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Why You Should Watch ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’

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There’s only one Rupert” announced Donald Trump in June 2017. He was responding to an introduction given for him by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The two men have a relationship stretching back decades, and Murdoch and his media empire played a pivotal role in Trump’s election as US President, particularly via the television network Fox News.

Trump’s statement serves as a refrain in a new BBC documentary, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, which everyone should try to watch before it disappears off BBC iPlayer.[1] It examines the business activities and family – particularly Rupert’s children, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James – of one of the most powerful and influential figures in recent British and global history.

Murdoch and his mass media conglomerate News Corp have for decades wielded enormous political and cultural influence in the UK, the US and Australia. In recent years, aside from supporting Trump, Murdoch’s UK tabloid the Sun played a key role in Brexit while his Australian media organisations have led efforts to undermine recognition of climate change and to resist attempts to combat it, even as the country experienced horrendous bushfires. Leading politicians in both countries have also maintained close connections with Murdoch.

The documentary arrives in the wake of HBO’s critically-acclaimed drama Succession, which uses the Murdoch family as its main source of inspiration while also drawing on other controversial media dynasties such as the owners of the Viacom, the Redstones. Indeed, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty apes the style and aesthetics of Succession.

Rupert Murdoch has long been depicted as an antidemocratic despot whose media organisations subvert the democratic process, coarsen popular culture, and stray into illegality.[2] In the UK, his newspapers having bragged about swaying the outcomes of elections, their use of features such as page 3, and their involvement in scandals such as smearing the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and Phone Hacking offer plenty of supporting evidence.

During protests against News Corps’ attempt to gain overall control of the broadcaster BSkyB in 2010, a campaigner in a Murdoch mask manipulated puppets of the then Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt – the minister presiding over the decision.

Despite Hunt failing to refer the deal to the Competition Commission, the bid was ultimately withdrawn when the Phone Hacking scandal came to light. Subsequently, a raft of texts and emails exchanged between Hunt and News Corp were revealed, with one of the company’s lobbyists having told James Murdoch that Hunt “said we would get there in the end and he shared our objectives”. Hunt had publicly denied any relationship with the Murdochs, reinforcing the impression that they had far too much influence over leading politicians.

There is a long history of fears about the ability of the media to influence politicians and the public. This became particularly acute with the rise of the mass popular press at the end of nineteenth century, which reached much larger numbers of readers than ever before and which refined methods to grab the attention of the public, such as eye-catching headlines and layouts, emotive slogans, sensationalist stories, competitions, and gimmicks. While partly due to elite fears that the newly enfranchised masses could not be trusted to vote wisely, many of the critiques of the popular press were nevertheless well-grounded.

In the US, William Randolph Hearst became notorious for what his critics saw as the debasement of journalism and politics, while in the UK the same charges were levelled at the press barons, Lords Northcliffe, Rothermere, and Beaverbook. While such figures wielded less direct influence over the outcome of elections than they desired, the long-term impact of their newspapers over broader attitudes was significant. Indeed, tabloid values have seemingly taken root across the media and wider society.

The media environment has changed a lot over the last hundred or so years, and throughout Murdoch’s career. However, given the scale and international reach of Murdoch’s media concerns, it is reasonable to suggest that he has achieved a greater level of power and influence than the press barons ever managed.

Assessing the activities and impact of Murdoch is difficult because his modus operandi is secrecy”. As Rodney Tiffin notes, this is at odds with what should be the primary democratic purpose of news organisations: increasing public transparency. Murdoch operates outside of public view, exercising control via face-to-face conversations and phone calls that leave no paper trail.[3]

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty does a good job of surveying what we do know, and some of the insights from interviewees that worked within Murdoch’s media organizations are illuminating.[4]

One aspect of the documentary worth expanding upon concerns commonalities evident across Murdoch’s media organisations. As he stated in 1996, News Corp, “For better or worse, is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values”.

A series of articles published in the New York Times outlines the driving motivation of Murdoch’s activities: conquest. Following in the footsteps of his father, from the start of his career Murdoch used his newspapers to gain political leverage over and intimidate Australian politicians, lending them support in return for political favours and the relaxation of media competition laws. This pattern was repeated as he moved into the UK and then the US.

The undermining of journalistic standards and the creation of workplace cultures that have encouraged and concealed toxic behaviour – and even outright illegality – have been common features across many of Murdoch’s media possessions.[5]

Accompanying this has been a distinctive form of right-wing politics.[6] While at times Murdoch has lent the support of his newspapers to centre-left parties such as New Labour, this has always been dependent on concessions, and his media empire has consistently pushed political positions such as hostility to trade unions, jingoism, hawkish foreign policies, climate change denial, and various conservative social values.[7] Indeed, in recent decades many of Murdoch’s newspapers and television channels have played a key role in the emergence of what has been termed a “culture war”, even including highbrow newspapers such as The Times.

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty is a great overview of how the world’s most powerful media mogul has amassed and wielded power, and given recent events it is vital viewing.

