeting” threats such as cyber attacks or terrorism, including nuclear terrorism.

The ex-head of the UK armed forces Field Marshall Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham and General Sir Hugh Beach broadly agree, writing in the Times in 2009 that “nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of the violence we currently, or are likely to, face – particularly international terrorism.” Ten years later there is broad consensus the climate crisis is now the greatest threat the nation faces: “investing billions in nuclear weapons diverts funds away from addressing these priorities”, argues the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Those arguing Trident makes the nation safer would do well to read the 2014 Chatham House report Too Close For Comfort: Cases Of Near Nuclear Use And Options For Policy. “The decades since 1945 have been punctuated by a series of disturbing close calls”, the report’s authors note, highlighting thirteen instances when nuclear weapons were perilously close to being used or accidentally detonated. “The probability of inadvertent nuclear use… is higher than had been widely considered”, they worryingly conclude.

Furthermore, the UK’s retention of Trident plays a key role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons – because it “might actively encourage others to believe that nuclear were still, somehow, vital to the secure defence of self-respecting nations”, argue Bramall, Ramsbotham and Beach. Browne agrees, arguing in 2013 that Trident renewal “will destroy any chance of building the broad-based international support required for a stronger non-proliferation and nuclear security regime.”

Third, the UK’s nuclear weapons are incredibly expensive – a 2016 CND study estimated the cost of replacing Trident at a massive £205 billion, while Crispin Blunt MP and Reuters assessed the cost to be £167 billion. Depending on your political priorities this money could be spent on any number of things, including boosting conventional military forces, international aid, peacekeeping or the UK’s stretched public services. As ex-Tory Defence Minister Michael Portillo said in 2015, the UK’s nuclear weapons are “a waste of money”.

Fourth, is the rarely discussed – in the mainstream media anyway – legal aspect. Britain is a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), commonly referred to as a “grand bargain” between the then five nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states. States without nuclear weapons promised to not acquire them, and states with nuclear weapons pledged to pursue disarmament. As the treaty text confirmed, “each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. CND argue this requirement was strengthened at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, which included the commitment by the nuclear weapons states to “an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” According to seven International Law specialists writing to the Guardian in 2006, the replacement of Trident would constitute a material breach of the NPT. This was confirmed by Kofi Annan, when he spoke as the United Nations Secretary-General in 2006: “All of the NPT nuclear-weapon States are modernizing their nuclear arsenals or their delivery systems. They should not imagine that this will be accepted as compatible with the NPT.”

In addition to these four central criticisms, it is worth noting the UK’s nuclear weapons “cannot be seen as independent of the United States in any meaningful sense”, according to Bramall, Ramsbotham and Beach.

“Not only are Britain’s Trident missiles in a common pool shared with the US and maintained in Kings Bay, Georgia, its nuclear warheads are designed and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston with the help of US know-how”, the Guardian’s Defence correspondent reported in 2014.

The independent all-party Trident Commission – co-chaired by Browne and former Tory Defence and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind – confirmed as much in 2014: “If the United States were to withdraw their cooperation completely, the UK nuclear capability would probably have a life expectancy measured in months rather than years”.

Finally, it is worth remembering the broader global context: currently just nine nations possess nuclear weapons, which means 186 nations on earth do not. The uncomfortable truth is that by retaining its genocidal nuclear weapons the UK is an extreme outlier making the world more dangerous. It’s time the UK joined the rest of the world and started to work for a more peaceful, safer world. Electing a Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would be the first step on this vital journey.

Further reading: see CND’s Trident Mythbuster leaflet, https://cnduk.org/resources/trident-mythbuster/, and by Timmon Wallis’s book The Truth About Trident: Disarming the Nuclear Armament, published by Luath Press.

Tomorrow Ian will debunk the Tories’ likely attack lines on crime and punishment. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

Rather than dismissing it, the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media

Rather than dismissing it the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
15 November 2019

There seems to be an increasing and dismaying tendency amongst some people who self-identify as left-wing to dismiss mainstream media reporting out of hand.

Anything the Guardian or other corporate newspapers report is ridiculed and ignored. For example, I recently tweeted about a Guardian article which gave an overview of the ongoing protests around the world. I quickly received this sarcastic response: “From the newspaper that supports Assange [the Guardian has repeatedly smeared Julian Assange]… The Sun seems honest in comparison.” What part of the article did my correspondent take issue with? “I’d rather ignore that rags liberal pretensions from here on. They’re just a collection of churnalists and presstitutes” they replied.

I agree, of course, that the Guardian and the rest of the mainstream media are horribly compromised and establishment-friendly in much of their journalism and political positions.

Though most journalists do their best to ignore it, there is copious amounts of academic research which confirm this. In his new book The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis, Dr Mike Berry from Cardiff University shows how the British media played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests. Similarly, the new Pluto Press book from the Glasgow Media Group, Bad News For Labour, explains how the often erroneous coverage of the antisemitism controversy by the print and broadcast media has led the general public to massively overestimate its incidence within the Labour Party.

Notwithstanding this strong evidence I would like to make the case for a more nuanced and intelligent engagement with the mainstream media by left-wing and progressive people.

