Skip to content

Brexit, Trump and the role of big data – one conspiracy theory worth investigating

I’m not someone who flies around peddling conspiracy theories. Most of the stuff I encounter is baseless, even more so since politically-motivated websites started deliberately seeding the internet with their creations.

But I make one exception. I believe that there’s enough evidence to make at least a prima facie case that a group of right-wing American billionaires used their money and technology to subvert Britain’s EU Referendum. They then went on to use the same techniques to win the US election for Donald Trump. I also believe that the UK’s election laws are incapable from preventing the same techniques from being deployed again – specifically in the current General Election campaign.

You might think that as a fervent Remainer who despises everything Donald Trump stands for, I’m just another gullible fool who believes what he wants to believe on the basis of the thinnest of evidence.

If so, read no further.

But if you’ve followed my blog over the past months and years, I might have convinced you that I’m reasonably rational, and that I’m not a “true believer” in anything. As for conspiracy theories, here’s a piece I wrote three yours ago that sums up my scepticism about the wider shores of human belief: Conspiracy Theories – the truth isn’t out there, it’s right in front of us (if we care to look).

I don’t believe in the grassy knoll. I don’t believe that the neoconservatives brought down the twin towers. I do believe that we went to the moon. I don’t believe that George Bush Senior is a member of a reptile elite running the world. And I don’t believe that a bunch of clapped-out politicians known as the Bilderberg Group is running it either. Roswell, alien abductions, X-files? Not convinced. And sadly, I don’t believe that the passengers of MH370 are hunkered down in a remote Pacific island waiting to be rescued from the clutches of a demented pilot.

Those who believe in conspiracies often do so because the theories chime with their world view. In other words “they sound right”. And if they read about the theory from a source they trust, they’re even more likely to believe it. So if you were a Breitbart reader before the US election, you would be well primed to believe that Hillary Clinton was the devil incarnate.

Three months ago I wrote about an article by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer newspaper. In my piece – Are we really Bannon fodder in an information war? – I summarised Cadwalladr’s article thus:

Robert Mercer is a billionaire hedge fund owner who has bankrolled several organisations in order to promote his right-wing, libertarian views. He is a former IBM employee with a deep understanding of Big Data.

He’s a buddy of Steve Bannon and an investor in right-wing news site Breitbart. Another of the companies in which Mercer has invested is Cambridge Analytica, who have amassed profiles of over 220 million Americans based on data hoovered up from Facebook. Using artificial intelligence and working with information gathered from the likes we click on a daily basis, CA is able to help politicians tailor messages that tap into and manipulate the emotions of targeted voters.

Cambridge Analytica worked for Trump, and also provided support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign – the latter for no charge. It is basically, according to Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina, a propaganda machine.

The company inherited a number of its techniques from another company in which Mercer is involved – the SCL Group, from which it was spun off in 2013. The two companies retain close links.

According to Cadwalladr, the relationship between the two companies is thus:

“Emma Briant, a propaganda specialist at the University of Sheffield, wrote about SCL Group in her 2015 book, Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change. Cambridge Analytica has the technological tools to effect behavioural and psychological change, she said, but it’s SCL that strategises it. It has specialised, at the highest level – for Nato, the MoD, the US state department and others – in changing the behaviour of large groups. It models mass populations and then it changes their beliefs.”

Since then, Cadwalladr has discovered more about the companies that Mercer controls, and about the relationships of the various pro-leave campaign groups to his companies.

If you are interested in the future of democracy in your country – and not just in Britain – I urge you to read her latest article, The Great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked

You might find it disturbing. As with her previous piece, I had to read it twice before I got a proper grasp of what she’s saying.

And in case you’re not familiar with the UK media landscape, the newspaper she writes for is one of the oldest in Britain. It was first published in 1791. It has a reputation as a responsible publication that holds its staff to rigorous journalistic standards. Which is why I wrote earlier about trusting the source.

I can’t know for sure whether Mr Mercer and his crew were responsible for tipping the balance in favour of the Leave campaigns, or whether any laws were broken in the process. But I do believe that the British Government should set up an independent Commission of Inquiry to find out, and also to report on whether Britain’s election laws are still fit for purpose.

And if it was legally permissible to do so, I would be happy to see certain individuals put in a darkened room and asked some very hard questions in the harsh glare of a spotlight.

Common sense says that the government would go to any lengths to avoid such an inquiry, since it could quite possibly undermine the legitimacy of the referendum, and therefore of the government’s subsequent acts.