Aaron Ackerley is a historian of Modern British and imperial history, focusing on politics, the media, and popular culture. He is also the assistant editor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley

Cover image: Protester in a Rupert Murdoch mask manipulates puppets of David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, London 2010. Courtesy of 38 Degrees, https://www.flickr.com/photos/38degrees/5887629591/ [accessed 06 August 2020].

[1] Episode 1 is due to be taken down on Saturday 15th August, so best hurry. Edit: This has now thankfully been extended, so you have plenty of time to catch it!

[2] This is a popular image that Murdoch himself is well aware of and has at times been willing to play up to. After first being depicted in the Simpsons –at the time owned by his 20th Century Fox production company – bedecked in a prison jumpsuit as an inmate as Springwood Minimum Security Prison, he later provided his voice for another appearance where he introduced himself as “the billionaire tyrant” – a line he apparently came up with himself.

[3] This has a precedent with previous media moguls; while the press barons Northcliffe and Beaverbrook donated their personal papers to archives, Rothermere ordered his own to be destroyed after he died and one of the papers he controlled, the Daily Mail, continues to deny public access to its internal archives, unlike most other surviving newspapers.

[4] Though this is variable. There are some eye-opening accounts of the illegal practices that were carried out at the Sun and the News of the World, including “darks arts” such as phone hacking, blagging and the bribing of police. Conversely, former News Corp executive Les Hinton’s contribution was largely a hagiography of Murdoch. In keeping with the expected pattern, the Murdoch family declined to contribute.

[5] This includes the covering up of sexual harassment at Fox News, and the macho bullying that occurred at the Sun, especially under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie.

[6] The packaging of this political viewpoint has been overseen by a number of key subordinates, such as the Sun editors Larry Lamb and Kelvin MacKenzie and the Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Lachlan Murdoch has recently displaced James to become the de facto heir to the Murdoch empire, and his political views seem even more right-wing  than his father’s.

[7] For how this played out at the Sun, see: P. Chippindale, C. Horrie, Stick It Up Your Punter!: The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper (London, 1999).

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The Monarchy and the Next Great Depression

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It has been an oft-quoted refrain since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Europe: along with much of the rest of the world, Britain and the continent face a looming recession on a scale that hasn’t been witnessed since the 1930s. The first half of this inauspicious decade saw a collapse in overseas investment and profits, a rapid rise in unemployment, and yawning financial uncertainty for ordinary people.

Across the globe, the Great Depression also threw up challenges to democracies and some didn’t survive. The spectre of far-right nationalism, feeding on the misery of the masses, rose once again to undermine the spirit of international cooperation and optimism that had come to define the 1920s.

Britain’s political system, though, while certainly tested by the economic downturn, remained remarkably resilient to the kinds of forces that swept away Taisho Japan, Weimar Germany, and the Second Spanish Republic. British democracy – if it can be labelled as such – had been longer in the making and its political institutions were more robust than those in the aforementioned countries. But one organization often ignored by historians and political scientists which played a key role in helping to maintain at least the appearance of order and stability in these difficult years was the House of Windsor.

What exactly did the crown do and what might the current monarchy learn from the lessons of the 1930s in adjusting to a period that may one day be referred to as the Second Great Depression?

Beginning in the years immediately before the first world war, King George V and his courtiers carefully enlarged the sphere of royal altruism so that it touched more working-class people’s lives than ever before. This formed part of a conscious effort to promote social cohesion in a period marked by a surge in class conflict.

Royal philanthropy grew in importance on the home and western fronts between 1914 and 1918 and, in the wake of the economic slump that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Windsors increased their efforts to help those subjects who they deemed most in need of attention. For example, the royals set up relief funds for unemployed men and their families who had, often overnight, lost breadwinner wage packets.

Historian Frank Prochaska sees the 1930s as key to the emergence of what he terms a ‘welfare monarchy’. Since 1917, courtiers had worried about the allure of communism among what they perceived as a politically restless and unreliable proletariat. Driven by renewed fears of revolution in the early 1930s, the Windsors used philanthropy to cultivate closer ties with working-class communities in the hope that it would reduce feelings of disaffection and thus help to ensure the maintenance of the status quo.

Unfortunately for the current royal family, it will take a more concerted effort from the UK’s central government to deal with the crisis that lies ahead that will likely leave little room for philanthropic endeavour. It is also imperative that the royals avoid entangling themselves with contentious policies that might otherwise undermine the monarchy’s claims to political impartiality.

One such area no longer deemed to be taboo or politically contentious (which the monarchy has thus leapt on) is Britain’s mental health. The 2008 economic crisis led to a programme of austerity which saw government reduce real-terms spending on mental health services, and into this gap popped Princes William and Harry.[1]

We can be sure that palace courtiers are already searching for similar gaps in the current government’s Covid-19 recovery programme that younger members of the royal family can look to fill through new kinds of public service, thus ensuring their own meaningful survival – as was the case in the 1930s.

