Spooks and a Corbyn government
Neither the secret state nor the armed forces have undergone any kind of fundamental change, warns Jack Conrad. They remain a clear and present danger
Writing in The Guardian, Paul Mason, the “leftwing British commentator”1 and journalist, defends himself against former MI5 director general Stella Rimington.2 Dame Stella told the Cheltenham Literature Festival that those - ie, the “Communist Party of Great Britain and various Trotskyite organisations” - who her spies were “looking at” during the 1980s are now ensconced deep inside the Labour Party.3 In point of fact, Jeremy Corbyn, who was himself targeted by MI5, nowadays not only leads the Labour Party: he is widely seen as the prime minister in waiting.
Mason suggests that he too was probably under surveillance by Dame Stella and MI5 - and he is probably right. “I was on the far left” in the 1980s, says Mason. Indeed he boasts of the fine causes he supported: the steel, miners and print strikes; opposition to the Falklands war and the first Iraq war; the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and the Stephen Lawrence family.
However, throughout this time MI5 did more than just “find out who” people on the left “were”, as Rimington innocently maintained at Cheltenham. No, declares Mason, the job of MI5 was to bug, burgle and “disrupt the left’s activities”.4
However, he fawningly protests that his youthful self had no wish to “destroy the democratic system”. The whole MI5 ethos of “countersubversion” was, he explains, completely misdirected. The idea that he, the left, the miners, environmental protest groups, etc, wanted to “destroy the democratic system” amounts to “pure paranoia”. If it had been true that the left wanted to do that, then the thousands of hours of intelligence work at the time would have led to “arrests and trials”.
Well, thankfully, Paul, that is hardly the case, is it? Wanting to “destroy the democratic system” does not in itself, at least at the moment, count as a criminal offence. Leave aside the left for the moment - take Hizb ut-Tahrir (Britain): it remains a legal political organisation, despite advocating “the Islamic Khilafah (Caliphate)” state.5
Obviously, Mason is determined to paint the 1980s left - crucially himself - in the most acceptable pale pink hues:
Whatever it said in the turgid, theory-laden journals the left published, what we wanted was a left Labour government. We believed it would have to be supported by extra-parliamentary action if sabotaged by the deep state. The politicisation of policing during the miners’ strike reinforced that view.
True, when he was a member of the less-turgid-than-usual Trotskyite group, Workers Power, Mason and his comrades might have called for a left Labour government (though from memory that line was dropped in the early 1990s). But the objective was never a left Labour government as an end in itself. No, the objective was “the destruction of all forms of bourgeois rule, including the democratic form”. Instead of the “parliamentary talking shop”, the comrades posed the necessity of “organisations of proletarian democracy”.6 Although a rather crude formulation, the revolutionary spirit is admirable.
Having been a leading member of Workers Power in the 1980s and 90s, till recently Mason espoused a rather eccentric, anarcho-utopian techno-protestism (see his 2015 book, Postcapitalism: a guide to our future). Almost every ephemeral city square occupation and street demonstration was very, very, very excitedly equated with the 1871 Paris Commune.
Nowadays though, Mason prefers to describe himself as a “radical social democrat”. However, having completely abandoned any kind of Marxism, he is determined to cover his past footprints and put on display his complete surrender, his grovelling loyalty to the British “democratic system” (read, the existing state, the existing constitutional order and the existing capitalist system of exploitation).
To prove his acceptability Mason presents three arguments.
1. Workers Power was essentially a mere subvariety of left reformism. It supported some controversial causes, but certainly intended no threat to the British “democratic system”.
2. There was, though, “a clear national security rationale”, when it came to the old CPGB. It was “logical to ask whether Soviet intelligence was trying to manipulate it”, says Mason. In fact, since its formation in 1920 the old CPGB had direct, fraternal relations with those who ran the Soviet state. It was, therefore, presumably a threat to the “democratic system”. Till maybe the 1968 events in Czechoslovakia the CPGB operated as an arm of Soviet foreign policy. KGB manipulation had nothing to do with it. The King Street apparatus, the Morning Star and numerous fronts benefited from generous transfers of ‘Moscow gold’. Despite that, when he was a member of Workers Power, Paul Mason would never have dreamt of excusing MI5 bugging, burgling and disruption.
