The parting on the left. Is now parting on the right. And the beards have all grown longer overnight

Over the last few years I have had a few arguments with people on social media.  You might have spotted this.  I might even have politely explained to you why I am right, and you are foolish.

Over and over again I have had the same, odd experience.

Someone has angrily told me that they are loads more left wing than I am while simultaneously expressing a very right wing opinion.  At it’s most extreme people who self identify as left wing have shared with me material from the far right, including from US neo-nazis, in the profound belief that this material is left wing.

I’m not a great believer in the horseshoe theory of politics that is sometimes taught in GCSE History and Politics classes.  The left and the right are different philosophies, and the only similarities at the extremes are between the tactics of the authoritarian varieties

But sometimes ideas switch from right to left and vice versa.

Freedom of movement across the EU started out on the far right as a way of using free markets to erode workers rights and deregulate labour markets.   Today the same right wingers denounce the policy they championed only 20 years ago, while the left, who once opposed it, give speeches defending it.  Universal Basic Income made the same shift.   Universal Credits was developed as a Labour policy, and ended up as a millstone round the neck of the Tories.

The rise of left wing antisemitism is the most extreme example.   When I was a teenager the kind of antisemitism that relishes ideas of Jewish conspiracies and believes the mainstream media is in the pay of the Israel lobby were only found among a particular variety of right wing weirdo – the kind with a complete collection of Sven Hassel novels

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I can pretty much guarantee that anyone who owns more than one Sven Hassel book is a massive arsehole and has crazy right wing politics, no matter how ironic they think they are being.

I wrote last week about Durham’s brief flirtation with the far right:

Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1939?

Antisemitism in Britain didn’t start with Mosley, but the anti-semitic tropes which occur in modern politics do.

This is Mosley’s Stop The War campaign.  As you can see he chose to make his anti-war campaign pledges on the side of a bus, which definitely doesn’t remind me of anyone in modern politics.  Not at all.

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Mosley was a demagogue, not an ideologue, and he relied upon others to do his thinking for him.  I have read “The Coming of the Corporate State” by Alexander Raven Thompson so that you don’t have to.

The BUF platform was:


Anti-Zionist – in particular believing that Zionism is the biggest issue in foreign relations

Corporatist – the state organised by industrial and occupational groups

Pro-Environmentalist – the BUF were the first political party with an environmentalist policy.  In particular they believed that capitalism and environmental protection were incompatible and an environmental crisis was inevitable

Anti-elitist – they claimed that Britain is ruled by a small self serving elite, a 1% who run the country for their own ends.  Mosley argued this noisily despite being a Baronet himself.  Again this in no way reminds me of any contemporary politicians.

Anti-mainstream media, which they believed served the interests of Zionists

Anti-war, particularly linking pacifism and anti-war movements with anti-Zionism

Pro-Monarchy, pro-Empire

Quite a lot of this sounds more like left wing politics than right, particularly if you ignore the Monarchy and Empire stuff.  State corporatism is often mistaken for a programme of nationalisation.   As long as you stuck to the slogans and ignored the details it would be easy to mistake this for a left wing programme, which it very definitely isn’t.

Above all the the BUF fascist ideology is a form of secular gnosticism – the world is an awful place, the truth is known only to a select few, a crisis is coming which will transform the world and this can be seized upon by the gnostics to remake the world in their image.

Mosley always denied that his anti-zionism was really antisemitism, but I don’t believe him.  This is Mosley, after the war, denying he is an antisemite:

“The anti-Semitic view that all Jews are born wicked, or that all Jews should be the sacred objects of the system, seems to me equal nonsense. I am neither an anti-Semite, nor a sycophant of Semites….. I believed that certain great Jewish interests were trying to involve us in war, not in a British, but in a Jewish quarrel: I still believe it”

Mosley also argues that the British Empire was inherently anti-racist because it contained lots of different people who it ruled over equally.  Daftie.

By the time Mosley made these claims he was a disgraced individual, abandoned by even the Daily Mail.  Very few British fascists escaped involvement with him without huge reputational damage.

