Monday 17 August 2015

How national narratives ensure our loyalty to the bitter end

Article submission for Socialist Factor.

The editor of this vessel asked me to dwell on the subject of propaganda and creation of false heroes for this month’s issue, perhaps illustrating how some underrated figures in British political history worthy of office were buried under a blitzkrieg of propaganda. Now that’s a tough one. It hinges on the notion of “worthy of office”. I can't say any leap to mind.

For sure we’ve had our share of celebrities and demagogues and figures posing as men of the people, but such men, while noteworthy, could not be said to be worthy of office. For starters, one does not make an impression on the British public without first casting oneself as the crusading outsider. Such an underdog position attracts a certain political romanticism that mainstream politicians try to mimic but could never take as their own.

Such men (and women) tend to be populists from outside the political orthodoxy and depend upon coalitions of the disenfranchised, the left behind and the ignored. To harness that as a movement depends upon there being sufficiently large enough numbers to threaten the establishment. In a first world country like Britain, an establishment regime must be particularly odious for the public to overthrow the deeply entrenched ruling class. It has happened before with the rise of the Chartists, but as a rule, we Brits are allergic to radical change and it is we who bury the demagogues, not the state.

The British system tends to be hugely resilient to demagoguery. The system has inherent safeguards to marginalise them. There have been some colourful licensed dissidents over the years, ie Powell, Galloway, Farage and Corbyn, but none whom you would ever consider fit for office. Our First Past The Post voting system ensures that surge politics has no power without a sustained grievance and a genuine majority. That's why British politics is so inherently stable.

There are however occasions when the establishment finds cause to worry. We are presently looking at a fragmentation across the country with the post-industrial north becoming ever more alienated from London culture, and the same dynamic manifests in the Scottish independence movement. A settlement that that has existed for hundreds of years is creaking and facing probing attacks from all quarters. There is a genuine fear that any significant change would be the catalyst for a more radical break-up of the nation as we know it. This prompts the full weight of the establishment to be thrown at preserving the status quo – seeing off demands for Scottish independence and calls to leave the European Union.

Thus it is not people who get buried by propaganda, but ideas. People tend to be flawed and become their own undoing. Rather than suppressing individuals, we tend to give them enough rope to hang themselves. What better way to take down a galactic ego such as Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), than to give him all the air time he could possibly want? The more he speaks, the more the polls indicate that Brits would vote to stay in the EU. If you wanted to design a false flag operation it would look a lot like Ukip, whose campaigning drifts into Monty Python territory at times.

This is how Ukip was neutralised in the general elections – and we will see the same game in play when it comes to the EU referendum. The BBC, our state broadcaster, will choose all of the very worst spokesmen for the Brexit cause, including Mr Farage. It’s the oldest trick in the book. It’s how the establishment managed to win the 1975 referendum.

In this respect the BBC is not the mouthpiece of the government as many other state broadcasters are. It is the guardian of the status quo. And it’s very good at it. It expertly utilises selection bias and bias by omission. Noam Chomsky described it best when he said “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”.

So often we find public discourse depressingly cornered into a very narrow set of talking points where the media will deliberately exclude any factors which cannot easily be expressed by way of a soundbite - and certainly not if an argument opens up a new spectrum of debate they are not equipped to quash.

It is the mechanisms of state that primarily serve to fend off political change and ultimately enslave us. It’s not just the state broadcaster either. We have a National Health Service where securing the health of the nation is actually its secondary purpose. Its primary purpose is to maintain the illusion that the people need their government more than their government needs them. It is often said that the NHS is our national religion - the sacred cow that is above all criticism. Nothing has people more willing to pay extraordinary taxes like the notion that we would be reduced to Dickensian poverty and sickness were it not for the munificence of the state.

The great genius of the British system is to engineer dependency - and it’s been that way for all of time. Legend has it that the upperclassmen with their Oxford cut accents came to the rescue of the masses by leaping into their Spitfires and fending off the evil Hun invaders. Churchill called them “The Few” – a myth that lives on even today. Go to any air show or commemorative event in the UK and you will see a Lancaster bomber with accompanying WW2 fighters of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. There are no better cared for or worshipped aircraft on the planet. But at the time of the Battle of Britain, plans to invade England existed only in the imagination of propagandists.

There were no German factories mass producing landing craft and amphibious tanks, nor were there any large scale beach landing exercises. Operation Sealion was a political construct promoted by the Nazis, but also by Churchill who needed to manufacture an existential threat, not only to send a message to America, but to galvanise domestic support for the war. Tony Blair isn’t the only British Prime Minister to talk up threats for political gain.

Rightly, the public remembered well the horrors of the Somme and the great sacrifices asked of them in the First World War. The public mood was very much “what’s in it for us to go through all this again?”

It is here in history that we saw the first drafts of political promises such as a National Health Service and homes fit for heroes. The aristocratic elite were living on borrowed time unless they could come up with come incentives. After all, it is they who had the most to lose: - power. The notion that we fought that war for freedom of speech and a noble crusade against fascism is something of a romantic fantasy. Free speech was only notional and our media was tightly controlled even before the war. It was largely self-censorship by media barons close to the government.

This was the great British propaganda victory. The result of the war defined the popular perception of who we are and what we stand for - and cemented the idea that in times of peril, we could depend on our betters for our salvation - both in deadly combat in the skies above London - and for shelter and sustenance in the years that followed. This is the power of narrative.

Fast forward to today and the NHS, social housing and the BBC are almost a holy trinity of our national faith - and despite the public saying they want change; they will always rally around the establishment narrative if anything comes along that really threatens the status quo. Even populist demagogues dare not speak of NHS privatisation.

In most respects, Brits are the people most resistant to political change anywhere. We flirt with change but never really follow through. It is we who will slavishly do the work of the establishment in burying any movement that looks like it will succeed. The British herd will rally around the state. The state is mother; the state is father, from cradle to grave.

Times are changing though. The state will see off the next few political insurgencies with ease, but as we become wealthier, less dependent on the state and more questioning of orthodoxies we will be less bovine. For whatever the BBC can offer us, it’s nothing we can’t get for £5 a month from Netflix, and won’t have to pay a tax to watch it. We’ll also learn in time that private healthcare is not just for the one per cent - and that technology makes it affordable and available to more people than most realise.

The gradual erosion of traditional modes of employment will see a more flexible and self-reliant workforce. Open borders will see the end of universal entitlements as governments struggle to meet their existing commitments. The grip of the holy trinity of state will loosen as people demand better and faster services. The state will no longer be able to offer anything that competes with what we can get elsewhere.

This is globalisation at work. It is like no other force on Earth and not even the British state can stand in its way. Unless it learns that we are the source of its power there will be increasingly few defenders of the status quo in the years to come - and the next competent insurgency at the ballot box may well succeed.

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