3. The British state has undergone a fundamental change. The 1980s “world is gone”, announces Mason in the spirit of the true philistine.
Obviously, Mason is right: the 1980s have gone. The same goes, however, for the present. Each nanosecond that passes instantly becomes the past. But the past lives not just in the fleeting present - it floods into the future. The real question here, however, is not philosophical, but political.
Has the British state undergone some fundamental change since the 1980s? Or is there seamless continuity? Mason claims that there has been a break, though he does so in a manner that is so naive that it is impossible to believe that he actually takes seriously what he writes (his stupidity does not stem from any innate stupidity).
With the “Human Rights Act, the creation of a supreme court and the operational policing changes in the aftermath of the Macpherson report”, we are assured by Mason that the “the legal framework around policing and intelligence has tightened”. Touchingly, because of such window-dressing, he tells us that there is “zero chance of an extra-judicial reaction to a leftwing Labour government” - the scenario depicted in Chris Mullin’s novel A very British coup (1982). From top to bottom, the UK’s armed forces, security services and police are “acutely aware” of the “constraints on their activities” imposed by the rule of law.
Mason continues in the same thoroughly unradical manner:
The law enforcement culture that allowed undercover cops to perpetrate abuses is, we must assume, gone. Likewise, by implication, the culture that allowed MI5 to “destabilise and sabotage” an entirely legal trade union [that is, the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984-85 - JC] must be assumed to have gone. When a serving army general told the Sunday Times in September 2015 that “the army wouldn’t stand for” a Corbyn government, few people took it seriously.
The implication is that it is right to lightly dismiss the threat of an army coup from a serving army general. Yet, having not quite managed to convince even himself, Mason resorts to offering Danegeld. Stepping into John McDonnell’s shoes as the future chancellor, he promises that the “police, armed forces and intelligence services stand to be better funded and staffed under a Labour government than the present one”. So Mason’s operative slogan amounts to more money, more personnel, more resources for a state machine that in the 1980s bugged, burgled and disrupted - and surely still bugs, burgles and disrupts.
Attempting to justify this generous offer, today’s Paul Mason resorts to bog-standard patriotism: “our country” is under threat: from Islamic State and other terrorist organisations; from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, “which is waging hybrid warfare on all western democracies”; from other state actors, “such as with the alleged Iranian cyber-attack on parliament”.
For today’s Paul Mason the security services “are our first line of defence and they need our support”. But, it must be emphasised, they act not only against the enemy without. The security services target the enemy within too. Hence they systematically spied on the Communist Party and “various Trotskyite organisations”. The security services did the same with prominent labour movement individuals, such as Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott. And, of course, the security services famously sought to undermine the Labour government of Harold Wilson, placed the agent provocateur, Roger Windsor, in the NUM and assassinated members and supporters of the IRA. That included Pat Finucane, the human rights lawyer killed in 1989 by loyalist paramilitaries, acting in collusion with MI5.
Then there are the police and special forces. For today’s Paul Mason they “stand ready to deal with situations such as the London Bridge attack”. Yet, as proven by the steel, print and - above all - the miners’ Great Strike, they also stand ready to do battle with and blatantly lie about militant trade unionists and their supporters. During the course of 1984-85 around 11,000 miners were arrested - six out of 10 on bogus charges.7
What about bugging? We live nowadays in the age of the mass data interception and the mass storage of data. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know for a fact that MI5, MI6 and GCHQ routinely hoovers up the telephone and internet activity of millions upon millions of people. And, despite strenuous objections, in November 2016, parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Bill into law. The so-called ‘snoopers charter’ puts the secret state’s digital mass surveillance and hacking activities onto a firm legal footing.
As for disruption, it has recently been disclosed that undercover police agents spied upon and used false identities to infiltrate 1,000 political groups and campaigns since 1968.8 Do such operations still go on? The Investigatory Powers Tribunal reported that there had been 1,019 complaints about MI5 and undercover police operations between 2011 and 2015.
Despite all such evidence, today’s Paul Mason complacently tells us that attempts to smear a Corbyn-led government will be “shrugged off” by the electorate and “easily exposed”. Hence his “advice” to Stella Rimington to “stop replaying the 80s, get on with the 21st century and cease trying to manipulate legacy intelligence for political ends”.
