Archive for the ‘Politics & Paranoia by Robin Ramsay’ Category

Politics and Paranoia by Robin Ramsay

Sunday, July 6th, 2008


politics and paranoia coverI was reading the obituary of the BBC journalist Charles Wheeler in today’s Guardian (5 July) and what’s left of my memory said, ‘Wasn’t Wheeler in intelligence after WW2?’A little Googling plus the index of Stephen Dorril’s MI6 suggests not. Or not really. And the fact that I could write ‘not really’ is a measure of how my view of the murky business of journalists and intelligence has shifted in the years covered by Politics and Paranoia.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, when the game of spook-spotting was developing and we knew hardly anything, any kind of connection seemed significant. The fact that Wheeler, like virtually all British foreign correspondents, was being sent packets of briefings by the Information Research Department (IRD), would have seemed a major discovery in – say – 1984. And I might then have written something like this: ‘IRD-linked Charles Wheeler’, or ‘IRD asset Charles Wheeler’. When it was revealed in the late 1990s I just shrugged. (Google ‘Charles Wheeler + IRD’ for the details.) Because by then I had read enough to understand that many correspondents got the IRD briefings; and, further, the fact that they got them didn’t mean that they either believed or used them (though many did). On the other hand, the fact that Wheeler received the IRD anonymous packages doesn’t mean nothing. It means, for example, that those in IRD thought he was trustworthy enough not to announce the existence of the IRD briefings to his readers or viewers. Which, indeed, he never did. So in a limited sense Wheeler took part in IRD’s conspiracy to manipulate the British (and world) media. For example, when IRD’s existence became news in the late 1970s, Wheeler said nothing about his knowledge of the organisation.

IRD loomed large in the early 1980s to people like me who were interested in the secret state and also part of the wider British labour movement; and it figures in some of the talks in Politics and Paranoia. A secret British government department which was putting out anti-communist briefings? This looked like the mother lode back in the day when the number of books on the British secret state could be counted on two hands. And it may indeed have been the mother lode if the hints about IRD’s activities in the anti-Wilson plots of the 1970s are ever substantiated. But they won’t be substantiated. IRD’s files are subjected to the ‘50 year rule’, which means that the handful of academics who are interested in the organisation are working their way through the official paper record half a century after it was created. So far no wonderful discoveries have been made. But then why would there be wonderful things to be found? So long as the British state is allowed to ‘weed’ – edit, censor – it’s paper history prior to public access, nothing of much significance is going to be released.


Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

politics and paranoia coverThere are a number of talks in Politics and Paranoia about Colin Wallace and Fred Holroyd. (Holroyd had been in the British Army Special Military Intelligence Unit and Wallace had been a Senior Information Officer for the Army, both in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.) Looking back on this now it is hard to remember just how little we – i.e. Steve Dorril and I, who began working with Fred and Colin (and the world at large ) – knew about the British secret state and its activities in Northern Ireland in 1985. This was one of the problems faced by Fred and Colin: presented with their stories most journalists simply didn’t know where to start.

We did: we went into our respective university libraries and, using some of Colin’s accounts as guides, began rummaging around in the extant information there and in the few books we had on our shelves about Northern Ireland and intelligence. Within hours it became quite clear (a) that Wallace was probably telling the truth and (b) this was a really big and really complex story.

For the first few months of the relationship Colin was still in jail, doing the final year of six he served for a manslaughter he didn’t do, and Steve, who had made the initial contact with him via Fred, was doing the corresponding (which in those days meant letters). Then Anthony Summers invited Steve to co-author a book on the Profumo Affair – this meant serious money, and Steve and I were both poor – and Steve began working with Summers and I took over the correspondence with Wallace and Holroyd. A couple of months later, I wrote Lobster 11: an account, really, of our attempts to understand what Colin and Fred had told us about Northern Ireland and covert operations and bureaucratic politics there and, more significantly, here. (Lobster 11 eventually sold over 4,000 copies and pretty much set the magazine on its feet.)

Not that Lobster 11 was an immediate success. The journalists to whom we dished out copies at a press conference in the House of Commons in 1986 were not interested and, while we thought we had a story which might bring down the Thatcher government if taken seriously, not a word appeared in print in the following months. Figuring that my part in the story was over, that the major media would pick up the ball, I went back to other material (the British Right) for the next issue of Lobster and not a word about Colin and Fred appeared in it. My phone only began to ring when the first rumours began to arrive about Peter Wright’s Spycatcher book. While Colin’s stories of anti-Labour psy-ops issuing from the Army and the spooks in Northern Ireland could be ignored (he was in jail and had been a professional disinformer, after all, for the Army), Wright’s much less interesting allegations apparently could not.