It was the Great Depression that also led the king to deliver the first ever Christmas broadcast to his peoples in Britain and across the empire in 1932. Again, the aim was to offer words of reassurance and comfort at a time of great difficulty. And it seems that he largely succeeded: the concern George V communicated for his people in his radio messages strengthened the emotional bonds that connected many of them to him and this, in turn, ensured their loyalty to the throne upon which he sat, and to the royal democracy over which he presided.

Since the coronavirus arrived on these shores, we’ve already had two such messages from Elizabeth II, where she has sought to offer encouragement to her people and bring the British nation – however fleetingly – together as one.

As we move into what seems to be an increasingly uncertain future, we will hear much more from the Windsors as they attempt to invoke a spirit of national unity and togetherness. But at the same time the royals must ensure that such sentiments do not err on the banal through repetition and that messages imploring solidarity do not ignore the inequalities that separate the lives of the privileged from the lives of the ordinary people who will be the ones to suffer most because of joblessness, cuts in public spending, and tax increases.

Finally, the downturn of the 1930s saw George V and his kin take on more direct roles in trying to stabilize Britain’s economic and political systems. Younger royals carved out roles as trade emissaries promoting new economic relationships with South American countries while also acting as advocates for an older system of imperial preference.

There have recently been calls for the return of a royal yacht that could transport the Windsor family across the world so that they can help ‘Global Britain’ forge new trading relationships. Given the cost to the taxpayer, these suggestions will likely fall on deaf ears, but that is not to say that the royals cannot work to try to improve the nation’s economic prospects by greasing the wheels of international diplomacy. We can expect many more visits of foreign dignitaries to Buckingham Palace and trips by a royal contingent led by Prince Charles to regions of the world deemed strategically important to the UK’s trading future.

Perhaps the most significant step taken by George V during the Great Depression was when he controversially oversaw the creation of a National Government in 1931 in order to restore confidence in Britain’s shaky finances. He succeeded, but this event split the Labour Party and destroyed its electoral chances.

It seems unlikely in the twenty-first century that a monarch would risk involving themselves in an episode as politically explosive as this, or whether they would even be able to given the reduction in the royal prerogative powers. But the last couple of years have taught us that we should never say never when it comes to British politics.

The UK’s uncodified constitution enables flexibility when it comes to the precise role played by the crown in affairs of state. If the monarch and their advisors were to arrive at the view that the government in power was no longer representing the interests of the public it was elected to serve, then it is possible to imagine that the palace could apply pressure on the leader of such an administration to step aside so that someone else might do a better job.

For now, we wait apprehensively to see how painful the coming recession will be, along with how many people’s livelihoods are destroyed as businesses close and the inevitable job losses follow. The monarchy has always had to search out new roles in order to justify its position in British society. While the next Great Depression will bring with it many challenges, it will also create opportunities for the House of Windsor to reinvent itself again as we move into a post-pandemic world.

Dr Ed Owens is a historian, royal commentator and public speaker. His recent publication, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53, is the first book in the New Historical Perspectives series, a new publishing initiative for early career researchers in collaboration with the Royal Historical Society, the Institute for Historical Research and the University of London Press. For queries please contact edowens@live.com or tweet to @DrEdOwens.

Cover image: The royal Christmas broadcast became an annual tradition because King George V wanted to reach out to his people in new ways during the difficult years of the Great Depression. The King delivering his Christmas broadcast, 1934. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_V#/media/File:Royal_broadcast,_Christmas_1934_(Our_Generation,_1938).jpg [Accessed 12 June 2020].

[1] Not only did the princes speak more openly about their mental wellbeing, they also set up new initiatives and promoted the work of existing charities to help people in need. The strategy was twofold: keep the monarchy relevant to people’s current concerns; and plug a hole left by government. Britain’s mental health will worsen as the nation finds itself beset by another financial crisis. It remains to be seen whether the current government takes a more urgent interest in this area thus potentially rendering royal patronage obsolete, or whether it continues in the tradition of the post-2010 administrations that left the UK’s mental health crisis to be dealt with by a patchwork of underfunded charities and royal-led organizations.

 

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The Cato Street Conspiracy, 1820

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In the early evening of 23 February 1820, some twenty men assembled in a small hayloft above a stable in Cato Street, off the Edgware Road in London. They were led by Arthur Thistlewood, a well-known militant follower of the radical doctrines of Thomas Spence; the majority of the other men were destitute tradesmen from England, Scotland and Ireland. Joining their ranks was the Jamaican-born William Davidson. The hayloft had been converted into the ramshackle headquarters of a revolutionary conspiracy to assassinate the British Cabinet, who were believed to be dining in nearby Grosvenor Square.

The conspirators were driven by a thirst for vengeance for the ‘Peterloo massacre’ the previous summer, when a peaceful political rally calling for parliamentary reform was charged by the Manchester Yeomanry, killing eighteen and injuring over 700 people. Thistlewood was also enthused by the brutal assassination of Charles Ferdinard, the heir to the French throne, in Paris, ten days before the fated gathering in Cato Street. Ferdinard was stabbed on leaving an opera house in Paris by Louis Pierre Louvel, a fanatical Bonapartist who craved nothing less than the eradication of the Bourbon monarchy. Thistlewood was newly invigorated on hearing of Louvel’s deed, believing that the time had come to strike against aristocratic and monarchical rule in Britain.

