Labour leaders and US imperialism
By Neil Harris
Neil Harris continues his look at confidential reports from the US embassy in London published by Wikileaks that reveal the craven and often grovelling relationship between some Labour and trades union figures and the London representatives of US imperialism.
ON 29th OCTOBER 2009 with great fanfare, a cross-party group of 15 former British defence and foreign ministers launched a new campaign group at their London press conference, although the modestly named “Top level group of UK Parliamentarians for Multi-lateral Nuclear disarmament and Non-proliferation” was never likely to have inspired too many banners on the kind of demonstrations we attend. Present amongst others were the Tory Malcolm Rifkind, former Nato chief Lord Robertson, Baroness Williams and Margaret Beckett. Given that one of its stated aims was “to provide an authoritative European voice to back up the position of US President Barack Obama”, it is strange just how much reassurance the American embassy required to make sure its interests were not threatened.
The chair of the group “Labour MP and former defence secretary Des Browne in a meeting with Poloff [American embassy Political Officer]”, had already explained two days before the launch what the group was going to be about, what would be said and attempted to reassure the embassy of their co-operation. He indicated that, “The group members would welcome opportunities to engage with key senators and congressmen on issues related to multilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation”, which probably translates to: “Can I have a free trip to Washington for me and my mates, please?".
In the resulting report to Washington, the Poloff quotes Browne: “The group represents almost the whole of the foreign and defence ministerial cohort of the last 20 years” and: “The group recognises that US global leadership is crucial…to provide an authoritative European voice to back up the position of Barack Obama”. Despite this, the Poloff still felt he had to attend the launch to take detailed notes and then speak to another source for more reassurance: “Following the launch, a Cabinet office officer who handles non-proliferation issues predicted to Poloff that the role of Trident would be a prominent theme in the election campaign”. Browne, in his earlier briefing was just as concerned about Trident replacement: “The key question for UK policy makers is how we can maintain a minimum defence from the system we have presently”. In this, Browne’s meeting with the Poloff two days before the launch effectively gave the US Embassy a veto over the whole event.
All of this relies on an eagerness to share information with the Americans – Browne was at it again in 2010, when he features in a cable from the Ambassador, which correctly predicts a hung parliament with the Tories as the biggest party. “Brown’s confidante and former defence secretary Des Browne told us that he did not think that there was enough time for Brown to turn things around in the remaining months before the election.”
Some relationships are long-term like Browne’s, some may be more fleeting, perhaps like those quoted in a 2007 cable, revealing the embassy’s interest in Labour Party funding and whether its links with the unions were going to be severed. The Poloff spoke to Labour MP Ian McCartney, whose characteristic comment on election funding was: “Who cares about a fucking billboard?”, as well as to John Lloyd “a historian with the union community”, the assistant general secretary of Amicus, Paul Talbot, who told him: “It’s not going to happen!” and Andy Bagnall then the “domestic policy advisor to Labour Party chair, Hazel Blears”.
Clearly a good political officer’s aim is to create long term and close relationships with individuals who are likely to become influential in the future. Today’s political researcher or speechwriter will be tomorrows MP and then one day – who knows? Two further examples illustrate how a brief contact can turn into something more enduring.
In a cable dated 30/8/06 and headed “sensitive but unclassified: not for internet”, the embassy details its annual briefing on the content of the forthcoming Trades Union Congress conference, due to start on the 11th September that year. On the 30th August, the economic assistant and the labour counsellor had met Owen Tudor, the head of the European and International relations department at the TUC, who set out the agenda, likely votes and how Blair’s speech would be received.
He told the embassy: “The conference’s international agenda will try to stay reasonably close to the Labour Government’s. … Warhorse issues like Cuba will offer no surprises, Tudor said, but he and the leadership will try to rein in the membership on Iraq.”
