On September 11th, 2001, two hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center. Across the Atlantic Ocean, as British people watched the news unfold that afternoon, sensing opportunity a government advisor immediately suggested that this was a good day to bury bad news, such as local politicians’ expenses. Bigger than this, the climate of reactionary racism in the West spiked, and the world would never quite be the same again.
While in its formative months, SilenceBreaker Media produced a guerrilla documentary that I worked on called Escape from Doncatraz, about the threat of rising racism and fascism on British Isles of controlled borders under a growing surveillance state in the post-9/11 era.
In the film, it was argued that part of the appeal of emerging extremists to communities battered by neoliberalism was the fact that these characters usually weren’t professional politicians. It was the beginning of a rejection of the careerists in Westminster. The film served as a warning that unless progressive, authentic, credible candidates were put forward, fascists could become a dangerously regular by-product of public apathy. Indeed, fascist BNP leader Nick Griffin made an historic appearance on BBC Question Time – long known for its prominent platform for a majority right-wing and centre-right views – and made the monumental achievement of evoking sympathy for him when he was juxtaposed against their usual political guests, who attempted to outgun each other on abusing him, since they couldn’t convincingly beat him on policy when it came to bread-and-butter issues like the postal service, for example. (We’ll return to the forbidden media topic of policies later.)
The apathy towards traditional party politics in Britain was only exacerbated with a scandal about MP’s expenses that dominated television and print media for months due to its often meaty, sometimes seedy, and at times utterly shocking revelations. It was initially exposed by an American: born in Pennsylvania but growing up in Washington state, Heather Brooke worked as a crime reporter for various newspapers before moving to Britain, where she was taken aback by the unapproachable and aloof nature of British bureaucrats and politicians.
After working on Your Right to Know: A Citizen’s Guide to Freedom of Information for Pluto Press in 2004, Heather Brooke began to request the details of MP’s expenses from the House of Commons Freedom of Information Officer, Bob Castle, but all she received were bulk stats and summaries rather than individual break-downs of expenditures. Fortunately for her, by 2005 the Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force, giving more power to her requests for specific data. However, her requests for details of salaries were rejected, information on second homes was denied, and even evidence of travel expenses was refused.
These attempts to procure such information were turned away time and time again throughout 2005 and into 2006, with such excuses as it supposedly being too expensive to provide the data. Unperturbed, Brooke continued to make requests and battled back and forth with the system throughout 2007, as it became apparent that there were concerns in the corridors of power. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s expenses were suddenly shredded ‘by mistake’ (and later, as Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman tabled a motion to exempt MP’s expenses from being subjected to exposure through the Freedom of Information Act).
While I was working on Escape from Doncatraz at this time, I interviewed human rights expert Shami Chakrabarti about state surveillance and invasion of privacy, which she stated was used by politicians under the terrible slogan of “(if you have) nothing to hide, (you have) nothing to fear.” Ironically, the politicians themselves were by this point having a really hard time applying their own slogan back onto themselves.
But of course, Brooke succeeded, and the expenses were eventually exposed:
Derek Conway had been using public money to pay his son for work that was never carried out; Caroline Spelman paid her nanny out of it; Eric Pickles got a nice second home paid for even though it was near his actual home; Douglas Hogg got his country estate’s moat cleared on taxpayer’s money; Sir Peter Viggers had a lovely little ‘duck island’ made for his garden pond; Jacqui Smith had the public pick up the tab for her husband’s pornography. This is just a few, but the greatest gem was probably this:
Anthony Steen spent nearly £90,000 of taxpayers’ money on his second home. If that’s not enough, he then said the scandal was simply due to the public’s “jealousy” of his “very, very large house.” He added: “What right does the public have to interfere with my private life? None.”
Heather Brooke returned to Washington, receiving a “Key Award” from the Washington Coalition for Open Government, in addition to further praise and recognition for blowing off the lid and shedding light on the proverbial viper’s nest. She has gone on to write several more successful books and articles.
The British press certainly dedicated a lot of time and effort to the scandal. It had great ingredients, from corruption, to hypocrisy and arrogance, to even pornography without it being on Page 3 of the daily paper. It not only dished dirt on powerful people as they so relished, but this time was also undoubtedly in the public interest.
