AMITIAE - Wednesday 11 November 2015

Cassandra: The Politics of Fear and the Undermining of Democratic Processes

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By Graham K. Rogers


A recent airing here of a British TV mini-series from 2012 prompted me to read the book on which it was originally based. The work depicts the politics of the late 1980s, but coincidentally points to current fear-mongering over the recent election of the Labour Party leader. Indirectly we also see the ways many democratically elected leaders can be undermined.

In Thailand we do not have the luxury of internet TV: Netflix is not available, iTunes carries no TV shows and Amazon is likewise closed to us. Instead we have a service by a major company that dishes out channels in packages (Silver, Gold, Platinum), with theoretically the best content reserved for the highest payers.

I can manage with the Gold package but sometimes a channel that was in the package disappears. Just as magically channels may appear. At the beginning of November, two of my old favourites reappeared: TNT, with its old, black and white movies; and the Sundance Channel. This has the occasional surprise with its independent documentaries and the movies that it carries. There are also some interesting TV programs that might not otherwise be available in Thailand, such as Breaking Bad.

Last week I caught a single episode of a 2012 Channel 4 (UK) mini-series, Secret State, with Gabriel Byrne. I rather enjoy this type of conspiracy theme, which has become more probable with the revelations of Edward Snowden and others. The idea that secret services are more in control than is good for us, was well done in the 1998 movie, Enemy of the State (Gene Hackman, Will Smith, Jon Voight, et al), while the prevalence of CCTV cameras, particularly in the UK, leaves me rather uneasy. The adjective, Orwellian, is often used.

What is also making me uneasy is the insistence by the current Tory government in the UK on ever-tighter laws over internet use and other forms of surveillance, with the twin mantras of "if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about" and "Terrorism, Organised Crime, Child Pornography". The latter is always trotted out when the authorities want more control; while the former is a poor lie. GCHQ, NSA, and their political stooges are more of a threat to individual freedom than those they claim to be protecting us from.

Secret State had some of the ingredients that made it worth examining further, including government acceding to big business (Oil again); and mandarins who are more in control than the politicians they serve (see also The Worricker Trilogy), leading to misuse of the security apparatus. Secret State was a loose remake of a Channel 4 series made in 1988, A Very British Coup (listed at 16 in the 50 Greatest TV Dramas). This was based on the book of the same name by Chris Mullins, a former Labour MP and supporter of Tony Benn: a fiery left wing politician with a fearsome intellect, who frightened many by his rhetoric.

I bought the book from Amazon and read it all the way through over a couple of evenings. What made my blood run cold was not that this was a tale of an alternative past, but that this seemed more to describe a possible future.

It clearly echoed the fears of the 1980s when Tony Benn became a Minister in the government of James Callaghan; including the point that he had tried for leadership of the Labour Party on more than one occasion. When he was elected as MP for Chesterfield, he made the point in his maiden speech that approaching the town from one direction the famous church steeple, warped and twisted as a result of cheaper materials used because of government cuts at the time it was built, appeared to lean to the right; but if you looked at it another way, it leaned to the left.

Many of Benn's apparently outrageous ideas and assertions later became true, often being proved by documents released under the 30 year rule. I teach an Ethics & Morals course and make the point that all governments lie. It usually takes a while for them to be found out, however, but that is not always the case.

By way of an apparently-democratic election, Jeremy Corbyn, a political heir of Tony Benn is now the leader of the Labour Party. That set several alarm bells ringing, with even the current Prime Minister making the unusual comment immediately that Corbyn was a threat to national security, with the Defence Minister also criticising Corbyn's foreign policy, highlighting his commitment to nuclear disarmament (Jon Stone, Independent). This is uncannily like the criticisms of Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup.

The comments on Corbyn went further, again mirroring the book that precedes them by some 30 or more years, highlighting his comments on terrorist groups and iconically depicting him in front of a red background (Rowena Mason, The Guardian). Mason's article includes comments made by Cameron, even before Corbyn was elected, about his economic policies: also reported by Ian Silvera in International Business Times.

Corbin clearly frightens a lot of people and the public was alerted by several newspapers, in much the same way as Perkins was demonised. Deliberately avoiding some of the niceties of his office as Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, does not endear Corbyn to the public. His avoidance of the oath-taking for membership of the Privy Council was simply wrong on several grounds, including the point that this excluded him from accessing certain documents. However, he was clearly visible at recent Remembrance Day ceremonies, although TV cameras did not show if he joined in signing the National Anthem. As it includes , "God save our gracious queen", many presume he did not.

He also frightens members of his own party who having just elected him, see that he may be a barrier to power in the next election. There are reported to be moves "to destabilise his leadership and pave the way for a coup aimed at ousting him" (Andrew Grice, Independent). In addition, the chief of the defence staff, Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton made an unprecedented comment on Corbyn's views about the nuclear deterrent; but when Corbyn took issue with the officer making the comments, he was criticised from several directions and not the soldier for breaking ranks.

When Tony Benn was Minister, he suffered because some documents were kept from him - especially regarding nuclear power - and the civil servants who did this may have done more damage - to the country, to the office, and to the Minister they were duty-bound to serve - than Benn himself was feared to be capable of inflicting. In the same way, GCHQ which has given itself almost carte blanche to collect data - they cutely term it metadata as if that somehow sanitizes it - is busy making sure that the Home Secretary allows it even more latitude.

If the Labour Party with Corbyn as leader were ever elected, we might well have doubts that those who run the corporations, the media, the banks would ever let him have free rein. For that, we do not need to refer to a work of fiction, no matter how dire the warning, but a look across to the United States shows how a democratically elected President, can be hobbled by constant harassment and obstructionism.

While the major criticisms of Barack Obama were that he was a Muslim (wrong, and so what), and a socialist (wrong), many have little doubt that the main reason for his difficulties was his color. America elected a black president, but those in background positions of power could not accept this. Unlike Britain, of course, once elected, the President stays in office for his full term unless there is evidence of criminal behaviour (e.g. Nixon).

And now the rise of Bernie Sanders is causing ripples of panic in some circles. The current President was called out several times for being a Socialist, whatever will the powers behind say about Sanders (who really does have a socialist agenda) were he to be elected?

Not only does history repeat but the threats do as well

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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