Posts Tagged ‘World War Two’

Secret Society Part 2: Description of Episodes

January 16, 2015

In the first part of this post I talked about Duncan Campbell’s 1987 series, Secret Society, which sought to uncover the some of the secrets of the British state. These included programmes on the existence of secret cabinet committees; Margaret Thatcher’s surveillance, harassment and campaign to discredit CND; the establishment of increasing numbers of computer databases holding personal information, and the sale of this information by local government to private companies; the secret treaty with the Americans providing for the creation of a highly authoritarian British state effectively under American military control in the event of a nuclear war; the Association of Chief Police Officers, and its secretive and highly authoritarian structure and dealings with the authorities; the purchase of faulty radar equipment by the British state from private companies; and the Zircon affair, when Campbell’s documentary revealed the existence of a British spy satellite. Below is a fuller description of the contents of the individual episodes I was able to find on the web, and links to them on Youtube.

Part 1: Secret Cabinet Committees, covered the various committees, that were so secret that not even cabinet ministers knew of their existence, nor which of their colleagues sat on them. It also described how Clement Freud attempted to pass a secret government act, which aimed at making government far more open. This was effectively torpedoed and emasculated by Jim Callaghan’s government.

After the fall of Jim Callaghan’s administration following the Winter of Discontent, Thatcher’s government was determined to continue the culture of secrecy. She set up a series of secret government committee to destroy CND. Her tactics included doctoring the findings of a report into the results of a possible Soviet nuclear attack on Britain. As the predictions of the number of cities destroyed was far too high to be acceptable to the British public, Maggie and her ministers and advisers altered them. In their approved version, the Soviet missiles missed many major cities, to destroy empty land in the countryside, like Snowdonia. Eventually the report was scrapped, as the successive political alterations to it made it so unrealistic as to be useless.

Thatcher also set up two societies to tackle CND directly. These consisted of the Campaign for Peace for Freedom, a more or less respectable, open organisation, and the Coalition for Peace through Security. This was a far more sinister organisation, bankrolled by the Conservative America group, the Heritage Foundation. This group specialised in disrupting CND marches and protests. an Anti-CND think tank was established, and members of CND spied on by Michael Heseltine. At the same time, the line between government and political party became blurred. Government civil servants were drawn in to plan Thatcher’s campaign for re-election, against previous protocols that kept the two apart. One example of the way the line between the state and political party was crossed by Thatcher was the involvement of her press manager, Bernard Ingham, in the Westland affair.

Episode 2: We’re All Data Now, described the way confidential information kept by public officials, such as local councils, were now sold to private industry. It covered the emergence of the private databanks, that were responsible for the unsolicited mail now coming everyday through the mailbox. The documentary found that every council, except for Greenwich, had sold the voters’ roll, the list of people on the electoral roll and their address, to private industry. At the time, there were only two of these private databases, CCN and UAPT. These also collected information from other sources, and were involved in debt collection. The documentary expressed concern about the collection and storage of information on people from their birth onwards on computer, and the release of sensitive personal information held by the NHS to other official organisations. It specifically criticised the NHS Central Index as a threat to privacy and freedom.

The Home Office was also busy compiling its own databases. These included one on cars, and a Suspect Index, for use by passport officials identifying politically dangerous or suspect people entering Britain. There were about 10,000 people on it, including the actress and political firebrand Vanessa Redgrave, and the radical politician and civil rights agitator Tariq Ali.

There was pressure on the government to pass legislation guarding against the collection of personal information by the government. This resulted in the Protection of Information Act. Although the government tried to pass this off as its own initiative, it was really due to pressure from the Council of Europe. Britain was threatened with a serious loss of trade with the continent unless we passed legislation protecting us from government spying. The Act was still unsatisfactory in a number of ways. One of the speakers in the documentary states that it basically said that so long as an official department notified the authorities of what they were doing, they could do it. The Inland Revenue, for example, gave personal information to other government departments, including the police. There were also provisions that allowed some official organisation to acquire information illegally, without leaving an official record that they had consulted individual personal records.

