A New Conspiracy Theory

We good Leftists really do have a mountain to climb if we’re to overcome the evil Rightists and proto-Fascists ranged against us today. (OK; ‘evil’ may be a bit strong.) There’s the media, for a start, and people’s stupidity; and, in Britain, our somewhat unhelpful electoral system: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/. Beyond all that, however, or possibly lurking darkly behind it, there is the Right’s ability and willingness to use all manner of ‘dirty tricks’ to counter the Left, to a degree not found on the Left, but deriving from the Machiavellian amoralism you much more often find on the Right, and the practices that some of Britain’s Rightists have learned from a century of involvement in secret intelligence agencies like MI5 and MI6 (see my Plots and Paranoia, 1989), or in advertising. Often the excuse given for this is that the Left is using these same techniques against them; but that has probably not been true since the demise of the Soviet Union. Nowadays the KGB’s successors appear to be aiding the American, French and British Right. By the side of all this – ‘black’ and ‘grey’ propaganda, subversive plotting, psychological warfare, bribery, corruption, fake news, control of newspapers by foreign-based billionaires, Russian intervention – we poor principled Left-wingers, clinging to outworn and naïve ideas like honesty, transparency, fairness and truth, would appear to stand very little chance.

And now apparently we have a new weapon employed against us: the internet. Today’s article by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer paints a truly alarming picture of British and American democracy’s being undermined and corrupted by rich Right-leaning capitalists aided by bright young computer geeks, using the data provided by Facebook and Google. The election of Trump and Brexit are alleged to be very largely attributable to this factor, and connected through it; which is possible, bearing in mind that the margins of popular victory in both cases were very small indeed or – in the American case – actually negative. Here’s a link to the article: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy. It’s well worth reading; fairly long, but not too technical. (I think I understand it, anyway, and my technical expertise has hardly progressed beyond bicycles and steam engines.) It ought to cast doubt on the strict validity of both the American presidential election and our referendum, not to mention our coming General Election; and, more broadly, on the legitimacy of what Cadwalladr calls our ‘managed democracy’. If, that is, this conspiracy was and is as effective as it’s painted here. The billionaire Rightists cited in this article have poured quite a lot of money into it, and they are supposed to be hard-nosed businesspeople. But they may have exaggerated the efficacy of their plotting. Let’s hope so.

The other trouble with these kinds of accusations is that they’re too often dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories’, by those who have read too many crazy David Icke-like conspiracy theories to want to waste their time properly examining any new ones that appear. And, in the case of the EU vote, by the sour, mean, angry reactions of most Brexiteers to what they regard as a conspiracy against them, by treacherous middle-class élitists who just aren’t prepared to accept the ‘democratic will’. All that, of course, is to the benefit of the conspirators, if in fact they do exist. And, again, to the extent that conspiracy ‘works’. (Obviously it can in some circumstances. I hope that doesn’t make a ‘conspiracy theorist’ out of me.)

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Patriotism

Is there a logical or principled argument for ‘patriotism’? I can think of practical and emotional reasons: familiarity, tribal instinct, ignorance, and its value to a government that needs its people to fight for it. I can also think of reasons why anyone should feel fond of or even grateful to the country he or she was born and brought up in. (I do.) But as a reason for supporting that nation, come what may? And in preference to other identities: local, class, team, professional, gender, religious, racial (but only if your ‘race’ is being persecuted), or even humanity as a whole?

‘Patriotism’, of course, has traditionally been a slogan and requirement of the political Right; right up to the present day, with its appropriation in Britain by the ‘Brexit’ side of the current EU controversy, and by extreme nationalist organisations and parties all over, perhaps most notably in the USA (‘America First’). It is very much part of Theresa May’s ideological (or rhetorical) armoury: ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’ (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/05/theresa-may-treads-the-brexit-path-of-empathy-and-righteousness); which, however true it may be in literal, legalistic terms, is deeply disturbing in the context of a rising – and, yes, proto-fascist – world-wide nationalism.

