Past ImperfectAstroturfing History
As the battles of Brexit morph into a culture war, Otto English detects a pattern among the ‘concerned citizens’ demanding Britain ‘takes back control’ of its past
Astroturfing (n): a tactic used in politics and advertising to mask the sponsors of a message or organisation so that it appears to originate from grassroots participation
Brexit meant many things. But, most of all, it was boom times for the founders of pressure groups.
Between February 2016, when David Cameron declared his intention to hold the Brexit Referendum and 31 January 2020, when the UK left the EU, barely a day went by without some new outfit popping up with a mission statement, a flurry of friendly right-wing press, and a Facebook page.
Grassroots activist movements included (and this is just the tip of the iceberg): ‘Fishing for Leave’, ‘Veterans for Britain’, ‘Artists for Brexit’, ‘Leavers for London’, ‘Leavers of Britain’, ‘Lawyers for Britain’, ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’, ‘Change Britain’, ‘Business for Brexit’, ‘All in Britain’, ‘Invoke Democracy Now!’, ‘Leave Means Leave’, ‘Briefings for Brexit’, ‘Turkeys for Christmas!’, ‘Shoppers for Empty Brexit shelves’. While I made the last two up, you get the general idea.
Some of these organisations were genuine grassroots movements set up by enthusiastic Brexiters, but what was striking was just how interconnected they all were – or became.
Take the little known Artists for Brexit’, started by Australian artist Michael Lightfoot in 2018. Lightfoot was, by his own account, working in a “convenience shop” on “minimum wage” when he decided to create a group for artists who backed Brexit. Fairly swiftly, his Facebook page received traffic and, by the time of its inaugural meeting in a London pub, Boris Johnson’s former cultural advisor when he was Mayor of London, Munira Mirza (now head of the Number 10 Policy Unit) had got wind of it and turned up. She was soon joined by Chloe Westley of the TaxPayers’ Alliance (now the Number 10 social media chief), who volunteered to read her Brexit-infused poetry at the group’s events.
Shortly after this, a veritable who’s who of Brexit backers were on board.
David Goodhart, of the Policy Exchange think tank, got involved – as did Claire Fox of the ‘Institute of Ideas’; along with Lucy Harris, the founder of the ‘Leavers for Movement’ and later a Brexit Party MEP. They were joined by Spiked Online author Manick Govinda.
Then there was ‘Briefings for Brexit’, set up by Cambridge academic Robert Tombs and other clever Brexiters to prove that smart people backed Brexit too. Their numbers included Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Philosophy at Oxford; the historian Andrew Roberts; David Abulafia, another professor of history at Cambridge; and Philip Cunliffe and Joanna Williams – both lecturers at the University of Kent who, like Govinda, are also both authors for Spiked Online.
For the uninitiated, Spiked Online, edited by Brendan O’Neill, is the latter-day incarnation of Living Marxism (later LM) – the house magazine of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), the alumni of which included Fox, Mirza and Joanna Williams, until it closed following a disastrous lost libel suit brought by ITN in 2000.
The influence of Spiked and the wider alumni of the RCP and LM on ‘grassroots’ Brexit organisations and their activists was everywhere pre- and post-Brexit. At least two of the movements listed above – Invoke Democracy Now and Invoke Article 50 Now – were essentially Spiked by another name.
While Spiked was not setting up all of these organisations or running them, two things are undeniable. First, that the Spiked-RCP crowd always excelled at astroturfing. Second, that members of the network popped up with alarming regularity in Brexit pressure groups.
Spiked apart, the sheer number of ‘pro-Brexit’ organisations gave the impression that Leave was a mass movement, consisting of lots of activists, across all strata of society. And, having set them up and held a ‘conference’ or ‘event’, many of them ceased to do much beyond a little low-level activity on their Facebook pages. It was ‘bluff, puff and awe’.
As the ‘think tankers’ long ago worked out, the more ‘organisations’ you have, the more you get noticed, the bigger you seem – and the more you have leverage to take back control of the agenda.