Episode 3: In Time of Crisis, covered the secret official obligations to America and its armed forces over here, which would come into effect in the horrific event of a nuclear war. They were based on those drawn up during the Second World War, but went far beyond them. They were drawn up by Peter Harvey and remained highly confidential. The government denied they existed, and they were even secret from parliament. It’s no wonder, as they effectively provided for the military occupation of Britain by the US and the creation of a highly authoritarian government.

If the unthinkable had occurred, the treaty provided for the selective arrest of dissidents and protestors, including the mass internment of pacifists and political opponents. The government would also pass a series of measures to control transport and movement by the public. These were aimed at controlling panicking crowds as well as political dissidents. Refugees were to be kept off the roads, which would be reserved for the armed forces. Whole areas around military bases, some stretching for miles, would be placed under military control. Officially, the British police would retain their primacy in the relationship between British and American forces. In reality, American forces would be used to suppress British dissidents. Civilian government would also leave the ruins of London, to direct events from a secret national centre. The programme gave the estimated numbers of American troops that would enter Britain to fight the war. In its first stage, there would be about 75,000 American troops stationed here. This would rise to 3-400,000. Amongst other resources, holiday ferries would be commandeered to ferry American troops to and from mainland Europe.

The treaty also provided for the requisitioning of important supplies and the imposition of conscript labour. All oil would become national property, including that in private cars, and reserved for official use. Hospitals would also be obliged to treat combat troops, who would take priority over civilians. The treaty was signed in 1973 under Ted Heath. Kenneth Clarke even took steps to identify those with the necessary skills required in wartime, who would be drafted into working and labouring for the government.

Finally, the treaty allowed the establishment of secret courts, and the operation of government without any democratic controls or safeguards.

Britain was not the only country by far that negotiated a treaty like this. A similar agreement was concluded between the Americans and Germany, and by 13 other nations. Unlike Britain, Germany’s treaty with the US was a matter of public record and not a state secret. In fact, Britain out of fifteen nations was unique in keeping the treaty secret.

Episode 4: The Association of Chief Police Officers – ACPO.
ACPO was the highly secretive and very undemocratic organisation for very senior rozzers. One of those speaking on the documentary included its deputy head, the controversial head of Manchester police, James Anderton. ACPO’s governing committee, the Central Conference had links to other organisations, where it kept in contact with civil servants. The Conference’s meetings were extremely secret, even from the Association’s rank and file. The president of the Association was selected by its Policy Committee, and not elected by its members.

The Association was responsible for some of the brutal tactics meted out to the strikers during the Miners’ Strike, particularly at the Battle of Orgreave. The Association produced a manual on riot control, whose tactics were in contravention of home office rules. One example of this was the use of truncheons, which went far beyond what the official guidelines considered acceptable. The Association also set up a National Responding Centre during the Miners’ Strike, which threatened to become the core a national police force, a further contravention of official policy. The NRC was official dismantled, but was then set up again in the guise of Mutual Aid. This raised the spectre of the emergence of a militarised police force, like those in many continental nations. Anderton maintained, however, that the Association did not want the creation of a single national police force, and that the NRC was its alternative to it. The Association was nevertheless politically active, directly lobbying parliament on issues such as the Public Order Bill.

ACPO also developed guidelines for intelligence gathering, under which the constabulary were to collect information, even on members of the public. Police officers were supposed to cultivate informants and sources of information on every street. Reports were compiled not only on criminals, but on ordinary people in the street going about their business. Sixty per cent of those spied on were ordinary people with no criminal convictions. Sometimes people were reported for the most trivial reasons, showing the Conservative political beliefs of the compilers. For example, there was a report on a teenage girl, simply for being pregnant and ‘having shocking pink hair’.

The Association’s authoritarian structure and secrecy was not popular with other parts of the police force. The police authorities, for example, were critical of the domineering power of the Chief Constable.

Part 5: Zircon.

Zircon was the highly secret, multi-million pound British spy satellite. It was so secret that this part of the documentary brought the BBC and its reporter, Duncan Campbell, into direct conflict with the government. Campbell was only able to get official acknowledgement of its existence by catching out the government’s scientific adviser.
Campbell pretended to want to talk about another issue entirely. He then sprang the question on the adviser without warning, who responded with the barely audible gasp of ‘I can’t talk about that’. As a result, the Special Branch raided the headquarters of BBC Scotland, who made the series, and the premises were secured for two years under the Official Secrets Act. Opposition MPs raised questions in the House about the raid, while Malcolm Rifkind denied the government was responsible. Thatcher nevertheless sacked the Beeb’s Director General, Alisdair Milne, because of the incident.