But it’s conceivable that as more information emerges about the possible subversion of the US election, and especially if that information also relates to the British referendum, the government might find itself forced to react, no matter how traumatic the consequences.

The Conservatives will then have the same choice as the Republicans should they be asked to impeach Donald Trump: do we act in the interests of the party, or of the nation?

A courtier’s life is not a happy one – ask Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill, Reince Priebus…..and Sejanus

,

How galling it must have been for Rome’s first century aristocracy to have had to bend the knee towards Lucius Aelius Sejanus, commander of the Emperor Tiberius’s Praetorian Guard. While the emperor himself spent his days indulging in pederastic pursuits at his villa on the island of Capri, Sejanus, a middle-class upstart, effectively ran the empire from Rome.

He gradually acquired more and more power until Tiberius, whether at the instigation of others or thanks to his own paranoia, had him arrested and condemned for treason. He was strangled and thrown down the wonderfully-named Gemonian Stairs, where the Roman mob, who only days before had revered him as a surrogate emperor, ripped his corpse to pieces.

After his death, the Senate passed a motion of damnatio memoriae, though which he was reduced to a non-person. All mentions of him were erased from the official records. His name was even rubbed out on coin of the realm (as in the pic above). Think Stalin, and the numerous comrades whom he airbrushed out of history.

Such are the risks of being a creature of the powerful.

I thought of Sejanus when I read an article by Dominic Lawson in the UK Sunday Times, in which he describes the disgruntlement of senior Conservatives at the power of Theresa May’s two senior advisers – chiefs of staff as they would be known in America.

According to Lawson, Nicholas Timothy and Fiona Hill are the “second and third most important political figures in the land”. “As one Tory frequently in and out of No 10 put it to me: “try and imagine how powerful Nick Timothy is. Now multiply by 400. You still haven’t got it.”” Wow.

I imagine Lawson’s source nervously whispering these words from the corner of the mouth, looking anxiously around for informers who might scuttle gleefully back to the Ministry of Truth. Or perhaps sitting on a park bench, as spies and whistle-blowers are wont to do.

Timothy, by some accounts, is the scarier of the two. His wrath is said to be terrible to behold and painful to endure. He certainly looks intimidating. From afar he bears a distinct resemblance to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the chronicler of the gulags. Though he would probably prefer to be compared with the Marquess of Salisbury, the magnificently bearded 19th Century Tory Prime Minister.

But the quiet animus of May’s senior colleagues in Parliament for these two “advisers” suggests that their lives might not be a bed of roses.

Resented by many who feel that they should not be denied unfettered access to the supreme leader, the deadly duo are likely to be flattered by sycophants and condescended to by those who feel confident enough to take pot shots at them. Phillip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, recently described them as “economically illiterate”. Which apparently sent Timothy into one of his rages and led him to direct a volley of negative briefings against the mild-mannered Hammond.

They go their merry ways enforcing the will of the leader, making enemies here, there and anywhere. They know they are protected until such time as May loses faith in them, or until they make a mistake so toxic that she feels it necessary for them to fall on their swords.

A recipe for paranoia and insecurity, I should have thought. And yet for them, it might well feel like the best of times as well as the worst. The excitement at reaching the peak of politics on the coat-tails of a leader must be intoxicating.

Unlike senior civil servants, who are required to pass rigorous entry exams and endure endless challenges from their peers as they rise up a rigid hierarchy to the top, there’s no formal qualification required of a political adviser beyond the security services certifying that they’re not fraudsters, perverts or Russian spies.  And unlike Members of Parliament, who have to endure the indignity of facing the electorate every few years, advisers are unelected.

Of  course, Timothy and Hill are not the only sidekicks to acquire the reputation of overweening insolence in recent years. Tony Blair’s henchpeople were a pretty robust bunch, not least the fearsome Alistair Campbell. But the current duo seem to have come under the cross-hairs fairly early in their careers.

Perhaps this is because they are perceived to be serving – not to say manipulating – a relatively passive boss who relies on them more heavily than her jealous colleagues think appropriate. So much so that it’s tempting to wonder how many of the bright ideas that emerge from Downing Street are the result of May’s own philosophy as opposed to those of her flunkies. Not a question you would have asked about Margaret Thatcher, I think.

Still, whatever the relationship between queen and courtiers, it seems to work for now.

But if Timothy and Hill might occasionally bemoan the insecurity and isolation of their place at the top, perhaps they should look across the Atlantic and ponder the lot of the hired hands who work in the White House.