Nevertheless, contradictorily, the willingness of the secret state to “bury the paranoia” matters - so runs Mason’s final argument - because a “new kind of radical social democracy stands on the brink of government”. It - ie, the Corbyn-led Labour Party (well, certainly he - ie, Paul Mason) - wants to save British capitalism from “wage stagnation, grotesque inequalities of wealth and the kamikaze mission of a no-deal Brexit”.
So what really seems to have gone is not the 1980s MI5 which bugged, burgled and disrupted. It is the 1980s Paul Mason - he has gone over to “radical social democracy” and the project of saving capitalism from itself.
Monarchs and coups
The possibility of a Corbyn-led Labour Party gaining the biggest bloc of MPs, or even a House of Commons majority, is real. However, in my view, it would be foolish indeed to imagine that this automatically translates into putting Jeremy Corbyn into No10 Downing Street and John McDonnell into No11 Downing Street.
Under the provisions of the royal prerogative it is the monarch who appoints the prime minister. Not the House of Commons and definitely not the membership of this or that party. It might well be a constitutional convention that the monarch calls upon the leader of the biggest party to form a government. It is certainly the case that the new prime minster must be able to command a House of Commons majority and be able to form a cabinet. Yet, when the leadership of a party is in doubt, the role of the monarch becomes decisive.
Some notable examples. When in 1894 William Gladstone stepped down, Queen Victoria passed over what were then widely considered the superior claims of Sir William Harcourt. She invited Lord Rosebery to become prime minister. Similarly, when Conservative prime minister Bonar Law resigned in 1923, George V opted for Stanley Baldwin, not Lord Curzon, who had previously served as deputy prime minister.9
More significantly, in terms of relevance to our times, there are the actions of George V in 1931. In the August of that year the Labour cabinet, which held office thanks to Liberal Party support, faced an unprecedented economic crisis. Not only was there the closure of mines, ship yards, factories and steel mills and, consequentially, soaring unemployment: there was a collapse of the pound sterling. The banks, treasury officials and international creditors demanded a programme of savage austerity. Specifically reductions in the pay of government employees, including the military, and cuts to the already meagre dole payments made available to the unemployed.
The Labour cabinet found itself irretrievably split and agreed that the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, should tender his resignation to the king. MacDonald duly went to the palace. The general expectation was that the Tories under Baldwin would form a government with Liberal support. However, at the suggestion of the Liberal leader, Sir Herbert Samuel, the king invited MacDonald to continue in office, but now as head of a grand coalition with the Tories and Liberals. The new government would, of course, force through the necessary economies and save the country.
In the Labour cabinet only Philip Snowden and JH Thomas agreed to enter the new government. They and other supporters of MacDonald formed the National Labour Organisation. After initial shilly-shallying the Labour Party itself denounced the whole project, but went on, in the October 1931 general election, to suffer a crushing defeat - the biggest landslide in British history. Parties supporting the national government won 556 seats: a 500 majority. Labour slumped from 287 seats to a mere 52.
The lessons for our times are surely obvious. Under conditions of a possible ‘cliff-edge’ Brexit crisis, and maybe even another global financial crisis, a ‘Minsky moment’ is widely predicted - the idea of the British establishment calmly accepting Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister is problematic, to say the least. Given his past serial rebellions against cuts, his leftwing advisors, such as Seamus Milne and Jon Lansman, his support for the Stop the War Coalition, the Palestinian cause, etc, the monarch would more than likely be advised to chose another candidate for prime minister.
Obviously it all depends on the parliamentary arithmetic. However, it is possible that the monarch would pass over the present leader of the Labour Party and instead seek out a prime minister who can command a majority of Labour MPs.
We all know that today, even after the June 8 general election, Corbyn would be hard pressed to secure the firm support of 40 Labour MPs. On the other hand, a Sir Kier Starmer, or an Emily Thornberry would be much more agreeable as a prime minister to the Parliamentary Labour Party. At the invitation of the monarch, and with some kind of grand coalition, Britain could thereby be saved from the Brexit disaster … and, worse: Corbyn and his “warmed-up version of socialism in one country”.10
Such an outcome might cause debilitating demoralisation amongst the Labour rank and file, or it might enrage them, motivate them, propel them further to the left. As far as the CPGB is concerned, the heavy question mark that hangs over the prospect of a Corbyn-led government ought to act as a spur for taking up demands for the automatic reselection of Labour MPs and the thoroughgoing democratisation of the Labour Party, its transformation into a permanent united front of all trade unions and all working class organisations. Programmatically, we envisage refounding the Labour Party on the basis of a new, Marxist clause four.