The Cato Street conspirators conceived an even more audacious action than the assassination of Ferdinard. After gathering at Cato Street to collect weapons (mostly pikes, swords and homemade guns), the revolutionary band intended to walk the short distance to the home of Lord Harrowby, the President of the Privy Council, the host for the Cabinet’s dinner. It was to be the ministers’ final meal: the conspirators planned to kill everyone in the dining room who held a position in government, with decapitation reserved for the two most loathed ministers, the Home Secretary, Viscount Sidmouth, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. Their heads were to be mounted on spikes and paraded ghoulishly in public as befitted traitors to the ‘People’.

Following the tyrannicide, the revolutionaries planned to seize symbolic buildings and establish a provisional government. On hearing the news of the death of the Cabinet and reading the declaration of the new government that promised a new dispensation based on the emancipation of the people, they believed that radicals in the capital would join the conspirators en masse, which in turn would trigger a national rising. Eighteen-twenty was to be the year of the British Republic.

The conspirators were, however, betrayed. There was no dinner for the Cabinet in Grosvenor Square that night; unbeknown to Thistlewood and his followers, they had been set up by an agent provocateur, George Edwards, who had infiltrated the conspiracy. The hated Lord Sidmouth authorised the publication of the false notice of the Cabinet dinner to lure out the conspiracy from the shadows.

As the conspirators prepared for their mission, the Bow Street Runners (an ancestor of the Metropolitan Police) charged into the stable on Cato Street. The scene was chaotic, as the Runners frantically climbed up a ladder to the hayloft. The candles were extinguished by the conspirators as they attempted to escape; as fighting broke out in the darkness, Thistlewood fatally stabbed an officer. With the assistance of army troops, the revolutionaries were eventually rounded up and arrested. The Cato Street conspiracy was over.

Justice was swiftly dealt out to the ring leaders. Eleven men were tried at the Old Bailey in April: five were exiled to Australia for life; one served a prison sentence; and five, including Thistlewood, were hanged on 1 May. The hangman held up their severed heads to the gathered crowd, denouncing the condemned men as traitors to the Crown.

The legacy of the Cato Street conspiracy is a mixed one. Most radicals denounced the conspiracy and its aims once the plot became public. With the passing of the generations, Thistlewood and his band of revolutionaries were not claimed by any radical tradition, in the same way that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Irish republicans venerated past figures associated with violent struggle, such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. Given the absence of a coherent revolutionary tradition in modern Britain (as opposed to Ireland), the Cato Street conspiracy does not quite ‘fit’ into a neatly defined historical narrative that emphasises peaceful and constitutional radical political reform.

It is, perhaps, for this reason that the significance of the plot is overlooked in (or even entirely missing from) many accounts of the early decades of nineteenth-century Britain. While the plot can be (and often is) dismissed as an act of lunacy, such a perspective overlooks the depth of hostility among radicals towards the government in the years immediately following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, especially in the aftermath of Peterloo. The refusal to treat the conspiracy seriously also means that historians can easily miss the international revolutionary networks that surrounded the ringleaders. The men who gathered in the hayloft on Cato Street in February 1820 did not trigger an insurrection against Britain’s aristocratic masters, but this was not necessarily a certainty, especially in the context of spiralling revolutionary fervour in Europe.

Making sense of the Cato Street conspiracy is a difficult but rewarding challenge. This is why the recent publication of an edited volume of essays that emerged from a conference on the conspiracy held at the University of Sheffield in 2017 is so welcome: as the book reveals, there is much to be said about this almost forgotten plot, from the conspirators’ Caribbean connections to lives of the exiled rebels in Australia. The Cato Street Conspiracy: Plotting, Counter-Intelligence and the Revolutionary Tradition in Britain and Ireland, edited by Jason McElligott and Martin Conboy, illuminates many aspects of the foiled plan and its wider significance.

With the bicentenary of the conspiracy, it is perhaps time to reconsider Britain’s complicated radical past, warts and all. The transition to democracy was not as linear and peaceful as it retrospectively appeared.

Colin Reid is a Lecturer in Modern British and Irish History at the University of Sheffield. His research interests lie in exploring the political, cultural and intellectual mentalities at the heart of the British-Irish dilemma from the French Revolution to the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’.

Cover image: The arrest of the Cato Street Conspirators, 1820.

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Boris Johnson’s Favourite Stalin Story…: On the Difference between Raising Taxes and Conducting Mass Terror Campaigns

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On 6th November 2019, Boris Johnson accused the Labour Party of despising “the profit motive” so much that they would “point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks”.[1] Now, I love a good history analogy as much as the next person. This one, however, is not only way off the mark on every level but also relativizes Stalinist policies that cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives.