Opponents of patriotism often gleefully cite the conservative Dr Johnson’s famous dismissal of it as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’, but without fully understanding the context of the word at that time. In the later 18th century ‘patriots’, in America, France and Britain, were those who championed the people’s rights ahead of those of the governments that were imposed on them; and so were generally what today would be classed as left-wing radicals or democrats. That’s why Johnson disliked them. They were also ‘citizens of the world’, in the sense that they identified and expressed solidarity with similar radical patriots in other countries: American revolutionaries, for example; which is very different from the xenophobic chauvinism more commonly associated with ‘patriotism’ today, and which Theresa May was appealing to. I wish there was a similar ‘radical patriotism’ in our times: one that took most pride, for example, in Britain’s democratic advances (such as they are), and institutions like the BBC and the NHS, giving us a sense of international fraternity with countries and parties abroad that shared the same or similar ideals. Now that is a kind of ‘patriotism’ which could, I think, be defended ‘on principle’.

Where does that leave those of us – in Britain, but I know there are many in America – who are beginning to feel very unpatriotic towards their countries as they are presently developing: away, that is, from the principles which we thought justified our loyalty to them in the fairly recent past? I’m toying just now with the idea of uprooting from this dark, mean, hateful, Farageist Britain, as all the public signs – and certainly its public press – seem to be presenting it, and moving permanently to Sweden, as a means of escape, and in order to cure this deep political depression that hit me when I landed back at Gatwick last week. But wouldn’t that just be cowardly? There are millions who feel like me in Britain, and who are bravely resisting the coming oppression; should I be abandoning them at this hour of their need? Not that I think I can do very much for them (especially at my age and with an operation coming up at the time of the General Election); but it would make me feel a traitor to the kind of radical patriotism I favour. ‘Stay with your comrades and join in the fight.’ I don’t think I could throw that off. So in a way, if I don’t go, it will be ‘patriotism’ that holds me back.

Alternatively, perhaps I can be of more use to the cause in Sweden; exposing our sufferings in the local press, and perhaps enlisting some Swedish help for our side. Maybe with some support from ‘citizen-of-the-world’ patriots in Britain, I could encourage the Swedes to invade us, implant their principles here – which used to be ours, too – and then give us back us our independence; or as much as the USA will allow a Brexited UK. I wouldn’t complain. There are worse fates than becoming a colony, if it’s of a country as enlightened as Storsverige.

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May and History

I genuinely fear Theresa May. Perhaps I shouldn’t, because we don’t really know her yet. That may be why she decided to go to the country so unnecessarily early, and before we got to know; or, to put it another way, to rumble her. Her reputation in government was of a boring but efficient worker at the Home Office. She was there longer than almost any other politician in history, which must say something; but she’s done little else. She appears to have no fixed principles or ideals, which is why she could switch, astonishingly, from being a Remainer to a ‘hard’ Brexiter overnight. Apparently ‘she doesn’t read much history, and tries not to picture how things will be in advance’: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/23/theresa-may-vogue-history-thatcher. I think that’s a pity; and not just because I’m a historian, or believe that ‘History’ is a reliable guide to the future, but because I think it can contextualize events in a thought-provoking way.

May seems to look at problems entirely out of context, apart from their immediate, day-to-day contexts. She’s a quintessential short-term pragmatist: the opposite, in this way, of Margaret Thatcher, with whom journalists – and perhaps the public – like to compare her, for obvious but superficial reasons. Poor David Cameron, one feels, was the same. May’s statements about policy are always vague, simply mouthing what she senses – from reading the Daily Mail – will go down well at the moment, and boost her image. Having very little personality, or at least one that shows, she resorts to vapid soundbites, served to her by her ad-men, and endlessly repeated, robotically: like her much-mocked ‘strong and stable’ phrase. (I’m sure it’s not true that she got this from an NHS pamphlet on erectile disfunction that Jeremy Hunt had left behind in the Cabinet Room. But it’s a good joke.) Recently she’s been concentrating on what a ‘bloody difficult woman’ she will be in her negotiations with EU leaders: image, again. Otherwise her speeches are devoid of reasoning, facts and joined-up thinking; anything one can bite on. A study of History might have corrected this. So might being willing to debate her policies with her rivals, or even with the public, which she has resolutely refused to do. She won’t appear with Corbyn on TV, and her local meetings are stage-managed to a ludicrous degree: with only Tory supporters allowed in, for example, and even reporters excluded: http://www.devonlive.com/theresa-may-visits-devon-after/story-30306851-detail/story.html. To her and her media friends, any criticism or even discussion of, for example, Brexit, is ‘treason’ or ‘sabotage’. She’s clearly frightened of it, and nervous of her ability to cope with it – or, indeed, with ‘ordinary people’. Hence the Lib-Dem ‘chicken’ that is following her around.

