by Neil Harris
BRADLEY MANNING, in solitary confinement since his arrrest, is facing a court-martial in the spring of 2013. If he is lucky enough to escape the death penalty he will be serving a long prison sentence, under the same kind of harsh conditions he has faced up till now. If the allegations are true; that he leaked some 250,000 US State Department “cables”, then his sacrifice means we owe him a great debt. It is our duty to make full use of this remarkable and unique resource: essentially a series of confidential reports sent back to Washington by US Embassy staff from around the world. At the time of the original disclosure, the bourgeois press published a small selection of these without criticism, effectively repeating the official State Department worldview, as if it was true.
Now we need to start taking a closer look at the “cables”, starting with some 3,000 reports sent back from the American embassy in London. Unexpectedly this has provided us with a unique insight into the craven and often grovelling relationship between some Labour and trades union figures and the London representatives of US imperialism. None of this is new; “The Special Relationship” which acknowledged that British imperialism was to be subordinate to America’s has been endorsed by old style Labour leaders like Atlee and Gaitskell all the way to Blair and Brown in our era. It didn’t take long for aspiring young Labour politicians to realise that the path to power involved regular trips to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square or, if you were really going places, a meal at a fashionable restaurant, on expenses.
So for example, there is an unclassified report dated 10/12/09 from the Ambassador himself, detailing a discussion with Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC. This was in the lead up to the 2010 election and not surprisingly the American was interested whether this would be in March rather than May as everyone assumed;“highly unlikely” replied Barber who then explained how Brown needed positive news from the budget and was hoping for some early signs of economic recovery. He went on to say rather naively, how he didn’t regard Cameron as anti-union as Thatcher had been, saying: “The Tories have actually been courting the unions, because they need union support in any effort to reduce public sector employment as a deficit fighting measure”. Barber actually seemed to welcome a hung parliament in the vain hope that the unions might be able to exert some kind of influence.
The influence of Barber and others behind the scenes is far more tangible in a 2006 report on the Brighton Trades Union Congress or, as it is rather quaintly put, the “British Trades Union Movement’s annual convention”. The embassy observer’s main worry seems to have been that, “On the international front the members were at their most leftist, supporting perennial resolutions in favour of Cuba and Venezuela and more narrowly denouncing MOD plans to replace the Trident nuclear deterrent.”
At this point the embassy man felt he needed help, and turned to a fellow countryman for advice: “An observer from the AFL-CIO (protect), explained that Barber tends to allow the left-wing to dominate the international agenda, because it is of little consequence to the unions”. He noted with some satisfaction that, “despite the anti-American flavour of many of the motions, the AFL-CIO retains its honoured position as the only union invited to address the congress every year”.
The year 2009 was busy for everyone: in August Lord Mandelson, always a welcome guest at the embassy himself, must have still been on his holidays as he sent his special advisor Patrick Loughran to give the Americans a briefing on the forthcoming Labour Conference. Acting Political Minister, Counsellor (PolMinCouns) Robin Quinville reported on the meeting in a cable dated 1st September and headed“confidential/NOFORN”, meaning no access to foreigners.
Loughran set out in great detail everything that would happen at conference due on the 27th September, including how Labour’s “core campaign message and its three major themes” would be launched and in the process laying out in full detail the Labour strategy for the election campaign itself. This he summarised as: “Labour invests, Conservatives cut”. To make it clear he said: “The key electoral message is all about the economy.”
He complained that, “Labour does not have the money to compete aggressively in a close election, including to hire the necessary staff and it does not have the energy to attract the necessary volunteers.” He regretted: “This is the first election since 1997 that Labour is fighting on the back foot.”
The expenses scandal was obviously a worry, not for moral reasons but mainly because of the large number of enforced retirements and the new candidates needed to replace them. Times had changed: “Previously the central party was able to vet these candidates thoroughly and even parachute in senior party leaders who had not previously held a seat.” Now due to its weakened position the Labour leadership had lost control.
On Mandelson, clearly still of great interest to the Americans, he said: “He’s loving being in government” and predicted that he would stay in the Cabinet if Labour won the next election.“He’s no longer a toxic asset, he’s more mature…Mandelson did what he needed to do to, modernise the Labour Party with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He had however the role of leading the revolution internally in the party and championing the change and that created a lot of enemies within the Labour party who were opposed to change. That dust has now settled.”
Asked about the timing of the election he revealed: “A May election, timed with the next local elections makes sense,” but said “elections just are not in focus yet”.
What is remarkable is not that conversations like this went on (New Labour would have been briefing friendly journalists with some background information anyway) but that these social democrats imagined that crucial and confidential information like the date of the election and their campaign strategy were secrets that would be safe in American hands.
Back in May 2009, in a recurring theme, Prime Minister Brown was in trouble – his Cabinet colleagues were plotting against him. PolMinCouns Gregory Berry sent a “confidential/NOFORN” report on the 6th May, detailing discussions that had taken place at the House of Lords with the Deputy leader of the Lords, Brian Davis and Lord Grocott, the special advisor to the leader of the house “with whom Poloffs (political officers) met along with other Labour lords”, entitled: “A resilient Gordon Brown is down but not out” and which begins rather excitedly: “Westminster seethed with rumours over the May bank holiday weekend…”. Unfortunately the report doesn’t quite live up to its billing, although it did set out a detailed and accurate briefing on the threats to Brown’s leadership, the likely outcomes and broadly dismissing the chance of any change.
The lords admitted that Labour would be in difficulties in the forthcoming local and European elections but shared with the Poloffs their hopes for a Labour victory. Lord Charles Falconer, described as a “leading Labour advisor to former PM Tony Blair”, accepted that after the 2010 election large cuts to public expenditure were coming but set out his hopes that “voters can be convinced those cuts should be made by a progressive, left of center government, rather than by a pro-business, Tory government”.