Because while the left should oppose the way the corporate media inevitably sides with elite power, there is nevertheless important information to be gleaned from its reporting through careful and critical monitoring. They are, after all, the news organisations with the biggest budgets, best access to policymakers and largest staff rosters, including journalists reporting on the ground across the world.

Moreover, it is important to understand they are not monolithic structures – radical voices and useful information will often appear. Speaking to Andrew Marr in 1996 for the BBC Big Ideas programme, US dissident Noam Chomsky talked of investigative journalists in the US who “regard the media as a sham” and “consciously talk about how they try to play it like a violin. If they see a little opening, they’ll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldn’t make it through.” Interviewed for the 2016 documentary All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I. F. Stone, US filmmaker Michael Moore said something similar: “He [I. F. Stone] said ‘When you pick up the paper you go to page 17 first. Don’t read the front page. Skip the front page. Go to page 17 because that’s where the truth is. And it’s going to be really small. It might be in a little two paragraph story, or it will be buried in paragraph 78. But that’s where they are putting it, and they know what they are doing.’”

Writing in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies provides a fascinating example of this from 2002-3. Davies records how Observer journalist Ed Vulliamy’s story looking at concerns within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about intelligence on Iraq had been rejected five times by the newspaper, which had taken a strong pro-war position under editor Roger Alton. “At the sixth attempt… Vulliamy had finally managed to slip a small fraction of his story… into the paper – as the final two paragraphs of a 1,200-word story on page 16”, Davies relates.

If you read Chomsky’s work critiquing US foreign policy you will see his arguments are often backed up by mainstream media sources. Likewise UK media watchdog Media Lens often use arguments and information sourced from one part of the mainstream media to criticise the coverage of another part of the mainstream media. Another example is Voices in the Wilderness UK, the grassroots anti-sanctions and anti-war group which produced some of the most well-informed, critical coverage of the US-UK attack and occupation of Iraq. If you take a look at their regular newsletters it’s clear they were buying and reading the Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Guardian and Independent every day – and sometimes tabloids too – to assist in gaining a full understanding of what was going on.

When it comes to ‘defence’ news the Telegraph is well known to be close to the armed forces, and therefore may publish information of interest to those who oppose war. During the occupation of Iraq, for example, it was the Telegraph which published the leaked 2005 internal Ministry of Defence poll which 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).

I myself have collected some of the most damning quotes I’ve heard about UK military aggression abroad from BBC programmes.

It was listening to BBC Radio 4‘s The World Tonight in February 2009 that I caught Colonel Richard Kemp, Commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, saying British forces used White Phosphorus in Afghanistan and Iraq “even in areas that do have a certain amount of civilian population”. Indeed it was in the right-wing Spectator magazine in January 2009 that Daniel Yates, a former British soldier, reported the British military was using White Phosphorus in Afghanistan “almost daily”.

Amidst the colonial-style violence and pro-military propaganda, there was also a hugely telling quote from a British soldier in Our War: Return to Death Valley, the 2012 BBC3 documentary series about Afghanistan. “One of the problems, especially with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the route 611 is that the insurgents aren’t trying to blow up the Ancop [Afghan National Civil Order Police], or even the civilians, they are just trying to blow up us”, Lieutenant Jimmy Clark from 2nd Battalion, Mercian Regiment noted about an operation to secure a road in Helmand province. “So we are actually in a position where we are protecting a route which only needs protecting because we use it.”

A similar sentiment was aired about the British occupation of Iraq on The World Tonight in February 2007: “90 per cent of the attacks here, or the violence levels recorded here, are against the British.  If you took the British out of it 90 per cent would drop, and you would be left with a residual bit”, Major General Jonathan Shaw, Commander of the British Forces in Basra, explained.

Of course, we should read and support alternative, non-corporate media outlets – the Morning Star, Peace News, Media Lens, Tribune magazine and Novara Media to name a few – and we should be vocal in our criticism of the corporate media. However, we shouldn’t forget a careful and critical engagement with mainstream news can often uncover important information and arguments that can be used against elite interests.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 October 2019

Directed by Gavin Hood and starring Keira Knightley, new film Official Secrets tells the story of Katharine Gun’s brave actions to try to stop the illegal US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Working as a translator at the secretive intelligence organisation Government Communications Headquarters (GHCQ) in Cheltenham, on 31 January 2003 the then 28-year old Gun was copied in to an email from Frank Koza at the US National Security Agency (NSA). With the US and UK facing strong opposition at the United Nations to its aggressive stance on Iraq, Koza explained how the NSA was mounting a ‘dirty tricks‘ operation to spy on members of the UN Security Council, in an attempt to gain support for an invasion, and were looking for support from GCHQ.

Increasingly concerned about the rush to war, Gun leaked the memo to journalist Yvonne Ridley, who passed it onto the Observer‘s Martin Bright. It was published in the paper on 2 March 2003, seventeen days before the invasion. Gun was soon taken into police custody and charged under the Official Secrets Act, though the government mysteriously dropped the case the day before her trial was to start.

US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War in 1971, proclaimed Gun’s actions the “most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.”