Her main achievements at the Home Office were (a) that dreadful poster driven around the streets on a side of a truck telling (some) immigrants to ‘go home’, which was soon scrapped, thank God; and (b) her ‘Snooper’s Charter’, whose effect is to increase government surveillance of ordinary citizens to an extent not found today in any other democratic country (see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/03/01/the-snoopers-charter/), and in a way that flouts some of the major professed ‘national values’ of Britain in the past. But of course, with no interest in History, she won’t have known that. (I do wish politicians would read my books!)

All of which puts her firmly on the ‘authoritarian’ wing of the Conservative Party – the one that I call ‘proto-Fascist’. This is bound to increase liberal fears when Brexit ultimately goes through, and she and her government are permitted to amend and pass legislation – undoing and replacing EU laws – by ‘statutory amendment’, without parliamentary debate: see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/03/true-conservatives-fake-ones-destroying-britian-theresa-may-real-patriots.  Monbiot in this article is right to dub this ‘unpatriotic’. If May had read anything about the history of our constitution, she would have known that.

*

I’ve just been into a betting shop for almost the first time in my life, and put £10 on Jeremy Corbyn to be the next Prime Minister, at 9/1. I’ve also asked if they can give me odds on Britain’s not leaving the EU after all. (She’s going to find out for me.) That seems to be turning out trickier than anyone anticipated. I’m not altogether comfortable with giving money to the ultimate capitalist industry, as I’ll surely lose both bets; but it’s a way of expressing solidarity.

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Första Mai

It’s hardly fun being a socialist in Britain just now. The popular press is demonizing us, and the country as a whole is creeping – seemingly – towards a situation that can only be described, without much exaggeration, as proto-fascist. Democratic opposition is cast as ‘sabotage’, and its leaders as ‘traitors’. The prime minister vaunts ‘strong and stable leadership’ as her main political desideratum: ‘strength’ apparently consisting in being as hostile and insulting as possible towards those she is going to have to negotiate with, in Britain’s interests, soon. In other words: the Führerprinzip, in an English skirt.

On top of all this I found out today that we are being subject to a censorship more characteristic of authoritarian regimes than of genuine democracies. That concerns a brilliant satirical ‘documentary’ film, called What Was Done, made by a Scottish film maker and based on the pleasant hypothesis that Labour has won the next election; which lasted on the web for a few hours – during which I managed to see it; it really is superb – but then was mysteriously taken down. Here’s the latest account of what appears on the surface to be quite an appalling example of political censorship on behalf of the present government: http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2017/05/01/what-was-done-3/. If this isn’t scary, I don’t know what is. I wonder whether the mainstream media will mention it?*

Tomorrow I return to the UK after a month in Sweden, where socialism is simply one entirely acceptable political credo among others. Today I attended a couple of the political demonstrations they hold on Första Mai, the main one being the Vänster, or Left, Party’s; Left that is of the Social Democrats, but presently forming a governing coalition with them. It was also very internationalist, with banners from Syria, Poland and half a dozen other ‘oppressed’ countries leading sections of the march. I looked for a ‘Corbynista’ banner from my own oppressed country, but couldn’t find it. (I can imagine what the Daily Mail would have made of British Labourites marching alongside ex-Communists.)

It was huge; and also highly enjoyable, with a super band playing, dancing, exotic food – cooked by refugees to show off their national cuisines – and lots of good humour. It showed me how one could actually enjoy being a socialist even in Britain, if the conditions were right.

During the doubtless depressing elections we have coming up in Britain, memories of the vital, joyful and optimistic crowds I moved amongst today in Stockholm may ease the pain. Until, that is, I move here permanently myself, as a kind of refugee, albeit without the cuisine. Lancashire Hotpot, anyone?