The only notable exception to this was Jorian Jenks.

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Jenks was one of the founders of the environmental movement in Britain, maybe even the most significant figure in it’s early history.  Jenks was an enthusiastic fascist and most of his early work was published in fascist journals.  He was the soil in blood and soil fascism.  His 1939 book Spring Comes Again combined agriculture, environmentalism, fascism and anti-semitism.

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Jenks was also a protectionist who supported the idea of agricultural autarky – reducing our reliance on foreign imports of food.   The current ideas of self-sufficiency post-Brexit are the direct ancestors of Jenk’s ideas, which linger on among the anti-immigrant right.

Jenks was imprisoned in Walton Jail as a traitor, but was released in 1941.

Post-War Jenks became the President of the Soil Association, Britains oldest environmentalist campaign group.  He edited Mother Earth, the Soil Associations journal, and Rural Economy, alongside other fascists like Rolf Gardiner.   Both of these publications promoted a Mosleyite world view – anti-capitalist, anti-war, pro-environmentalist, antisemitic.  From the 40s to the 50s the Soil Association promoted far right politics as much as mainstream environmentalism, and on occasion included articles written by actual Nazis.

Green politics is so tied up with modern left wing politics that we forget that for most of the C20th environmentalism was a far right pre-occupation.

Jenks died in 1963 only a few months after Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published.   Silent Spring included many of the ideas that Jenks had campaigned on, in particular around banning pesticides, and it took these ideas to a much wider audience, particularly on the left.

At the time a new faction was emerging in the British left, which made anti-imperialism it’s key virtue.  Inspired by the growing conflicts in South East Asia and Latin America the far left began arguing that the cause of the world’s wars and, in particular, its ethnic conflicts, originated with Western imperialism and the lines drawn on maps by conquering powers.

From the perspective of the late 60s this probably looked like a reasonable proposition, and many middle class British lefties started styling themselves in the manner of Latin American or South East Asian revolutionaries.   Environmentalism and anti-imperialism became key elements of a left wing political world view alongside anti-capitalism and anti-war.  Spring Comes Again sold well, on the back of Silent Spring, and the left absorbed it’s messages.

When I was writing this blog and the previous one I had to track down some pretty odd publications (Alexander Raven Thompson’s book above for example), and visit some rather unpleasant websites, mostly on the right, but also some promoting weird left wing conspiracy theories.   There still exists a small group of Mosleyites on the right who keep his memory.   When I tried to track down Spring Comes Again, and work out how popular it was in the 60s I discovered, disturbingly it is still in print, still popular, and easily available on Amazon:

Into the ferment of 60s revolutionary politics come 2 figures from the very right wing of the Labour Party: Ernest Bevin and Christopher Mayhew.

Today Christopher Mayhew is remembered only for taking LSD on the BBC, an event commemorated in this single by The Shamen:

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In the 1960s he was on the right of the Labour Party and a junior Minister.   

Ernest Bevin was a big gun in the Labour Party, a former Foreign Secretary.  He was also, according to Mayhew, an anti-semite:

There is no doubt, to my mind, that Ernest detests Jews.” 

In 1969 Mayhew established the Labour Middle East Council (LMEC) with Bevin’s help with the express aim of turning the Labour Party from a proudly pro-Zionist party to an anti-Zionist one.

Mayhew and Bevin believed that they would find fertile ground for their ideas on the right of the Labour Party, and weren’t shy of deploying the kind of rhetoric that blurred the lines between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism in a way similar to Jenks.   LMEC is just Jenks repackaged for the left.

They were shocked that the people who rallied to their cause were exclusively on the far left. The newly emerged anti-imperialist left, which had already absorbed elements of Jenksian pro-environmentalism also embraced Mayhew’s anti-zionism and Bevin’s antisemitism.

Not only did LMEC tread the same ground as Jenks, but they added some new unpleasant ideas of their own.  Mayhew was the first person to advance the argument that Israel was an apartheid state, in an article for Venture in 1971, and Mayhew and the LMEC actively promoted the idea that British Jews had divided loyalties.

