Category Archives: Blog

Cyprus in World War I

In 1914 Cyprus was a protectorate of the British Empire, leased by the Ottomans in 1878 to provide London with a base in the Eastern Mediterranean. This all changed in 1914 when, following a secret treaty between the Ottomans and Germany, the Ottoman Empire declared war against the Triple Entente powers of Great Britain, France and Russia. The British garrison promptly annexed the island on 5 November 1914.

Despite its proximity to Turkey, Cyprus was never a battlefield during World War I. Constantinople had too many other problems: first, it was flat broke. Second, many of its citizens – such as the Armenians – did not support the war, and the Sultan found himself fighting off enemies on no less than five fronts, as well as at home: the British in Egypt and Mesopotamia; the Russians invading the Caucasus; the Anglo-French landings in Gallipoli; and the desert Arabs rising up in what is today Saudi Arabia.

The British authorities were always concerned that the Turkish Cypriots might turn against the British, since the Ottoman Empire was officially one of Britain’s enemies. Listening stations were set up to spy on Turkish radio messages and spies and saboteurs were smuggled into Turkey. Cyprus was also used as a convalescent home for thousands of sick and wounded British soldiers from the Middle East campaigns. It also became a secure place to hold the thousands of Turkish prisoners of war. The island was on a martial footing throughout the war and various Governors had to fight off repeated attempts by the Army to take over the administration.

Nevertheless many Cypriots played an active part in the war. Thousands volunteered for the British army and they played an important part in the Salonika campaign. By 1916, the Military Commander of the British divisions on the Salonika front requested a Corps of Muleteers to help carry stores and supplies in the mountainous region of Macedonia.

This contribution of thousands of Cypriots supporting British troops on the Macedonian Front is a largely untold story, but Cypriots provided crucial logistical support to the Allied war effort on the Salonika Front. The Macedonian Muleteer Corps had enlisted 9200 men by early 1918.  Another 401 remained at the training centre in Famagusta. They were well paid at 3 drachmas per day and, by March 1919, the Muleteers Corps was 15,910 strong.  It was estimated that 89% of those recruited were Greek Cypriots and 11% Turkish Cypriots. They served in the Macedonian front, in Serbia and in Bulgaria, while at the end of the war some even entered Constantinople with the victors.

Inevitably they suffered losses. In five military cemeteries in Macedonia there are the graves of 30 Cypriot muleteers killed in action between the years 1916-19.

Perhaps the most curious twist of Cyprus’ involvement in the Great War was the attempt to hand the island over to Greece, lock, stock and barrel. By 1916 London was desperate to woo Greece into joining the war. Athen’s nationalist Prime Minister, Venizelos was actually offered complete ownership of the island as a bribe towards Greek dreams of ‘MegaHellas’, a greater Greece, at Turkey’s expense. To the amazement of the Greek Cypriots, King Constantine turned it down, to the fury of his Prime Minister Venizelos, who was sacked. Tempting though the offer was, at the time the King didn’t want to be dragged into someone else’s war.

This call for ‘Enosis’ – union with Greece – would have to wait another half century and for EOKA’s gunmen. But that is another story …

This article first appeared in Cyprus Today in November 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the signing of the armistice to end World War I. The piece is reproduced here with the kind permission of Cyprus Today.
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On Blowing Up Parliament

‘Remember, remember
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason & Plot.
I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.’
17th-century Nursery Rhyme

The desire to blow up the occasional politician is a thoroughly understandable one. In the final stages of Brexit’s vexatious and bad-tempered Uncivil War in November 2018, this notion seems particularly attractive. However, it has already been tried – unsuccessfully.

That old monster Henry VIII really caused the original attempt. The Gunpowder plot of 1605 stemmed from Henry’s decision to change his wife – and England’s religion – 70 years previously.

Henry desperately needed a son to carry on the Tudor monarchy’s line. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to produce an heir and in 1533 Henry decided she had to go. This was always going to be tricky. Spain was the superpower of the day, so ditching a Spanish princess was guaranteed to annoy the King of Spain. The Pope, ever anxious to curry favour with ‘His Most Catholic Majesty,’ refused to agree with Henry and blocked any divorce.

However, Henry couldn’t wait, so broke away from Rome, declaring himself in 1534 the ‘Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England’. This proclamation conveniently enabled him to annul his marriage to Catherine and to marry Anne Boleyn. (It also allowed him to dissolve the Catholic monasteries and grab their land and money.)

But Henry VIII was no real fan of Luther’s ‘Reformation’, any more than he was of the Roman Pope. He clamped down on all religious fanatics, executing Catholics and Protestants alike. After his death the country slowly polarised into political factions: Catholics on one side; Protestants on the other. Henry VIII’s reforms turned out to be the Brexit of the day.

His Catholic daughter, Queen Mary, tried to turn the clock back. Protestants were persecuted, with 283 burnt at the stake for heresy. When Elizabeth I finally came to the throne she tip-toed carefully through the political and religious minefield she had inherited, declaring she was against ‘making windows in men’s minds’.

Unfortunately she was forced into persecuting Catholics because Rome’s Counter Reformation encouraged numerous plots to murder her and restore Catholicism in England. The Catholic Church, the Pope and Spain desperately wanted to replace Elizabeth with a Catholic monarch – Mary Queen of Scots, for example.

In England every Catholic was now viewed as a probable traitor. The Elizabethan establishment passed savage anti-Catholic laws. Jesuits were ordered to quit the kingdom on pain of death. Catholic priests were fined for saying mass and imprisoned for life. Anyone harbouring a priest risked hanging. Catholics were forbidden to move more than 5 miles from their residences.