How much of an impact this all had on Boris Johnson’s Brexit is hard to fathom – but it certainly had a significant influence on the media landscape and broader conversation. Briefings for Brexit is a classic example. By making it look as if a lot of academics had got behind voting leave, it provided a broader intellectual legitimacy for the project.
Although Brexit may now have occurred, to misquote the Carpenters song: the Astroturfery’s just begun.
Just as the Second World War morphed into the Cold War, so the fronts of Brexit have segued into the ‘culture war’. The new battlefields are statues, wokery, race, free speech, and identity.
Once again, much as Captain Mainwaring corralled local butchers and undertakers into the Walmington Home Guard, concerned citizens have been setting up grassroots organisations to fight back.
Take ‘Don’t Divide Us’ which, according to its website, is made up of a “wide range of people, taking a stand against the divisive obsession with people’s racial identity”. “We are liberal anti-racists”, the site states, “who reject the proposition that the UK is inherently racist”. Signatories of its open letter to “fellow citizens” include some familiar names: Manick Govinda; Claire Fox; former Brexit Party candidate Inaya Folarin Iman; Professor Doug Stokes, former Brexit Party candidate and Spiked writer Alka Sehgal Cuthbert; and GB News regular and Policy Exchange fellow Calvin Robinson. Perhaps there’s only a limited pool of ‘concerned citizens’ to go around.
According to its website, Don’t Divide Us’ partners include Claire Fox’s Academy of Ideas; The Equiano Project, founded by Inaya Folarin Iman; and Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, the advisory council of which includes Fox, Joanna Williams and Andrew Roberts. Its officers and founders also include Inaya Folarin Iman and Nigel Biggar – who you may remember from ‘Briefings for Brexit’ earlier on.
Nigel is a busy man because he’s also on the editorial committee of ‘History Reclaimed’ – the new kid on the ‘concerned citizens’ block.
In case you missed it, History Reclaimed is an “independent group of scholars from seven countries” with “the shared conviction that history requires careful interpretation of complex evidence, and should not be a vehicle for facile propaganda”. Or, as one of the editorial committee members, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, puts it: “We should reclaim history, not weaponise it.”
Alka’s is not the only name that rings a siren. History Reclaimed has been founded by Robert Tombs and David Abulafia – yes, both of Briefings for Brexit – and the committee includes Andrew Roberts, also of that parish; Doug Stokes of Don’t Divide Us; and a host of other familiar and unfamiliar names.
History Reclaimed positions itself as an “independent group” with a “wide range of opinions” but clearly the memo hasn’t reached whoever is running its Twitter account. Because one of the two people it is currently following is Prime Minister Boris Johnson – author of The Churchill Factor. There is an important debate to be had around how we view the past, but when a group’s social media account starts from such an obviously biased position perhaps other more pertinent questions need to be asked first.
History and Warfare
History Reclaimed is strikingly similar to another organisation, ‘History Matters‘, which was set up by Policy Exchange last year and I suspect that there will be more of their ilk to come in the culture war. ‘Fishermen for History’ perhaps, or ‘Invoke Magna Carta Now!’
It is confusing – and that’s the point. Unravelling it all is like divining the twines in a great big ball of wool the size of that ghastly mound in Marble Arch.
All those websites and Facebook groups. All those institutions. All those claims to be grassroots organisations of concerned people. All of the same names popping up again and again and again along with the same think tanks and think-tankers. The same academics. The same comedians and poets. The same writers at Spiked.
“All warfare is based on deception,” wrote Sun Tzu in his Art of War. “When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
Sun Tzu makes a cracking point because just writing this article has left my brain befuddled and discombobulated.
Truth be told, I didn’t set out to write it. My concern was Reclaim History’s agenda and that was the article I was going to write. But as I went down that rabbit hole of who was behind it, I realised that there were two stories at play. One is about history. The other is about astroturfing and opaque organisations claiming to represent the people.
Before tackling what History Reclaimed says, we must first understand what it is, and how the group fits into the bigger picture.
In Part Two, we will delve into what exactly it is claiming about our history and why.