Johnson alleges that Corbyn leads a similar hate campaign against wealthy people and has a similar socialist conviction to Stalin, referring to Corbyn’s support for raising the income tax for the wealthiest in society. However, in drawing the connection from Corbyn to Stalin, Johnson’s invocation of Stalinist persecution could imply that while Corbyn might be talking about raising taxes for wealthy people, he is really planning something along the line of taking their land, grain, cows, and chickens, putting them on a train and dropping them in the middle of snowy Siberia without food, warm clothes, or tools – forcing them to build their own forced labour camp or die trying. Does that sound like a bit of a stretch? Let’s look more closely at the Stalinist campaign against the kulaks to explore the historical implications of Johnson’s analogy.

The violent phase of Stalin’s aforementioned “persecution of the kulaks” began in December 1929, when he announced the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class”. He started this campaign in the context of the collectivization of agriculture, i.e. the nationalization of land and cattle as well as the reorganizing of agriculture into collective and state farms. Due to the manner in which the Bolsheviks orchestrated it, this collectivization was not only part of creating a socialist economy, it was first and foremost an attempt to establish their rule in the vast Soviet countryside.

The collectivization campaign has been described as a clash of cultures between the Soviet leadership and the peasantry, bordering on civil war. In official statements, the collectivization campaign was framed as “class struggle in the countryside”. Roughly, these “classes” consisted of poor peasants, middle peasants, and kulaks. Kulaks were supposedly “rich” peasants whom the Bolsheviks stigmatized as “capitalist elements”, the “bourgeoisie of the countryside”, enemies to the socialist vision, and exploiters of the poor.

Initially, the plan had been to agitate rural communities into class struggle, so that the poorer peasants would rebel against the “kulak oppressor”. However, there were two problems: many peasants did not want collectivization (or to be ruled by the Bolsheviks), and there weren’t really any distinct “classes” in the 1930s Soviet countryside, which rendered class struggle significantly more difficult. Most of the land had already been redistributed during the Russian Revolution and Civil War around ten years earlier, so that the wealth differences in the countryside were relatively minor: a peasant could drop from “rich” to poor if their cow died.

Stalin started the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” around the time it became clear that peasants would not go into collective farms voluntarily. This campaign allowed the authorities to break peasant resistance against the Bolshevik regime. This so-called “dekulakization” led to denunciation, violence, and chaos all over the Union. “Liquidation” meant violent expropriation, and in many cases, deportation: in total, around 2 million people (men, women, and children) were “re-settled” in their own county, and around 2-2.5 million were deported to distant regions. Most of the latter were brought to so-called special settlements, labour camp-like structures in remote and often inhospitable areas. Estimates consider that until Stalin’s death, over 500,000 “kulaks” died during deportation or banishment from cold, hunger, diseases, and hard labour.

Historians refer to the campaign against the kulaks as the beginning of Stalinist mass terror. Even beyond such terror campaigns, however, the collectivization of agriculture caused disaster: reinforced by a series of poor harvests and grain requisition campaigns to feed the cities, the chaos caused by collectivization and “dekulakization” brought Soviet agriculture to its knees in the early 1930s. The ensuing famines caused 5-8 million deaths, especially in Ukraine, Kazakhstan (which lost a fourth to a third of its population), and the North Caucasus.

Of course, when Boris Johnson inferred there are continuities from Stalin to Corbyn and from the Bolsheviks to the Labour Party, his aim wasn’t to give us a history lesson – or else he would not have chosen an analogy between a campaign to tax wealthy people and a campaign consisting in not taxing (but expropriating and deporting) mostly not wealthy people (and causing millions of deaths). Thus, it is important to analyse such discourses to reveal the cynicism that permeates political campaigning. This analogy does not say much about Labour politics: the 2019 Labour Party has close to nothing in common with the 1930s Soviet communist leadership. However, it shows that Johnson does not really work with facts and policies in his campaign rather than with cheap shots to defame his opponent and to scare voters into thinking that Corbyn is really a secret Stalinist.

Mirjam Galley recently completed her PhD thesis ‘Builders of Communism, ‘Defective’ Children and Social Orphans: Soviet Children in Care after 1953’ at the University of Sheffield. She is currently a trainee editor for history at the academic publisher transcript Verlag. You can find Mirjam on Twitter @M_E_Galley.

Cover image:  Soviet propaganda poster ‘We will keep out Kulaks from the collectives’, 1930.

Further reading:

Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Andrea Graziosi, The Great Soviet Peasant War: Bolsheviks and Peasants, 1918-1934 (Harvard University Press, 1996).

James Hughes, Stalinism in a Russian Province: a study of collectivization and dekulakization in Siberia (Macmillan, 1996).

Robert Kindler, Stalin’s Nomads: Soviet Power and Famine in Kazakhstan (Pittsburgh University Press, 2018).

Lynne Viola, The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Lynne Viola, V. P. Danilov, N. A. Ivnitskii, and Denis Kozlov (eds), The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, Volume one: The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930 (Yale University Press, 2005).

[1] A “kulak“, literally meaning “fist“, was a term denoting rather wealthy or powerful members of rural communities in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union.

