On Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, Holocaust Denial is Becoming Fashionable in Western Life

 

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Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in general is rapidly on the rise in the West. This should not surprise us; polite society has allowed atrocity-denial and the hatred it vomits out to become normal and acceptable. If a person can deny the documentary and photographic proof of a massacre in Syria, Bosnia, Rwanda or anywhere else without suffering ill for it, the denial of Auschwitz will follow suit.

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Holocaust Memorial Garden, Hyde Park, London, UK. Photo: Royal Parks

Denying the Holocaust is now at risk of becoming fashionable once again. It is on the cusp of being, so to speak, ‘cool’. It positions you against the Establishment, the metropolitan elite, the leisured and educated bien-pensants who have been losing every election and Referendum for some time. Denying the “official story” gives you the ability to fight back against the Mainstream Media (MSM) whose agenda to manipulate you into conformity can be resisted by “doing research” and getting your facts from true and alternative media sources. Believing the Holocaust happened makes you an establishment shill; but “questioning” it makes you an independent mind who cannot be bought off or brainwashed by the globalists who control all the television networks, newspapers and History Departments in the Western world.

If this parody is offensive, the subject matter is an obscenity. I wrote an undergraduate Dissertation on the subject of genocide denial in two libel trials; Irving v Penguin and ITN v LM, both concluded at the High Court in the year 2000. I completed and printed this work in the summer of 2016. Even in the time since then, I find the scale of the successes enjoyed by genocide and atrocity-deniers in recent years to be staggering. Do not heed the well-meaning advice of “don’t read the comments”, and gaze into the comments section below any major news story related to Syria published in 2015 or 2016. As the Syrian conflict draws to a bloody denouement; the “peace” of silence over a graveyard once everything remaining in it is dead; we may forget these stories ever happened as they did.

There you will see, with hundreds of upvotes of approval from other users, fellow members of your society accusing CNN, the BBC, Channel 4 News, the Guardian or the Washington Post of promoting fabricated atrocity stories in the service of an imperialist or ‘globalist’ geopolitical agenda. The work of journalists and war correspondents is dismissed out-of-hand as a calculated effort to deceive and manipulate. The photographs of bloodied, crying children and the mass graves holding their relatives are “dubious” or outright fraud given centre-stage by “the media”, a monolith dedicated only to demonising the Syrian government for the purposes of regime-change. Inevitably, anti-Semitism and allegations of “Zionist” puppetry behind Western involvement and Western media reporting on Syria emerge, gaining hundreds of upvotes even when openly proclaiming admiration for Hitler and the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

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Heavily-upvoted comments on a Channel 4 News FactCheck video describing Channel 4 journalists as “criminal propaganda peddlers”.

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Anti-Semitic comments posted on a YouTube video claiming ‘TRUTH REGARDING SYRIA – NOT CIVIL WAR BUT US INVASION’.

The rage against the victims of atrocities, and those exposing the atrocities, has never been more publicly visible and hence, publicly acceptable. I submit that, as a result of the acceptability of denying other genocides, we are now facing the prospect of a new generation denying or shrugging-off the Nazi Holocaust. If you want some immediate evidence, break the “don’t read the comments” rule again, and go to the YouTube uploads of theatrical trailers for the historical and courtroom drama film Denial, released in British cinemas on Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th. Every YouTube video related to the film is flooded with downvotes; the ‘dislikes’ have been in the majority or winning 50-50 since each video was uploaded, the comments section dominated by tech-savvy members of the alt-right or the conspiracy subculture. Deborah Lipstadt, the historian whose legal battle with neo-Nazi historical fraudster David Irving inspired the film, regards the problem as the same:

“Of course the thumbs down and the comments on [the trailer] were pure anti-Semitism,” Lipstadt tells TIME… “I think we’re living at a time when conspiracy theorists and people with outlandish ideas that do not correspond to the facts are finding more of a fertile field, more of a welcome, more of an ability to promulgate their claims than we’ve ever had before…”

They are winning the battle of approval and platform vocals in burying the film’s online reputation as a Hollywood propaganda exercise to promote the ‘Holohoax’. The favourite quote of the commenters is the favourite of all anti-Semites who abuse history; the immortal quote by Voltaire that “to know who rules over you, notice who you cannot criticise.” Except it is not an immortal quote by a French philosophical and political genius; it is a claim made in an hysterical 1993 book by none other than “Kevin Strom, an American white nationalist, neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.” The quote itself, a favourite of neo-Nazis which has spread into a broader conspiracy subculture, entered the news in Australia in 2015 when a conservative politician tweeted it with the Internet-sanctioned authority of its Voltaire origins. Unfortunately:

“The suspected source of the quote is Strom’s 1993 essay, All America Must Know the Terror that is Upon Us… In 2008 Strom was sentenced to 23 months in prison for possessing child abuse material.”

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Anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial comments in the majority of hostile comments posted on a ‘Making of’ Featurette for the film ‘Denial’.

The online warriors, who exist in the very real physical world, fear no response and no repercussions, socially or otherwise, for their actions.

None of this matters. Truth has already been abolished for those who spend their time downvoting film trailers and upvoting comments proclaiming the most well-documented events of the twentieth century to be a hoax propagandised by an invisible global conspiracy. Case in point is a popular online documentary praising and lavishing glory upon Adolf Hitler, enjoying high ratings on IMDB and more than 140 user reviews, called ‘The Greatest Story Never Told’. The approval given by fans to the documentary in the top-rated reviews, is primarily for the Hitler-worshipping film challenging “history as told by the other side (the winners). Which is the story we are indoctrinated with through the school system and our media.” The Truth, or in this case, the denial of overhwelming evidence of the Truth, shall set you free. So saith the collective wisdom of the alt-right.

The far-right and the alt-right are not alone in their quest for ‘truth’.

The front pages of a socialist newspaper, one disseminated and promoted by the leader of the British Labour Party who remains a contributor, proclaim the “liberation” of a city being subjected to massacres and mass executions by a dictator who has used chemical weapons against civilians. Viral videos circulated among the politically interested, those who consider themselves ‘activists’ for one or many causes, whose favourite words are ‘resistance’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘justice’, boastfully deny the existence of atrocities which are extensively-documented. Unsatisfied with denying the suffering of those in the frames of photographs and videos, the deniers embrace the intoxicating self-righteousness of the conspiracy narrative; the alleged surviving victims are not survivors at all, but merely actors and fakes, paid as part of a malevolent conspiracy led by the mass media and Western governments. As the American children massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 were victimised again after their deaths by InfoWars.com and its owner Alex Jones denouncing the massacre as a “hoax” by the US government, and their families denounced as “crisis actors”, so to for every Syrian civilian murdered by the Baathist regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The White Helmets volunteers trying to dig them out of the rubble and save them from barrel-bombs are not really humanitarian rescuers at all – they are really Al-Qaeda terrorists trying to overthrow the Syrian state. Their ‘volunteers’ are jihadists, the children they rescue are props, their statistics and documentation are a propaganda effort organised by the CIA and/or Mossad.