Imagine a day in the life of the unfortunate Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff. Surrounded by a web of poisonous relationships between scheming courtiers who hate each other. Walking corridors where staff nervously eye their mobile phones, occasionally muttering “POTUS is tweeting again…Jesus!” Constantly dealing with outrage and confusion over Trump’s utterances, and fending off lawsuits triggered by his flawed executive orders. Bombshells to the left and tantrums to the right.

How calm the waters of Downing Street must feel in comparison. But Timothy and Hill will have their crises too, especially when the Brexit negotiations start unravelling. And Theresa May will not be content to be seen as a pliant plaything in the hands of two ambitious ideologues.

At some stage their Sejanus moment will surely arrive.

At that point I won’t feel too sorry for them, or for the hapless Priebus floundering in the White House. After all, when the end comes they will not be thrown unceremoniously down the Gemonian Stairs to be dismembered by the mob and eaten by wild dogs. The British duo will be loaded with gongs, and most likely will be given seats in the House of Lords. Lucrative gigs on the boards of public bodies await, though unlike their predecessors, they won’t be able escape to the comforts of a nice little earner in Brussels.

And if all else fails for them and for Priebus, there’s always the backstop of a healthy advance for their memoirs – the more spiteful, snarky and revealing the better. In fact, Preibus is in a particularly good place – whoever is the first to hit the streets with the story of Trump in the White House is likely to earn a fortune.

Which would be more than Sejanus had to show for a career living by the sword in the service of his emperor. But at least his name has lived for two thousand years, despite Tiberius’s best efforts to ensure otherwise. That’s far longer than is likely to be the case for today’s zealous enforcers. I give them thirty years, tops.

Will they care? I doubt it.

Three Daughters of Eve – a telling window into the heart of Istanbul

There must be something about people called Elif. I know two. The first I know personally. She’s a teacher, a former colleague. She’s beautiful person, nurturing, smart and a superb communicator. The second I know through her work. She’s an award-winning novelist. Both are Turkish. Both are open-minded. Like so many in their home country, they look to the West as much as to the East. And both know how to speak to the heart.

I find it easy to write about politics, travel, business and all that other stuff that allows the writer to maintain a distance from the subject. Matters of the heart are not so easy, which is perhaps why I’ve never felt able to write fiction. Yes, I would probably be capable of writing stories in which the narrative predominates. But to create a character from the clay of one’s consciousness and experience, to allow it to live and breathe, to reflect and illuminate the world around it? That would be beyond me.

Great writers can do both. I don’t study the alchemy of creative writing. Too much knowledge about the techniques of any art, unless you happen to be the artist, can, I find, detract from the experience, take away the wonder at the creation. I found that over years in the music business. I became so focused on the technical aspects of performance and delivery that it took me years to remember what I loved about music in the first place – that it helped me to lose myself.

I posted a tweet the other day about the second Elif – Elif Shafak – in which I said that I had learned more about Turkey through her books than in all my visits to the country. It was her latest novel, Three Daughters of Eve, that prompted me to make that comment.

It’s the story of Peri, the daughter of a conflicted family in Istanbul. Her mother is devoutly religious, and her father is an admirer of Ataturk, the man who transformed Turkey into a secular democracy after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Peri is profoundly uncertain – about who she is, and about her relationship with God. She’s a straight-A student at school, and her father persuades her to go to Oxford University, where she studies Politics, Philosophy and Economics. There she befriends two other Muslim girls – one devout, and the other militantly secular. She joins a philosophy class ran by a charismatic professor who selects his students for their diversity, and encourages them to look beyond the narrow confines of their beliefs.

Professor Azur preaches uncertainty. He puts his students in situations where they challenge each other’s certainties. Some find his techniques manipulative. The effect on Peri of the professor and his seminars changes her life. We go back and forth between Oxford in 2001, and the present day, in which she is a mother living back in Istanbul.

For me – though I’m not sure if Shafak intended it this way – Peri is a metaphor for Istanbul itself. Melancholy, passionate, curious, uncertain of her place in the world. Her social circle is drawn from the Istanbul bourgeoisie, where the devout and the secular still mix. They debate the merits of western democracy, and they talk politics in private lest they fall foul of The State that looms over all of them. For some, God takes second place to commerce. To others He has granted political ascendancy after decades of secular government. Yet they are still able to enjoy each other’s company.