Of course, it is conceivable that Corbyn would be invited to form a government by the monarch and that his government would proceed to act in the horrible tradition of all previous Labour governments. Today that means Trident renewal, continued Nato membership, maintaining the bulk of the Tory anti-trade unions laws … and endless austerity.
But if Corbyn stays true to his stated beliefs, if he spurns those siren voices calling upon him to save capitalism from itself, if he attempts to implement a “warmed-up version of socialism in one country”, then we can be sure that the forces of the deep state would put their already well-rehearsed contingency plans into operation.
Imagine for one moment that, having deselected the vast majority of sitting Labour MPs, having replaced them with good left reformists (and even a few communists), Corbyn wins a resounding general election majority in 2020. Because of the Human Rights Act, the creation of a supreme court and the armed forces and security services being “acutely aware” of the “constraints on their activities” imposed by the rule of law, are we really expected to believe that there is “zero chance of an extra-judicial reaction”?
Any such suggestion amounts to the purest parliamentary cretinism - a disease that infects reformists of every stripe with the debilitating conviction that the main thing in politics is parliamentary votes.
Crisis of expectations
By 2020 a Corbyn-led Labour Party - if Marxists have had any substantive successes - will be fully committed to immediately making up for the loss of income caused by the Osborne-Hammond austerity regime, immediately sweeping away all the anti-trade union laws, immediately renationalising all privatised industries and concerns, immediately ending British involvement with Nato, immediately decommissioning Trident, immediately abolishing the standing army and immediately establishing a citizen militia.
Even without such a bold programme of reform, we can certainly imagine a crisis of expectations. Masses of Labour members and voters are already well to the left of the 2017 general election manifesto. The prospect of a Labour government - certainly the actual election of a Labour government - could quite conceivably, and probably would, set them into motion as a class force. Through their own collective efforts they would seek to put into practice what they think a Corbyn-led government really stands for.
Defy the hated anti-trade union laws and win substantial pay increases. Withhold rent payments from grasping landlords. Prevent water, electricity and gas companies cutting off supplies to indebted households. Occupy empty properties and solve the housing crisis at a stroke. March into the giant supermarket chains in order to feed the hungry. Arm ourselves with rudimentary weapons to prevent police attempts to stop and charge us.
Any such a scenario would inevitably provoke a frothing reaction. It is not so much that the ruling class cannot tolerate a Corbyn-led government and its present-day programme of renationalising the rails when franchises run out, reviewing PFI contracts, introducing some form of rent controls, repealing the latest (2016) round of Tory anti-trade union legislation and establishing a people’s investment bank. Tinkering, safe and, in fact, amongst Keynesian economists perfectly reasonable.
No, it is the enthusiastic reception of Marxist ideas, the rejection of capitalism by Labour members, the recently established dominant position of the left in Labour Party branch and constituency organisations, along with the distinct possibility of a yanking further shift to the left and consequent mass self-activity, that causes ruling class fears. And, have no doubt, fearful they are.
Put together failed negotiations with the EU 27, a no-deal Brexit and, consequently, a severe economic downturn … and a Corbyn-led government. Such is the stuff that bourgeois nightmares are made of. Under such circumstances, we should expect other - illegal or semi-legal - methods to come to the fore. Fake news, artificially generated scandals, a US-organised run on the pound, civil service sabotage, bomb outrages aided and abetted by the secret state - even a coup of some kind.