Outspoken activist, actor and television personality Stephen Fry said, “Anybody can talk about snouts in troughs and go on about it, but for journalists to do so is almost beyond belief…I know lots of journalists…I’ve never met a more venal and disgusting crowd of people when it comes to expenses and allowances.” He added: “Let’s not confuse what politicians get really wrong – things like wars, things where people die.”
One anti-war activist and politician also happened to submit the lowest expenses claim in the country: £8.70, for an ink cartridge. He was almost unheard of at the time. His name? Jeremy Corbyn.
But the press lost interest in the subject when it became of little use to their big business owners any further. And in fairness, another, even bigger scandal, was emerging.
Along came the global economic crisis of 2008. Years of financial deregulation by neoliberal governments had led to a kind of casino capitalism, with bankers running amok. In Britain, money that couldn’t be found for the people was suddenly printed, and used to bail out the banks. What followed was what activist and author Naomi Klein calls “shock therapy” – the opportunity to inflict upon a confused people in crisis a series of financial measures designed to actually benefit the rich and powerful (often those who caused the crisis itself). Austerity was a perfect example of this: In Britain, with few alternative ideas having been found, encouraged, nurtured, or presented in political spheres, the Conservative government used this tumultuous time of uncertainty to sell off public services into private hands and remove social programmes, with a stunned population – still reeling in the wake of the crisis – largely accepting of these measures (at least, for the first few years until the “shock” wore off and alternatives were finally heard).
With all the news of the exciting financial markets of London and Washington, DC, what many of us forget was that it wasn’t just English-speaking nations that were affected, many different countries were – and some suffered, in many ways, far more devastating consequences.
Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis summed up his experience:
The over-indebted Greek state was finding it impossible to roll over its debt. Had it declared its bankruptcy, Italy, Ireland, Spain and Portugal would follow suit, with the result that Berlin and Paris would have faced a fresh bailout of their banks greater than €1tn. At that point, it was decided that the Greek government could not be allowed to tell the truth, that is, confess to its bankruptcy.
To maintain the lie, insolvent Athens was given, under the smokescreen of “solidarity with the Greeks”, the largest loan in human history, to be passed on immediately to the German and French banks. To pacify angry German parliamentarians, that gargantuan loan was given on condition of brutal austerity for the Greek people, placing them in a permanent great depression.
Referring to this time negotiating with European Union officials, he added: “I was locked in a confrontation with some of the most powerful organisations and institutions in the world, and yet the individuals making the decisions were, for the most part, caught up in a machine over which they had no control.”
This is why Yanis Varoufakis – like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – has since that time campaigned for a ‘remain-and-reform’ approach to the EU: Both stated it was best to remain within the European Union, but it had to be reformed. This is why they pleaded with people to reject ‘Brexit.’ As touched on by our own Jane Watkinson in her recent piece on the EU, such a massive neoliberal institution cannot be countered easily by countries unless they’re part of it and can change it from within. As a bloc, it is absolutely gigantic.
So why did Britain choose ‘Brexit’?
The lost faith in politicians and their institutions – due to examples such as the expenses scandal and the bank bail-out – is self-evident; for years politicians told communities there was no money for their youth centres, libraries, and leisure facilities, no money for jobs creation, or social security, or free education or healthcare. And at the same time, they were finding money at the Treasury to help them clear their mansion moats and carry out gardening at Balmoral-like homes, they were finding money to drop bombs in the Middle East, and they were finding money to give to bankers who were giving themselves bonuses for crashing the economy. It was essentially – as tax justice expert Prem Sikka told me in Escape from Doncatraz – “reverse socialism…where the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.”
But further than that, we can go back to the 1970’s and 80’s and the rise of both neoliberalism and the EU: as it turns out, a lethal cocktail – here in Britain, for example, the rise of inequality was matched only by the rise in EU integration, and with so many UK communities hit so hard economically, this – alongside the rise in xenophobic narratives from successive governments (both Conservative and New Labour) – meant the EU was an ideal place to direct anger when EU membership was put to the people via a referendum. Of course, as this was developing, corporate media only reflected the above-mentioned xenophobic narratives, rather than challenged them; they were more interested in immigrants, less interested in bankers – even less interested in the few honest politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, because there was no scandal in that.