By 1974 Mayhew left the Labour Party outright in protest at the rise of the far left, and by the 80s would refuse to attend anti-war and anti-Zionist events due to the the presence of communists and trotskyists.

The LMEC spawned a host of pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist groups throughout the 70s and 80s, which mixed left wing anti-Imperialism and Jenksian anti-semitism.  George Galloway’s Trade Union Friends of Palestine, and Ken Livingstone’s Labour Committee on Palestine, and Labour Friends of Palestine.  These groups competed between themselves to see who could be the most extreme.

Labour Herald edited by Livingstone introduced the Israel = Nazis trope in the early 80s.

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This is probably the point at which I went to my first pro-Palestine meeting, at Fowler’s Yard in Durham

If I recall correctly the meeting took place immediately before a Red London gig, and I admit that I was probably as interested in the music as the politics

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The meeting, if I am honest, had no angry racism, and no anti-semitism, but no real facts either.  Me and Phil King were the classic rebels without a clue.

Around the same time I first encountered the anti-imperialist left.  The 1980s weren’t a good time for middle class lefties in the UK and the US.  Thatcher and Reagan were ascendent, and were drawing support from working class voters.   Struggles in Latin America offered hope to the left as well as inspiring a rambling Clash triple album

Looking back Sandinista isn’t as awful as it sounded at the time, but not as good as the Clash clearly thought it was.

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But it is a good indication about how trendy it was to name check non-European radical movements.  At times this was a bit comical.   By the 80s it was vogueish to name check some obscure anti-imperialist faction in any political debate, just as it was essential to name check a rare dub reggae act or 70s German Avant Garde rock band.

Dr Alimantado. Sendero Luminoso. Cluster.

There was however a huge problem with this world view.   Too many of the anti-imperialist movements we were cheering on weren’t very left wing.   Many of them, particularly in the Arab World, were right wing nationalist movements fighting the West, some of which were homophobic, misogynist and racist.   We rationalised these strange alliances either as enemies of our enemies, or with some wooly ideas that once in power they would somehow stop being reactionaries.

The Sandinista themselves turned out to be right wing socially conservative Catholics and authoritarians, not left wing Clash fans after all.

I gave up on the anti-imperialist far left in the early 90s and rejoined Labour.  I continued to go to pro-Palestine events however for a few years longer.  I eventually lost interest, mainly because it was pretty clear that we weren’t achieving anything.  The same speeches, the same people, nothing changing.

The support that the remaining anti-imperialist factions on the far left, including some of the current labour leadership, gave to Milosevic and other ghastly people ended in the Living Marxism trial.  From that point on the tolerance that the rest of the left had towards them evaporated, and they ended as an angry rump on the margins.  On the few occasions I got back in touch with Palestinian Solidarity they were getting odder and odder.  I think by then most people realised that we were failing, but rather than accept that our tactics (in particular BDS) weren’t working, a lot of people were starting to adopt odd conspiracy theories.   The CIA, Mossad, the mainstream media were all plotting to thwart the plucky efforts of brave middle class Marxists.  I think by this point pro-Palestine groups and the rump of the anti-Imperialist left were pretty much the same thing, the same people going to the same meetings.

I honestly thought at this point that the increasingly odd group of ageing lefties would die out, and their ideas with them, and I wouldn’t miss them.  Their ideas were rarely deeper than slogans, and the slogans were a jumble of ideas from the right and the left, including a strong under-current of antisemitism.

What changed was the Iraq war.

I am more sympathetic than most people towards the decision to go war, mainly because I have seen an Iraqi weapon of mass destruction.  In the 80s the Thatcher Government had conspired illegally to help Saddam Hussain acquire WMDs, one of which – the supergun – had been seized by Customs and Excise and rusted in a yard at Tees Port. When I first worked on Teesside you could see it from the Docks road. I’m also pretty happy that Saddam Hussain has gone.  But there is no doubt that the case for war was not properly made, the consequences of war weren’t properly thought out, and a lot of misery resulted.    Given what has happened in Syria it is not certain that non-intervention would have been a better plan, but that doesn’t make things better for the Iraqis’ who suffered.