Here are the show’s episodes:

Episode 1: Secret Cabinet Committees
Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2wGQfqQBMM

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2hySVTwV7s

Episode 2: We’re All Data Now

Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDS3VtzC-yk

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuIasa6CmnY

Episode 3: In Time of Crisis

Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIEnrFtoZ-c

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPniRV2IVSk

Episode 4: ACPO

Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM975q7ErfU

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVpAoFpPQog

Here’s the BBC report on the Special Branch raid on BBC Scotland after the Zircon programme.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRuH7WPmD90

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Blackadder, Patriotism and the First World War: Michael Gove Repeats ‘The Old Lie’

January 6, 2014

Anzacs World War1

Anzacs at Passchendaele, 1917, the battle described by A.J.P. Taylor as ‘the blindest slaughter of a blind war’.

I’ve reblogged two of Mike’s articles on Vox Populi on Michael Gove’s latest attack on history and the received view of the First World War. In an interview in the Daily Mail, Gove criticised shows like Blackadder and the film, Oh, What A Lovely War!, for presenting the wrong view of the First World War and denigrating the courage, honour and patriotism of the men who fought there. It is, he said, the fault of left-wing academics, and seems particularly incensed at the cynicism and rejection of patriotism in the above TV series and film.

Now, Gove does have something of a point here. Recent scholarship within the last 30 years has criticised the old view that there was a profound gulf between the officers and the working-class men they led, and pointed out that there was more mutual comradeship, acceptance and respect between the two groups than previously considered. I was also told by a very left-wing friend, who has absolutely no time for the Tory party, that the amount of cynicism and bitterness generated by the War has been overstated. Of the men returning from the War, 1/3 bitterly hated it, 1/3 thought it was a good adventure, and 1/3 had no strong feelings about it one way or the other.

The same friend also told me that on the Western Front, the death rate was actually lower than in contemporary Edwardian factories. His comment on this was simply: ‘It’s sh*t.’ This does not exonerate the mass carnage of the First World War so much as show you how immensely cheaply life was held by the Edwardian factory masters. As for courage, George Orwell freely admitted in one of his essays that this was amply demonstrated by the numbers of the titled aristocracy, including dukes, knights and baronets, whose lives were ended in that savage conflict. He called the militaristic anti-intellectual upper classes ‘blimps’, and had nothing but scorn for their conduct of the War, but he did not doubt their courage.

The same friend, who knows far more about the First and Second World Wars than me, also told me that he felt that much of the cynicism about the First World War was a projection of the feelings of bitterness and alienation felt by many people after the Second, when the horrors of War and the Nazi regime seemed, to many, to discredit completely European culture. I dare say there is something in this, but, while the extent of such alienation after the First World War may have been exaggerated, the point remains that it was there.

Already in the 1920s there were complaints from British officers about left-wing propaganda about the War being spread by ‘acidulated radicals’. The film, Oh, What A Lovely War! is written from a left-wing perspective. It was based on the stage play, Journey’s End, which in its turn was based, I believe, on the experiences of First World War soldiers. The Fascist movements that sprang up all over Europe after the War, including Oswald Moseley’s BUF in Britain, were formed by ex-servicemen unable to adapt to civilian life, and who believed they had been betrayed by a corrupt political system. Martin Pugh in his book on Fascism in Britain 1918-1986, repeats that Moseley himself represented and kept true to the servicemen, who had fought and suffered in the War, and now had little to look forward to on their return to Blighty. I’m not so sure. Much of the conventional view about Mosely put out by Skidelsky’s biography has since been demolished. Rather than being a misguided, but at heart decent man, Moseley himself now appears very firmly as a cynical political manipulator all too eager and ready to jettison Mussolini’s ultra-nationalist, but originally non-racist Fascism, for the Nazis and Hitler. Nevertheless, the point remains: the First World created widespread bitterness, of which European Fascism was one expression.