*PS (Monday evening): It’s back! And worth seeing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dUrEZiHIbE.

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Press Freedom

Apparently our UK press now lies at number 40 in Reporters Without Borders’ ‘Press Freedom Index’. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Press_Freedom_Index; which also describes the methodology.) That’s way below most other ‘developed’ countries of the world, apart from the USA (at no. 43). My second home, Sweden, is at no. 2, flanked by the other Nordic countries at the top of the list.

This should be borne in mind when our powerful right-wing press barons, who are mainly responsible for this situation, refer to the ‘great British tradition’ of ‘freedom of the press’, as a reason for resisting the regulatory framework recommended by the Leveson Inquiry, which had the object of ensuring greater press freedom from them.

It should also affect our attitude to our Press’s (and the BBC’s) reporting of the current British General Election campaign, which is appalling by any but the most Machiavellian standards; and will probably be largely responsible for returning Theresa May to power on June 8.

Social media may compensate for this to a certain extent; but mainly for the young people who are into it, but who apparently won’t vote; and with the same doubts about its veracity as plague the print media. For example, today’s story about May’s presenting a tiny meeting of Tory supporters in a hut in a wood somewhere as if it were a public rally in Aberdeen – https://skwawkbox.org/2017/04/30/did-mays-scottish-stunt-breach-contract-force-a-charity-to-breach-its-articles-ge17/ – is tasty; but can it be true? That’s the other ill effect of ‘fake news’: to taint even the genuine brand.

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Barenboim

We all need our heroes. They seem to be in rather short supply just now – live ones, anyway. Mine – since the death of Bobby Moore – has long been the pianist, conductor and peacemaker Daniel Barenboim. We went to a concert of his last night, preceded by a seminar addressed by him, in Stockholm’s glorious Konserthus. He was conducting his ‘East-West Divan Orchestra’, recruited from among young Jews and Arabs from the Middle East, with the object of bringing sworn ‘enemies’ together. That is heroic in itself; but the quality of the sound his baton draws from these musicians is remarkable, too. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better Mozart ‘Jupiter’ Symphony since Beecham.

The other item was Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, which showed up the orchestra’s technical qualities, but which I didn’t enjoy so much. The problem was that it’s narrative, like film music, aiming to tell a story in a quite literal way. In my view the greatest music is usually abstract, and connecting directly and mysteriously with the emotions. Story-telling brings it down. I’m reminded of a remark Elgar is reported to have made at a dinner party in the 1920s. A group of arty people – poets, painters, mainly Bloomsbury set – was discussing which is the ‘greatest’ of the arts. Elgar was getting restless, and even irritated; until he burst out: ‘Music is written up there in the heavens, waiting to be grasped. And you dare to compare that with your damned copying?’

One or two of those in our party were irritated, in their turn, by Barenboim’s emphasis on music, and by implication ‘Western classical’ music, to the neglect of the other arts. But isn’t music superior to all of them? OK: it depends on what you’re measuring. But in my view Elgar had something. For me, music is almost the sole thing that justifies the evolution and existence of humanity, in the broadest of perspectives. When our sun finally burns out, and the earth comes to an end, wiping out all signs of human life, I would be most distressed to think that Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 might be destroyed along with it. If we can escape to other worlds, OK. But just in case not, I think we should start now launching hundreds of satellites out into deep space, containing recordings of our race’s greatest music, in the hope of at least one of them striking an inhabited and intelligent alien people somewhere; so that our whole human story won’t have been in vain.

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Assange – Latest

For a few years now I’ve been blogging about the Julian Assange case, both here, on the LRB Blogsite, and in Lobster (e.g. http://www.lobster-magazine.co.uk/free/lobster71/lob71-assange-again.pdf). This has been based on my historical interest in ‘Secret Service’ activities, and on my present familiarity, as a Swedish resident, with the Swedish legal system, especially in relation to sex. My general argument has been that the Swedish request to Britain to extradite Assange on suspicion (only) of ‘rape’ was probably ill-founded, and may have been a mere excuse to have him re-extradited from Sweden to the USA on more serious charges of espionage. As a result of this, Assange has been incarcerated in the Ecuadorian embassy – where he sought asylum – for several years now, while Britain still formally abides by the Swedish request to remove him to Sweden for ‘questioning’ if he steps outside.

The following piece by Craig Murray, a former member of the British diplomatic service, corroborates my view all along, and describes the situation vis-à-vis Assange as it is today. Neither the British nor the Swedish government comes well out of this; to my great unease, as both a Briton and a Swedophile. Here’s Craig Murray’s post, from his own blog: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2017/04/no-rape-charges-julian-assange-sweden-espionage-charges-julian-assange-usa/. Regardless of how we feel about Assange as a person, about his relations with women, and about his political activities, he deserves the same justice as do any of us; which both the British and Swedish legal systems have signally and grotesquely failed to provide.

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The Boris Factor

The Brexit vote was so close that a number of small things could be claimed to account for it. The deliberate lie on the side of the Brexit battlebus was one I’ve mentioned before: who wouldn’t vote for another £350 million a week for the NHS? Another is this fellow:

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who was one of Brexit’s surprise spokesmen, after months of indecision on his part. What, one wonders, might have been the outcome if Boris Johnson had backed his Eton chum Cameron in June last year, as the latter was clearly hoping? He only had to bring 2% of voters over to make the crucial difference.

For the main thing we can say about public opinion at that time – including mine – was that most of it was neither particularly pro- nor anti-Europe, but undecided, not terribly strong, and ignorant. The zealots – including the tabloid press – made most noise; but Britain is not a nation of zealots on the whole, at least as regards foreign policy. (The same was true during the age of imperialism, to don my historian’s hat again. Most Britons then were apathetic. See my Absent-Minded Imperialists.) People feel much more strongly over other things. It was those other things, as I argued at the time (https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/), that determined the way our EU referendum went. Which means that trivial 2% factors, like Boris’s clownish personality, could have had more of an impact than they deserved.

He surely can’t last long as Foreign Secretary. He’s clearly no statesman, and is a laughing stock abroad (certainly here in Sweden). Theresa ‘strong and stable’ May (a phrase she repeated nineteen times in a single short speech the other day: how very Goebbelsy) seems, so far, to be hiding him during the current General Election campaign. It’s clear that she’s depending on apathy (together with the media) to win that for her, so long as her side doesn’t suffer too many pratfalls. Boris is pratfall prone.

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Hello funny foreign people… I am Boris from Britannia and I come to do diplomacy and stuff’. (Not original; from another blog I can’t recall.)

But so too is Theresa, or so she seems to suspect, judging by the way she is assiduously avoiding TV leaders’ debates, public appearances (except among ‘trusties’), and even interviews with the press. The only way people might still cling to the idea that she is ‘strong and stable’ is if they don’t see too much of her. She hasn’t had time to prove her qualities yet; which is all to her advantage. For us, the electorate, better the devil you don’t know, than the one you think you know from the hostile press. The Tories have got it all worked out.

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The Other Mr Shakespeare

Many wives these days are electing to stick with their ‘maiden’ names – i.e. those they were born with – rather than automatically adopting their husbands’. That, it seems to me, is an admirable way of escaping from the old-fashioned patriarchalism implied by the other way; if you feel you have to get formally married, that is. Another way to achieve that, however, would be if the husband took his wife’s name in place of his own. Is one allowed to do that in Britain, without having to go through any expensive legal hoops? I’d have quite welcomed it: as Bernard O’Hara (when I was married), or Bernard Ohrlander (now). Both those names must be preferable to ‘Porter’. ‘Oh Mr Porter, what shall I do? I want to go to Birmingham and they’re taking me on to Crewe!’ I was plagued with that chant in my junior school playground. Until they felt my fist in their silly faces. (Sorry, I was never a ‘turn the other cheek’ sort of a boy.)

The thought came to me when, in connection with my inquiries into ‘YouGov’ – see my previous post – I found that the chap who runs it had done just that: replaced his own birth name with his wife’s. Gosh, how women’s lib! would be one’s normal reaction; and it may well be that it was his feminist principles that mainly motivated him in this. But then you need to know who he is, what he does, and what his original name was.