The Stop The War coalition brought together the old anti-imperialist left, pro-Palestinian activists, and younger campaigners, some of whom were from a socially conservative Muslim background.  For the first time this gruesome mess of ideas was allowed to present itself as the moral highground, and somehow as a pure tradition of leftism, nobler than the nipping and tucking of the then Labour government.

The way that this group of oddballs came to run the Labour Party is partly a tale of their ability to control a political movement through bureaucratic control of it’s committees, as it is  about the popularity of their ideas.

The current Labour leadership do also have a secular gnostic world view.  The world is an awful place, the truth is known only to a select few, a crisis is coming which will transform the world and this can be seized upon by the gnostics to remake the world in their image.

The current crisis of antisemitism and the Labour Party’s inability to put an end to it is due entirely to the crowd of people that the Labour leadership have surrounded themselves with, and the awful set of ideas that they hold to.

None of this is meant to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn or anyone on the British left is a fascist.  I don’t believe that for a moment.   But I do think that Corbynism (if there is such a thing) is a hopeless jumble – a mess of ideas from the far left and the far right, all filtered through the worldview of a bossy privileged middle class public school boy.

But if we were put together a list of the most offensive views that the modern left hold about Jews or Israel we can trace most of these back through Galloway and Livingstone to Mayhew and Bevan, and all the way back to Jenks and Mosley.

I am sure that my pro-Green Party friends will be appalled that I have foregrounded Jorian Jenks, a figure who most modern Greens would rather forget.  But the story of Jenks reminds us how similar the ideas of Paleo-Conservatives like Prince Charles are to the ideas of newt loving Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn on his allotment.

They would get on like a house on fire, 3 posh chaps making jam, talking to plants and moaning about the awfulness of capitalism.  George Monbiot in the Guardian alternates between progressive leftism and reactionary conservatism on a weekly basis (increasingly on the reactionary side).

This is from another one of the Clashes less fancied albums “Give ‘Em Enough Dope Rope”

The Clash here explore the same sentiment that Arthur Koestler did in “Darkness at Noon” when he compared left wing fellow travellers to peeping toms, “peering through a hole in the wall at history while not having to experience it themselves”.

I think that nothing really distanced my ideas from the middle class anti-imperialist left than spending time outside of Western Europe, particularly in countries like India.   For all the marches against the evils of globalisation it is clear that living standards aren’t falling around the world, this isn’t the age of inequality.   Life expectancy and living standards across Asia are rising, driven not by the campaigns of the left, but by the kind of economics they like to denounce as neo-liberalism or neo-colonialism.

The US isn’t an Imperial hegemon (although China might be about to become one), Russia isn’t our friend, and Israel isn’t an apartheid state.

I wanted to end with a joke, a funny way of describing my erstwhile middle class anti-imperialists with their endless ill informed solidarity for people in countries they will never visit or ever meet.   People who see their own struggle to find a non-Israeli organic kumquat somehow the same as the struggles of Mandela, or Gandhi or Martin Luther King

But the best I could come up with was Talcum X.

Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1939?

This blog was inspired by a tweet from Jack Monroe, written in the context of the rise of hate speech on twitter, particularly anti-semitism.


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This is really a neat restatement of Marx’s great opening to the 18th Brumaire:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. 

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. 

History repeats itself, not because of some magic force, but because we are essentially historical creatures.  In times of change or anxiety we look to the past for analogies to help understand what we should do, and we end up repeating ourselves.   This is no less true of radicals as reactionaries, the far left and the far right.   21st Century US Neo-Conservatives dress themselves up as the Founding Fathers even though they are modern reactionaries not C18th radicals.  UK middle class lefties dress up with antique trades union banners as if their struggles to find non-Israeli kumquats was somehow of a part with the fight for union recognition.

Jack isn’t the first person to use the same era for an analogy:

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Piers really does mug himself badly here.