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Free Trade Brexit: Think Tanks and Pressure Groups in Modern British Politics

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The role of opaquely-funded, right-wing think tanks, pressure groups, and lobby groups in the Brexit saga has been foregrounded recently. This is partially due to the surprisingly central role the Jacob Rees-Mogg-fronted European Research Group (ERG) has come to attain in the lead up to the original date for Britain leaving the EU and calls to revoke Article 50.[1] The longer history of such groups in British politics is underappreciated, however.

Think tanks and pressure groups played a role in the Leave campaign, though their influence is impossible to evaluate. Their efforts were only one part of the much wider array of forces presenting the Leave case and attempting to convince the electorate.[2] Aside from politicians and political parties – such as anti-EU Tory backbenchers, UKIP, and a smattering of Labour Lexit campaigners – sections of the British media, especially the tabloid press, also played a central role.[3] .

However, it is by defining how the withdrawal agreement should be managed, and the direction of Britain afterwards once outside of EU, that think tanks and pressure groups have been most influential. Different groups see Brexit as providing an opportunity for the radical overhaul of British society. Lexit advocates see it as an opportunity to reform Britain on more social democratic – or even socialist – grounds.

This, however, is wildly utopian. Unsurprisingly, the debate about how to reshape Britain post-Brexit among Leavers has come to be dominated by right-wing – often free market – voices, such as think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute that are ideologically close, and often directly linked, to leading Brexiteers.[4] They see Brexit as a means of escaping EU regulations, enabling their ideal small-state, free trade Britain. This often joins with nationalist concerns. Some can even be plausibly described as nostalgic for empire: seeking Commonwealth nations as replacement trade partners is an obvious example. Such concerns are central to many in UKIP and the Conservatives, exemplified by Jacob Rees-Mogg having attended the annual dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, an organisation with a history of hard-line nationalism that veers into racism.[5]

Small groups focused on thrashing out policy, engaging in propaganda, and allowing politicians and ideological allies to interact have always been a feature of politics. Ginger groups, parliamentary committees, and dining and debating societies have been central to modern British politics.[6] But the growth of think tanks and similar organisations led to new, more professionalised forms. More funding can be directed at promoting certain causes, allowing teams of researchers and campaigners to be employed full time to both craft policies and political rhetoric and to build and maintain political and media networks to spread their ideas.

There was a boom after World War II. Right-wing think tanks and industry groups began to grow in number and influence as part of a ‘counterrevolution’ aimed at reversing the post-war Labour government’s social democratic reforms which had ushered in Keynesianism, a mixed economy, and the welfare state.

However, such groups began to emerge decades prior. The early twentieth century struggle between free trade and protectionism was a key moment, and an instance of political conflict with interesting resonances with Brexit.

It began in earnest with Joseph Chamberlain’s Tariff Reform campaign, championing imperial preference.[7] In one sense this was the opposite of Brexit, calling for Britain to become more closely enmeshed in an economic union, rather than leaving one. However, like with Brexit, there was also a deeper cultural aspect. Whereas those promoting Brexit value British identity and want to avoid becoming more politically and culturally tied to wider Europe, many proponents of imperial preference saw it as a way to rebuild a shared identity between imperial nations, particularly with the white-majority Dominions that had been granted political autonomy.

Chamberlain founded the Tariff Reform League in 1903,[8] and there were a number of industry groups which pushed for protectionism such as the Empire Development Union (EDU) and the Empire Industries Association (EIA). The Conservative politician Leo Amery played a key role, helping set up and manage the Imperial Fund, which covertly financed a range of organisations including the Trade Union Tariff Reform League.[9]

Free traders had their own organisations, such as the Free Trade Union. Whether they were decisive in nurturing popular support for free trade, or conversely a manifestation of popular feeling, Britain at the opening of the twentieth century has convincingly been described as having been a ‘Free Trade Nation’. Some of those involved in these efforts would go on to play key roles in setting up post-war free market think tanks and industry pressure groups such as Aims in Industry.

Elections fought over free trade vs protectionism resulted in Conservative electoral defeats in 1906 and 1923, but the protectionist pressure groups continued their efforts, while large sections of the press heavily pushed the policy.[10] By 1932, imperial preference was introduced at the Ottawa Conference. Whether the electorate had been swayed is hard to say as opinion polls had not yet been introduced and there was no referendum.[11] Yet politicians who favoured the policy believed – or could claim – they now had a mandate.

After Ottawa, groups such as the EDU and EIA rolled back their activities. The future course of action was relatively straightforward and decided directly by the executive.

Brexit is different. Only a stark choice between Remain and Leave was offered in the referendum, even though the possibilities for what happens after are much more open-ended. This has allowed right-wing political groups that had campaigned for Leave to assume an influential position.[12] This is not surprising given the rise in importance of such organisations, their close links to most of the leading Brexiteers, and the increasing impact of ‘dark money’ over politics.

Patriotic and free trade ideologies are combined in the Brexit visions of the most prominent Leavers. Somewhat ironically, it seems the two opposing sides of the free trade versus (imperial) patriotism struggle which led to the rise of the modern think tank and pressure group in Britain are now fused, and pushing for the same outcome.