ISIS is a terrorist death cult which has brought racial genocide, social apocalypse and totalitarianism to Iraq and Syria, and would launch a war of extermination against the Jewish people if it possessed the material capacity to do so. Yet, the “anti-establishment” and “open your eyes” media have discovered the shocking truth. ISIS is in fact a creation of Israel itself, designed to bring chaos to Arab Muslim countries and distract the world from Israel’s own catalogue of offences. This belief has taken hold powerfully in many Muslim countries; whether by state propaganda in Iran, statements by the foreign minister of Lebanon, or simply where the cognitive dissonance and moral conflict of confronting a self-identified ‘Islamic’ holy state, has been too difficult for many believers to manage. Muslim communities in the West face similar problems. According to a study by Policy Exchange which surveyed 3,000 British Muslims on their beliefs, a shocking 52% of respondents in the survey said that they “do not know” who was responsible for the September 11th 2001 attacks. More respondents (7%) blamed ‘Jews’ than Al-Qaeda (4%). This could represent a combination of factors; failures in the education system, the difficulty of discussing recent and politically-loaded historical events and again, the cognitive dissonance in confronting members of one’s own group being responsible for a violent atrocity against others. However, the fact that the gradual development of the “don’t know” majority has faced no response from wider society is the most troubling aspect of these findings.  Khalid Mahmood MP wrote of the damaging impact that this was having, in the Foreword to the study:

“But it is deeply troubling that this seems to have led a not-insignificant-minority to believe that the world is at the mercy of the machinations of dark, anti-Muslim forces… This readiness to believe in conspiracy theories and the mentality of victimhood to which it speaks is having a pernicious effect on British Muslims and the way they see the world. It is holding us back – as a community – and ensuring that we remain locked in a paranoid and at times fearful worldview.”

No substantial government or civil society effort has been made to counteract the spread of this ignorance among members of the Muslim community or among others. From this it would seem that “don’t know, don’t care” has become the attitude taken to 9/11 conspiracy beliefs by the body politic and even those who do not share said beliefs.

Conspiracy-belief and denial pertaining to ISIS and Islamist terrorism have also taken hold among Western non-Muslims, for whom opposing another military intervention in Iraq leads them to believe, for the preservation of their own worldview, that ISIS atrocities are hoaxes by the US government. The Anti-Defamation League has catalogued a repeating wave of stories and viral images blaming various terrorist attacks in the West, as well as the workings of ISIS itself, and even natural disasters, on Israel and “Jewish lobby” conspirators. Whilst many such claims originate in mainstream newspapers in the Middle East, including leading daily papers in Egypt, Qatar and Jordan, there is a base of support for them in the West. They extend beyond anti-Israeli conspiracy sites like the neulously named ‘Veterans Today’. There is the case of Naomi Wolf, a respected feminist author and former Presidential campaign adviser to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, in October 2014 declared her belief that videos of ISIS members beheading foreign hostages were faked, along with the equally baseless claim that the US response to Ebola in West Africa was a plot to deliberately infect the US population with the virus. After a predictable critical response, she ‘clarified’ her comments – but there is no doubt that many of her 100,000+ Facebook fans will have shared and further disseminated her ideas.

A similar storm erupted in 2016 when Joy Karega, a professor at the prestigious Oberlin College in Ohio was revealed to have spent several years claiming ISIS was a “CIA and Mossad operation”, reposting anti-Semitic claims about the Rothschild family, and responding to the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack by posting an image referring to the trope ‘JSIL’ – that is, ‘Jewish State of Israel in the Levant’, a ‘satirical’ slur created by anti-Israel activists to promote moral equivalence between Israel and ISIS. The image in question is one depicting ISIS emerging from the body of Benjamin Netanyahu, with a Star of David Tattoo bearing their ‘real’ name. As it happened, the Charlie Hebdo attack was carried out by self-proclaimed supporters of Al-Qaeda, not ISIS.

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Anti-Semitic image posted by Oberlin College professor Joy Karega following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in January 2015.

In this case, the professor was eventually fired – though not without considerable support from the student body, particularly on the ‘social justice’ left. What is startling is that the posts, of a grievously anti-Semitic character, which denied historical events (recent terror attacks) or assigned blame for them to Jews, were posted openly under Karega’s own name whilst she was teaching at a higher education institution. Her friends, colleagues and those who could see the posts did not raise them prominently until they were first exposed on the website of The Tower magazine in February 2016. Despite her dismissal, Karega has apparently doubled-down in her beliefs and according to Matthew Gidin, is producing an academic text to ‘study’ the following:

“(1) How has the term “conspiracy theory” been used (is being used) to control the parameters of inquiry and research in the academy?; (2) How has the uncomplicated tying of conspiracy theories to accusations of anti-Semitism been used (is being used) to control the parameters of inquiry and research in the academy?”

Those who attempt to criticise conspiracy theories or anti-Semitism, are merely reinforcing their own power as part of the conspiracy itself. As Gidin put it, “In other words, Karega wants to study how Jews silence anti-Semites.”

A similar process occurred with many subjects of the British Labour Party’s anti-Semitism scandal which dragged on throughout 2016. Complaints were made that “old social media posts” had been “dredged up” by muckrackers to cause embarrassment to Labour and particularly to Jeremy Corbyn. His defenders were adamant that the posts had only come to light for this specific purpose. However, if the posts were ‘old’, why had it taken so long for them to be exposed and the authors challenged? Why would it have taken anti-Corbyn muckrakers to find and condemn anti-Semitism among Labour members?

Hoax executions and terror attacks are but one facet of the conspiracy world’s fascination with blaming the existence of ISIS on everyone but ISIS. “ISIS armed by America” is a pervasive myth fed by a network of conspiracy sites – some dismissable as ‘fake news’, others pursuing long-established propaganda wars waged by a gargantuan conspiracy site with the deceptively academic name of ‘Globalresearch.ca’. Its philosophy towards democracy and human civilisation can be summed up in an article it actually thought morally and socially worthy of publishing: “North Korea, A Land of Human Achievement, Love and Joy”. Needless to say, it is the home of the most far-reaching claims that “Is Uncle Sam Funding the Islamic State?”. Globalresearch is just one of a network of conspiracy sites which have been servicing the demands of the “alternative media” market for Syria and ISIS-related stories for years. Others include Mint Press News, a site founded specifically to act as a pro-Assad outlet in the West, The Duran, and the Russian state media vehicles Sputnik and RT.com.

The work of outfits like this would be laughable were it not for the reality of what they deny. The victims of mass murder, torture, assassination and yes, genocide, are either screamed at for being fakes and stooges, their deaths attributed to other parties to excuse the guilty, or as the Jews of Europe were intended to be by the Final Solution, their very existence is erased from the historical record entirely.

Why is this monstrous enterprise increasing in popularity? Why has the denial of atrocities become so casual, so commonplace and out-in-the-open? Why do people not fear to speak, in public, that the parents of children killed in airstrikes or shot at point-blank range by death squads are just actors? Why do the ‘Holohoax’-obsessive trolls seem to be gaining the upper hand over any online media to do with the Holocaust?

I have considered several ideas; their relationship and contributory causality is not precise. However, I think all are important in understanding why Holocaust denial specifically is apparently on the rise in Western society, and its relatedness to atrocity-denial more generally. The most important, I think, is this:

People who casually deny atrocities are no longer paying any meaningful social price.

Probably the ultimate example of conspiracy theorising, atrocity denial and brazenly dishonest acts of defamation going unpunished is the election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency. Trump, who had pursued a bizarre self-appointment as the birther-in-chief, had promoted discredited and wholly fraudulent claims about links between vaccines and autism, repeatedly claimed climate change was a “hoax”, came to his logical conclusion when he rewarded the Sandy Hook victim-abusing fanatics at InfoWars with his loyal support during and after the 2016 campaign. Writing in The Washington Post in October 2016, Cheryl Greenberg discussed the complex and confusing relationship between Trump’s loud-and-proud xenophobia with an apparently more subtle undertone of anti-Semitism in his speeches:

“Trump’s alt-right followers… have certainly understood the anti-Semitic implications of these particular allegations. The stunning recent rise of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish journalists, politicians, performers and others, as well as the violent threats against their lives and their families, has made that clear. In the past few days, a new Nazi-inspired expletive has been reported at Trump rallies: “Lügenpresse!” (lying press)…”

Trump’s most devoted support base derives its news, when not watching the Fox News Channel, almost entirely from its own compartments of the online conspiracy subculture aforementioned. But the problem extends elsewhere, not least to Britain and to any country besieged by the tsunami of fake news which smiled so favourably on Donald Trump. The promulgators are not all Russian state agents; many have their own ideological agenda, some considerably more sinister even than Russia’s geopolitical gamesmanship.