Peri is an oddity in that Oxford has taught her to speak out on matters traditionally regarded as male preserves, something that the other women in her circle are more reluctant to do. Some of the men find this disconcerting. The tradition of patriarchy rubs shoulders uneasily with the egalitarian values of the West.

She is convinced that despite its shortcomings, Istanbul is more civilised than its rougher neighbours.

“I read it’s been ranked worst in the world.”

“What?”

“The traffic. Worse than Cairo, imagine. Even worse than Delhi!”

Not that she had ever been to Cairo or Delhi. But, like many Istanbulites, Peri held a firm belief that her city was more civilised than those remote, rough, congested places – even though ‘remote’ was a relative concept and ‘rough’ and ‘congested’ were adjectives often applied to Istanbul. All the same, this city bordered on Europe. Such closeness had to amount to something. It was so breathtakingly close that Turkey had put one foot through Europe’s doorway and tried to venture forth with all its might – only to find that the opening was so narrow that, no matter how much the rest of the body wriggled and squirmed, it could not squeeze itself in. Nor did it help that Europe, in the meantime, was pushing the door shut.

Of course, Istanbul is not Turkey, and nor do the views of its middle class necessarily reflect the street. Orhan Pamuk, whom I rank alongside Elif Shafak as my guide to the soul of Turkey, shows another side to the city in A Strangeness in my Mind, his recent novel about the migrants from Anatolia who settled in the city over the past three decades.

Three Daughters of Eve is beautifully constructed and very moving. It speaks to the heart through the heart of its central character. Her other books – most notably The Forty Rules of Love, the Bastard of Istanbul and The Architect’s Apprentice – also enrich and inform the visitor’s experience of Istanbul. Read them alongside Pamuk’s work – particularly Istanbul, Memories and the City, My Name is Red and A Strangeness in my Mind – and you will have some understanding as to why the city is what it is, and where it’s come from.

Despite Turkey’s recent move towards religious orthodoxy and authoritarianism, Istanbul in my experience is still a place defined by diversity of thought. Shafak in her writing represents that diversity. Long before the arrival of the Ottomans, in Constantinople religious disputation was a way of life. Arguments over the nature of The Father, the Son and The Holy Ghost have indelibly seeped into its ancient walls.

If there is a future Islamic world in which heterodoxy thrives, in which respect for difference wins out over the suppression of The Other, then I suspect that Turkey, and in particularly Istanbul, will be the source of that mindset. Despite the country’s long history of bouts of religious and ethnic intolerance, if Shafak and Pamuk are to be believed, the spirit of inquiry and uncertainty still survives.

It will outlive presidents, ISIS and the preachers of Medina. One day perhaps, we in the West will stop looking at Islam through fearful eyes, and will once again recognise that it, like other faiths, has many shades of belief, and that among the faithful there are as many uncertain seekers after truth as are to be found in churches, temples and ashrams.

And then we will come to realise that we have much to learn from it.

Or, as Elif Shafak’s beloved Rumi said:

“Listen! Clam up your mouth and be silent like an oyster shell, for that tongue of yours is the enemy of the soul, my friend. When the lips are silent, the heart has a hundred tongues.”

Trump on the slippery slope? A view from the other side of the pond.

Those of us Europeans who take a close interest in US politics have been watching dumbstruck at the antics of the nation’s prepubescent president. People I speak to ask why he hasn’t been impeached already, and take bets on how long he’ll last.

While so many commentators in America are harping back to Watergate, we in Europe have other parallels to chew over. Some are relevant. Some less than one might think.

Before we get on to them, let’s think about the chances of an impeachment.

It seems to me, having read countless opinions across the political spectrum, that unless conviction-grade evidence emerges that Trump is a rapist, a fraudster or the paid agent of Vladimir Putin, it’s highly unlikely that an impeachment process will get onto the starting blocks, let alone to the finishing line.

Why? Because a significant number of Republicans in both houses of Congress would need to support such a measure. Since Barack Obama lost control of Congress after the 2010 mid-term elections, the Republican party has become increasingly right wing, and remorselessly partisan. There were times during Obama’s presidency when it seemed as though any measure Obama put forward – even if it was sensible and uncontroversial – would be subject to blocking tactics by the Republicans, simply because it was Obama’s measure.

Now the Republicans have the golden scenario – a majority in both houses and a manipulable naif in the White House. They, and equally importantly those who finance them, see a rare opportunity to line their pockets by entirely legal means. They have the power to pursue their agendas, however venal or extreme.