The lords were asked their views about the British National Party, then seen as a threat. Falconer disagreed with the view that disaffected Labour voters would defect to them, stating that he saw the Conservatives as the likely focus of opposition. This was reported in contrast to the concerns expressed that the BNP would“steal Labour votes” as “leading Labour MP Jon Cruddas told us”, on 1stMay during a detailed briefing on the threat from the BNP and the Greens.
The close embassy interest in Labour Party affairs is always surprising; one unfortunate Poloff had to attend the Labour Party spring conference in Birmingham in 2008. He reported that delegates had complained that this had clashed with Welsh celebrations of St David’s day on the Saturday and with Mother’s Day on the Sunday. The officer commented wryly: “This put many prospective attendees in the position of choosing between the Labour Party and their Mums – judging by the turnout, Mum won in many cases”. Given that the report was headed: “To Secretary of State in Washington, the European political collective priority, Dept. of Commerce WashDC Priority”, it is hard to imagine how this was received at the other end. But it must have been considered important as the cable was classified “Confidential/NOFORN”, by Ambassador Tuttle himself.
Apart from reporting Brown’s speech and talking to delegates to evaluate its reception, the political officer also attended the workshop on “reaching out to the Muslim voter”, complaining that, “Ten people including the Poloff showed up an event aimed at improving outreach to Muslim communities (embassy comment – given Labour’s loss of Muslim support following the Iraq war, the low turnout by party activists at this event was inexplicable. End comment).”
This thoroughness is also present in June of that year when the same official sent a most detailed assessment of the disastrous European elections: “Labour loses election in Wales for first time in 91 years – end of an era?” What follows is an intelligent and fairly rapid analysis of Labour’s position in its old stronghold and the effect this would have on the next general election, although it is fair to say it did lack the kind of class analysis we would have chosen to give it. In the course of researching this he spoke to Daran Hill, who he describes as “a political consultant with centrist leanings”, Graham Benfield “the chief executive officer of an umbrella organisation funnelling Welsh government funds to 30,000 voluntary associations” and “MP Hywel Francis, chair of the Welsh affairs committee”.
Berry’s interest in Welsh affairs didn’t stop there; he reported on Carwyn Jones’victory as Labour leader in December 2009 and his resulting appointment as First Minister in the Welsh Assembly. The balance of power, Jones’ biography and those of his unsuccessful rivals are there in full detail. Something clearly irritated his superior who added a sour paragraph to the end of the cable: “The Welsh Assembly has no power over foreign affairs, so Jones’ views will not have a great impact on UKpolicy. He opposed Britain’s participation in the Iraq war and has criticised UK Labour’s handling of the Afghanistan war. His greatest influence on foreign policy will be through further devolution which could shake up Westminsterpolicy-making. That, however, is far off.” That didn’t stop Ambassador Louis B Susman, who had also signed the cable and may well have authored the paragraph, from attending a large lunch held in his honour in Wales on the 9th March 2011, and where he posed for photos with Carwyn Jones the first minister.
Scotland also makes a number of appearances, notably when Labour lost Glasgow East to the SNP in July 2008 because it “fuelled speculation that Brown could face a leadership challenge this fall”. Headed: “A political body blow to Gordon Brown as Labour loses Scottish by-election”, this went beyond the usual “confidential/NOFORN”, with a “Sensitive” classification added by Political Counsellor Rick Mills.
This was probably justified because the main source for the report was “Nick Brown MP, a close advisor to Brown and his Deputy Labour Whip in the Commons”, and close enough to the US Embassy that he “told Poloff the morning after the vote” that “there are no quirks we can use to explain this defeat away”. He accepted that the party has to see the vote as “a referendum on Labour – that we lost”.
Nick Brown went on to detail the likely threats to Brown’s premiership, including a letter going the rounds of the back benches but that he was confident the PM and his allies would be able to “slap down” the effort “if it got off the ground at all”. He then set out Brown’s strategy to deal with these challenges; to “hunker down” over the summer holidays and return with new policies in the autumn.
The Political Officer saw both the SNP and the Tories as victors and even took the time to speak to “Michael Fabricant, a Tory MP” who gave him the priceless information: “The third place finish is important to the Tories because it indicates that Cameron’s appeal and message is making inroads even in traditionally Tory-hostile Scotland.”
In all these cables the role of the political officer is central. Unlike our diplomatic service, which still cherishes its gentlemanly amateurs, hierarchy and class divisions, the Americans are organised with business-like efficiency and professionalism. Candidates for the “Foreign Service Officer (FSO) test”, first register for one of the five“cones” or career tracks; Consular, Economic, Management, Public Diplomacy or Political. In a system where ambassadors are often political appointees without experience, these professionals are crucial advisors and managers. Once chosen, the track is generally for life and of these, political officers clearly regard themselves as an elite.
The careers advice for prospective FSO’s describes the Poloff’s role as follows: “A political officer makes and maintains contacts in the national and local government and keeps in close touch with political parties, think tanks, non-governmental organisations, activists and journalists”. While some of the cables reveal a lazy re-writing of open access press reports, others are well researched assessments, based on confidential briefings from those who should know better.
Part journalist, part talent scout and spy: “Political officers will use the insight gained from local contacts and experiences to report on a variety of issues that may be of interest to Washington. Good political officers do not just report on what they see. Their job is to analyse, advise and influence…They are patient knowing that the results of their work may not be evident for years.”
In the second part of this article we will examine just how this patience works out in practice and how the influence of the US Embassy extends from the top of the British political establishment down to activists in our local communities.