“It was the first leak that was pre-emptive. Most leaks are after the event“, Gun told me, when I interviewed her for the Morning Star in 2008.

Gun’s whistleblowing likely strengthened the case against the US and UK at the UN – the Security Council did not authorise the invasion. The collapse of her trial also triggered then International Development Secretary Clare Short to publicly note British security services spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s office in the run up to the Iraq war.

Aswell as telling Gun’s story, the film focuses on how the Observer dealt with receiving the leaked memo – a fascinating story also told by investigative journalist Nick Davies in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. With the newspaper taking a pro-war stance under Editor Roger Alton and Political Editor Kamal Ahmed, Davies shows there was a crucial delay in reporting on the memo.

One reason for this was “the ‘circle of resistance’ to anti-war stories”, he writes. Ahmed, who was very close to Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell and was “an open advocate” for the government’s position on Iraq, was “running round the office going ‘Hitler diaries, Hitler diaries’”, according to one source.

“If we had gone with it two or three weeks earlier, it might have made a difference”, one frustrated Observer journalist told Davies. “There was an ideological resistance to it. It could have stopped the war.”

There are interesting similarities between these tumultuous events and the activities of the intelligence services and the media in the successive 16 years.

The US and UK, it seems, continue to spy on the United Nations and other international organisations. Reporting on documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, in December 2013 the New York Times revealed “more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years”, including “multiple United Nations Missions in Geneva” such as UNICEF and the United National Disarmament Research. In his must-read 2014 book about Snowden’s leaks, No Place To Hide, Glenn Greenwald highlights how a document from 2010 shows the US spied on eight members of the Security Council regarding resolutions on Iran. “The espionage gave the US goverment valuable information about those countries’ voting intentions, giving Washington an edge when talking to other members of the Security Council”, Greenwald notes.

Regarding the UK, “in the mainstream, the official view is that the British government provide enduring support to the UN”, historian Mark Curtis notes in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. “The opposite is true: it is clear from the historical record that the UN has traditionally been seen as a major threat.”

Curtis continues: “For the past 50 years, the essence of British strategy has been to ensure the UN’s failure to prevent or condemn Britain’s, or its allies’, acts of aggression.”

Secret documents published by Wikileaks in 2015 show “Britain conducted secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN human rights council (UNHRC)”, according to the Guardian. The Independent in 2017 and the Guardian in 2016 also reported the UK had blocked a UN inquiry into Saudi war crimes in Yemen. In March of this year the Guardian reported the UK was set to “oppose motions criticising rights abuses [by Israel] in the West Bank and Gaza that are brought to the UN’s human rights council”.

And, like in 2003, the liberal media continue to be hugely comprised when it comes to reporting on the actions of the US and UK intelligence services.

As one of the main outlets for Snowden’s leaks, the Guardian – seen as the most anti-establishment national newspaper by many – came under intense pressure from the UK government, Matt Kennard and Curtis set out in their recent Daily Maverick long read.

This coercion has effectively neutralised the paper’s adversarial reporting of the ‘security state’, they argue. Their reporting is based on minutes from the Ministry of Defence-run Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, AKA the D-Notice Committee, which defines its purpose as preventing “inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations”.

In July 2013, six weeks after the first Snowden leaks were published, GCHQ officials visited the Guardian’s offices in King’s Cross, London to oversee the destruction of laptops containing the Snowden documents. Though the action was completely symbolic (the documents were also stored outside of the UK, presumably in the Guardian’s US office) something changed.

“The Guardian had begun to seek and accept D-Notice advice not to publish certain highly sensitive details and since then the dialogue [with the committee] had been reasonable and improving”, the D-Notice Committee minutes for November 2013 noted. Incredibly the Guardian journalist who had helped to destroy the laptops – Deputy Editor Paul Johnson – took a seat on the D-Notice Committee itself, attending from 2014 to 2018.

Exclusive Guardian interviews with the heads of MI6 and MI5 followed, with veteran, often critical ‘national security’ journalists – David Leigh, Richard Norton-Taylor, Ewen MacAskill and Ian Cobain – replaced by less-experienced and knowledgeable reporters under current editor Katherine Viner. “It seems they’ve got rid of everyone who seemed to cover the security services and military in an adversarial way”, a Guardian journalist told Kennard and Curtis.

And Kamal Ahmad, whose ‘journalism’ in 2002-3 Davies argues “meant Observer readers were slowly soaked in disinformation” about Iraq? Following a stint as the BBC’s Economic Editor, he is now Editorial Director at the corporation, where he is “responsible for shaping the BBC’s future editorial strategy, focusing on storytelling and explanatory journalism”.

One important lesson to come out of Gun’s extraordinary story is the importance of inspiration. Gun, for example, has explained that in the period before she leaked the NSA memo she read two books – War Plan Iraq by Peace News Editor Milan Rai and Target Iraq by Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich – which convinced her there was no case for war. And Snowden himself has said he was inspired to leak the NSA documents after watching The Most Dangerous Man in America, the 2009 documentary about Ellsberg.

So maybe, just maybe, the next important whistleblower will be sitting next to you in the cinema when you go and see Official Secrets.

Official Secrets is in cinemas from 18 October 2019.