For those who have carved out an audience and a support-base for their ideas, social rules of shame or disgrace which would preclude a person from speaking easily-exposed falsehoods about an historical event, no longer apply. The dedicated readerships of fake news websites and those who believe in a conspiracy narrative, or are open to entertaining it on equal terms with an empirically-based narrative, see no disgrace in casually blaming 9/11 on the Israelis or attributing the massacre of children in Syria to video-fakery. David Irving once had a ‘respectable’ career in popular history writing and an associated reputation which was destroyed by his exposure as a Holocaust denier and professional anti-Semite. However, if you have built your career and primary appeal around your anti-establishment, anti-media, anti-everything credentials, your income and social status are not threatened.

In the UK, this lack of consequence is found in the leadership of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has been wearing the badge of the Holocaust Memorial Trust this month, perhaps out of admirable solidarity. This cannot rewrite the historical record that Corbyn took £20,000 from Iranian state television Press TV, and by extension from a state which organises official conferences denying the Holocaust. He vociferously defended an Anglican priest, Rev. Dr. Stephen Sizer, who had been investigated by the Church and criticised by members of the Jewish community for persistently posting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media. Blaming a particularly nasty post made by Sizer in 2012 on “a technical oversight in terms of computer links”, Corbyn portrayed Sizer as the victim, predictably: “Might I suggest that such criticism is part of a wider pattern of demonising those who dare to stand up and speak out against Zionism…?”

Sizer eventually did suffer appropriate consequences for his persistence in promoting conspiracy theories which claimed Jewish involvement in 9/11 or getting too chummy with Holocaust deniers – such as at a 2014 conference organised by the Iranian state. From the Jerusalem Post:

“Iranian-run Press TV has described the conference as intending to “unveil the secrets behind the dominance of the Zionist lobby over the US and EU politics,” with one session devoted to examining “Mossad’s role in the 9/11 Coup d’Etat,” and another discussing “9/11 and the Holocaust as pro-Zionist ‘Public myths.’”

For this and other offences against reason and human decency, Rev. Sizer was first banned by his superiors from posting about Middle East issues on social media, and is now accepting an ignominious departure from his position with the Church. Jeremy Corbyn, however, was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 with a large personal mandate, and was re-elected on a larger mandate in September 2016. The scandals and political damage caused by the anti-Semitism crisis in Labour which have alienated the Jewish community from the party have not removed him. Even David Irving, whose entire political career has been on the far-right, recently stated that he was impressed by Corbyn, calling him “a very fine man”. What the Jewish community considers to be a matter of moral urgency is dismissed entirely by Corbyn’s supporters. Headlines about his work for Press TV, his praise of Hamas and Hezbollah or defending individuals like Rev. Sizer are dismissed as proof of a media conspiracy to oust him – sometimes of course inflected with the prefix ‘Zionist’ media conspiracy. Anti-Semitic incidents rose in Britain and especially London during the first half of 2016, when the anti-Semitism crisis was in the news, with many incidents directly linked to it, such as through the abuse of Jewish Labour MPs via social media. No amount of protests or complaints from the Jewish community, whether made by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Community Security Trust or polls of Jewish Britons generally, had any dent or measurable impact on Corbyn’s re-election and personal popularity among his base.

Why should Holocaust denial not begin to flourish when political allegiance triumphs over historical facts and basic empathy for the Jewish people on such a scale?

The liberal-left writer George Monbiot has long been a critic of genocide-denial in all quarters. He despairingly asked in May 2012, “How did genocide denial become a doctrine of the internationalist left?” Casual belief and promotion of atrocity-denial and attendant media conspiracy narratives by intellectuals; not least John Pilger, Edward S. Hermann, David Peterson and to an extent by Noam Chomsky had not prevented them maintaining loyal followings of fans and academics who considered their work worthy of praise and emulation. Much of the controversy involving Chomsky related specifically to Bosnia; the location of a genocide during a war of aggression by Bosnian Serb forces and allies from Orthodox Christian countries which an undercurrent of popular opinion in Serbia and throughout the Orthodox world has been attempting to deny since.

During the late 1990s, a series of conspiracy theories promoted by the magazine Living Marxism, re-named LM in February 1997, alleged that the existence of concentration camps in Bosnia were based on exaggeration and fakery by ITN and Guardian journalists. ITN sued and won at the High Court – but whilst the magazine folded under bankruptcy, its members re-formed under various names (collectively known as the ‘LM Network’ by the monitoring group Lobbywatch) to continue promoting the group’s professional contrarianism. Today, the most prominent members of the group, including Mick Hume, Brendan O’Neill and Claire Fox, enjoy decent media careers writing for The SpectatorThe Telegraph and The Times and the LM-successor project Spiked Online. Those on the left and the right who defended LM’s right to publish lies about the Bosnian camps against ITN’s apparent “deplorable attack on press freedom”, included the writer and columnist Toby Young, the playwright Fay Weldon and the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, who never suffered any lasting damage to their credibility. Nor did the Institute of Contemporary Arts which hosted a three-day conference lavishing support on LM and its members.

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ITN footage of the Trnopolje concentration camp, 6th August 1992. This image would become the subject of a libel suit after LM published articles falsely claiming the camp was a “hoax” invented by British journalists.

An expert on the ITN v LM case, Prof. Duncan Campbell of Durham University, discussed the legacy of the trial in a 2009 article concerning other efforts to obfuscate the historical record of Bosnia, ‘Chomsky’s Bosnian Shame‘. The lack of remorse, and more importantly the lack of any long-term loss of influence for the LM network was clear and unambiguous:

“It was LM’s lies about the ITN reports that bankrupted themselves, morally and financially. Despite their failure, those who lied about the ITN reports have had no trouble obtaining regular access to the mainstream media in Britain, where they continue to make their case as though the 2000 court verdict simply didn’t exist.”

No shame, and no loss in terms of commanding influence over public discourse. Genocide denial and libelling of professional journalists and the victims of concentration camps may have been reprimanded by the High Court, but it commanded few negative social results. On the contrary, the ‘LM network’ is doing better now than it ever did as a glossy, loss-making special interest magazine in the 1990s. Its members, who have never issued a moment’s apology to the victims of the genocide they dismissed as a hoax, are much more successful today.

What the past decade has taught us is how little the educated and professional world cares about investigating or delivering consequences for a person committing the act of denying a genocide. You could spit on the graves of the murdered, scream “liar!” at those who published photographs of the dead and buried, and keep your column, your academic post or your political party membership. Even if you lost one of these, the act of losing it would earn you the mantle of a victim of persecution by the establishment, and a fan base to follow you to your next enterprise.


 

Who is ultimately responsible for this? We could easily blame the post-truth generation of politicians and the anti-consensus contempt of the 2016 illiberal revolutions. Perhaps more controversially, Brexit comes into consideration. There is a chilling undertone to Michael Gove’s now-infamous denigration of experts and expertise during the Vote Leave campaign. It is unclear, and unlikely that the majority of people really have “had enough of experts”. But the democratisation of information via the Internet has brought with it a renewed vigour in popular contempt for sources of information based on the empirical sciences and quantitative research. Since “the experts” failed to predict the financial crisis, wrongly predicted the outcome of General Elections, Referendums and Presidential Elections, their word is worth no more than the viral video shared by a politically active friend on Facebook.

