A government led by a prime minister who hasn’t been elected in a popular vote backs Israel’s brutal war, complete with mass killings and war crimes, with military and diplomatic support.
He does so with the support of the country’s main opposition party, in the face of public calls for a ceasefire.
His government explicitly rejects a legal ruling by the World Court to the effect that Israel is plausibly promoting genocide.
Ministers do not face, and will never face, investigation for their complicity in those crimes or even any political sanction. The foreign secretary, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, is not even elected.
All the while, the media buries key features of UK backing for Israel – such as secret spy flights and facilitation of arms shipments to the Israeli war machine.
Does this look like a democracy?
Well, no it isn’t – it’s Britain. The open secret is that this is how UK governance tends to work not only in all its wars but in its daily foreign policy.
An oligarchy is where a small number of people exert control over the state. Other terms used by scholars for systems that fall well short of the “liberal democracy” we are supposed to live under include “electoral autocracies” and “exclusionary democracies”.
We’re brought up believing Britain is a democracy and are constantly told this by media and political commentators of all political persuasions. It just isn’t true.
Certainly the UK can boast many democratic elements in the way we’re governed. We have elections every five years, a largely independent judiciary, laws on freedom of speech and association, and strong legislation protecting the equality of all citizens and civil liberties.
Compared to many other countries, British citizens are certainly free. As a journalist critical of government policy, I can speak out and my family won’t find my body dumped at the roadside with a bullet in the back of my head.
This is important (to me at least) and makes Britain different to the various repressive regimes that Whitehall backs around the world.
But that’s a low bar. Especially when it comes to the UK’s military, foreign and intelligence policies – and its wars – power rests in the hands of an elite few who control the policy-making institutions.
They claim to promote the national interest but there are few breaks on their power, few ways to influence them and few requirements on them to even divulge what they’re doing.
British foreign policy-making is so centralised that it is akin to an authoritarian regime. A prime minister can send troops to war or bomb another country without even consulting parliament, as the UK has recently been doing in Yemen.
Not that it would have mattered – since the main “opposition” party in England supports UK lawlessness as much as the ruling one.
In 1976, Lord Hailsham famously termed the UK an “elective dictatorship” because parliament is easily dominated by the government of the day and faces few constraints on its power.
This was before prime minister Margaret Thatcher centralised decision-making still further in the 1980s, regularly bypassing the cabinet and relying on a small set of advisers. Because she could.
This was continued by Tony Blair, leading to the disastrous invasion of Iraq, among other things. Basically, the prime minister – and one elected only by his own Tory MPs, in Sunak’s case – and a few of his mates can get away with murder, and it’s all deemed perfectly acceptable.
Licence to kill
Blair took the country into an illegal war in Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands, and has faced no prosecution. British ministers facilitated Saudi war crimes in Yemen for seven years during 2015-22 – and rarely was anyone in authority even questioned about it.
Now, over 27,000 Palestinians are dead at the hands of Israel’s genocide in Gaza and no ministers providing political and military support to Israel can be held to account for this under our system.
British governance is so extreme that no minister has ever been made accountable for crimes abroad – despite numerous wars, covert operations, coups and complicity in human rights abuses.
“The UK has a peculiar system that allows ministers to kill with impunity”
The UK has a peculiar system that allows ministers to kill with impunity. It’s called “crown immunity”. This doctrine, which surely should not have escaped the Middle Ages, deems that ministers cannot commit a legal wrong. They are deemed to not act as persons but as agents steeped with Crown authority, and are therefore untouchable under the law.
If a minister breaches the criminal law outside of her public duties, she is subject to criminal law like anyone else. But if she makes decisions as a minister, however reprehensible or incompetent, these are considered as acts of government and not for the criminal courts.
Whether it’s war crimes by a prime minister, a minister’s complicity in torture and rendition or catastrophic health and social policy decisions, accountability, we are told, is meant to come through democracy and parliament. But it doesn’t.
Public inquiries tend to take years and can embarrass ministers but invariably fail to formally censure them, let alone hold them legally accountable.
Instead of accountability we have toothless “codes” that are routinely broken, such as the Ministerial Code — one of the many features of British governance intended to give the appearance of accountability in public life without having any actual effect.
Who really is even scrutinising what Britain does around the world?
Government policies are meant to be examined by all-party parliamentary committees. However, while these can occasionally rebuke government ministers, they are invariably only mildly critical or investigative and rarely hold the government truly to account.
The committees tend to be packed with government supporters who fail to investigate key policies or grill ministers. Their choice of topics to examine routinely ignores controversial policies.
Even when those committees report, the only obligation for a government is to respond – there is no requirement to change policy as a result.