It was against this explosive background of what was shaping up to be a religious civil war that King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne in 1603.

James Stuart was viewed with suspicion by his new subjects. Catholics and Protestants were literally at daggers drawn; plots abounded on every side. However, James managed to sign a peace treaty between England and Spain. But Spain and the Pope were still determined to restore freedom of worship for Catholics in England. Ironically, James was distrusted abroad for the repression of Catholics yet at home for being far too tolerant towards them. So, he was always a target. Catholics were plotting once again, this time to put James’s Catholic daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne. The authorities clamped down hard, but a new and deadly plot was brewing.

Robert Catesby, a minor Catholic aristocrat was the mastermind. He had taken part in a rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601 and then fled to the Spanish Netherlands where he began to recruit allies for a new attempt to kill England’s monarch.

By March 1605 the conspirators gathered in London. Their aim was simply to kill the King and as many of the Protestant elite as they could by blowing up the Houses of Parliament with a huge store of gunpowder. The State Opening of Parliament, with the bishops, lords, Privy Council and judges offered a ‘target-rich environment’, including the monarch’s nearest relatives. It was simple and brilliant: all they needed was enough gunpowder, and the opportunity to wipe out England’s hated Protestant ruling elite at a stroke.

The plotters based themselves at Catesby’s lodgings in Lambeth, where their stored gunpowder could be secretly ferried across the Thames. Meanwhile, Parliament pushed through increasingly harsh anti-Catholic legislation.

The gang leased an unused cellar beneath the House of Lords. In those days the Palace of Westminster was easily accessible; merchants, lawyers, and others lived and worked in the lodgings, shops and taverns within its precincts. By August, 36 barrels of gunpowder had been stored. The opening of Parliament was announced for 5 November. The plot was simple; Fawkes would be left to light the fuse and then escape across the Thames, whilst – simultaneously – a revolt in the Midlands would abduct Princess Elizabeth.

However, by now details of the plot were leaking. The wives of those involved became increasingly concerned and on 26 October, Lord Monteagle, the brother-in-law of one the conspirators’ received an anonymous letter warning him ‘as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament’Alarmed, Monteagle warned James’s spymaster Salisbury, who cannily decided to sit on the intelligence and watch events unfold.

On 1 November the King was informed; he ordered a search of the Houses of Parliament. Half the conspirators moved to the Midlands, ready to abduct Princess Elizabeth. On 4 November Catesby set off North to join them.

On that same evening a search party finally discovered a large pile of firewood beneath the House of Lords, accompanied by ‘a simple serving man.’ It was Guido Fawkes. Later that night an armed party returned to search the undercroft more thoroughly. Once again they found Fawkes. He was arrested, giving his name as ‘John Johnson’. He was carrying a lantern and a pocket watch plus fuses, and slow-matches. Barrels of gunpowder were discovered under firewood.

Although Fawkes’s had been caught red-handed, for two days he was the only conspirator arrested. He openly admitted that he had planned to blow up the House of Lords but staunchly refused to name anyone else. This earned him the praise of King James, who nevertheless reluctantly ordered Fawkes to be tortured to name his accomplices. On 7 November his resolve and his body were broken; on the rack he confessed the identities of his co-conspirators. It was now a manhunt for the fugitives.

At the news of ‘John Johnson’s’ arrest, the plotters had fled. Catesby told them that the King and Salisbury were dead, before the gang moved north, eventually holing up in Holbeche House near Stafford. Tired and desperate, they spread out some of their damp pistol gunpowder in front of the fire to dry out. A spark landed on the powder and the resultant flames engulfed Catesby, and two others. The remaining fugitives resolved to stay on. On 8 November the King’s men surrounded Holbeche House, killing or capturing the surviving conspirators.

During the next few weeks, Salisbury’s agents hunted down the rest of the plotters and tried them for High Treason. Fawkes and the surviving conspirators were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fawkes cheated his butchers; moments before the start of his execution, on 31 January 1606, he jumped from a ladder while climbing to the gallows, breaking his neck and dying.

The nation rejoiced. But Catesby’s failed Gunpowder Plot set Catholicism in England back for centuries. New laws were instituted that eliminated the right of Catholics to vote, among other repressive restrictions.

Catesby’s Gunpowder Plot still casts a long shadow. To this day, ‘Guy’ Fawkes’ effigy is burned across Great Britain every Fifth of November and the cellars of the Houses of Parliament are searched to make sure there are no conspirators hiding with explosives to blow up the politicians.

However, sometimes it still seems quite a good idea at times of national constitutional crisis …

America’s Secret Coup d’État

Book cover: see link in footer

Fifty-five years ago this week, the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was shot and killed. The official Warren Enquiry concluded that the murder was the work of a lone gunman, an ex-US Marine, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Years later, another US President, Richard Nixon, admitted that the Warren Enquiry into the murder was “the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

The KGB’s secret enquiry came to a very different conclusion: the murder was nothing less than ‘a coup d’etat, carried out by rogue elements in the US administration, the CIA and the Mafia, backed by rich businessmen, and that Vice President [Lyndon B] Johnson knew all about it.’

New evidence proves the Russians were correct. JFK was murdered by a well organised plot to get rid of him. He had made too many enemies.

The story starts at his election in 1960. JFK squeaked in by just 4500 voters in in Chicago and Illinois. Those crucial votes were paid for by Joe Kennedy, JFK’s father, an ex-bootlegger and friend of the Chicago Mafia. The Mob expected gratitude from ‘Old Joe’s boy in the White House.’ They were wrong.