But the “experts” and acronym-holding organisations who can be denigrated and dismissed, whose painstaking research is no better or preferable to that promoted via Globalresearch or Naturalnews or InfoWars are not just economists or climate scientists. It includes historians and Holocaust experts, whom amateurs and imposters can demolish for the audience of an unknowing and unfamiliar public. There has been since Brexit a similar phenomenon to the publicly acceptable posting of anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories by persons who feared nothing would happen to them. Since the Referendum vote, racially and religiously-motivated hate crimes have rapidly increased across the UK, the attackers feeling legitimised in their actions – as well as a belief that they can act without endangering themselves to negative repercussions. Despite the scoffing and conspiratorial efforts of Brendan O’Neill and other LM Network members, all of whom took a pro-Brexit line and are defenders of Trump as an “anti-establishment” force, to paint the increase in hate crimes as an establishment media plot to undermine Brexit, the figures and combined weight of personal accounts are hard to dispute.

In the new wave of Holocaust denial, the discourse resembles the contempt for established knowledge aimed at the targets of Brexit and Trump’s contempt for experts and ‘the elite’. To reject the ‘mainstream’ and ‘elite’ consensus, and to embrace the controversial knowledge, the alternative media, the “alternative facts” as Trump’s Presidential spokespeople now describe them, is to be a rebel in a narrative of resistance to tyranny. The hatred of the media common to all deniers was expressed in a sinister vogue by Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who wrapped an authoritarian threat to the media in populist tones: “And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.”

To the British left, I would argue that the Middle East dictatorship-hopping cranks were tolerated and kept around for too long. New Labour tolerated the presence of MPs like George Galloway for years, despite his slavish enthusiasm for genocidal dictators like Saddam Hussein, and only expelled him when his behaviour spilled over into inciting the murder of British soldiers. Similar tolerance was given to Jeremy Corbyn despite his involvement in the same sinister promotion and apologetics for various anti-Western terrorist organisations when it suited his interests. Both have since given their credibility as Western politicians and media figures to the state-sponsored churnalism of foreign dictatorships. Both have been embroiled in rows over anti-Semitism which keep recurring without them discarding their particular beliefs which cause the rows to erupt.

More prominently and with a greater shrug of the shoulders, British and American society have normalised the denial of atrocities, along with the denial of ordinary historical facts, to the point where Holocaust denial is no longer as publicly outrageous as it once may have been. Anti-Semitism and belief in conspiracy theories which lead inexorably to it is not a career-ender for many people with a social circle that is amiable to their warped understanding of the world. Only when concerned members of an outside community notice the obscenity is it picked up. Soon, we may no longer regard publicly posting viral photos on Facebook claiming the gas chambers to be a “mainstream media Zionist hoax” to be an obscenity or an abnormality of any kind.

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Get Better: Personal Reflections on New Labour

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What follows is a departure from the factuality and severity of previous work and a series of Pensées, or common thoughts which I expect will be similar to many this year. It is part political writing and part personal exposition.


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Tony Blair with Labour supporters in Downing Street, May 2nd 1997. Photo: BT

2017 will mark a twenty-year anniversary since the largest-ever victory of the British Labour Party at a General Election. It is currently being comprehensively documented in real-time on the @newdawn1997 Twitter account run by the University of Nottingham Politics Department. 1997 remains the largest electoral landslide in post-1945 British history, the beginning of Labour’s longest period of government and the beginning of devolution to national assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The first term alone of the Labour Government saw the end of a thirty-year civil war in Northern Ireland, the halting of a genocide in Kosovo, the beginning of the National Minimum Wage and the passage of the Human Rights Act; to say the least, their accomplishments were significant.

For Labour supporters who had not cut themselves loose of ‘New Labour, New Britain’ in its entirety, remembering the victory would always be bittersweet during times of opposition or struggling government. However, in 2017, the memory approaching is tinged with a far greater sadness and bitter recriminations; not merely for Labour’s present dire straits and disastrous polling performance, but for the loss of a legacy which other parties proudly display. The Conservatives celebrate the days of Churchill and Thatcher, the Liberal Democrats the days of David Lloyd George. Labour activists who remember 1997 with reverence and warmth face the prospect of conducting their celebrations in private, away from the hostile gaze of fellow members, whose denunciation of the victory’s central figures extends to the rhetoric of imprisonment and judicial murder. US Republicans openly call for the jailing of their Democratic opponents for treason, terrorism or fabricated sex abuse crimes involving pizza restaurants. But in Labour’s own forums, it is now not uncommon to see the name ‘Tony Blair’ appear alongside screeches of “murderer” and “war criminal” and ill-researched references to the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

The sadness of remembering 1997 in 2017 comes with an examination of the times the democratic world, not merely Labour, finds itself in. The majoritarian optimism, high hopes and expectations which defined and arguably encumbered the 1997 Labour campaign and its potential in government, a phenomenon repeated by Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign in 2008, is now nowhere to be found in European or US politics. The hope of a comparable landslide is beyond the reach of any British party today, with the incumbent Conservatives governing on a tiny majority, Labour facing catastrophe with every new poll and the Liberal Democrats reduced to a minibus load of MPs. Beyond this, far more grave and depressing currents across the globe appear set to make the quivering of British electoral fortunes appear trivial. Autocracy, the rejection of democracy and Parliamentary government in favour of erratic strongmen, absolute plebiscites and the quashing of dispute with violence has returned to a nuclear-armed West. The notable exceptions to this trend are Canada, where the 2015 Liberal landslide bucked the trends of southern neighbours, and Germany, where Angela Merkel is set to hold onto power despite public discontent over migration and terrorism.

There is a pressing need to reinterpret the 1997 UK General Election. Seemingly every cultural touchstone in Britain during the late-1990s and throughout the 2000s, from Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain (2005) to the revised opening titles of the romantic sitcom As Time Goes By, to throwaway lines in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and to the premiership of David Cameron as Tory leader then Prime Minister, treated New Labour’s victory a crescendo not to be exceeded. Conservative writer and columnist Peter Oborne scathingly wrote of his own party’s leaders in 2014:

“It is said that Mr Cameron and George Osborne both refer to Mr Blair as “the Master”, asking each other “what would the Master have done?” when in difficult situations. The Unfinished Revolution: How New Labour Changed British Politics Forever, written by Tony Blair’s late political strategist Philip Gould, is regarded within the Cameron circle with the same awe and veneration as a Bible…. It is not widely known that Mr Cameron often seeks advice from the former prime minister… David Cameron in this sense represents the survival of Tony Blair through other means.”

The landslide victory of the Labour Party in 1997 was in subsequent years signposted as an end-point of British politics. The postwar consensus which lasted from 1945 until 1979 had been revised and replaced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, whose economic policies were now accepted by Labour; a new consensus from which departure seemed unforeseeable. Even the election of a Conservative-led coalition Government in 2010 did not represent any radical new dawn, if anything it affirmed the centre-ground-pursuit of the previous decades. The momentous transformation of 1945, 1979 or 1997 would never be matched but they did not have to be. Fukayama may have been wrong on the history of the world ending in 1992, but it seemed British political history had reached a terminus in 1997 from which future direction would be only a steady continuation. The prevailing belief was that liberal democracy had won out, centre-ground politics was accepted by all major parties and election-losing strategies of radicalism and extremism were consigned to a lunatic fringe and all but dead where it counted by the time Tony Blair left office in 2007.