Say, following the advice of Paul Mason, the Corbyn-led government stupidly decides to leave MI5, MI6, the police and the standing army intact. Frankly, that would present an open door for a British version of general Augusto Pinochet. In Chile thousands of leftwingers were tortured and killed, and who knows how many, including US citizens, disappeared. The September 11 1973 army coup overthrew the Socialist Party/Communist Party-backed Popular Unity reformist government under president Salvador Allende. That, despite its studiedly moderate programme and repeated concessions to the right. CIA fingerprints were, of course, all over the Pinochet coup.11
Already, Tony Blair denounces the idea of a Corbyn government as “a dangerous experiment”.12 Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, condemns Corbyn as a “danger to this nation” who “wouldn’t clear the security vetting”.13 The Financial Times ominously warns that Corbyn’s leadership damages Britain’s “public life”.14The Economist lambasts Corbyn as a member of the “loony left” and “dangerous” to Britain.15 Sir Nicholas Houghton, outgoing chief of the defence staff, publicly “worried” on BBC1’s Andrew Marr show about a Corbyn government.16 There were carefully placed accompanying press rumours of unnamed members of the army high command being prepared to take “direct action”.17
The armed forces are, of course, an agent of counterrevolution, almost by definition. Failure to understand that elementary fact represents an elementary failure to understand the lessons of history. Legally, culturally, structurally, the British army relies on inculcating an “unthinking obedience” amongst the lower ranks.18 And it is run and directed, as we all know, by an officer caste which is trained from birth to hand out orders to the state-school grunts.
Of course, the British army no longer has vexatious conscripts to deal with. Instead recruits join voluntarily seeking “travel and adventure” - followed by “pay and benefit, with job security”.19 Yet, because they live on bases, frequently move and stick closely together socially, members of the armed forces are unhealthily cut off from the wider civilian population and the recent growth of progressive and socialist ideas. Indeed far-right views appear to be all too common - eg, see Army Rumour Service comments about that “anti-British, not very educated, ageing, communist agitating, class-war zealot”, Jeremy Corbyn.20
Still the best known exponent of deploying the army against internal “subversives” is brigadier Frank Kitson in his Low intensity operations (1971). The left, trade unionists and strikers - they are “the enemy”, even if their actions are intended to back up an elected government.21 Legally, the “perfect vehicle for such an intervention” would be an order in council.22 After consulting the unelected privy council, the monarch would call a state of emergency and invite the army to restore law and order.
Remember army personnel swear an oath that they “will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors”, and that they will “defend Her Majesty ... against all enemies”. And as made crystal clear by Michael Clarke, director of the United Services Institute, this is no mere feudal relic. “The armed forces don’t belong to the government - they belong to the monarch,” he insists:
And they take this very seriously. When [the Tory] Liam Fox was defence secretary a few years ago, for his first couple of weeks he referred to ‘my forces’ rather than Her Majesty’s forces - as a joke, I think. It really ruffled the military behind the scenes. I heard it from senior people in the army. They told me, “We don’t work for him. We work for the Queen.”23
If Corbyn actually makes it into Number 10, there is every reason to believe that threats of “direct action” coming from the high command will take material form. That is why we say: put no trust in the thoroughly authoritarian standing army. No, instead, let us put our trust in a “well regulated militia” and the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” (second amendment to the US constitution).
2. The Guardian October 16 2017.
3. The Times October 14 2017.
4. It is worth pointing out that, when it came to the CPGB, “finding out who they were” was integrally bound up with regular acts of breaking and entering. Membership records were kept neatly filed at district offices, not the central HQ. MI5’s F branch was responsible for spying on the CPGB and running agents in the organisation.
5. H Ahmed and H Stuart Hizb ut-Tahrir: ideology and strategy London 2009, p13.
6. League for a Revolutionary Communist International The Trotskyist manifesto London 1989, pp52-53.
7. The Guardian December 1 2013.
9. J Harvey and K Hood The British state London 1958, p70.
10. Editorial Financial Times October 7 2017.
11. See P Kornbluh The Pinochet file: a declassified dossier on atrocity and accountability New York 2004.
12. Quoted in The Guardian May 20 2016.
13. Quoted in The Daily Telegraph June 7 2017.
14. Financial Times August 14 2015.
15. Editorial The Economist June 3 2017.
16. The Mirror November 8 2015.
17. The Sunday Times September 20 2015.
18. NF Dixon On the psychology of military incompetence London 1976, p244.
19. Lord Ashcroft The armed forces and society May 2012.
20. The Guardian January 25 2016.
21. F Kitson Low intensity operations London 1991, p29.
22. P O’Connor The constitutional role of the privy council and the prerogative London 2009, p20.
23. Quoted in The Guardian January 25 2016.