Robert F Kennedy

When JFK appointed his brother Robert as Attorney General – and since young Bobby Kennedy was out to make a name for himself – the Feds began hounding the Dons as crooks and putting them in jail.  J Edgar Hoover, the corrupt head of the FBI, who had been in the Mob’s pocket for years, watched horrified as mobsters ‘took the fifth’ in court. The Kennedys had double crossed the Mafia.

The Mob hit back with a contract to kill Bobby Kennedy. However, Carlos Marcello, the all-powerful Don of Dons, reminded the mobsters of the Sicilian proverb: ‘If you want to stop the dog’s tail wagging – cut off its head.’ The contract was switched to JFK.

J Edgar Hoover

The Mob had many willing allies. The Cuban exiles, smarting after their disastrous failed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs in 1960, wanted rid of JFK. So did the CIA, who in the aftermath of their botched attempt to overthrow Castro had been told that a furious Kennedy wanted to ‘splinter the agency up into a thousand pieces.’ This was dangerous for JFK, as he just ordered the CIA to work with the Cuban exiles to mount a new coup to overthrow Castro.

Over the months, others backed the plot. JFK alienated the so-called ‘Federal Reserve Bank’ (which is really a consortium of 12 private banks) by declaring that the Treasury, not the Fed, would print America’s money in future. JFK pointed out that the US Constitution specifically forbade anyone else printing money than the US Treasury.

He upset big steel by crushing a cartel of steel corporations, bent on upping their prices to rip off the American taxpayer. He infuriated the Oil Barons of Texas by removing their prized Oil Depletion Allowance, that allowed them to offset ‘dry wells’ against tax, worth $3 billion a year in today’s values. Wall Street was horrified; who the hell did Kennedy think he was?

Things got worse. Kennedy decided to pull out of Vietnam and bring the boys home. In 1963 there were only 16,000 ‘advisors’. The big arms corporations were making a fortune out of the Vietnam war and wanted the war ramped up, not withdrawal.

The alliance of vehement anti-Kennedy groups grew by the month. The all-important Jewish Lobby was furious when Kennedy refused to back Israel’s attempt to build a secret nuclear bomb. Much worse, he even threatened to turn off all US aid to Israel. David ben Gurion openly declared JFK ‘an enemy of Jews everywhere’.

By early 1963 Kennedy had managed put together a constituency – of his sworn enemies. By declaring open season on America’s secret government of money and serious vested interests he had united his enemies to agree on one thing – JFK had to go.

Lyndon B Johnson

Kennedy then made a fatal mistake. His Vice President, the Texan Lyndon B Johnson, was a crook, a swindler and had ordered several murders, as well as being up to his neck in numerous nefarious deals. A special Congressional Committee was appointed to look into his misdeeds. Jack Kennedy decided that he would need a different running mate for 1964. LBJ was in the running – but for a Federal Penitentiary. And LBJ –“only a heartbeat from the Presidency,” knew.

From then on in early 1963 the only question for the secret plotters was; when?  Where? And how?

There were three attempts on JFK; all using the same MO. A rifleman; a patsy to take the blame; and a clear opportunity. The first attempt was in Chicago on 2 October 1963. Nothing happened. The Secret Service received a warning that one Thomas Valee, ex-Marine sharpshooter, had been recruited to help train dissident groups of Cuban Exiles for the assassination of Fidel Castro. Valee was arrested. He claimed that he had been set up by ‘someone with special knowledge about him’, such as the CIA, because he had a government assignment to train Exiles to assassinate Castro.

The second attempt was in Florida. Tampa police and the FBI recorded a conversation between Joe Milteer and a Miami Police informant, Willie Somersett.[SIC] On 9 November 1963, Milteer told Somersett that that JFK would be killed on his visit to Miami, by ‘someone with a rifle in a tall building’. An ‘ex-Marine called Lopez would be arrested immediately after the killing to take the blame.’ Like Oswald, Lopez was heavily involved with the Tampa ‘Fair Play for Cuba Committee’; like Oswald and Valee, Lopez had been set up as a pro-Castro patsy. Extra security was drafted in and the conspirators went to ground.

The third – and successful – attempt was on the President’s visit to Dallas on 22 November 1963. We now have hard evidence of how the assassination was done, from a series of belated confessions and witness testimony. The presidential cavalcade was ambushed by three teams of gunmen; one in the Dal Tex building; one in the Texas School Book Depository; one on the Grassy Knoll. All this was recorded on film.

Up to ten shots were fired. JFK was hit first in the neck by a small calibre bullet; the Zapruder film of the motorcade clearly shows JFK clutching his throat. The next shot hit him in the back. The fatal shot was from the front, from a Remington ‘Fireball’, chambered for a .222 round. This hit JFK on the right temple and exited (with half his brain) out of the back of his skull. Oswald was swiftly arrested waiting for a contact to fly him to Cuba.

What happened then was a pre-planned and coordinated cover-up. Within two hours news releases and pictures of Oswald mysteriously surfaced, even as far away as New Zealand. Oswald was killed and silenced by a Mafia low life called Jack Ruby to make sure he didn’t talk.