In 2017 we inhabit an age of illiberalism; a rejection of “experts”, statistics, polling data, climate science, economics and the norms of Western liberal democracy. The very existence of long-form writing and journalism is among the many objects of blame given for the alienation of working-class electoral majorities from liberalism and the institutions of democratic society. All the long-read essays in America could not prevent the victory of Donald Trump, a literacy-questionable demagogue who betrays no sign of having read any long book, not least the ghostwritten self-help guides bearing his own name, or the epistles of the New Testament whose mispronunciation in a spectacularly cringeworthy manner did not lose him the evangelical vote. Nor could an alliance of think tanks, research institutes, business confederations and the leaders of the UK’s five largest parties prevent the British electorate from embracing a constitutional decision which reverses fifty years of postwar political consensus and overturns the one consistent source of agreement between British political parties and institutions – that of Britain’s continued membership of the European Community, subsequently the European Union.

Now, any document of history from what may come to be known as the “Europhile period” of British politics will be regarded as painfully and even laughably short-sighted if it views the European project as even remotely inevitable, settled or integrated seamlessly with Britain’s own future. For an American comparison, videos of the 2011 humiliation of Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the subsequent elation of American liberals, along with the derisive scoffing at his candidacy for the Presidency once possessed humour and reassurance for those now contemplating the same images with trepidation and fear. A justified belief exists that the beliefs and interests of the 48% who voted against Brexit will be disregarded; any opposition to the 52% majority is ‘defying the will of the people’, whose mandate must be executed without moderation or mercy. Trumpism as much as Trump openly regards political opposition and an inquisitive or adversarial media as The Enemy against whom the most aggressive rhetoric and even the powers of the state should be deployed.

The New Labour project, and the proclamation of a permanently established democratic, liberal and centrist consensus which followed it now seem hopelessly and incontrovertibly defeated. Extremism, authoritarianism and total disregard for the belief or interests of political minorities has, in this decade, “won”. Hence, when we look back on 1997, there will not only be Labour members mourning for a successful Labour Party, but a mourning for small-d democratic and small-l liberalism in general. The idea in 1997 that either Tony Blair or John Major would threaten to jail the losing party leader or declare everyone who didn’t vote for them to be ‘traitors’ was unthinkable.


A New Labour Childhood

My earliest political belief was hating New Labour. It arose in the early political consciousness of an eleven year-old whose first contact with politics had been comic satire and the apolitical simplicity of anger at government incompetence. Jon Culshaw’s impressions of Blair in Dead Ringers, Rory Bremner’s in Bremner, Bird and Fortune and a growing list of political writers of popular satirical paperbacks taught how it was good and necessary to laugh at and even despise the government. Before I even knew properly the difference between ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’, I knew that my position was against anything which New Labour was doing.

Hatred had been preceded by passivity. The first government I distinctly remember event living through was New Labour. Very early visual impressions of television images from preschool years, among children’s programmes like Old Bear and Postman Pat, include the then-incomprehensible scenes of Tony Blair walking through the crowds waving Union Jacks and Labour flags in Downing Street. The faint impressions the scenes made, inexplicable to a child under the age of five, were also inexplicable to adults who had lived under continuous Conservative government for eighteen years. In 1997, they experienced the victory of a Labour party which promised transformative change whilst protecting the life they understood. You could keep the council house you bought under Right To Buy and look forward to better wages and better jobs for your children, an end to the violence in Northern Ireland which spilled across the rest of the UK and the chronic under-funding and mismanagement of the NHS. The pervasive excitement among the adult generations did not filter down overtly in a manner comprehensible to my own, but we were to be the first for whom every aspect of our lives was to change. From infant health, to schooling, to higher education and employment, everything about us would be affected by a Labour government, in office from our first days in Reception class until we were preparing to start full-time work or go to university.

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Tony Blair in 1997. Getty/BBC.

Images of the Blair government and its often-changing cabinets flickered on in the background every morning as I had breakfast and dressed for school. It was normality; as I remembered nothing else, when I was told there had been Prime Ministers other than Blair, the concept seemed anomalous and even alien. Surely nobody else could come walking through the black door of Number 10, waving at the cameras or holding that mug of tea? By the time I was old enough to grasp the concepts of historical time which primary-school children learned through chronologies and parsing the differences between the Tudors and the Victorians, the one unchanging permanence remained the premiership of Tony Blair. Princess Diana died, we lost the World Cup, the Millennium passed, England’s farmland burned under the scourge of foot-and-mouth disease, the world was shaken by 9/11 and the West’s response to it, we lost the World Cup again, the Conservatives traded one unsuccessful, balding ex-minister for another as leader, and Blair remained where he was.

It is an oversimplification, but one cliché has the value of also being true: familiarity breeds contempt.

The grievances which began to kill Blair’s prospects as PM after 2003 and more profoundly after the reduced majority of the 2005 election are well-known. For the general public it was concern and alarm over mounting immigration, Blair’s Europhile tendencies, increasing resentment of New Labour ‘spin’, Blair’s executive and Presidential style of government, and concerns over the Blairs’ private business affairs. There was the less-covered but more ‘slow burn’ impact of issues like the controversy and eventual failure of PFI and what may be called Waiting for Godot’s Completion of an NHS IT System which would eventually produce billions in losses.For the Labour Party itself, the more partisan issues of Labour’s identity, the government’s cosy relationship with big business and the City, a loss of enthusiam for ‘Labourism’ and the very word ‘socialism’ and Blair’s apparently intractable position, immune to accountability for party members’ anger. For both public and party, it was one word which mattered above all: Iraq. The 2002-3 build-up to war with Iraq which seemed a foregone conclusion, the WMDs never found, the disastrous aftermath of the invasion and the feeling that none of it had been necessary. More than anything, this turned Blair from the beloved dream-bearer of 1997 into one of most reviled and unpopular Prime Ministers since Anthony Eden at the height of the Suez crisis.

This all now, particularly in the wake of Chilcot, seems a truism barely worth arguing for. However, the greater damage to New Labour’s memory by the passing of the years has caused immense problems of its own – for the country, arguably for the wider world, as well as the Labour Party. Populist resentment of politicians, spin doctors and overseas intervention caused deeper public cynicism towards electoral politics and internationalism. “Politicians generally” became the most mistrusted and disliked profession in Ipsos MORI’s year-on-year polling on public trust in institutions and professions. Labour’s election-winning strategies devised and managed by Tony Blair’s Director of Communications Alistair Campbell were dropped in large part due to their association with the officially abandoned New Labour mantle and perhaps also the satirical embodiment of public spin-loathing in The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker. There was a protracted identity crisis and the confused “what are Labour for again?” direction under Ed Milliband, then the embrace of far-left radicalism and a nadir of low opinion polls and appalling midterm performance under Jeremy Corbyn.

It was a strange contrast. Labour was now doing very poorly despite its huge card-carrying membership and considerably better financial position (New Labour lurched from one funding crisis to the next whereas Corbyn’s appeal to new members and the 2016 leadership challenge had filled the party coffers with membership fees). I became interested in what had made Labour successful in 1997 and whether any of it could be usefully transferred from the past to present and future. In looking back on the New Labour project as a whole, one of my main sources became the personal diaries and other works of Alastair Campbell. I realised that during the Labour government, I had never consciously seen Campbell himself on television apart from replays of the famous confrontation with Jon Snow on Channel 4 News at the height of the Andrew Gilligan row on June 27th 2003. The great “liar-in-chief” who had made Labour so successful whilst becoming one of the most infamous figures in British politics, his name was a veritable swear word by the time he formally resigned in August 2003. The figure and personality of Campbell I was familiar with at the time had always been projected through secondary sources; for most people this was Malcolm Tucker. The first interviews of him I watched full-length in the 2010s concerned his work with mental health charities, his open discussion of struggle with depression, alcoholism and recovering from a psychotic breakdown in 1986. Among them were his discussions of the death of former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy from alcoholism-related illness shortly after the 2015 General Election. His forays into frontline politics once again, particularly on behalf of the Remain side of the EU Referendum, brought his interviews and discussions at universities and public forums back onto headline topical issues. He seemed a good place to start.