The embassy description of Tudor is worth repeating in full: “Tudor, a recent IV- grantee [International Visitor] welcomed outreach from the US embassy and regretted that the UK Labour movement had turned away from the USG [United States Government] and the US generally in recent years. He blamed a discontinuity between Labour’s post-war leaders who favoured strong ties to the US and their successors, who did not understand the strength of that tradition. The pull towards Europe and the impact of globalisation had also caused many in the movement to turn away from the US. He hoped it would prove to be a temporary rough patch and that strong US-UK ties would again be the norm.”
With one exception, Tudor’s biography as a TUC bureaucrat is what you would expect: membership of a host of quango’s and West-leaning international trade union organisations – the exception being a seat on the advisory council of Wilton Park, a Foreign Office-run country complex used for “discussions” and conferences. Set up at the end of the Second World War, it was first used to re-educate 4,000 prominent Nazi prisoners of war so that they could understand the West’s requirements from anyone who wanted a role in the West German puppet government. “I was a Nazi; I came to Wilton Park and it changed my life”, really is a quote from the official history.
In the 1960’s it supported the European movement in the run up to Britain’s Common Market membership and throughout the Cold War it was used as part of that struggle; in particular, at the end of the 1980’s in staging discussions with selected individuals from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the 1990’s, attendance at the centre was very helpful if you wanted a career in government in the “transitional” former socialist countries. Nowadays it probably hosts seminars for Libyans and Syrians.
The second example is that of Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP who we read about in his May 2009 meeting, when he gave a Poloff a briefing on the BNP. In an earlier meeting on 24th October 2006, Cruddas met both a political officer and the labour counsellor, to set out his policies for his candidacy for Deputy Party Leader, together with briefings on the BNP, his constituency, eastern European migration and the Muslim veil. The report of the meeting, in a cable dated 26/10/06, states that Cruddas “is a long-term Labour contact of the US embassy and a former International Visitor Program grantee”.
In another cable dated 31/7/08, the embassy reports on the anti-Brown plots and the likely candidates, were there to be a leadership contest. Each is described in an accurate and interesting thumbnail sketch, liberally sprinkled with the kind of information only insiders could have supplied. None is more interesting to us than that of their assessment of Cruddas, who they describe as a potential “wild card”.
It describes with obvious approval how: “Cruddas elected to parliament in 2001, has already shown himself to be a highly astute and wily politician. Prior to becoming an MP Cruddas was one of Blair’s closest advisors, working as his deputy political secretary at Downing Street”. It continues: “On becoming an MP Cruddas cleverly began to dissociate himself from Blair, rebelling against the government on key issues…including the renewal of the UK Trident nuclear submarine system.” Despite this apparent turn away from the US position, the embassy seemed very satisfied that its “long term Labour contact” had been able to gain support from large unions and the left.
A common theme in these case studies and many other cables has been attendance on the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which, with different titles, has been operating since 1940. Extremely thorough and expensive, this is a highly professional exchange programme intended to; “build mutual understanding between the US and other nations, through carefully designed short-term visits to the US for current and emerging foreign leaders”,
These visits, tailor-made for a particular individuals or small groups, normally last for three weeks and are carefully planned and supervised. They usually take in three cities and a trip to Washington and are intended to give the impression that each individual grantee is a highly valued person. There is sometimes a meeting with a well known political personality to provide a bit of glamour but the important emphasis is on meeting fellow professionals, on networking and making connections that are likely to provide benefits over a lifetime. There is always a stay with an “ordinary” American family. Every year, some 5,000 people make the all-expenses paid trip from all over the world, and the scheme is happy to boast that over the years this has included “some 290 current and former chiefs of state and heads of government, thousands of cabinet level ministers” and this is no exaggeration.
Since 1940, over 2,500 Britons have been invited and in November 2010, the “John Adams Society” was formed by the London embassy to organise British grantees and to further American policies. In response, some of its supporters in Parliament set down an early day motion in praise of the new society and of the IVLP itself. Sponsored by the Tory MP Peter Bottomley, the 21 signatories came from a wide range of political parties, including Labour’s John Cruddas, Mike Gapes (Clause Four – a faction within the Labour Party), Yasmin Qureshi (former human rights advisor to Ken Livingstone) and the tempestuous Eric Joyce, then still a member.
A quick scan of previous grantees reveals a remarkable group of people including Nikolas Sarkozy, Hamid Karzai, Anwar Sadat, Indira Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, and many more besides. In the case of Britain the timing of the invitations is very revealing: Edward Heath went in 1953, Margaret Thatcher in 1967, Gordon Brown in 1984 and Tony Blair in 1986. Blair and Brown liked it so much they both went back for a second time in 1992. Just in case any New Worker readers would like to go, the chances are not so good; you can’t apply – “selection is by Foreign Service officers”, which means we are back with the political officers, labour counsellors and economic officers of the US embassies around the world.
Not every grantee is destined for stardom, although it is later prominence in politics, media, education, art or business that the talent spotters are looking for. Sometimes, the leadership qualities sought are not those needed for a national role but leadership of a community that America is worried about, as the next two examples will show.
In a cable dated 8/5/08, the ambassador reported on his work “in response to the President’s democracy initiative” and in pursuit of this: “Post chose to take advantage of the Iranian Diaspora presence in London as well as the expertise on the community provided by the Post’s Iran watcher, to target its initial efforts on outreach to Iranian activists and dissidents.”
This included contacting and helping journalist/activists with wide audiences in Iran, supporting non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) “both expatriate and within Iran”, recommending financial grants, providing training in journalism and women’s rights.
Contact was made with “human rights organisations” and: “The Iran officer of the UK’s largest human rights organisation now routinely shares information with the embassy on developments inside Iran.”
In 2006 the embassy nominated five Iranian IVLP’s and after their return invited them back for an embassy reception to discuss how the visit went. More would have gone in later years if the money had been available.
Since 9/11, the British Muslim Community has been a pre-occupation for the embassy, in an October 2009 confidential report, political counsellor Robin Quinville recounted his visit to Swansea to witness a small Welsh Defence League demonstration and the much larger anti-racist counter demonstration that opposed it. He analysed community relations in Wales, following discussions with a prominent Christian minister and the director of the Muslim Council of Wales, both of whom had sought to diffuse the situation.
In February 2010, the embassy reported back to Washington on its “engagement with the Muslim community in the UK”, where: “Outreach to this key audience is vital to US foreign policy interests in the UK and beyond…This is a top mission priority.”
In opposition to extremism and radicalisation, the embassy is “currently building a network of Muslim civic activists…. youth workers, civil rights organisations, business entrepreneurs, interfaith workers and former extremists and others…..we have a broad base of Muslim contacts who view the embassy as a reliable and supportive partner.” Naturally, this process has been aided with nominations to the IVLP.
In all these cables, what is clear is that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg; in order to write a report on a subject at speed, you need a wide range of contacts, there will be many who will never be referred to in a cable. For example, no ambitious Poloff is ever going to quote a journalist contact because the State Department is looking for information that hasn’t been published already. That doesn’t mean they aren’t talking to journalists.
Nor are these contacts limited to private individuals; peppered throughout the cables are confidential discussions with Ministers’ special advisors, civil servants and other public officials (you know who you are), freely handing over confidential information.
All these individuals have one thing in common: they all seem to think they are unique, when for each example we have given from the Labour Party there is an equivalent from the Conservatives and Lib-Dems, the reports on Clegg and his colleagues being particularly contemptuous. If a Prime Minister gives a briefing does it not occur to him that his envious colleagues in Cabinet are probably doing the same, as are his opponents in rival parties?
None of them realise that their private conversation is being remembered and then stored for later use; it is, after all, the political officers who brief the ambassador and visiting American politicians. The reports go back to Washington where they influence US policy or are used in turn as the basis of briefings about politicians coming to America.
Nor does it occur to them that if the Americans are interested in them, they will be just as interested in their opponents. When a trade unionist talks to the embassy, does he really think the labour counsellor is there to help unions? It is the economic officer who briefs visiting American businessmen and it is the labour counsellor and political officer who will be supplying the background information.
We will leave it to Henry Kissinger, a man with much blood on his hands from years of service to the United States, who famously said: “America has no friends, only interests.”