He’s the chap who runs YouGov for the Conservative Party. His original name was Stephan Kukowski; his current one – his wife’s – is – wait for it! – Shakespeare. You’re not telling me that the enormously English resonances of that name didn’t have an influence on his decision to adopt it, while working and scheming for the ‘patriotic’ party. Like the name ‘YouGov’, it’s misleading, and possibly deliberately so. It must also say something about his attitude towards his proud family origins – Polish? German? – that he has turned his back on them in this way. Of course he isn’t keeping this hidden; but who’s going to bother to look him up? By the time anyone (like me) has Googled him, the impression will have stuck.

He isn’t the only continental European-cum-British patriot to have done this sort of thing. One of the most prominent British imperial propagandists of the turn of the 20th century was one J. Ellis Barker (look him up). On further enquiry his real name turns out to have been Otto Julius Eltzbacher, from Cologne; just 28 miles from Moenchengladbach, as it happens, where Kukowski was born. This is a common phenomenon generally: that the keenest and most fanatical ‘British patriots’ have been foreign born and/or bred. (I cite examples in my The Absent-Minded Imperialists.)

I’m not complaining at a foreign-born person’s being open-minded enough to espouse another country’s patriotism. I’m quite keen on Sweden, as it happens. It’s the subterfuge I object to. I’m not going to change my name to Berndt Cyrilsson (my father was a ‘Cyril’) to try to persuade the Swedes I’m one of them. And I’m certainly not going to give the impression that my blogsite is somehow ‘official’; which of course is what ‘YouGov’ does.

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YouGov

I’m a trusting kind of bloke on the whole. Many would call me naïve, but I’ve found that if you don’t have a suspicious frame of mind, you get on with people better. Of course you’ll be occasionally disappointed, betrayed and taken advantage of, and even made to feel foolish; but that’s the price you have to pay for friendship and a generally sunny disposition. I have chosen to be a naïf rather than a cynic. I like myself better that way.

But, yes, the betrayals can be hurtful. I learned of one today. For a few months I have been subscribing to an organization called ‘YouGov’, which samples public opinion on a variety of issues. Some of its surveys are political, albeit rather superficial; but these have been getting fewer and fewer as time has passed, to be replaced by questions on commercial and financial products, and TV programmes. A recent discussion on a Labour-supporting website has disclosed that many others of its subscribers have experienced the same trend. Some of them suspect that it’s because their early replies revealed them to be socialists. (Here: https://m.facebook.com/groups/790942501052475?view=permalink&id=1151390081674380&comment_id=1151439038336151&notif_t=group_comment_reply&notif_id=1493055905496721&ref=m_notif.) As a ‘trusting kind of bloke’ I don’t necessarily go along with that. But I was beginning to worry about YouGov’s commercial or marketing bias, which – I thought – must affect its political objectivity.

I had assumed, from its name, that it must be a governmental concern. That’s why I joined and trusted it. Maybe it was simply helping to finance itself by working for marketing companies as a sideline? Today, having checked – which of course I should have done much sooner – I find that this isn’t the case at all. Here is Wikipedia’s description of it:

‘YouGov is an international Internet-based market research firm, headquartered in the UK, with operations in Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. It has no known connection with the UK government despite the name. Stephan Shakespeare, the firm’s CEO as of 2017, once stood as a Conservative candidate for Colchester; he was also a Conservative Party pollster.’

Hence my present sense of betrayal. If it’s a private market research firm, it shouldn’t have a title with the word ‘Gov’ in it. That’s grossly misleading, and indeed immoral. Finding that it was set up by a Tory politician exacerbates the sin. Innocent of this, I provided a great deal of personal information to it, which it sought in order (it claimed) to sophisticate and perfect its sample. I now greatly regret that. I think the information was extracted from me duplicitously. I worry about the use that the Tories might make of it. And I’m angry to have been made a fool of by these bastards. I shall of course unsubscribe – with some choice words, and maybe a link to this post – the next time they get in touch.

But it still won’t make me a cynic. I won’t allow it to.

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