Another key way the government is meant to be held to account is through parliamentary questions. Any MPs can ask awkward questions of the government and sometimes they do.
But ministers have wide latitude in their responses: they often downright ignore questions or reveal minimal information. This can break the Ministerial Code but frankly few care, and almost never is anyone castigated.
When ministers lie, which they do regularly – Boris Johnson springs to mind – nothing happens. Johnson was a routine liar all the time he was in office and was only removed for other reasons.
Truly excessive secrecy
There is probably no more secretive state in Europe than Britain with the possible exceptions of Belarus and Russia. The working assumption is: the public has no right to know. We are subjects of the crown and can be told only what those in authority want to tell us.
Britain has military special forces that fight in numerous covert wars yet there is no accountability over them to the public or even parliament. We only tend to hear about their operations when a compliant journalist has a friendly phone call with his Ministry of Defence (MoD) contact who has a “story” for him. It’s then written up in a puff piece as “news”.
Ministers refuse point blank to answer any questions about the special forces, and this is deemed perfectly reasonable for “national security”. “Trust us” is the working, and laughable, rationale.
The same goes for the intelligence services. Ministers routinely say it’s “longstanding policy” not to comment on them – a blanket refusal. The Intelligence and Security Committee of parliament is meant to provide some oversight over the security services but its role is minimal.
“The intelligence agencies operate as a law unto themselves”
In fact, the intelligence agencies operate as a law unto themselves. They’re allowed to break the law and all their chiefs are given full impunity.
We know they spy on the public, especially on people that pose a threat to the established order – and those deemed “subversives” are anyone they say they are.
Even minor information is withheld from the public on “sensitive” subjects. To take just one example almost at random, when an MP asked the government how much the US government reimburses Britain for the costs of the defence ministry police at the American spy base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, a government minister refused to say.
Even when asked parliamentary questions on overt foreign policy, ministerial responses tend to be routinely minimalist in their answers, and are often misleading or deceitful.
It’s true that under Freedom of Information laws, the government is required to release some sensitive information, which can be incriminating. But anyone who has made FOI requests will know that they are routinely denied on the pretext of protecting “national security”.
Public bodies are currently granting only a third of FOI requests while agencies like MI6 cannot be subject to FOI requests at all.
Even past government planning documents that are released to the National Archives after 20 or 30 years are regularly heavily censored or weeded. The so-called “independent” oversight panel that decides what is released and what remains under cover, contains former spies and government officials.
Influencing high policy
Shouldn’t the key feature of a democracy be the ability of the public to have some influence over government policies? But what say does the public have over the UK’s military relationship with the US? Or Whitehall’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia or other Arab dictatorships?
Or arms exports to numerous repressive regimes? Or Britain’s acquisition of new nuclear arms?
These “high policies” are of great public importance and can be a matter of life and death for people overseas on the receiving end. But they are carried on behind closed doors by the “chaps”, who are given wide rein to act as though they have national interests at heart. It’s all very chummy, and utterly preposterous.
We in Britain suffer from an inability to influence let alone change most government policies. Once we’ve elected a government, or thrown out a previous one, the formal mechanisms for having influence are extremely limited.
Indeed, the UK system is not designed for the public to have influence, but rather to exclude the possibility that public pressure might sway officials from their goals. This is something that comes through clearly in the declassified files I’ve seen over the years.
Professor Jeremy Gilbert has written of the “chronic inability of our political institutions to give the public any real influence over policy”. MPs, he observes, “ought to act as the conduits for the views of their constituents, causing those views to inform as fully as possible the key legislative decisions of parliament”.
But instead there is a “profound mismatch between the received notion of what MPs are for and their actual role and function within the circuits of power which shape social, cultural and economic outcomes.” MPs are simply fairly junior members of a technocratic, managerial elite.
Having no real political opposition to the ruling party is a dead giveaway when it comes to spotting an oligarchy.
Here, there is clearly a difference currently between England and Scotland. In the latter, the SNP has been critical of Israel’s war in Gaza and the UK government’s support of it. In England, Labour acts as an extension of the Conservatives on Israel, as on nearly every other foreign policy.
For some reason, the idea still holds sway in many circles that Labour promotes a progressive internationalism – a belief that is not rooted in evidence.
When Jeremy Corbyn ran Labour from 2015-19, the entire British political and media class ensured his largely social democratic project – deemed too radical – was destroyed.
Corbyn dared oppose British military interventionism and threatened to introduce a human rights-focused foreign policy, something which cannot be tolerated in Whitehall, which remains set on ruling the world by force.
That 2015-19 period should have been the wake-up call for anyone thinking progressive change can come without a revolution in our media. The clear message to the public was: the oligarchy is in charge and will not tolerate a challenge to its power.