The opportunity will be available at least for the next two years, until the 2018 mid-term elections. Enough time to cut taxes and spend like demons, but not enough time for any adverse consequences to start affecting the US economy. If they manage to maintain control of Congress in 2018, the window will extend further.

I’ve often heard it said that for the Republican leadership, power, and the interests of the party, are more important than the national interest. If this is true – and it needs to be said that it’s certainly not the case with some senior figures such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham – then it’s easy to understand why, from their standpoint, getting rid of Trump might feel like turkeys voting for Christmas.

The resulting chaos would be unlikely to benefit the party’s chances in 2018, even if Pence took over. The extreme right would probably be outraged at Trump’s ousting. Many of them might decline to vote Republican. We might see a new party of the right picking up votes. The Democrats would be all over their rivals like a rash. The result could be that the Republicans lose Congress, thus hamstringing any further measures Pence might wish to introduce just as his adversaries hamstrung Obama.

So if we assume that an impeachment is unlikely, what’s the fallback strategy for the Democrats and anyone who might wish to limit the damage they believe Trump is causing?

Here’s where one of the parallels with Europe – or more specifically Britain – comes into play.

As a committed Remainer, I would like to see Brexit stopped. If that can’t be achieved, then the next best thing would be a Brexit deal that minimises the risk of serious economic damage. In the forthcoming elections I will vote for whichever party commits to the latter, even if the former now seems unattainable.

Back in America, for the Democrats, Plan A must be removal of Trump before the next mid-term elections. If that’s not achievable Plan B will be to exert the maximum effort to win back Congress in 2018, thereby giving themselves the opportunity to curb his worst excesses.

The Democrats are pretty gloomy about their chances of winning back either house. This piece from Slate.com, written shortly after Trump’s election, explains why. It’s mainly about demographics:

Of the 25 Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018, 10 come from states where Trump won: solid red states Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota, along with traditional swing states Michigan (still recorded as likely Trump until all votes are counted), Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin—which all voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Tim Kaine also faces re-election in Virginia, a battleground state Clinton won only narrowly on Tuesday.

The math is simple: If the electoral map stays the same colors between now and 2018, the Democrats could stand to gain just one Republican seat while losing 10 of their own, leaving them with an even smaller minority than they held when they lost their majority in the 2014 midterms.

And then there’s the House. Currently, Republicans hold a wide majority, with 239 Republican congressmen to just 192 Democrats. And with Republican gerrymandering, the Democrats could face an uphill battle trying to flip that many seats in 2018.

But here comes our second parallel with Europe

Emmanuel Macron has just been elected President of France. He is a centrist, and effectively an independent, even if he ran under the banner of En Marche!, the party he formed before he entered the race. A year ago, very few people in France would have given him a cat’s chance in hell of taking the presidency. Since 1945, the office has been won either by the socialists or by the Gaullist right. Neither of the two main parties got a look-in this time round. He came through to trounce the far-right Marine Le Pen.

So, you might wonder, with candidates in the US and France coming from nowhere to take the presidency, does that not shorten the odds of a resurgent  – or possibly insurgent – Democrat effort overcoming the demographics and recapturing Congress?

Apples and oranges, I’m afraid. Macron’s efforts were focused on a single objective: winning the presidency. In 2018, we’re talking about 33 Senate seats, 435 seats in the House of Representatives, not to mention 36 state governorships. To make a dent in the Republican numbers will take a determined, focused effort from a united party. The Democrats haven’t yet shown that they can be that party.

Could a new centrist or left-wing party emerge to sweep away the old order? Unlikely, and even if someone like Bernie Sanders crosses that Rubicon, a left-of-centre insurgent will bleed votes away from the Democrats. Note also that Macron may have won the presidency, but En Marche! faces an uphill task in getting enough candidates elected in the next French National Assembly elections. Macron might conceivably end up a President without a party, and therefore with his ability to get things done severely limited.

So the best chance the Democrats have of controlling at least the House, and thereby tying up the elephant, is for Trump to continue to perform catastrophically, to make a series of mistakes that might fall short of triggering impeachment but that will seriously discredit his administration and those who support it. In other words, the demise of the Republicans in Congress is not a realistic objective for the Democrats solely through their own efforts. But it could happen through unforced errors, most probably by Trump himself.

The final parallel between the political landscapes in the US and Europe – again represented by Britain –  is the current strength of the right wing within the Republican and Conservative parties.