The idea that we are reliving the 1930s has become prevalent.  The Credit Crunch is the Wall Street Crash, Austerity is the Great Depression, and David Cameron is foolish Calvin Coolidge.    The rise of authoritarian and intolerant politics on the left and the right is comparable to the rise of fascism.    The 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman’s has encouraged lots of such introspection

As you have probably spotted I am a bit cynical about this.   We overuse Nazi Germany as a reference point for modern history, partly because that is all that is on the History Channel.  “Nazi Yeast: The Story of Hitler’s Bread” is a particular favourite*.  We are historical creatures, but our historical knowledge is poor, and our range of historical viewpoints is pretty limited, which is why we tend to re-live the crap bits over again.

It is pretty clear that modern day Durham isn’t 1930s Germany, or Russia, or Italy or Japan.  It’s a daft analogy

But, a more interesting question would be – how much is modern Durham like 1930s Durham?

The economic history of Durham in the 1930s is predictably bleak.  The County was dominated by  mining.   There was even a colliery at Aykley Heads where I live, among nearly 300 others

The population of the County was roughly the same as now – 520,000, of which 130,000 were employed in mining.  This was a fall from the peak of 170,000 in 1913.

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Output of coal in the County was in decline.  As it declined so did pay and conditions for miners, despite a large and active Trades Union – the NUM.   With falling pay and conditions there were strikes, national and local, which had a huge impact on output as the graph below shows.


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As part of miners pay had an element based on how much they produced the swings in output meant erratic, and falling, wages.

This had a devastating impact on parts of the County where many settlements were built around pits and had no other employment.   Despite the strength of the NUM in the County wages fell, and working conditions got tougher throughout the 1920s and 30s.

The depth of hardship was illustrated by the 1936 Jarrow Crusade led by Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson.   Unemployment nationally was 10%, and families without work endured grinding poverty.   In parts of the North East the unemployment rate was much higher – 0ver 50%

The combination of rising poverty and declining wages led to political radicalism.

There was certainly a far left presence in the County.  Ramsey MacDonald, former Labour PM lost his Seaham seat in the 1935 General Election to Manny Shinwell, a far left candidate.  Shinwell was a big supporter of the International Brigage in Spain, and some from Durham, particulary from areas like Chopwell, fought against the fascists in Spain.

The list of speakers at Durham Miners Gala’s in the 1920s and 30s has some familiar names – Ellen Wilkinson, Jennie Lee, Ramsey McDonald, and his nemesis Manny Shinwell.   Clement Attlee’s first appearance at the Gala names him as Major Attlee.  Saklatvala, the Asian Communist who was the left’s first non-white MP spoke a couple of times.  Sadly it would be another 65 years before the Labour Party proper elected a non-white MP.

There are a few more unexpected names – Oswald Mosley was a popular draw as a Labour MP, and returned to speak, not at the Gala, but at Miners Halls as a fascist in the 30s.

This is Claypath in Durham.   If you could turn around you would see a huge building site creating more student accommodation.  The street used to be one of the best shopping streets in the North East, but fell into disrepair, and ended up all Pizza shops and takeaways.     

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Back in the bad old days of Durham Labour politics there were rumours of land deals, and at one point the Chief Executive of Durham city Council was questioned by the police, but no-one was ever charged.  Jamal’s barbers used to be a cobbler, who chronicled the whole affair with notices in his window

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This is the same shot taken in the 1930s. I think this is 1934.  The same building was the BUF HQ for Durham.

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The passage way to the right in those days led to the Bluecoat School, where my Grandfather was Headmaster after the war.

John Beckett, the Jewish former Labour MP from Gateshead who had enthusiastically embraced the BUF spoke at a number of meetings at Cowen’s monument in Newcastle and then at Gateshead Town Hall in 1934, but on each occasion was met with angry crowds of opponents.  His last visit ended with the BUF North East HQ in the Bigg Market (near the modern day Rupali restaurant) being trashed, the fascists beaten and having to rely on police protection.   This was 2 years before Cable Street.