How do we know all this? Here are some of the sources:

  • The deathbed confession of CIA officer, Howard Hunt
  • Carlos Marcello’s boasts to friends that he ‘whacked that smiling motherf_____ in Dallas’
  • The prison confession of professional trigger man Jim Files, who fired the fatal shot and identified the gun
  • LBJ’s admissions to his mistress
  • The 1992 testimony of Mafia lawyer Frank Ragano about the contract and conspiracy
  • The 1978 testimony of Cuban exile Dave Morales, passed to the House Committee on Assassinations, that ‘We took care of that sonofabitch’

The Mafia, the CIA and the Cuban exiles all had motive, method and opportunity to kill the US President. Oil billionaires, arms manufacturers, the big banks Wall Street and Israel all benefitted from JFK’s untimely death. J Edgar Hoover and LBJ survived.

The Russians were right; the assassination in Dallas was America’s secret coup d’état.

And it’s been kept covered up for far too long.

John Hughes Wilson’s book on this subject – JFK: An American Coup D’Etat: The Truth Behind the Kennedy Assassination – is available from libraries and all good bookshops: see Goodreads

The Reality of ‘Red October’

‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.’ VI Lenin (speech to Second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets)

On 25 October 1917, (pre-revolution calendar) Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party, organised a successful coup d’etat and seized power in St Petersburg, then known as Petrograd.

Despite 90 years of Soviet propaganda, the events of ‘Red October’ were never a spontaneous uprising and a revolution by the people. It was an armed insurrection by a minority to overthrow a provisional government. Also, it was not – again despite Soviet claims – universally popular: fighting went on in Moscow and Petrograd for two weeks as the Bolsheviks tried to crush and silence their enemies, to be followed by a prolonged and brutal civil war.

Lenin himself was astounded by his revolution’s success, saying, ‘It takes your breath away.’ However, having seized power, he showed himself as authoritarian as any Czar. When the Second Congress of Soviets assembled on (modern calendar) 7 November 1917 it voted to ratify the revolutionary transfer of state power and, after a walk-out by the opposition – who claimed the coup was illegal – made Lenin ruler of Russia. Lenin’s Marxist Bolsheviks were now the government of a nation that was 3000 miles wide and had 11 time zones. Lenin’s famous call to arms was to unleash misery and death for millions: ‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.’

Russia’s new ruler made crystal clear his aims and means of achieving them: ‘The goal of socialism is Communism,’ and ‘Personal liberty is precious – so precious that it must be rationed.’ In addition, just to show that he meant business, ‘Hang without fail, so the people can see them, no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.’ The rich and middle class got the message and promptly fled abroad clutching their valuables, leaving their property to be seized by the State.

It rapidly became clear that Lenin was no harmless old revolutionary theorist, obsessed with permanent opposition to the bourgeoisie – he turned out to be a ruthless, rabble-rousing, power-hungry class warrior, determined to crush the rich for ever, using ‘The Party’ and his Red Guards to provide muscle when required.

Like all professional revolutionaries however, his priority was money – other people’s money. One of his first decrees was to close down all the banks and steal their money in the name of the State, leaving millions penniless.

Revolutionary socialists had always understood the importance of money to fuel their socialist dream.  Josef Dzhugashvili, a,k.a ‘Stalin’ – which translates as ‘Man of Steel’ – or perhaps ‘steal?’ – was just one of many revolutionary bank robbers. He was the main planner of an infamous stagecoach hold-up in Tiflis in 1907. The Bolsheviks attacked a security coach, killing 40 guards and civilians. The thieves got away with over a million roubles, describing their atrocity as a legitimate ‘redistribution of capital for the Revolution.’

Another revolutionary socialist would-be Robin Hood, Mao Zedong, recruited ‘bands of brigands and bandits’ to support his revolutionary cause by theft. In 1927, he organised his own great train robbery in Hupei and stole a huge shipment of banknotes. Interestingly, Mao later organised another wave of ‘revolutionary bank robberies’ when he was actually Chinese dictator. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), he unleashed his Red Guard thugs to hold up dozens of banks to ‘shake up society’ in 1966. Ironically, in 1969 Mao suddenly remembered that he was also responsible for China’s law and order, and ordered his Red Guards to stop.

Revolutionary socialists sometimes make fat-cat capitalists seem almost benevolent. Peru’s Maoist movement, the Sendero Luminoso (‘Shining Path’) were not just brutal terrorist murderers responsible for the deaths of 30,000 Peruvians and $20 billion in damage. They were also accomplished thieves. Bank robberies – or ‘revolutionary expropriations’ – soon became a favourite means of raising funds for their planned revolution in Peru. In 1981, Shining Path carried out over 50 bank robberies in Lima alone, and the wave of bank robberies continued throughout the mid-1980s, along with international heists in Brazil and Mexico.

The lesson is that the Socialist State of Lenin’s dreams had as much need of hard cash as any capitalist one. But Lenin’s ‘socialist revolution’ did not confine itself to just stealing other people’s hard-earned savings.

The Russian Civil War demonstrated that not everyone, in what was to become the USSR, favoured Lenin and the Bolsheviks being in power. In the face of mounting anger and opposition from the now less-than-revolutionary masses, Russia’s new dictator ordered a crack-down on all opposition and protest. In December 1918, he ordered the creation of the Cheka, or the ‘All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage,’ the original bloodthirsty Soviet secret police organisation. The Chekists were led by a Polish aristocrat-turned-communist, the psychopathic Felix Dzerzhinsky, who ruthlessly murdered all Communism’s opponents. Lenin, and later Stalin’s, new secret police made the Czar’s rule seem compassionate by comparison.

The Cheka’s task was to hunt out ‘enemies of the state’. This led to what became known as the ‘Red Terror’. Suddenly anyone could be arrested. The Cheka became sole judge, jury and invariably executioner. Following a failed assassination on Lenin in September 1918, Russians came to dread the Cheka’s midnight knock on the door. Fellow Bolshevik Leon Trotsky even compared Lenin’s crackdown to Robespierre’s French Jacobin ‘Reign of Terror’ – in 1940, he got an ice pick through the brain for his pains. In all, an estimated 20 million Russians would eventually die at the hands of their Party masters in Communism’s ‘Revolutionary Paradise.’

Fat on stolen money, and with dissenting voices silenced, Lenin now turned to actually governing his new Russia. A Decree on Land policy confirmed the actions of the peasants, who had quietly redistributed private land among themselves during the chaos. The Bolsheviks now reinvented themselves as representing an alliance of workers and peasants. The Hammer and Sickle became the symbol of the new Soviet Union. Other decrees ensured there could be no turning back from Lenin’s new Socialist order:

  • All private property was nationalised by the government
  • All Russian banks were nationalised
  • Parliament was abolished in favour of The Party
  • Private bank accounts were expropriated
  • The properties of the Church (including bank accounts) were expropriated
  • All foreign debts were repudiated
  • Control of the factories was given to the workers’ committees called ‘Soviets’
  • Wages were fixed at higher rates than during the war; and a shorter, eight-hour working day was introduced

In our time, we have seen something similar in Venezuela. In 2005, Hugo Chávez announced Venezuela’s ‘great socialist leap forward’. Since then, the oil-rich country has followed the strict ‘socialist path’ and – just like the USSR – ruined its economy and impoverished its people. Despite a wealth of natural resources, Venezuela has turned into an economic and humanitarian disaster zone, thanks to an attempt by the government to run a ‘revolutionary socialist economy’ for Chavez’s deeply corrupt Party.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of Venezuelan credit and normal banking has aggravated runaway inflation and a recession, causing hundreds of thousands to flee the country amid chronic shortages, rising malnutrition and increased incidence of preventable disease.

Lenin’s decrees, plus his and Stalin’s desire for state control of everything (including the economy), eventually ruined the USSR, just as it is ruining Venezuela today. The lesson is that Marxist theory may work well in theory and dreams of stirring up ‘socialist revolutions’, but history has shown us that it cannot run a modern state properly. Lenin’s ‘October Revolution’ turned out to be a disastrous experiment with people’s lives and property that just didn’t work. It soon became obvious to all that in Lenin’s new ‘Socialist Order’ some quickly became more equal than others – just like before the Revolution.

The ‘October Revolution’ may have been one of the twentieth century’s defining events; it was also one of the most bloody and tragic.

It stands as a model for how not to reform society.

Brexit: Another Fine Mess

‘I do declare that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate hath, or ought to have jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence or authority within this Realm.’  The Bill of Rights (English Parliament, 1689)

‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ Laurel and Hardy’s catchphrase seems particularly appropriate as Britain approaches Brexit, due on 29 March 2019.

Few of us can remember a more confused and troublesome time in politics. From Donald Trump’s surprise election as president, to Italy throwing its Euros out of the pram; and from Korea’s nuclear threats to the collapse of ISIS, none of these cataclysmic events has caused as much heart-searching among Britons as the vote to leave the European Union: Brexit.

It is important to record two key facts from the start; first, the vote was on the largest turn out in British electoral history, with 30 million voting and a majority of over one million to leave. Second, the very generation that voted the UK to join the European Common Market back in the 1970s was the very generation that voted to quit forty years later. (Under forties mainly voted to remain.)

This poses the question, what has changed? The answer is simply, Europe. What Britons joined as a Common Market has morphed into something quite different. Today’s EU has taken on all the trappings of a superstate, with its own flag, anthem, currency, budget, courts, diplomatic representation, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, border police, and is even trying to build its own army. What we see today is not the Common Market Britons thought they were joining back in the 1970s. The electorate was tricked into joining Europe – and quite deliberately, too.

We now know from three impeccable sources that what Christopher Booker called The Great Deception was based on a barefaced lie. Sir Edward Heath, the British Prime Minister who took Britain into the Common Market, lied consistently to the British people about the true consequences of joining Europe. He knew he was signing away Britain as an independent power. He admitted it years afterwards. Moreover, his highly classified Foreign Office briefing notes are now available (FCO 30/1048, April 1971) and confirm his lies beyond all argument. Sir Con O’Neill, the Whitehall mandarin behind this astonishing briefing paper, warned Heath that Britain would, by ceding judicial and executive powers, eventually end up as little more than a vassal state taking orders from Brussels. They knew: and so did Heath. O’Neill advised Heath to ‘swallow the lot and swallow it now’, according to the hitherto secret official record of the EEC talks.

Astonishingly, the faceless authors behind the briefing paper made an even more sinister recommendation; they advised ministers to hide the truth from the British public. The result of this deception has been that successive governments have deliberately kept the British public in the dark about what EEC membership really meant, hoping that it would one day be too late to leave. What Heath and the civil service never anticipated was that sooner or later the British public would see though the fraud and vote to quit Europe in a fiercely contested referendum half a century later.

Britons cannot pretend that they were not warned. There can be no doubt that the avowed purpose of the EU has always been to create a single European super-state, governed from Brussels, absorbing formerly independent and autonomous nation states. But don’t just take my word for it. Here are some quotes from European politicians over the years to confirm the point:

‘A United States of Europe is our goal’. Arthur Salter and Jean Monnet, 1923.

‘Europe’s nations should be guided towards the superstate without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation.’  Jean Monnet, 1952.

‘We have sown a seed … Instead of a half-formed Europe, we have a Europe with a legal entity, with a single currency, common justice, a Europe which is about to have its own defence.’ Valery Giscard d’Estaing, President of the EU Convention, June 2003

‘The European Union is a state under construction.’ Elmar Brok, European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.

‘We need a true political union … we need to build a United States of Europe with the Commission as government and two chambers – the European Parliament and a “Senate” of Member States … European Parliament elections are more important than national elections …’ Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, January 2014

Even the UK politician, Kenneth Clarke, former Conservative Chancellor, in a rare moment of honesty from a British politician takes a similar view:

‘I look forward to the day when the Westminster Parliament is just a council chamber in Europe.’ International Currency Review, Vol 23 No 4, 1996

All this flatly contradicts Heath’s famous 1971 speech on joining the Common Market.

‘There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty, even that we shall begin to lose our national identity. These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified and exaggerated ….’

If ever there is proof of a lie to the British electorate, the evidence is clear. Heath arguably committed an act of treason. He deliberately misled the British people and betrayed the Queen into breaking her Coronation Oath. Today’s inevitable backlash from a badly mis-sold electorate is what has fuelled the uncivil battle over Brexit faced by Theresa May.

Unfortunately for her, time to come up with a workable exit EU strategy is fast running out. PM May has just a few weeks to devise a new, mutually acceptable solution because, since Brussels rejected her Chequers proposals, she is trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place: between her mutinous Eurosceptic party wing and an unyielding Commission, determined not to give an inch for fear of encouraging other increasingly rebellious EU nations. The former ‘arch ditherer’ at the Home Office now has to make a crucial decision. Britain’s timid but stubborn leader must shake off her rabbit in the headlights diplomacy.

As for the Europhiles, Britain must be punished, if only pour décourager les autres.

Frau Merkel has said so. She and France’s latest would-be Napoleon, President Macron, dare not back down. To do so would unleash a flood of anti-EU challenges, starting with Italy and its dodgy Euro, to be followed by the rebellious ‘Visegrad Four’ nations of Eastern Europe, who don’t want any more ‘refugees,’ thank you very much. The EU line must be held, at all costs. The European Commission agrees, warning that the political and economic damage inflicted by Brexit simply presents too great a risk to the EU.

Because Brussels recognises that the defection of the UK could be the capstone that collapses the EU’s arch. The loss of 10% of the Commission’s budget alone is a grievous blow: but the threat of mass defections and an unravelling of the whole European project terrifies the EU Federalist elites, let alone the nervous European banks. Their gravy train could hit the buffers.

The irony is that this bitter and protracted struggle to stifle dissent and lock the stable door is caused by an organisation that was meant to foster European harmony. The Europhiles and the Commission appear to have allowed their dream of a united Europe to over-ride the genuine concerns and anxieties of democratic voters in free nations. They don’t understand, for example, that the annexation of Northern Ireland into the EU means political suicide for any British PM.

What is now clear is that the biggest change to the unwritten British political constitution since 1689 was based on a politician’s lie and the British electorate was deliberately deceived. It was also legally questionable, according to the Bill of Rights.

Whether you agree or disagree with Brexit is immaterial. Brexit goes to the heart of what the UK is. Will Britain be self-governing? Or part of a new federal state?

That’s why it matters.

ISIS: The Final Countdown?

Winston Churchill once famously said, ‘battles are the punctuation marks of history.’ Well, we have just avoided a potentially disastrous ‘exclamation mark’ in the bloody history of the Middle East. Whilst the post-colonial Versailles settlement of 1919 is being brutally readjusted to take account of the harsh realities of today’s Muslim world, a major crisis has just been avoided. At Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Turkey and Russia have agreed to form a joint, demilitarised buffer zone around Syria’s embattled north-western province bordering Turkey: Idlib.

This agreement defuses a growing crisis between Ankara and Moscow by preventing any major Russian-backed government offensive from exploding into ISIS’s final rebellious Syrian redoubt. However, significant obstacles remain; Idlib could still become a flash point.

The problem is that the Middle East is as much of an unexploded bomb today as Europe was in 1914. Sunni Saudi Arabia hates Iran, and Shi’a Iran loathes the Saudis. Shi’ite Assad’s remaining chunk of Syria is the close ally of Iran. Behind the Saudis stand the USA, Britain and France. Behind the Iranians stand the Russians, sometimes the Turks, ever keen to obliterate the Kurds, and perhaps China – and watching nervously from its ringside seat is Israel.

For the past ten years we have all been living with this savage struggle to the death. Muslim has been slaughtering Muslim, all in the name of the Prophet of the religion of Peace and Love – ‘May his name be blessed.’ Now this round is nearly over; or is it?

The Turkish-Russian Sochi deal has been welcomed by all sides as an opportunity to avert the suffering that any major offensive would inflict on the province’s 3 million civilians. UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the agreement, saying that the ‘creation of a buffer zone in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province should avert an all-out military assault and provide reprieve for millions of civilians.’

It would also avoid the heavy losses that would be incurred by government forces in launching the biggest battle yet of the Syrian war against the cornered rebels. Turkey, the UN and aid groups have warned that any major assault by Russian and government forces backing President Bashar al-Assad against the trapped rebel fighters would lead to a massacre. It could also send 800,000 new refugees fleeing across the border into an already overwhelmed Turkey.

Many of the civilians in Idlib are already refugees from other parts of Syria following the collapse of the opposition resistance in cities such as Aleppo. The consequences of an all-out offensive against Idlib with its hapless civilians and the risk of Turkish troops fighting Russians could have led to a bloodbath.

The agreement is specifically designed to halt this major Russian-Syrian-Iranian attack on Idlib, with its trapped civilians.  The agreement calls for a 9- to 12-mile demilitarised  zone around the borders of the region, safe from Syrian and Russian air-force attack and which must be in place by 15 October. Heavy weapons including tanks, mortars and artillery will be withdrawn and Russian and Turkish troops will police the neutral zone. The Syrian government said that it ‘welcomed any initiative that stops bloodshed and contributes to security and stability.’ President Recep Tayyip Erdogan added, ‘With this memorandum of understanding, I believe we have prevented a major humanitarian crisis in Idlib.’

However, the devil is in the detail. The deal’s success hinges on the withdrawal of an estimated 10,000 fanatical jihadi rebel fighters from the buffer zone, fighting under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida and listed as dangerous terrorists by Russia, the USA and the UN.

These are some of Syria’s fiercest rebels, battle-hardened over years of gruelling warfare. HTS will fight to the death rather than surrender and they have good reason to do so: talks with the government have gone nowhere. In recently recaptured parts of the country, Assad’s goons have promptly arrested former rebels and opposition officials despite assurances of amnesty. Many have disappeared into Assad’s torture dungeons. ‘It’s either die, or surrender – and then die,’ says one rebel leader.

Despite these problems, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (a staunch supporter of Assad) tweeted: ‘Diplomacy works.’ However, he added that his visits to Turkey and Russia in recent weeks had achieved ‘a firm commitment to fight extremist terror.’ Putin himself added, ‘Russia and Turkey reiterated their commitment to continue anti-terrorism efforts in Syria in any of its forms or manifestations.’

Quite how this agreement to quarantine Idlib helps to stamp Islamic terrorism remains unclear because the deal is very fragile. With jets from at least six countries – Israel, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Britain and America – roaming the skies over Syria, the risk of mistakes leading to further escalation of the fighting are just a pilot’s blink away. Also, where will the rebels go?

Nevertheless, the international consequences of Sochi are important. Russia has scored a major diplomatic victory by striking a deal with Turkey. Moscow has avoided damaging its growing strategic relationship with Ankara, whilst achieving its own aims in Syria without more bloodshed. The Syrian war may be ending.

However, some things have not changed. ‘Russia doesn’t like the rebels and they want to help Assad lock down his victory; but they also have strong incentives to continue courting the Turks,’ said Aron Lund, an expert on the region. ‘Syria is just a small part of what Putin cares about. If he can just make the Syrian conflict quiet and unthreatening with Assad still in power, then Russia has won the war ….’

Idlib’s locals have mixed emotions about the Sochi deal. Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a 32-year-old teacher living in Idlib remains wary. ‘After seven years, if we trusted anyone we would be fools. Whenever we trust anyone they trick us,’ said Mr Alhamdo, who lived through the siege of Aleppo before fleeing to Idlib.  He added that he was ‘so happy, and so sad’ about the deal, because it still leaves them in limbo.  ‘People might be able to live again. Children might know there is tomorrow without planes. But we are still in nowhere. Refugees forever.’

Others have spotted the loopholes in the agreement. Thanassis Cambanis of The Century Foundation warns: ‘The gaping hole is that “terrorists” are still fair game. Putin has endorsed a lot of truces, but then Russia proceeded to bomb groups it defines as terrorists, because it says they weren’t part of the wider deal.’

This truce might be different. Putin’s own credibility is at stake, having made such a high-profile deal with President Erdogan. Turkey and Russia are increasingly becoming trade and diplomatic partners. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor. The Kremlin also sees the strains between Turkey and western countries as a wonderful opportunity to divide and weaken the NATO alliance, to which Turkey provides the second largest number of troops. Putin has a personal stake in the Idlib agreement.

However, whilst for the Jihadis the battle may be lost, their long war is not over, because crushing ISIS in Syria will not eradicate the real problem. If the jihadis escape, the deadly spores of terrorism will merely disperse to spread their Islamist terrorism, which is already ‘global and growing.’ Islamist extremists caused 84,000 deaths in 2017 and intelligence agencies have identified 121 groups sharing a common ideology, now operating worldwide. They killed 84,000 people – nearly 22,000 of them civilians – in 66 countries in 2017, according to latest reports.

Even Whitehall admits that a convicted jihadi terrorist is being released onto the streets of Britain nearly every week. Home Office figures show that 46 prisoners held for terrorism offences were released in 2017 (The Telegraph, 13 September 2018)

ISIS and al Qa’ida are still very dangerous. Whatever happens in Idlib, we have not heard the last of them. The fallout from Syria will be with us for years.

Hunting the Algorithm

Algorithms rule your life. Really. I’ll also wager that most of us don’t have a clue what an algorithm is, or what it does. Most of us can’t even spell it.

Nowadays, however, thanks to advanced algorithms, computers can learn and reprogram themselves. They can make their own decisions automatically, without human intervention. Visions of The Terminator franchise’s murderous robots could come true, which is worrying for all of us. Our digital ‘Brave New World‘ is frighteningly close – and seriously alarming.

So, how can we address this issue? First, we have to decide what an algorithm really is, which is a bit like hunting the Snark. They are everywhere and yet there are invisible. The best definition is, ‘a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.’ Note that last word: computer.

Algorithms are the mathematical rules that tell your computer what to do and how best to do it. Computer programs comprise bundles of algorithms, recipes for handling information. Algorithms themselves are nothing more than pathways to manage pieces of data automatically. So, if ‘A’ happens, then go to do ‘B’; if that doesn’t work, then do C. It’s pure ‘either/or’ logic. Nothing could be simpler; or maybe not ….

Any computer program can be therefore viewed as an elaborate cluster of algorithms, a set of rules to deal with changing inputs. The problem is that computers increasingly rule our lives, whether we like it or not. We need to keep a close eye on these robotic machines as they can be dangerous.

Taking a nasty example, one dark night in March 2018 a computer-driven SUV mowed down and killed a female cyclist in Arizona. Sensors told state-of-the-art onboard algorithms to calculate that, given the robot SUV vehicle’s steady speed of 43 mph, the object must be stationary. However, objects in roads seldom remain stationary. New algorithms kicked in, looking for a split-second resolution. The SUV computer first decided it was dealing with another car, before it realised the car was bearing down on a woman with a bike hung with shopping baskets, expecting the SUV to drive passed her. Confused, the SUV computer handed control back to the human in the driver’s seat within milliseconds. It was too late: the cyclist, Elaine Herzberg, was hit and killed. The tech geeks responsible for the SUV then faced difficult questions like: ‘Was this algorithmic tragedy inevitable?’, ‘Are we ready for the robots to be in charge?’ and ‘Who was to blame?’

‘In some ways we’ve lost control. When programs pass into code and then into algorithms, algorithms start to create their own new algorithms, it gets farther and farther away from humans. Software is released into a code universe which no one can fully understand …’ says Ellen Ullman, author of Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology.

The problem is that algorithms now control almost everything. Amazon, Facebook, Google, university places, welfare payments, mortgages, loans and the big banks all rely on the algorithms in their computers to manage their decisions. Algorithms are seen as cool and objective, offering the ability to weigh a set of conditions with mathematical detachment and an absence of human emotion. ‘Computer say “No”‘, the catchphrase of the Little Britain character Carol Beer, is all too real nowadays, thanks in large part to algorithms.

However, currently we are experiencing first-generation, ‘dumb’ algorithms, which calculate solely on the basis of the input of their human programmers. The quality of their results depends on the thoughts and skills of the people who programmed them – people like us.

In the near future, something new and alarming will emerge. Tech pioneers are close to realising their dreams of creating human-like ‘artificial general intelligence’ (AGI): computers that don’t need programming, once they are up and running. Like Bender in Futurama, these machines possess intelligence: they can learn. A genuinely intelligent machine is able to question the quality of its own calculations, based on its memory and accumulation of experience, knowledge and mistakes. Just like us. Critically it can then modify its own algorithms, all by itself. As an analogy, It can change the recipe and alter the ingredients – without the busy chef realising what is happening.

Early iterations of AGI have already arrived: predictably, in the dog-eat-dog competitive world of financial market trading. Wherever there’s a fast buck to be made, clever individuals are already training their customised computers to attack and beat the market. The world of high-frequency trading (HFT) relies on central servers hosting nimble, predatory algorithms that have learned to hunt and prey on lumbering institutional ones, tempting them to sell lower and buy higher by fooling them as to the state of the market.

According to Andrew Smith, Chief Technology Officer at ClearBank, a major finance trading company in London: ‘In essence, these algorithms are trying to outwit each other; doing invisible battle at the speed of light, placing and cancelling the same order 10,000 times per second or slamming so many trades into the system than the whole market goes berserk – and all beyond the oversight or control of humans.’ (‘Franken-algorithms: the deadly consequences of unpredictable code‘, The Guardian, 29 August 2018)

In the same Guardian article, science historian George Dyson points out that HFT firms deliberately encourage the algorithms to learn: they are ‘just letting the black box try different things, with small amounts of money; and, if it works, reinforce those rules.’ These algorithms are making these decisions by themselves. The result is that we now have computers where nobody knows what the rules are because the algorithms have created their own rules. We are effectively allowing computers and their algorithms to evolve on their own, the same way nature evolves organisms.

This is potentially dangerous territory. Who is in charge when situations get out of hand?

Eighty years ago the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov foresaw these problems in his ground-breaking Robot series of short stories and novels, of which I, Robot is the most famous. Asimov formulated ‘Three Laws of Robotics,’ which make even more sense today, as we stand on the brink of a future world infused with robots. These Laws are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov’s stories focus on the perils of ‘technology getting out of control’, when robots become problems, either because of conflicts between the Laws or because humans trying to interfere with the Laws, allowing robots to go their own way. Now, Asimov’s fictional concerns are coming true: today we face the challenge he only imagined. The problem remains what can we do about potentially vicious ‘creatures’ that may escape into the wild?

One truism is that we cannot disinvent things. From the crossbow (which a medieval Pope tried to ban) to the torpedo and the atom bomb, our clever and murderous species has invented dangerous toys. We have all had to live with their lethal consequences.  Computer algorithms are no different. We are stuck with them.

If we don’t find a way of controlling algorithms, we may wake up one day to find that they are controlling us.  Algorithms are already telling us what to do, particularly in public services such as law enforcement, welfare payments and child protection . Algorithms have become much more than data sifters; they now act as more like gatekeepers and policy makers, deciding who is eligible for access to public resources, assessing risks whilst sorting us into ‘deserving/undeserving’ and ‘suspicious/unsuspicious’ categories. Helped by their ubiquitous algorithms, computers are now making decisions for us.

However, we have to recognise that not all governance is data-based. Real life has to deal with the messy, complicated complexities of decision-making among conflicting demands. Policymaking is a human enterprise that requires us to deal with people, not numbers. It’s time to look at Asimov’s concerns anew, because soon it may be too late.

Unless you can guarantee unplugging the robot, of course ….