The Conservatives have their own equivalent of the libertarian Tea Party. They’re referred to as the Brexiteers. They may have a more limited ideological objective than the Tea Party, but the Brexit package would be applauded by the Tea Party, as it was by Trump himself.

Theresa May is expected to win an increased majority next month. It’s highly likely that a good number of her new MPs will on the right, especially in constituencies where they have the opportunity to win back voters from our own fading right-wing insurgency – the UK Independence Party. The danger for the Conservatives is not that Theresa May is likely to implode in a Trumpian inferno. More likely that the electorate will become steadily more disenchanted with the consequences of Brexit, or die of boredom with her uninspiring persona.

Trump, on the other hand, could never be described as boring. His qualities the very opposite to those that May trots out several times a minute. He’s doesn’t appear strong, despite all the dice that are stacked in his favour. And as for stable, well that’s a matter of opinion, or more likely of clinical diagnosis.

When all is said and done, we shouldn’t be surprised if Donald Trump manages to slash and burn his way through to 2020, and maybe beyond. What America and the world beyond will look like by then is anybody’s guess.

Until then, all that those of us who care about his country and ours can hope for is one fatal error.

Trump fires Comey – management by thunderbolt, not Russia, will bring him down

A few thoughts on Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Firing people on reality TV makes great entertainment. People love to see other people being humiliated. But in real life, “tough guys” like Trump are anachronisms. Yes, people get fired, but those who do the firing are mindful of the potential negative consequences. They have to, because if they don’t go through the necessary motions, they can end up getting sued, or at the very least suffering serious reputational damage.

In my experience, firing people, especially when they are part of an organisation that is under stress, can cause a further dip in morale even if the firing was justified. People wonder who’s next, and take steps to cover their backsides. If the firing is done as a demonstration of power – management by thunderbolt as I call it – the danger is that those who have independence of thought, initiative and creativity either leave, or form disgruntled cells of resistance. Those who remain in power are the yes-men (and women).

The FBI staff were, according to some reports, overwhelmingly supportive of Comey. Trump has now upset two of the main planks of America’s security establishment, having previously made his contempt for the CIA very clear.

He may believe that whoever he appoints in Comey’s place will plug the constant leaks from various sources within the government. Actually his action might have the opposite effect. The leaks could increase, and if Comey was on the verge of discovering some damaging information that threatens Trump’s presidency, you can be pretty sure that it will eventually get into the public domain – with or without the appointment of a special prosecutor.

Parallels are being drawn across the media with Nixon’s firing of Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. The difference between now and then was that in 1973 there was a limited number organisations willing and able to run with the story. Today, the Washington Post has competition from a host of other organisations – traditional and online – who would be all too happy to talk to a new Deep Throat, including organisations beyond US jurisdiction.

If Trump has anything to hide, I would be very surprised if there weren’t multiple Deep Throats ready and waiting for the appropriate moment to release the bombshell that brings him down.

Management by fear works for tyrants who are able to surround themselves with loyalists and put apparatus in place to weed out traitors. The United States is not at that point and hopefully never will be. So Trump is making enemies and doesn’t have the means to deal with them. Which suggests that Russia notwithstanding, his leadership style will eventually be his undoing. Every major media organisation in the US that he has insulted over the past year is watching and waiting for his next misstep.

I write this as someone who threw the occasional thunderbolt early in my business career. Each time I regretted doing so. I was young enough to learn from my mistakes. At 70, I’m not sure Trump is capable of learning anything if the lessons don’t chime with his long-established personality traits.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

The UK Election – rambling down the side roads

As always, there’s coverage aplenty on The Great British Drone-Off – also known as our current general election campaign. I’m not planning to write too often on the subject, but I will share a few random thoughts that have occurred to me during the first couple of weeks of the campaign. My emphasis is on stuff that I haven’t come across elsewhere.

I’ve met people who argue that because David Cameron was unable to meet his objectives in negotiations with the EU prior to the referendum, the EU is intransigent and incapable of reform, which is why we must leave. They are wrong. Reforming an institution as large and complex as the EU takes years, not the three months Cameron gave himself to get a special deal for Britain. He was always going to fail, and should have known that from the outset. He should also have known that time is a critical factor in any negotiation. The party that has a known deadline is always at a disadvantage when the other side doesn’t. Cameron had three months. The EU had forever.

There are those who admire Jeremy Corbyn because he is a man of principle. I’ve no doubt they’re right. But being a man of principle doesn’t make a person an effective leader, let alone a successful politician. You can promise the earth, but unless the voters believe you can make promises come true, you have no chance. So the big question about Corbyn is not whether he has the right policies. It’s whether he’s nasty and ruthless enough to succeed as a political leader.