Aaron Ackerley is an Associate Tutor at the University of Sheffield. He recently completed his Wolfson Foundation funded PhD thesis at Sheffield, titled Economic Ideas in the Interwar British Daily Press. It examines the contention that knowledge is power by analysing the specific ways in which economic ideas were created, reformulated, and transmitted by journalists. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley.

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Always on the sidelines? A historian’s view on Brexit by Eirini Karamouzi

The Postcolonial Clairvoyants? Seeing Brexit in the Writings of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz by Liam Liburd

 

[1] This would put on hold, or even provide the possibility of cancelling, Brexit. The ERG is a Parliamentary research support group, consisting of a group of Conservative MPs which have used hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax payers’ money to fund its activities. However, it fits into a wider pattern of opacity that is the feature of many think tanks and pressure groups, with the ERG refusing to publicly reveal its membership list. There are also questions concerning its wider sources of funding, and many of its leading figures are closely connected to prominent right-wing free tanks and pressure groups.

[2] One of the more contentious elements have been claims of foreign interference in the referendum campaign, both state-backed as in the case of Russian propaganda and by private interests such as the US billionaire Robert Mercer. The latter has cultivated his own network of think tanks and alternative media companies, as well having financed Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm implicated in the breaking of electoral law.

[3] Tabloid newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express were powerful champions of Leave, and decades of anti-EU stories featuring in their pages, many often being grossly inaccurate, helped lay the foundation for the Leave victory. The circulation of these titles has been steadily decreasing, which led some commentators to suggest their power was waning, but even aside from influencing their own readerships these titles helped set the wider media agenda, such as coverage across the BBC and especially the influential Today show on BBC Radio 4.

[4] For example, Rees-Mogg was one of the most high-profile champions of the Institute of Economic Affair’s post-Brexit policy plan.

[5] Mogg later said he regretted attending, but the fact he was trading on similar rhetoric and operating in linked networks led to his participation in the first place.

[6] This covers parliamentary committees and affiliated societies that are still important such as the Conservative 1922 Committee or the Labour Fabian Society, as well institutions that were more influential in earlier decades such as the Liberal Reform Society and cross-party dining and debating clubs such as Grillion’s, or imperialist groups such as the Coefficients and the Compatriots Club.

[7] This meant the erection of a protective tariff wall around the British Empire, designed to foster intra-imperial trade at the expense of non-Empire nations.

[8] The proprietors of newly founded popular daily newspapers such as the Daily Mail’s Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) and the Daily Express’s Arthur Pearson became members.

[9] Amery also created a state agency, the Empire Marketing Board, which launched large-scale initiatives aimed at urging consumers to buy Empire goods, utilising poster campaigns and films.

[10] Most notable was the Daily Express, acquired by Lord Beaverbrook in 1916.

[11] Though in the preceding years some opponents had called for one, such as the liberal, free trade supporting newspaper the Manchester Guardian. ‘Books of the Day’, Manchester Guardian, 17 Jul 1930, 7.

[12] These groups are better able to promote their plans about how to reshape Britain’s post-Brexit future as many opponents of Brexit are focused on calling for a second vote.

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Always on the sidelines? A historian’s view on Brexit

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Brexit is one, albeit the most consequential chapter in a tale that has spanned decades. Britain’s ‘awkward’ relationship with European integration has a long and complex history. Advancing a thesis of ‘the awkward partner’ neither accepts the teleological tale that Britain was bound to leave the EU nor that the country’s ‘awkwardness’ towards Europe has been ‘exceptional’- on the contrary, it has been shared by others at different stages of European integration.

The difference is that British difficulties with the European project has been consistent and long-standing: from non-involvement in the original EEC, then a tortuous road to membership; once inside the Community, beset by budgetary hassles, Britain secured opt-outs from Schengen and the Eurozone whilst elite and the public opinion stood indifferent or most times negatively disposed.

A historical perspective can contribute to the understanding of this difficult marriage and gives us an insight into the reasons for the upcoming divorce. Without negating the immense value of the ever-growing political science literature on Brexit and on why the Brits voted to leave [1], a historical account will attempt to trace how Britain slowly and painfully advanced in Churchillian terms from ‘of but not with’ to arguably ‘with but not of’ Europe.

Hunting in vain for a role in Europe

Historians have offered contrasting explanations for Britain’s turn towards the EEC and its first application in 1961 ranging from commercial interests to political considerations. Moreover, in the 1960s, there was a hope that EEC membership would bolster prevalent perceptions of a ‘sense of relative decline’ in UK’s international reach and power. As Tomlinson has noted ‘declinism was an ideology, not a straightforward description of reality’. [2] Britain’s sluggish growth – not by historical records but in relation to the comparatively higher growth rate of EEC economies – meant that ‘by 1950 the difference in per capita GDP between the UK and Six [EEC countries] was 28%. Seven years later, when the Treaty of Rome was signed, it stood at 15%, and in 1961 when Britain applied, the difference had reached 10%.’[3]

In January 1963, several days after General de Gaulle’s veto, Harold Macmillan wrote in his diary: ‘the great question remains: What is the alternative to the European Community? If we are honest we must say there is none.’[4] Echoing similar disillusionment, but several years later, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson would also come to acknowledge how far economic realities dictated Britain’s move towards the Community.