Ironically, a referendum on the EU was something promised by David Cameron as part of his Conservative campaign running up to the 2015 general election – a proposal backed not by Labour leader Ed Miliband, but Cameron’s coalition friends the Liberal Democrats, as well as the Green Party.
Lib Dem and Green enthusiasm for a referendum on the EU is particularly surprising upon realising that neither party then accepted the result of that referendum – indeed, the Lib Dems and the Greens now call for a re-run of the vote (in the seemingly futile hope of getting a different result). And yet the Lib Dems call themselves both ‘liberal’ and ‘democrats’ with no irony whatsoever, while the Greens said they only wanted a referendum at the time to “respect democracy.”
But ultimately it is the responsibility of Cameron’s Conservatives in government, and while in the run-up to the referendum so many of them promised the British people that they’d benefit from Brexit, after the referendum they then turned around and told them that, in fact, under every single scenario, ordinary people will suffer after Britain leaves the EU. This turnaround is staggering, even by contemporary political expectations, and it reveals that the Conservatives – funded as they have been historically by big private interests – may well be quite happy with the divisive chaos of Brexit, because it’s another way of reinforcing the message that ordinary people must inevitably suffer (while at the same time billionaires increase their wealth).
Amongst the Brexit battles, there has been much talk of ‘protectionism’ – but all this shows that it’s starting to become clear what is truly being protected by the whole process: financial elitism and the inevitable inequalities that come with it.
Yes, here we are. Few people remember the expenses scandal any more, and even fewer people talk about it. It served its purpose; it may have even successfully buried bad news. The press very rarely mention Jeremy Corbyn’s impressive track record – on expenses, or apartheid, or war, or the EU. They focus not on those things, but on personality, on leadership credentials – anything but policy. After all, his policies would mean a redistribution of wealth and power to the people. The entire system could be shaken: renationalisation of key public services, investment for communities, education, healthcare, and fewer military interventions. Incredibly, says historian Mark Curtis, “Corbyn would be the first anti-imperialist to win power in a major Western country.”
So even in Westminster, alongside the press corps, politicians have tried to manoeuvre in a manner ensuring that this current system is kept in place, and Corbyn is kept out, since his entry into Downing Street would mark an end to ‘business as usual’ for the press, the politicians, and the bankers. Part of the Brexit “shambles” that the press talk about (and even blame Corbyn himself for in his role as Leader of the Opposition) is actually partially a result of the machinations from across the parties to stand firm, immovable, and keep Corbyn out at all costs.
The Conservative government itself just suffered the greatest defeat in British history, with an incredible amount of Conservative MP’s voting to reject their leader’s Brexit deal. Normally, this would result in resignation(s) or even a complete collapse of government, but in another typical turnaround, the following day these same MP’s declared their confidence in her to govern – a perfect example of their dogged determination to do whatever it takes, even inflict further chaos and damage to the country, in order to keep Corbyn out. (It has even emerged that those in power may have also used government money on a campaign to discredit Corbyn.) The press barons, the big banks, and country club circuit expect nothing less – and they are confident they will survive, whatever disorder ensues. After all, they survived the expenses scandal and the bailout’s transfer of trillions of pounds of public money into private hands. They’re still here.
But that could all change, and it may even be certain now. Regardless of what happens next, the struggle remains one for a more democratic media, a more democratic system, and a more democratic society, something the mass majority seem to be in agreement on. The economic elites, as we can see, fear a redistribution of power and wealth across a wider population desperate for empowerment; the rich and powerful fear democracy itself, and with neoliberalism on its last legs, understandably so. They may well be simply staving off the inevitable.
A community educator and lifelong anti-capitalist activist, Jay Baker (he/him) is the founder of SilenceBreaker Media and has written, produced, and directed documentaries in addition to writing for numerous newspapers, magazines, zines, and websites. His own website is at dukeofhardrock.com.