Confronting this figure of odium, whom I had learned to despise through his vicarious appearances via the Yorkshire actor Andrew Dunn in Bremner, Bird and Fortune, jokes in Mark Thomas and Stewart Lee routines, and casual conversation on current affairs programmes about Campbell as the Machiavellian puppet-master who had brainwashed the public into voting for the fraudulent Blair, was an odd experience.

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Rory Bremner as Tony Blair and Andrew Dunn as Alastair Campbell. The Guardian, May 21st 2001.

Without being filtered through the second-hand snorting and derision of critics and satirists, what struck me most about the Master of Spin was how plain-spoken he seemed. There was none of the complex, animated emotional performance which one saw in Blair, the ‘scripted’ facial expressions and gesticulations which the public came to associate with Blair’s apparently intrinsic insincerity and falsehood. It might have been Campbell’s Northernness, the frankness in discussing difficult and personal subjects without coming across as a self-pitying sniffer or some other quality which spoke to the normally irritable subconscious. However, the image was markedly different from the chimera of Goebbels and an enraged Peter Capaldi which had existed in the minds of those who loathed New Labour at the time.

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Mark Thomas protesting in Downing Street against the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, April 21st 2007. Getty.

The diaries added to this altered perspective. That which Campbell and his management of Blair’s image was most associated with – that increasingly nebulous term ‘spin’ – had convinced me in the 2000s that everything which flowed from the mouth of Blair or his ministers were lies, calculated to manipulate with maximum effect. There was no sincerity in policy, no desire to improve social relations or the health of the nation – merely to stay in power by any means necessary. Such was the way of politics, particularly with New Labour. Reading the Campbell Diaries in the 2010s demolished much of what remained of this total cynicism towards the subject matter. As it turned out, they weren’t all constantly lying to us about their motives and objectives. They actually did believe in things which they wanted to accomplish, even in private and behind closed doors.

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The 1997 Labour Cabinet. BBC.

Battles would rage furiously between people who cared deeply about education, employment and the health service on how best to improve and protect them. The uncompromising language and meticulous detail which the diaries gave to the daily struggles of holding the Government together, promoting its agenda in the press and using the ‘dark arts’ to get things done – in their brutality, they falsified any belief that the whole thing was just power and privilege for its own sake. They are unflattering to many concerned, not least Campbell himself. But they starkly illuminate the drudgery and harsh realities of running a government and achieving ambitious objectives against competing and conflicting interests. They further undercut the appeal of utopianism and the “principled” radicalism of Corbyn and all pure, untainted platforms of left-wing parties which account for no opposition or obstruction that might get in the way of realising the socialist paradise.


Kicking your star players

One of the most damaging aspects of New Labour at the time, which could not be blamed on the hard-left or on the Conservatives, was the protracted turbulence between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The damage this caused to the New Labour brand in the media was obvious, as details of every spat and punch-up over policy or personality leaked out; one of the most infamous was a jibe against Brown’s “psychological flaws” given to a journalist in January 1998 which Campbell would later admit being the source of. Even as a New Labour-hating teenager in the 2000s, I believed the media coverage of the rivalry was overblown and based on a gossip-factory. Instead, the divide was profoundly real. The damage caused by the Brown camp and its own spin doctors Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride was the more damaging for including regular attacks on Blair’s ministers; a process which Campbell described as analogous to playing or managing a football team and seeing members of your own team “going around the pitch and kicking your star players”.

It was one particularly vicious embodiment of Labour’s historical tendency to be its own worst enemy, a tradition which has continued and grown significantly in the years since it entered Opposition once again. Now, the kicking of the star players is happening after they have hung up their boots. It were as if when the current crop of Manchester United is doing badly, they decide to denounce the heinous and unprincipled record of Bobby Charlton and George Best, vowing to never return to their way of doing things.

In the cynicism and hatred which was heaped on New Labour continuously after it had left office, its achievements and the reasons for why it succeeded electorally were obscured and buried behind a smokescreen of political pyrotechnics. The greatest trashers of New Labour were not the Tories or the Lib Dems but those on the socialist left and even within Labour’s own ranks. The elements which produced Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victories in 2015 and 2016 had poured greater volumes of scorn and hatred onto New Labour and its figures than the Torch-carrying Conservative Party and its election broadcasts ever did at the time. The possible exception to this is the Tories’ rather nasty “demon eyes” poster, now being used by the @newdawn1997 account, and which I have seen reposted elsewhere by Blair-loathers on the left apparently unaware or ambivalent about its provenance.

It is unavoidable, however, that John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron never called Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell “child-murderers” who should be in the dock at the Hague, as became common parlance on the anti-Blair and later pro-Corbyn left. Perhaps it is a testament to Labour’s policy spirit of “education, education, education.” People with no legal qualifications or expertise in international jurisprudence or human rights law suddenly found themselves qualified to pronounce the guilt of dozens of British and American citizens, with Bush, Blair and Campbell top of the list, for crimes against humanity. But the belief in the absolute horror of Blair and New Labour’s insidious, society-destroying evil goes further. One example will illustrate the depths which are now being plumbed.

A particularly disgusting and outright libellous claim which began in the David Icke sphere of conspiracism and has metastasized to the inner world of the socialist left (and some Liberal Democrats, not least former MP and minister Norman Baker), is that Blair somehow orchestrated the deaths of the Labour leader John Smith in May 1994 and Robin Cook MP in August 2005. Both men had suffered from cardiac problems for several years and were in the presence of their spouses when they died. However, insert MI5, Peter Mandelson or Babylonian lizards armed with cyanide, and ultimately Blair as the architect, and you have an Oliver Stone JFK-like narrative which is becoming a far-left campfire story. This is perhaps due to a 2011 Channel 4 satirical comedy-thriller, The Comic Strip Presents… The Hunt For Tony Blair exposing the idea to a wider audience. But among red-green-black flag meetings of any group of ‘anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-war, anti-austerity’ types, dropping this obscene and insane allegation into a conversation may not receive the shock and denunciation it deserves; as this is already a loathsome experience I have had in private and I fear will soon enter the public domain of acceptable discussion.

Despite multiple inquiries into the Iraq War and Blair’s decision-making before the invasion, none have concluded that ‘lies’ or deliberate deceit was used, certainly at no level on the scale imagined by the people chanting “BLIAR!” and calling for war crimes charges. Those, too, seem spurious in the light of the multiple inquiries, including Chilcot, whose harsh criticism of Blair do not recommend any criminal prosecutions. Hysterical accusations of “genocide” which are levied with serious feeling against Blair serve only to cheapen and debase the power of an essential word in the vocabulary of human evil. None of it matters. The decision that Blair, and by extension New Labour, was an enterprise of criminality and wickedness was taken by those who hold it long before Chilcot completed his homework after much procrastinated delay. Tony Blair’s last few minutes as Prime Minister on June 27th 2007 were given a background score by screams of “war criminal!” from anti-war protestors with apparently nothing better to do on a Wednesday morning. In May 2012, Blair’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry was forcibly interrupted by a protestor engaging in some creative self-promotion for his own anti-Blair documentary, alleging Blair had been “paid off by JP Morgan” for the Iraq War, a bizarre allegation not considered serious by even Blair’s harshest serious biographical critic in Tom Bower. But it matters not – the stunt got plenty of attention, as did a January 2014 attempt by a Shoreditch restaurant employee to make a “citizen’s arrest”, and the synonymity of Blair with the w-c words gained renewed vigor before Chilcot published the completed inquiry in July 2016.

In an interview with Blair biographer John Rentoul as part of an article by GQ‘s political correspondent Rupert Myers, the state of Blair-hating conspiracism is laid bare. The illogicality of Blair ‘lying’ malevolently about something as easily exposed as the absence of WMD rather than him making an overly-ambitious leap of faith on military intelligence means nothing. More repulsively, nor do any medical conclusions that Dr. David Kelly (or Robin Cook, or John Smith) were not the victims of a conspiracy to murder:

“Logic isn’t a friend to the Blair conspirators. They won’t be satisfied by anything short of a full truth that they have imagined for themselves. The redaction of communications with the US will feed the theories, but no amount of disclosure could satisfy them. Somewhere there is a bunker where Blair, Bush, Cameron, Merkel and the like unzip themselves from the human suits, eat their lizard-friendly canapés, and look up at the big wall, planning their next genocide/EU regulation.”

The psychological component for this sphere of thinking, insofar as it exists within Labour, is provided with some insightful speculation by Rentoul. The Labour voters of 1997 and 2001 face a psychological difficulty of loathing and demanding the imprisonment or execution of a man whom they helped put into power. Those who loathed New Labour’s other qualities at the time or retrospectively, on everything from tax, to Europe, to trade union laws, can find a ready-made attack for delegitimising the entire record in Government with one screamed accusation. As such:

“For Rentoul, “there is an element of self-loathing: people who voted enthusiastically for Blair now hate part of themselves and the only way to make that work is to tell themselves that they were deceived.”

So long as there are people who feel betrayed by Blair, people who fail to grasp the need for political compromise, or the complexity of diplomacy and war, there will be those who want to believe in Blair as an international villain…”

In 2017, the continuing damage to the legacy of Labour’s most successful period in government bears strange fruits. Those most likely to demand a cold prison cell for the people who won Labour three General Elections and those who would, given a time portal, gladly undo the entirety of Blair’s time in office, are Labour’s declining base of supporters. Corbyn has repeatedly endorsed the claim that the war was “illegal” and that Blair should be put on trial “if he has committed a war crime” – a somewhat dubious and circular assertion given that whether someone has committed a criminal offence can only be established through a trial which results in a successful conviction.

Tom Watson, now Labour’s Deputy Leader, helped to organise a revolt against Blair in 2006 when he was a junior defence minister. At time, Blair described him as “disloyal, discourteous and wrong” for resigning as a minister and leading a wave of others to do so in protest at Blair’s refusal to set a date for his resignation. Ten years later, at the 2016 Labour Party Conference, it was Watson who pointed out bluntly:

“I don’t know why we’ve been focussing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years, but trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand… We won’t win elections like that, and we need to win elections.”

Labour seems to be the only party in Britain determined to politically destroy its own legacy in public. It almost emulates the practice in the Soviet Union of disgracing former leaders after haphazard Communist Party coups forced them from office. Whilst Jeremy Corbyn demanded a balanced discussion of Fidel Castro’s legacy in his own glowing tribute following the dictator’s death, such balance is absent for Blair by a country mile. The Left must speak of the “achievements” of Castro in health and education and barely acknowledge his domestic repression, massacres and foreign military adventures. But Blair is a “war criminal!” and will always be a “war criminal!” no matter how many investigations and inquiries are held which conclude otherwise. If you tried to excuse Iraq by invoking NHS hospital waiting times, an indulgence so frequently given to Castro, be grateful if you keep an unbloodied nose.


A Bad D:Ream

“As far as I was concerned, Foot was the left’s candidate so it had to be good. That was why the right-wing media tried to say Labour were in trouble – it showed how scared they were of what he stood for. When his ascension was confirmed in a second ballot, my fellow students and I drank a happy toast to this victory for socialism. I looked across to the Tory students on the other side of the university bar and they seemed to be celebrating something too.” – John O’Farrell

Taking the name of New Labour’s election anthem by Northern Irish pop group D:Ream, John O’Farrell’s book Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter details the full dispiriting horror of defeat after defeat from 1979 to 1997. The misery was not merely from the loss of a competition – England football supporters grew used to this in the same period – but the sense of public rejection. The whole nation wanted England to win even when it failed; but the repeated unambiguous refusal of Labour’s promises in favour of the Conservatives struck Labour members and supproters personally. Perhaps in trying to capitalise on the sense of national unity which grew around the England team even in the face of continuous defeats, Blair in 1996 appropriated another pop music success and declared “Labour’s coming home!”. If ‘home’ is Government and the centre of British public life, Labour is now further from home than at any point since 1945. To illustrate the party’s misery with bitter irony, the title of D:Ream’s anthem, which became synonymous with Labour’s successes, is now typically inflected in the negative – hence the New Statesman article of 12th December 2016, ‘Things can only get worse for Labour’.

The comparisons between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot are well-worn; the impenetrable convictions of their supporters and the rejection of criticism with accusations of base motives and “right-wing bias” the same. However, Corbyn is leading Labour at a time when global politics slides towards a new consensus rejecting liberal democracy in favour of a new age of strongmen, charismatic authority and rule by decree and plebiscite. Labour is gripped by a powerful new wave of denial and self-delusion; both of its present troubles and its previous successes. The time when Labour was in government is not only receding into history as all living memory eventually does; it is being buried, still alive, by those who can never forgive Blair for being Blair. This happens at a time when globally, those who have benefited most egregriously from the abuse of loopholes and weaknesses of democratic societies – using freedoms of speech and association to discredit the social order, take control of government, then close over those same freedoms for others – are winning power on every continent.

After years of loathing, I came to a more nuanced view of New Labour, perhaps ironically as a result of Corbyn’s leadership. The “true socialist” which so many in Labour had longed for since the days of Michael Foot, the heroic transformer who would undo the compromise and betrayal of Kinnock, Blair and Brown, was finally here – and he was a disaster. His economic policies were based in sanctimony and wondrous goals rather than making concrete plans. His foreign policy was a moral catastrophe, and his history of support for IRA terrorism would doom any chances of him winning over the British electorate. On a personal level, his incompetence was staggering, his procedural and managerial failures matched by a paranoid and malicious streak which blamed Labour’s troubles on disloyalty and media conspiracy. During the 2016 leadership contest, forty women MPs published and open letter to Corbyn and described an explosion of “escalating abuse and hostility” in Corbyn’s name, carried out by a vast army of fanatical supporters. But it became obvious that Corbyn the individual was not the root of the problem; were he replaced by John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon or any other of the far-left in Labour, the crises would remain the same. Labour cannot return to the past but the future, under this trajectory, looks increasingly bleak. “Things can still get worse”, with no rock bottom to Labour’s potential losses.


The Memory of New Labour: Truth, Lies and… Videotapes?

There might be something remotely Freudian in these thoughts. As the world teeters on the edge of the abyss, led by a raging sociopath who allegedly asked three times in a one-hour briefing with his security advisers, “if we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use nuclear weapons?”, we naturally seek things of comforting value. Blair, for all his dreadful mistakes and shortcomings, represented stability and continuity without dictatorship. He is irrevocably tied to a stable, happy and hopeful childhood for many of my generation, in a period of continuous economic growth, vastly expanded and improved public services, and technological revolution which led Britain from a few dozen dial-up Internet cafes, to the tablet computer and personal smartphone. It became normal to plan visa-free travel to Europe, to visit Belfast without fears of being assaulted or shot, for working-class children to expect that further education would be available when you left school, and a university place would be available for you after that. If you became ill or needed an operation, the NHS would do it better than they ever had done before.

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Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson in Downing Street, 1998.

The effect on other childhoods which followed New Labour policies were considerably more dramatic. In Kosovo, many young boys born after 1999 were named ‘Tonibler’ by a national population which regarded Tony Blair as a hero responsible for saving them from annihilation and helping them secure their independence as a state. Iraq’s Kurds, under repeated threat of extermination by Saddam and others, now have their own state – the opinion of Blair in Kurdistan is mostly positive. In Sierra Leone, where Britain’s military intervention in 2000 resulted in the end of a bloody civil war, Blair’s post-government “crucial but little-known role in fighting Ebola” as made him a figure of popular adoration. Every shriek of “imperialist”, “genocide” and “war criminal!” seems considerably less effective when measured against this.

None of this article is an appeal for a return to New Labour as a whole, nor any impossible to pin down notion of ‘Blairism’. Not simply because the brand is “tainted” or damaged by Blair’s actions in office or since leaving Downing Street – though that in itself is difficult to dispute. New Labour was of its time and was immensely successful within its historical context. Copying it like-for-like would never solve Labour’s contemporary woes with Scottish nationalism or the divide between pro-Leave and Pro-Remain constituencies. What I make as an historian is a plea for a more balanced assessment of the historical record of New Labour and the legacy it leaves in the present. What I make as a Labour Party member is for the party to reconsider its infatuation with continuously building the scaffold and digging the grave for its most successful former leader and Prime Minister, and throwing out his entire record in the process. Blair, whatever judgement history makes of him, deserves the same balance afforded to other historical leaders and figures; not least the misty-eyed tributes to Fidel Castro as a “huge figure of modern history”. Blair won elections and did eventually leave office when pressured to go; something that cannot be said for the one-party dictators whose pursuit of ‘social justice’ invariably involves throwing the opposition in prison or into unmarked graves.

An additional proposal, for the benefit of posterity and even for the sake of near-future generations, is more careful preservation of a physical record of the New Labour years. Photographs, video and film footage and sound recordings are poorly archived in the public sphere of accessible material. Google and YouTube results lead mostly to old, archived BBC News pages from the 2000s and haphazardly recorded, preserved and uploaded video clips from VHS recordings of news bulletins at the time. The fact that a private citizen in the 1990s decided to press ‘PLAY/RECORD’ on their VCR provides our best visuals of the birth and ascension of New Labour. One of the main visual records of New Labour’s early years is a magnificent and overlooked 1995 documentary series, Labour: The Wilderness Years (now a possible inspiration for another Labour-themed Twitter account, @wildernessyrs chronicling Labour’s opposition today). The uploader of the series is a Tory YouTuber named thatcheritescot, an amateur archivist who, in the absence of official provision of broadcast material, is responsible for uploading a considerable amount of footage of British political history that is available online.

The lack of visual, non-written primary sources for lay people interested in New Labour is startling. An incredible example of this is the utter dereliction of available high-quality footage of the 1997 General Election itself. The main version on YouTube is a low-quality VHS transfer of the BBC Election Night coverage split into forty-eight parts, heroically uploaded by a user named Andy JS in 2010. In 2016, the user ‘beforeitallgotsomodern’ uploaded a video of a BBC VHS tape released after the election, containing 1hr 15mins of highlights of the campaign. At one time broken, they repaired their copy of the tape themselves. This, it appears, is the best-quality visual record the public can access in 2017 of the most historic night in British politics since 1945.

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The best comprehensive public video record of the 1997 General Election, a VHS tape recorded by a member of the public on the election night itself.

The situation for the 2001 Election and the 2005 Election, not to mention the many council and local elections mid-term from 1997 to 2010, is really no better. Perhaps because it existed in such recent modernity, New Labour seems to have been the subject of less television and film documentaries than the governments of Churchill or Thatcher. In any case, the renewed interest in 1997 in the anniversary year, perhaps stoked by the @newdawn1997 project, may lead to renewed efforts to keep the primary sources alive and accessible. BBC Parliament typically rebroadcasts the original BBC master tapes of Election Night coverage in anniversary years, doing so for Election 92 in April 2012. It re-showed Election 97 in 2005 and again in 2007. It will be a melancholy but also necessary experience for Labour members, Labour voters and those concerned with the present and future direction of British politics.

As a subject of history and memory, New Labour deserves more careful and considered treatment than the loathing, disgrace and consensus of organised forgetting which the political spectrum has embraced from left to right. In recent years both historians and the public have begun to accept that Winston Churchill has been treated too kindly, and his full record of mistakes, failures and mixed results have to be taken into account along with the ‘Finest Hour’. I submit that Blair, Brown, Campbell and the rest should get the same balance, with their achievements recognised without drowning-out by ill-conceived screaming.

My assessment, one that I freely accept is prejudicially inseparable for having grown up almost entirely under New Labour in government, is that things did get better. That is something, is it not?

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#Bellogate is making history at UCL

From the vantage point of the hour of 20.00-21.00 in Central Standard Time in Illinois, I have been tracking a story that has bypassed most of the UK’s sleeping student population. The student email system at University College London has been compromised after an unknown party gained access to the UCL Provost’s email account along with its mailing privileges; most crucially to send mass emails to ‘all-students@ucl.ac.uk’.

The beginning of the episode around one hour before midnight may have been timed to cause maximum disruption to IT services, with the UCL ISD Service Desk open between the hours of 09.30-17.00 and out-of-hours IT issues served by an automated system called NoRMAN. The Provost has issued no response to the crisis and it is likely that he along with other senior UCL faculty and managerial staff, are asleep. Emails continue to fill student inboxes, some recognised as spam but many occupying the folders normally protected by anti-spam filters.

One UCL student's inbox 20.43GMT, identity protected.

One UCL student’s inbox 02.47GMT on 09/10/14, identity protected.

Over 2,000 emails have been sent since the original ‘bello’ message, which included nothing but the text ‘bello!’ was sent to all UCL students at 22.47GMT on 08/10/14, ostensibly from the account of the UCL President and Provost Professor Michael Arthur. Some students have claimed that the account itself is an imposture and that no authentic provost@ucl.ac.uk address prior to this existed, the closest addresses being michael.arthur@ucl.ac.uk and provosts.office@ucl.ac.uk. In any case, the email accounts of approximately 29,000 UCL students and several thousand recent alumni are now in receipt of thousands of spam, joke and absurdist emails by the hour. Additionally, #bellogate became the UK’s top trending topic on Twitter within two hours of the first message being sent.

The breach appears to have placed the UCL student mailing list in the public domain, allowing pranksters to sign up the entire student body to mailing lists for football clubs, political parties, fan clubs and pornographic websites, to name but a few categories most prominent in the discussion of ‘#bellogate’ on Twitter. The Cheese Grater, UCL’s main student magazine, provided a screenshot of an email which linked all UCL students to the One Direction Fan Club:

Students from UCL’s longtime rival King’s College London (KCL) have capitalised on the situation with many prank messages apparently emanating from the KCL campus, including at least one message which signed up the UCL student body to the KCL application system as ‘Flight Lieutenant Bello’:

There is no indication as of yet whether the breach can or will affect mailing lists of other UK universities or whether similar vulnerabilities can be found in other .ac.uk networks. The episode has a precedent in New York University’s November 2012 ‘Replyallcalypse’, in which an email sent erroneously from an older sever by the NYU Bursar exposed the potential to access the entire NYU student mailing list through the ‘reply all’ function.

UCL management and UCL ISD services are yet to comment on the situation as of time of publication. As of 03.15GMT on Thursday 9th October 2014, prank and spam emails continue to flood the inboxes of UCL students. Academic schedules and class plans for UCL remain officially unchanged though communications between staff and students will almost certainly be paralysed as inboxes fill to capacity and new messages are ignored.

The episode may be recorded as one of the definitive student pranks of the 2010s or the exposure of major security vulnerabilities in university IT systems.