Army officers interjected to say there might be a coup if Corbyn were elected. The media platformed numerous military and intelligence figures claiming ridiculously that Corbyn was a threat to national security. The campaign involved the spectrum of media outlets, from the Mail to the Guardian.
Media follows the state
The media’s role might be thought to be to hold governments to account on behalf of the public. This is Hollywood’s picture of the media that bears little relation to reality. In Britain (and in the US), mainstream journalists routinely amplify and justify foreign policies and keep controversial policies out of sight of the public.
They act as the, well, medium between the state and the public and are not news organisations so much as corporate financial entities with political agendas. “Viewspapers”, as MediaLens calls them.
The true role of the UK’s right-wing and liberal media has been well-analysed by us at Declassified – and was the key reason we needed to set up the organisation. Many key UK foreign policies are not covered at all in the mainstream. Others are sanitised. Occasional revelations are otherwise buried in avalanches of propaganda.
The MoD, to all intents and purposes, largely controls the British media. Not in a formal sense, it doesn’t have to, but by relying on compliant, careerist journalists to publicise its stories. Many, perhaps most, articles about the UK military that appear in the media come from the MoD.
False assumptions are everywhere in the press and TV, such that UK policies are based on support for democracy and human rights. Preposterous positions adopted by Whitehall are routinely taken seriously, like that it supports international law or a “rules-based” world order.
Enemy states are posited as the rogue ones, never us. The media invariably follows the state’s foreign policy interests in terms of what it covers and how.
Media editors willingly comply with government censorship requests, such as when the military-run D-Notice committee asks journalists not to run stories it says challenge “national security”.
When I, as Declassified editor, was once asked by this committee to pull part of a story, I said no. Obviously.
I’ve long believed nothing will seriously change in Britain until the public stops being brainwashed by national media. A plurality of independent news organisations working in the public interest must be nurtured to become larger and the predominant sources of public information.
Of course, there is an even broader issue about our governance: do elected politicians really wield power and choose policies anyway?
It’s been well-analysed for decades that corporations increasingly rule the world and that it’s their profit-seeking that shapes policy-making more than elected politicians. The state no longer has the power to regulate flows of capital or ideas that it once had. This has come about because political elites have allowed it to.
Who really determines UK foreign policy? The needs of oil giants BP and Shell drive much of it. Arms corporations, especially Britain’s flagship firm, BAE Systems, help shape UK support for regimes buying its weapons.
Wars are lucrative for arms corporations and Britain always seeks a profit in conflicts. War is a key aspect of Whitehall’s business model. Those arms and energy firms practise a revolving door of personnel with Whitehall – meaning there are personal incentives for officials to challenge their operations.
The UK is the home of the world’s dirty money and the global centre of the world’s tax haven business depriving countries of billions in tax revenues.
These entrenched financial interests, championed by both main parties, largely determine the UK’s global economic policies. Control over key resources – not just oil but minerals like gold, bauxite and rubber – has long driven Britain to exert influence over many developing countries and shaped its imperialism, with often disastrous consequences.
In the UK, corporate corruption is institutionalised. “With a subservient state, corporations feel that they can get away with almost anything”, writes financial expert Lord Prem Sikka.
He adds: “Corporations excel in corrupt practices by funding political parties and legislators to ensure that their interests are prioritised. Ministers and legislators oblige by neutering… laws and stuffing toothless regulatory bodies with corporate elites”.
There are numerous ways this oligarchy is entrenched. One is our first-past-the-post voting system which guarantees the will of the people is always violated – no government has ever won more than 50% of the vote, meaning most people have always voted against the current government, which nevertheless is allowed to wield enormous power.
Politicians are easily bought anyway. Most money for the Conservative party comes from a small number of very rich people, such as hedge fund managers, who can gain special access to ministers in return for their money. The corruption is normalised and rarely spoken of as such.
“There are numerous ways this oligarchy is entrenched”
“British politics operates a bit like a protection racket”, writes Adam Ramsay. Millions of pounds in funding are also funnelled to parties from dark money donor groups.
MPs’ trips abroad are regularly funded by foreign states, too, notably family dictatorships ruled by the Saudis and Bahrainis. One third of the Conservative cabinet under Boris Johnson, and two fifths of Labour’s shadow cabinet under Keir Starmer, have been funded by the Israel lobby.
Dozens of MPs have been funded to visit Israel, in schemes intended to cultivate their support for a state that has long subjugated and is now massacring Palestinians. Interference in British politics by Whitehall’s allies is seen as normal and is taboo to investigate – only Russian and Chinese involvement is seen as a problem.
Britain’s patronage system – which would be called corruption in other countries – works like a dream. The prime minister makes appointments to the House of Lords to keep power in small circles and buy ongoing political influence, while some other seats in the second chamber are reserved for hereditary aristocrats.
David Omand, the former GCHQ director, went on to work for the arms corporation Babcock; John Sawers, the former chief of MI6, was appointed a non-executive director of BP, among numerous examples.
A laughable Whitehall body called Acoba is meant to monitor possible conflicts of interests when former government officials apply for jobs in the private sector – except that the whole point of Acoba is to give the go-ahead to such obvious conflicts of interest.
So the elite regulates itself – a feature of all authoritarian, unaccountable systems. Part of this, naturally, is to decide when not, and when, to have a public or official inquiry. There have sometimes been some revealing ones – when scandals have been really hard to cover up.
The Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq revealed a lot about Blair – but was conducted 13 years later and failed to sanction the former PM even after he and his entourage committed the international crime of aggression.
Prime ministers can govern though special advisers, like Dominic Cummings, and when they make mistakes or worse, have the power to decide if there should be a public inquiry.
“It’s as if a defendant in a criminal trial were allowed to decide whether the trial goes ahead and, if so, what the charges should be and who the judge and jury are”, writes George Monbiot.
The recent inquiry into the 2017 Manchester Arena attack was a scandal in itself. No attempt was made to uncover the links between the bomber and the UK intelligence services – while MI5 was allowed to give their evidence in secret and MI6 was not even called.
On and on
Any critical analyst of British governance could go on and on… I haven’t even mentioned the monarch, the head of the oligarchy, and how the royals censor scrutiny of their roles backing severe repression in the Middle East.
Or the elite private schools which still cultivate a ruling class sharing many of the same world viewpoints, and ultimately a contempt for true democracy.
It is striking that there have been so few whistle-blowers revealing secrets about UK foreign policy (although there have been prominent ones such as Clive Ponting and Katharine Gun). This is probably because those allowed access to the elite normally come from the same circles and can be relied on to be one of the chaps or, increasingly, chapesses forever.
When someone really does reveal core, brutal secrets, they can be incarcerated without trial and despatched to a maximum security prison, in ways that would impress Beijing.
The treatment of British political prisoner Julian Assange, complete with how the judicial system has been hijacked for political purposes, well illustrates the nature of British arbitrary, authoritarian power.
Britain resembles more a private club than a country. As Adam Ramsay has noted, only five British universities have produced a prime minister, and more than twice as many have gone to Eton as to non-fee paying schools.
Conspiracy of silence
Try finding mentions of “British oligarchy” in the media, or any recognition that our system falls short of a liberal democracy. This concept can barely be acknowledged and there’s a conspiracy of silence about it.
There’s a trademark “British democracy” that is pushed on the public to keep us in line. It’s so that we just vote, and don’t spend too much time thinking of what we are really voting for, and what the point is.
The idea that Westminster is the “mother of all parliaments” – even as some claim, represents a democratic model for the world – is a cultivated myth. It is a huge ideological pillar of propaganda that maintains our undemocratic governance system.
“We’re being brainwashed into accepting a system that doesn’t work in our interests”
The first step in releasing ourselves from this is to realise that British democracy is surely a great idea but currently is propaganda. We’re being brainwashed into accepting a system that doesn’t work in our interests.
The “permanent government” in Whitehall is deeply entrenched and has major media assets to draw on to keep the public as spectators, in ignorance and away from being actors in their own governance. It will try to destroy anyone upsetting the system.
But British oligarchy is also wafer-thin, as all authoritarian systems are, because it doesn’t have true popular consent. It is plainly obvious how the system works when you look independently at it and cut out the mythology.
The physical destruction of Gaza, as the ideological destruction of Corbyn, should be a gamechanger for those concerned with how we’re governed. It’s stamping the nature of our true governance in not just Palestinian faces, but ours as well.
Scottish independence is one way out of this – simply by dismantling the UK as it currently exists. But for Scots after independence and for those of us in the other home countries, it’s no perfect solution because it may not change how our government really functions. It could entrench English authoritarianism.
There are plenty of actors in Britain demanding we move towards democratic decision-making. They can be found in every sector, region and on every issue, although they may not see each other as working as part of a broader campaign.
With foreign policy, and many aspects of domestic policies, democratising the UK is literally a matter of life and death. We’re backing the slaughter in Gaza, bombing Yemen, touting for a war with Russia, and violating international law as routine.
Our own leaders are our biggest threat. The UK is a rogue state. If we don’t democratise our system, we’ll be killing foreigners and promoting wars forever.
We have, first, to get to base one: and recognise British oligarchy for what it is.