As for Blackadder, this can be compared to the grim reality and the gallows humour with which British squaddies and their officers faced it in the pages of the Wipers Times. This was the servicemen’s newspapers, which took its name from the British mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’, where it was published. Private Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop, last year published a book and appeared on a BBC documentary about it. The Beeb also broadcast a drama about it. Hislop stated that it was full of very, very black humour, and was very much like Blackadder. You could hear the same sentiments expressed in the trooper’s songs of the period. Everyone remembers ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, but there were others with much less patriotic view of the War. A year or so ago I came across an old songbook, Songs that Won the War. Published about the time of the Second, it collected the songs sung by the troops during the First. Amongst the various patriotic ditties was ‘We Are Fred Karno’s Army’. Fred Karno, remember, was the Music Hall impresario, who launched the career of silent move stars like Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops. The final verse imagines how the British army will be greeted by the Kaiser when they finally reach Berlin. It has the Kaiser looking at them in horror and saying, ‘Vot, Vot! Mein Gott! Vot a shabby lot!’ Somehow, I don’t think that one has been played much at Tory party conferences.

Civilian music hall stars also shared in the deep disillusionment felt by the troops. In a programme on the Music Hall broadcast several years ago on Radio 4, the programme’s presenter, a historian of the Music Hall, noted that after the War variety stars became much more sombre in appearance. Before the War there were stars like ‘The One-Eyed Kaffir’, a White man, who blacked up for his act except for one eye, which was kept as a white patch. After the War, such grotesque make-up vanished. The presenter felt that this was part of a general, more sombre mood throughout British culture engendered by the War. This mood was felt most bitterly by some of the Music Hall stars, who had sung patriotic, jingoistic songs to encourage young men to do their bit and join up. One such singer became very bitter indeed, and stated that he felt personally responsible for the men, who had been maimed and murdered as a result of listening to him.

The bitterness about the War has been expressed most famously, and most movingly, by the great war poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others less well-known. One of the books in my old school’s sixth form library was Up the Line to Death, an anthology of poetry from the First World War. As well as poetry, Sassoon wrote a letter, ‘The Declaration against War’, in 1917, during his convalescence after being wounded in France. Rather than risk the scandal of a court martial, Owen was declared to be shell-shocked and hospitalised. His declaration is one of the piece anthologised in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport. Here it is:

‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise’.

The last line sounds very much like a condemnation of the invasion of Iraq and the Neo-Con ‘chickenhawks’ – men who had themselves never seen active service and who indeed had shirked it – that demanded it. And I’ve no doubt whatsoever that it’s applicability to this situation was one of the reasons Arnove and Firth selected it.

As for Owen, I can remember we did Owen’s poem, ‘Gassed’, in English. This describes the horrific state of squaddies left dying and blinded by mustard gas in conflict. It ends with words attacking and repudiating ‘the old lie, ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, a Latin motto meaning ‘It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.

So there it is, Gove, a rejection of patriotism because of the carnage and suffering it caused, by two extremely courageous men, who fought and were injured in the War. I believe Owen was himself killed just before Armistice. Oh, you can argue that Blackadder is based on the prejudiced view of left-wing academics, but they based their views on fact – on what those who actually fought in it actually felt about it.

Yes, historians modify their views about the past all the time, as new research is done, and new arguments brought forth, new topics emerge and techniques used. And that means that some of the bitterness about the War has been revised. Yet there is no doubt that the War did result in mass bitterness amongst former combatants and the civilian population, and feelings of betrayal by the old society and elites that had sent so many to their deaths. Blackadder is fiction, and throughout its four series and numerous specials often took wild liberties with the facts. Yet Blackadder goes forth and its cynicism was based on fact, and I found, as someone who simply watched it, that the final moments of the last episode, in which Blackadder, Baldrick and their friends go over the Top to their deaths, actually a genuinely moving and respectful tribute to those who did die in the muck and trenches.

Way back in the 1980s the Observer wryly remarked that the Tories were now ‘the patriotic party’. This followed Thatcher’s vociferous trumpeting of patriotism as the great British value. ‘Don’t call them boojwah, call them British!’ screamed one headline from the Telegraph supporting her very class-based, politicised view of Britishness and patriotism.

Well, a wiser man, possibly, the great Irish wit, dear old butch Oscar (pace his description in Blackadder) once described patriotism as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’.
In this case, it is. And so is Gove.