My Gran claimed that she has seen Mosley speak at a meeting in Hetton in the early 1930s, and recalled that he was a great orator.  The assembled audience of miners, fresh from Sunday morning Chapel listened to him politely, with rapt attention, entranced by his rhetoric.  Then they throw stones at him.

The BUF struggled to attract working class voters, but still had some respectability with more affluent voters.  The most prominent North East fascist was Lord Armstrong, the boss of the Vickers armaments factory on the Tyne.   He was involved in many civic groups such as Round Table and Rotary.

Active fascists were encouraged to greet each other with the familiar stiffed armed salute and the slogan PJ! Which stood for Perish Judah!   Nigel Dodds, who wrote the definitive book about fascism in the North East, claims that some respectable shop keepers and businessmen in Durham followed Lord Armstrong’s lead and greeted each other like that on the streets of Durham.  I struggled to find anyone to corroborate these claims with the County record office, and no-one is going to admit this after so many years.

Ultimately fascism was a lot more popular on Tyneside than anywhere else in the North East.  When MI5 rounded up the BUF at the start of World War 2 a couple of ex-army officers from Newcastle were the only North-Easterners interned.  Violent clashes like the ones on Tyneside and at Cable Street stopped their mobilising, while PG Wodehouse’s mockery undermined their credibility.

I don’t know how long the BUF had their recruiting office on Claypath, but it wasn’t long. The windows were smashed with pick axe handles and the fascists given a pretty rough treatment.  They didn’t come back.

I must confess I take a perverse pleasure in uncovering the forgotten history of Durham’s crap fascists, and their short lived attempts at authoritarian politics.

While we shouldn’t be complacent we aren’t living through the 1930s again.  Durham does have a problem with poverty and has a food bank for residents who are struggling to put food on the table. But this is nothing like the poverty in the pre-welfare state 1930s.

Politically we are in a different place too.  The authoritarian rulers of the 1930s had rigid ideological doctrines which citizens had to follow to the letter or face persecution.   Todays politicians can’t be bothered with anything as difficult as ideology, and change their views according to whatever twitter is in a fuss about.  

The authoritarians of today share with their older equivalents is their preference for scapegoating minorities – Muslims, Jews, and their contempt for a rules based international order which impose responsibilities upon nation states.  And the Daily Mail is as awful now as it was then.  

There is still a feeling of relative decline.    From the distance of Delhi or Tokyo the UK looks like an economy where lots of people with relatively modest qualifications and talents, working in moderately productive industries expect to earn salaries which would put them in the global top 10%.    This hasn’t been sustainable in the UK since the end of the Empire, and we have filled that gap through EU membership and an over developed financial services sector.  In the next few years we will have to find a way to live without these things, and for many people this means that relative decline will become absolute decline.

And as Jack Monroe points out.. an awful lot of hatred.   The current Labour leadership seethes with hatred towards banks, bankers, the mainstream media, Zionists, and anyone on the left who doesn’t share their belief that. September 2015 was the year zero of politics.  The right has it’s won animus against immigrants, single mums, muslims

Once upon a time in order to pursue such a hateful agenda you would need to control a lot of newspapers, or TV stations.  Propaganda was expensive, labour intensive, particularly creating the kind of propaganda where people no longer care about the difference between truth and lies, only what suited

Social media has made propaganda, particularly hate filled propaganda cheaper and more accessible than ever.   It doesn’t matter if it is true or not, because there will be something new to be angry about tomorrow, new conspiracy theory to revel in.  The ability to buy data means that messages can be targeted more accurately even at small groups of people – dog whistle politics is commonplace across the right and the left

At the same time our faith in our democratic institutions has declined. Our Parliamentary democracy was strong enough to see of the challenge of authoritarian politics from the right and the left in the 1930s, while the rest of Europe wasn’t so lucky.  Today our failure to update our institutions has left them less well equipped to meet current and future challenges.

I still believe that the British are unlikely to support an authoritarian take over.  But we might be closer to a Putin style guided democracy than we think.

*OK, this isn’t a real History Channel documentary, but it is only a matter of time

This is the link for Nigel Todd’s book: