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Imagine that a hostile power managed to infiltrate the UK’s government. Imagine that it set out to demoralise and debilitate this country, destroying our sense of common purpose, undermining our stability and trashing the lives of many of our citizens.
Imagine that it had to operate below the radar, within the structures of a nominally democratic system. Let’s follow this thought experiment for a moment. What would such a hostile force set out to do?
It would seek, first of all, to destroy trust. The people it planted in the government would lie prolifically, then lie about the lies, until we were so disoriented we no longer knew what to believe. They would damage our sense of national cohesion with a blatant disregard for the rules the rest of us must follow. They would seek to ensure that we lost faith in the political system and ceased to believe that those who govern us have our best interests at heart.
The hostile power would also set out to destroy, through subtle and insidious cuts, our social infrastructure: the effective delivery of health, education, social, environmental and local services. It would allow our physical infrastructure – public transport, sewerage, public buildings and other essential services – to deteriorate until, in some cases, it came close to collapse.
It would attack and undermine crucial symbols of national pride, such as the NHS, the BBC, the National Trust and the universities. It would further harm our sense of nationhood by trashing much of what we treasure and love, such as clean rivers, the green beltand well-planned cities.
It would sow division by promoting inequality, enabling a prosperous elite to accumulate ever more of the country’s wealth. After all, as George Orwell remarked during the second world war, “the lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering’s bombing planes”.
It would impede trading relations with our neighbours and major economic partners, in the hope of cutting us off from the world. It would undermine peace agreements and impose internal borders. It would allow crime to run rampant, permitting an explosion of devastating fraud and financial crimes such as money laundering that further harm our international standing and the concept of equality before the law.
Far from stamping out profiteering during a national crisis, the hostile power would create a special channel, enabling favoured interests to guzzle public money. It’s hard to think of a better policy for destroying trust in public life and the sense that we are all in this together.
You can see where this is going. It sometimes seems to me that if this government had set out to harm our country, it could scarcely have done a better job. It seems perversely committed to the destruction of civic life, national pride and a sense of belonging. You can more or less predict Tory policy on any issue by asking yourself: “What’s the most toxic and harmful strategy they could hope to get away with?”
So what is going on? Has a hostile power managed to infiltrate the UK government? In a way, yes. That power is oligarchic capital.
At the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that people who have donated at least £250,000 to the Conservative party have been invited to join an “advisory board”, with special access to the prime minister, cabinet ministers and senior government advisers. They have used this access to lobby for changes in government policy. The 14 identified members of the group have a combined wealth of at least £30bn, and have donated £22m to the Conservatives. Among them are property tycoons, financiers, two people with connections to the Kremlin, a tobacco magnate and an internet entrepreneur currently facing trial for rape and sexual assault (both of which he denies).
The group and its agenda had hitherto been kept secret. The Sunday Times reporting was based on a trove of leaked documents. The advisory group appears to cross the line that separates party business from government business, especially as the official facilitating it is on the public payroll.
We have also been told that the Conservative party is helping its donors to apply for key government positions, which looks like another obvious transgression of the line. Another tranche of leaked documents suggest that offering a golden ladder to prestigious public appointments is used as leverage when persuading them to part with their money.
Political funding has long been a means by which the very rich can exercise inordinate influence over public policy. But this influence now seems to have become cruder and more extreme than at any time in living memory. Far from seeking to contain plutocratic power, Boris Johnson hopes to strip the Electoral Commission of its powers to stop abuses of the funding system.
Big donors are not the only oligarchs with inordinate influence over this government. Dominic Cummings claimed that Boris Johnson referred to the Telegraph, owned by the billionaire Frederick Barclay, as “my real boss”. Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives have held several private meetings with Johnson and members of his cabinet.
Are the very rich deliberately trying to harm our country? In some cases, perhaps. There is a strand of capitalism that wants to generate crises, then seize national assets at fire sale prices. But no such intention is required to explain the general damage inflicted by oligarchic capital. It is simply that the interests of the very rich are not the same as the interests of the nation. We should never forget what the billionaire stockbroker Peter Hargreaves, who donated £3.2m to one of the leave campaigns, said about Brexit: “We will get out there and we will become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic.”
No responsible government would allow the demands of the ultra-rich to override the needs of the nation. But we have no responsible government.