And so began nearly 4 years of work on the Wallace material, mostly as an interpreter of it to the Higher Media who are not greatly inclined to actually read hundreds of pages of documents and correspondence. Looking back on that period, it still strikes me as peculiar that the media in this country gave so much attention to Wright (who was 12,000 miles away in Australia, and saying nothing) and so little to Colin (who was close to London and would talk all day and had documents to back it up).

Or is that a tribute to the campaign run by the Ministry of Defence to rubbish Wallace as a fantasist, a ‘Walter Mitty’? (The same description of Dr David Kelly was given to the media by a No 10 spokesman.)

Thinking the story might bring down the government is terribly revealing, of course. What did I know about actual politics in 1986? In my innocence, I thought I had just handed an an enormous stick with which the Labour Party (of which I was a member at the time) could thrash the Thatcher government (the ultimate beneficiaries of the smear campaigns, after all.) As it turned out it was a stick the Labour Party leadership wanted nothing to do with.


I think there are a number of reasons.

1. They didn’t understand the material and were too busy to learn it.

2. The Labour Party leadership was then and remains utterly paranoid about going near ‘national security’ issues, afraid of being smeared as ‘unpatriotic’ by the Murdoch-owned media.

3. The Labour Party leadership, then and now, is afraid of tangling with the secret state for fear of damaging their careers.

And so the biggest British domestic political story for about 20 years, a story of how elements of the secret state and the Tory Right worked together against the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1970s, was spurned by messieurs Kinnock and Hattersley; and instead of talking to me about a campaign to uncover the truth about the 1970s, the Labour Party began its fateful relationship with Peter Mandelson instead. And style triumphed over substance.


Sunday, June 29th, 2008
Politics and Paranoia Book CoverTwo days after Picnic Publishing asked me to do a blog for my Politics and Paranoia I went to Paris. (My brother-in-law works there and his flat is available some weekends when he comes back to London. It’s 7 hours door-to-door by train.) In Paris I had a quick squint at the famous bookshop opposite Notre Dame, Shakespeare and Company, which has been supplying English-language books since the days when James Joyce is said to have done some of his writing there. Just before the tourist hordes had made it there from their hotels, in the second-hand boxes on the pavement outside the shop I found two books which I wanted: William Domhoff’s The Higher Circles (1971) and David Brock’s Blinded by the Right (2002).
These books sort of bookend my reading/writing life, the contents of Politics and Paranoia, and recent US politics. Domhoff is an American sociologist who analysed the American ruling class (he called it the Upper or Governing Class and the Power Elite) and, in so doing produced some of the first academic work on what are now known as the elite policy planning groups: in foreign policy, for example, the Council on Foreign Relations. In so doing he moved into intellectual territory which had hitherto largely been of interest mostly to a conspiratorially-minded section of the American Right, centrally the John Birch Society. When I began educating myself in post-war history in 1976 in the University of Hull, Domhoff was one of the names I came across early in my journey through the card indexes on American history. When Domhoff’s earlier book on this subject, his 1967 Who Rules America?, appeared it was seized upon by the conspiracist American Right as support for their theories about having ‘lost’ America to an elite East Coast conspiracy. In the final section of The Higher Circles Domhoff discusses the conspiracist Right’s use of his material. What is interesting now is that the group he discusses was then a very tiny minority to the right of the Republican Party, and of little political significance. By the time we get to Brock’s Blinded by the Right, his account of being a part of the ‘vast conspiracy’ (Hilary Clinton’s expression) on the right which was running against the Clinton administrations, elements of that conspiracist group, especially the Christian fundamentalists, have become a major power in the land. The lunatics had taken over the political asylum.
As well as being an insider’s view of the ‘vast conspiracy’, Brock’s memoir is a fascinating warts-and-all portrait of many of the major players on the Republican Right in and around Congress and the Senate in the 1990s. And what a bunch of screwed-up, hypocritical, intellectual and moral pygmies they were! Brock’s account puts new life into the old world view of the left that those on the right are either stupid, venal or psychologically damaged. I’ve spent nearly twenty years trying my best to shake off that view of the right only to have it revalidated by Brock.
And what has all this to do with my book? Well, the book contains talks I have given from 1986 to 2004 and having put them all together it is clear that the those talks are dominated by Britain’s relationship with the United States and American power. Chronologically the book starts with a talk to a CND conference on the US attempts to destabilise ‘nuclear free’ New Zealand and what potential lessons this might have for a Labour Party which was then still (just) anti-nuclear, has several goes at explaining the Colin Wallace-Peter Wright material on the ‘Wilson plots’ (in which a major part of the conspiracy theories about Harold Wilson-as-KGB came from elements within the CIA), and ends with several attempts to explain/understand the take-over of the Labour Party by the pro-American Blair tendency. In between these sections there are ruminations on the rise in our culture of conspiracy theories – almost all of which come from America. In short, the book is mostly a series of discussions of Britain’s role as America’s poodle; and these begin in the America which Domhoff describes and end in the America depicted by Brock.