Where does Jeremy Corbyn’s accent come from? Born in Wiltshire, educated in Shropshire, speaks Estuary. A deliberate makeover, or have his years in Islington slowly rubbed off on him? In which case, surely he would sound more like Tony Blair.

Speaking of accents, there are some who claim that Nick Clegg has more gravitas in his little finger than Tim Farron. Might that be because Farron speaks with a northern accent, whereas Clegg, educated at one of the UK’s most prestigious private schools, speaks in the honeyed tones of the establishment? History suggests that if you’re not posh (Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe and Paddy Ashdown), Scottish (David Steel and Charles Kennedy) or both (Menzies Campbell), you’re a bit of an outlier as far as potential Liberal voters are concerned. Prove me wrong Tim!

Pundits claim that the Conservatives, on the evidence of the council elections, have gobbled up the UKIP voters. Maybe, but who did those people vote for before UKIP existed? Labour? I doubt it – at least not many. More likely they’re returning Tories who will be reabsorbed into the reactionary wing of the party. The big question is whether the new MPs – of which there may be more than a hundred – will turn out to be as reactionary as the returning voters. In which case, we should be prepared for the most right-wing government in recent history. If the mainstream media wants to do us a real service, it should do some research on these candidates, so that we have some idea about what kind of government we’re electing.

The presidential style of the Tory campaign creates a hostage to fortune. We are being encouraged to vote for Theresa May, not the Conservative Party. The trouble is that if May goes at a time not of her choosing, then the government will be seen as illegitimate, with the result that we’ll have to have yet another bloody election.

The bad news is that Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May will not take part in a head-to-head debate. The good news is that the seven leaders of Britain’s main political parties will debate, with stand-ins for May and Corbyn. A good chance for a potential successor to Corbyn to strut their stuff, and an excellent chance for one of May’s mediocrities to bore us to death. Unless, of course, she chooses Boris Johnson….

More when I have it.

The Promise – one country’s certainty is another country’s lie

The Promise is a movie about the Armenian genocide in 1915.

Publishing that sentence in Turkey would be enough to get you into deep trouble. You would be told that the death of half a million Armenians was the unfortunate consequence of war; that those who died were being moved away from the conflict zone in the east of the country, where Armenian separatists assisted an invading force – Russia. It was not genocide, say the Turks.

The Armenian version of the story was that 1.5 million of their people were slaughtered in a systematic series of massacres, through forced marches and in labour camps. That the killings were part of a plan by Turkey’s leaders to transform the Ottoman Empire into a land in which ethnic and religious diversity would be snuffed out and assimilated into a dominant Turkish culture. The First World War provided the opportunity to start that process away from the prying eyes of the world.

Reviewers have given The Promise a mixed reception. There have been criticisms that plot is weak, that the love story formulaic and that the actors are dwarfed by the action. As with all reviews, these are subjective opinions. If the subject is interesting, I ignore the critics and watch the movie anyway.

I found it compelling. It didn’t pluck the heartstrings, but it was well worth watching. Equally striking was the film’s backstory. It was funded by a billionaire who didn’t care whether or not he recouped his investment. Before it was released, it was trolled by voters on the IMDB film industry site. Without having seen the movie, over sixty thousand “people” gave it one star out of ten. Thirty thousand gave it ten. The industry assumption is that these voters were Turks and Armenians expressing their disapproval or otherwise that the film had been made.

The Promise is also noteworthy in that it’s the first effort from mainstream Hollywood since 1919 to portray the Armenian massacres. Why such a subject should be so long ignored is a mystery. Is it because unlike the Nazi Holocaust it’s faded from living memory, or has there been a lack of advocates willing to invest in telling the story? The events in Turkey were no less dramatic than those in Western Europe twenty five years later.

Movies depicting historical events on an epic scale are relatively rare these days. Hollywood tends to prefer serial blockbusters – Marvel heroes, Star Wars, X-Men and so forth. The Promise is something of a throwback to the days when the historical epic was the only big-budget game in town. I think it’s a shame that this kind of movie is in decline.

However inaccurate, stories based on real events have a good chance of arousing curiosity among mass audiences about the events depicted. They cn bring history alive in a way school curricula never could. How many people were inspired to discover Ancient Rome after watching Spartacus, Cleopatra and the Fall of the Roman Empire is anybody’s guess. The same goes for movies about Elizabethan England, the American Civil War and the Holocaust.