The French, however, still with de Gaulle at the helm, would not even permit the enlargement talks to commence – pointing to Britain’s financial problems and capitalizing on Wilson’s decision to devalue the pound in October 1966 and its balance of payment deficit.  By the time Edward Heath became prime minister in 1970 and revived the failed second application, Britain’s political elite hoped that joining the Community would achieve multiple goals. Rather than being relegated to the sidelines, Britain would be in a position to reap the economic and political benefits of Community membership. Importantly, accession to the Community would allow Britain to catch up to the superior economic performance the Six had experienced over the 1960s.

An awkward partner?

Stephen George rightly argues that Britain ‘did not participate in the most successful period of the history of the Communities’ (the 1960s) and so ‘membership did not come to have the popular positive connotations in Britain that it had in the founder states’.[5] Britain’s timing was poor, and an important factor in Britain’s awkwardness towards Europe’s.

The 1975 EC referendum contributed to Britain’s awkward partner status because, despite the vote in favour of membership, Britain was not transformed into a straightforward partner for the Community. On the contrary, it cemented the use and abuse of the European issue as an instrument of domestic political management.

Under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher ‘there was a significant reconfiguration’ of Britain’s relationship with the EC. The Thatcher government went through a multitude of highs and lows in its relationship with the Community; the Prime Minister herself was at the epicentre. Tumultuous periods were common, for example, the battle over British contributions to the EC budget.

More constructive engagement followed in relation to the Single European Act of 1986. The Act fulfilled Thatcher’s ambition of a Single Market within the Community and many applauded her on the triumphant exportation of Thatcherism to Europe. Towards the end of her time in Downing Street, fierce confrontations took place both within the Thatcher government over its European policy and between Thatcher and the EEC.

The end of the 1980s shed any illusions of the prospect of exerting leadership within the EEC, an ambition that was best summed up in Wilson’s comments in 1967: ‘if we couldn’t dominate that lot, there wasn’t much to be said for us’.[6] Britain’s insular policy, lack of enthusiasm and minimalist approach limited its influence within the Community, that never came close to the Franco-German engine of European integration.

However Thatcher’s most important legacy, however, was breaking once and for all the declinist narrative spiral of the 1960s and 1970s. Europe progressively ceased to be the medicine to British malaise as its economy far from being the ‘sick man of Europe’ had by ‘mid-1990s outperformed the leading economies of Western Europe by most measures.[7] This reversal of fortunes and the slow demise of the feeling ‘of no alternative to membership’  patched a hole in one of the most central arguments in selling the pro-European narrative, and was never truly replaced.  The lack of appeal of economic interest was concomitant to other European developments.

The Maastricht treaty of 1992, its aftermath revisions and the ‘big bang enlargement’ to central and Eastern Europe ushered in a period of deeper integration, mass migration and further pooling of national sovereignty, marking a shift within the wider European public opinion. Things were worse for Britain ‘where few have taken the European project to heart, as indicated by their low level of willingness to acknowledge a European identity’.[8]

Far from saving Britain, the Eurozone debt crisis and mass migration dealt the final blow to the already little relish for the European task and amplified British Euroscepticism. Brexit and the referendum result of 2016 was a result of short-term political and economic developments as well as longer-term socio-demographic changes in the electorate. But it’s hard to deny that the fuel that the Eurosceptics ignited in 2016 had been accumulated in these decades-long love-hate relationship with Europe.

Eirini Karamouzi is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Sheffield. Her main research interests lie in the history of European integration and the Cold War,  she is co-director of the Cultures of the Cold War Network and editor of Cold War History Journal. Her book, Greece, the EEC and the Cold War, 1974-1979: The Second Enlargement (2014), and edited volume Balkans in the Cold War (2017) are available through Palgrave Macmillan. You can find her on twitter @EiriniKaramouzi.

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The Postcolonial Clairvoyants? Seeing Brexit in the Writings of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz  by Liam Liburd

Free Trade Brexit: Think Tanks and Pressure Groups in Modern British Politics by Aaron Ackerley

 

[1] Sara Hobolt (2016), ‘The Brexit vote: a divided nation, a divided continent’, Journal of European Public Policy, 23, 1259-1277;

[2] Jim Tomlinson, The Politics of Decline: Understanding Post-War Britain (Harlow: Longman, 2001)

[3] http://voxeu.org/article/britain-s-eu-membership-new-insight-economic-history

[4] Cited in Vernon Bognador, ‘Footfalls echoing in the memory. Britain and Europe: the historical perspective’, International Affairs 81:4 (2005), 693.

[5] George, An Awkward Partner, p.5.

[6] Robert Saunders, Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain (Oxford University Press, 2018), 47

[7] Charles Grant (2008). Why is Britain Eurosceptic? Centre for Europeanreform essay, published online.

[8] John Curtice, ‘Why Leave won the UK’s EU referendum’, Journal of Common Market Studies 55 (2017), 21

 

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