All of which causes me to wonder about the criteria critics and audiences use to rate these history fests. What makes an epic great in the eyes of the beholder? And when we look back to them, what do we remember most – the characters, the plot or the context?

A few thoughts from my perspective:

Some films focus on eternal human themes – of heroes, lovers, losers and martyrs. Of triumph over adversity. Without the protagonists, there would be no movies, because it’s their fate that moves us. The historical narrative takes second place, at least in our lingering memories.

When I think of Doctor Zhivago, I remember Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, and only then do I recall the tundra, the fighting and Tom Courtenay’s grim commissar in the armoured train. In Braveheart, the dominant image is Mel Gibson painted in blue, not the endless squabbles between the English and Scots. In Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole co-stars with the spectacular landscape of the Hejaz.

Then there are movies where the characters take second place to the context. Titanic is a movie about a doomed ship. The love story of Rose and Jack is there to keep us interested, but the ship is the star. In The Longest Day, the massive undertaking of the D-Day invasion is at centre stage, not the array of sub-narratives in which half of Hollywood strutted their stuff.

In others it’s a draw between the event and the characters. Schindler’s List, for example, is as much about Oskar Schindler’s humanity and Amon Goeth’s moral collapse as it is about the Holocaust. Likewise, Hotel Rwanda, in which the hotel manager’s efforts to save those threatened with slaughter, and the UN commander’s despairing actions to dampen the flames of genocide are the vehicle through which wider story of the conflict unfolds.

When I look back at films I consider memorable, it’s the small details that come to mind. In Schindler’s List, the girl in the red coat, a drunken Amon Goeth taking pot-shots at concentration camp inmates from the balcony of his villa, the pebbles on Schindler’s grave. In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller’s hands trembling as he rests in the church. In Gladiator, Maximus discovering his murdered family. T E Lawrence’s agony at having to execute the boy he rescued from the desert.

Characters, plot and context battle for supremacy, but another factor is also in play, though it’s often buried deep under the surface: the underlying intention of the movie makers. Often enough, the intention is pretty obvious – money, box-office success, awards. But producers and directors also use movies to educate, to persuade and to win hearts and minds. Or, if you want to be cynical, to manipulate our emotions. Whether they succeed without us noticing goes a long way towards the durability of the work.

Films that support political ideologies often use history as the backdrop to the message. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Olivier’s wartime production of Shakespeare’s Henry V were effectively state-sponsored propaganda.

There are also movies that reflect the family histories of those who make them. Schindler’s List for example – Spielberg’s testament of the Holocaust. The main producer of The Promise was Kirk Kerkorian, an American billionaire of Armenian descent, who funded the movie to the tune of $100 million. He had previously donated $1billion to Armenian charities. He clearly wanted the story of his people to be told.

I struggle to think of a vignette from The Promise that will remain with me decades on. Yet for me, it’s still an important film. The story has present day resonance, which is presumably why it’s excited the trolls. A genocide denied by the descendants of the perpetrators. The Armenian story was a key way-point in the decline of the Christian tradition in the Middle East. It’s also a reminder that massacres inflicted in the region on ethnic and religious groups – such as the Yazidis – are nothing new.

Turkey is in a different place today. It’s industrialised, and it’s a democracy – of sorts. Yet just as a hundred years ago many Turks felt threatened by the Armenian separatist movement, it’s now the turn of the Kurds to assume the role of the enemy within. Ironically, Kurds were among the Ottoman citizens who took part in the Armenian genocide. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that the Turks would even contemplate the ethnic cleansing of their Kurdish population. But a nation whose government locks up thousands of its citizens on suspicion of supporting last year’s attempted coup, and regularly jails dissenting journalists, still has a strong authoritarian streak.

But here’s the counter-narrative: the same country provides a safe haven for three million Syrian refugees.

We may remember the Armenian genocide as the forerunner of the Holocaust and other mass killings that scarred the last century. We may disapprove of the Turkish state refusing to acknowledge the enormity of committed by its Ottoman predecessor.

But perhaps we should also ask ourselves whether the United States, Britain or France would allow three million people to cross their borders, and, if they did, what kind of impact the influx would have on their politics, cultures and economies.

Which goes to show that no matter how unambiguous the historical narrative presented by movies like The Promise, there’s always another side to the story. Unfortunately, in the age of fake news and limited attention spans, we don’t always go in search of it.

%d bloggers like this: