They call it ‘Alcatraz’.
In her book Big Capital, Anna Minton recounts meeting Beverley Robinson, one of the last remaining occupants of a part of Southwark’s Aylesbury housing estate that is nicknamed after the notorious prison.
She had spent years fighting the council as they tried to buy her home at a knockdown price so they could demolish the estate and replace it with mostly unaffordable housing.
Minton describes how hard it was to meet Beverley. After an Occupy protest at the housing blocks in 2015, the council surrounded it with twenty-foot spiked fencing — hence ‘Alcatraz’. Entrances were placed sporadically, and the guards were deliberately unhelpful.
During a public inquiry into the council’s bid to forcibly purchase their flats in 2015, the residents of the Alcatraz blocks found the council shut them out.
‘Virtually no maintenance was carried out,’ Minton writes, ‘fire escapes were sealed off, there was no lighting in the stairwells, the heating and gas were cut off and the bins were not emptied.’
What’s striking is how many people were involved in the process of making Beverley’s life a struggle. There are the council chiefs, of course. But there’s also the security guards. And the person who gave the order not to carry out maintenance; the person who ordered the fire escapes sealed off; the person who cut off the heating and gas and the person who called off the bin collection.
Probably not the same person. And that’s before we get to the people who carried those orders out.
There is a rot in Britain, and it’s been here a long time. It is a rot of inhumanity and dehumanisation. It is here in the way institutions treat those over whom they wield power. It is here in how the media covers minorities. It is here in the conduct of the corporate sector.
But most of all, it is here in our political class. Because in any society, the rot starts at the top.
Making rape productive
On New Year’s Eve in 2015/16, more than a thousand women were sexually assaulted in cities across Germany, particularly Cologne, including 24 alleged rapes. The identified suspects — a mere fraction of the total responsible — were primarily of North African background.
It sparked a race relations crisis in Germany. It sparked an orgy of opportunism among Brexiters.
Nigel Farage dived in. “Those 1,000 young men that were outside the train station in Cologne will, within three to four years, have German passports,” he told LBC, “which means effectively they can come here.”
He wasn’t alone. Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave, tweeted: “EU law = once Cologne sex abusers get citizenship they can fly to UK & there’s nothing we can do. #VoteLeave = safer choice”.
It was garbage. Those convicted of sexual offences in Germany cannot become naturalised citizens. Even among the many assailants who escaped justice, the idea they were counting the days before they could come to the UK — a country whose language they didn’t speak and where they knew nobody — was laughable.
The mendacity and corruption at the heart of the Leave campaign is now well documented. This was a campaign so drenched in lies that it wanted to be caught lying so its lies would spread further.
And Cummings himself has been the focus of endless attention. He is often cast as a demonic genius. The reality is rather blunter — he is a race baiter who weaponised years of hysteria about immigration to promote outright lies about Turkish membership and a mythical European border with Syria.
Cummings was once described as a ‘professional psychopath’ by David Cameron. There is a tendency to see this in almost Byronic terms, a dashing maverick upsetting the stuffy old elite.
Cummings is no such thing. He is an agent of the elite. And he, and his ilk, are like cancer cells killing the country from within.
The sociopath class
Sociopaths — defined here not in the clinical sense, but merely as lying, manipulative, reckless, cynical, shameless and self-serving — are the worst of people. They are a cocktail of the lowest elements of human nature, devoid of humanity’s fundamental redeeming streaks.
No system or society can survive when sociopathy triumphs. The members of any society are bound by norms that are required for that society to function — people do not normally knife others in the back, and are repelled by those who do.
But if you can prosper through lies, manipulation and venality, then more people will engage in that behaviour to prosper as well.
Before long, it becomes the only way to get ahead. Soon, everyone’s at it — like a corrupt failed state, the simplest task requires a kickback to complete. All norms fall apart. Nobody trusts anyone else. Nobody should.
There is a reason so many of our industries are regulated. Yes, there is the cut and thrust of competitive behaviour. But we legislate against misselling. We regulate against false advertising. We have checks and balances, however imperfect, to guard against and punish self-serving behaviour in medicine, law, policing. There would be chaos if we did not.
But three areas combine power with a relative free-for-all: politics, media and finance. The consequences of financial deregulation — and the resulting sociopathic behaviour by industry participants — were convulsively revealed more than a decade ago.
The phone-hacking scandal showed what happens when journalists are allowed to be a law unto themselves. Every day highly paid columnists spew out lies and bile to push their own agenda or satisfy a narcissistic need for attention. Even higher paid editors publish them — even when they denounce refugees as ‘cockroaches’ or support neo-Nazi parties or demonise disabled people.
It is all a game to them. They are a minority of journalists, but their volume is loud. They are sociopaths.
British politics in 2019 is the product of a system that has rewarded sociopathy over anything resembling ‘doing what’s right’ for years. The Conservatives in particular have become less a party than a pustule, throbbing with septic lies and hate.
At the heart of it is Cummings; at the top of it is Boris Johnson. Together, they are hell bent on bending and if possible breaking the law, tearing up all norms and conventions, and given the chance, changing the rules to embed themselves in power.
Johnson himself is a weapons-grade sociopath, a charlatan, a pathological liar who has knifed almost everyone who has ever known him. Aided throughout by some of the worst people in the media — Sarah Sands, the Barclay brothers — his career is a twin torrent of political success and practical failure.
He has never concerned himself with another person in his life beyond what they could do for him. He has no interest in democratic norms; possibly no interest in democracy as a good in itself. He is the most dangerous politician this country has seen in decades, if not longer.
In any functioning political system, this man would never even have reached the level of paper candidate in an unwinnable seat. In ours, he became prime minister. If he succeeds, sociopathy will become the prerequisite for anyone’s success.
America stands as a warning. The British radical right is following the lead set by Republican Party strategists since the 1980s, using tabloid media messaging, demonisation of minorities, manipulation of the democratic process and outright lies — plus enormous donations — to try and build political hegemony. It is no accident that Steve Bannon — a man who should never have been allowed into the UK — has had contact with senior Conservatives.
Donald Trump is just a natural staging post for where the party of Lee Atwater, Dick Cheney and the Tea Party has been heading for decades. The Republican Party is now little more than a gun-toting sociopathic hate cult.
This relentless abuse of norms and conventions is what really links current British politics to that in the US, more than our overstated culture wars. It’s a model Cummings and Johnson do not hesitate to follow.
But spewing out lies to get ahead did not start with Johnson. Few remember that during the 2010 election campaign, Cameron promised there would be no cuts to frontline services — a pledge that proved laughable within months, let alone by 2015 or 2019.
Before that, there was New Labour. Dewy eyed centrists talk of New Labour as if it were an era of dignity and honour. Instead, it was the political culture that inspired the character Malcolm Tucker — hyper-aggressive, toxic, factional, paranoid, controlling, mendacious, and quite willing to throw its own people under a bus (Estelle Morris, Mo Mowlam) in a briefing culture that had little to do with the good of the country.
People sometimes ascribe this period of British politics to cock-ups rather than conspiracies. But how people react to something going wrong reveals much about their character. And while it is not abnormal to pull out all the stops to save one’s career, it’s quite different to set fire to accepted norms just to avoid some minor embarrassment.
This found its most memorable expression in Jo Moore’s notorious suggestion that 9/11 was a “good day to bury bad news”, which indicated a mindset so warped by the prevailing culture that it plunged into outright inhumanity.
But the most telling case of Blairite sociopathy was Phil Woolas. Fighting to save his Oldham seat in 2010, he put out campaign leaflets saying that Muslim extremists ‘want you to vote Lib Dem to punish Phil for being strong on immigration’. A subsequent court case, which threw Woolas out of parliament, heard that his election agent had said “If we don’t get the white vote angry he’s gone”.
This was in a town that had experienced race riots within the previous decade.
In case anyone thinks Woolas was an isolated rotten apple, following the court case he received goodwill messages from Gordon Brown and Cherie Blair and was publicly backed by David Miliband.
Where do these people come from?
Consider an elite athlete. From a young age, they have dedicated themselves to gruelling training and austere discipline. They give over the best years of their lives to conditioning themselves for maximum performance. Competition is fierce; they have to do everything they can to get that crucial edge. They are obsessive, fixated. Diet is regulated; socialising is regulated; relationships can go out of the window. Everything is set aside for the track.
If you transfer this mindset to politics, you have a problem. Politics confers power and status — thus it will disproportionately attract those who seek power and status. Those willing to focus themselves so obsessively on building political careers will be the most obsessed with power and status. It’s as if sociopaths are filtered in, not out.
Their breeding grounds are student politics, private schools, and the Oxford Union, which among their ranks contain highly privileged, over-ambitious, under-talented and supremely entitled adolescents who treat these as networks and dry runs for political careers.
Anyone who has witnessed student politics has seen this. Most young people have other things to do — too often, it’s the obsessives who are drawn in. Obsessives like Woolas, who was president of the National Union of Students in the mid-80s.
That isn’t a problem if these people are locked out of ‘adult’ politics. The first, obvious, problem is they’re not. But despite the reputation of the political class, they are outnumbered by more ‘normal’ people with careers outside politics and political journalism. Party candidates are increasingly selected for their ‘normality’ — strong local roots, backgrounds in business or public services, perhaps some community work.
But national politics works by patronage. People who have already climbed the ladder can lower or raise the rungs from those below. Loyalty is demanded. Ask a planted question at PMQs. Vote the right way. Perhaps go on TV and take one for the team.
None of this works on MPs who are happy to stick with their principles on the backbenches, which is why so little of this applies to Jeremy Corbyn (more on him later).
But those who want to make a frontbench impact are soon required to play a game that strips them of their principles and often of their dignity. One moment you’re Chloe Smith, fresh faced new MP for Norwich North. The next you’re Chloe Smith, over-promoted minister talking gibberish on Newsnight.
This isn’t just dehumanising for MPs. It is also bad for the country. Effective government requires different perspectives and independence of thought.
The result of promoting a culture of obedient ‘yes men’ and women could be found in the inability of the Labour mainstream to resist the appeal of Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election. Bluntly, he was the only candidate who dared to stand for something beyond focus groups.
The faith militants
But the number of politicians who are genuinely only in it for themselves is relatively small. Those who are wreak havoc. But they cannot do it alone. And some of the most damaging politicians of recent times have clearly not prioritised their own careers — had Nigel Farage been focused on personal power, he would never have quit the Tories and founded what was a minor party on the fringes of politics.
Enter: the ideologues.
Ideology is hard to define. Ideologues are not. Ideologues will prioritise faith in their ideology over all evidence to the contrary. It is one thing to have an ideology — radical, transformational, revolutionary even. But sticking to a doctrine past the point it ceases to work is a category difference with potentially massive human costs.
Ideologues should never be allowed to hold power. Ideology has arguably killed more people than any other human creation (certainly if one classifies imperialism as an ideology, which is a stretch but not an invention).
Ideologues are effectively a secular faith militant, treating their dogma and doctrines as an infallible religion. If reality contradicts that religion, it’s reality that’s wrong.
Once someone has adopted that religion, then many things — maybe anything — in pursuit of that religion is justified. Those elements of self-serving sociopathic behaviour — lies, manipulation, recklessness, shamelessness, venality — can easily be deployed in pursuit of that ideology.
What you are left with is Farage and the Hard Brexiters. The ideological goal of Brexit is, for them, worth a thousand cabinet posts.
Like any fanaticism, ideological fanaticism is a brain-melter. It’s why otherwise intelligent people like Steve Baker (RAF engineer) and Suella Braverman (barrister) can spout such screaming nonsense on a daily basis. Nothing can be true if it crosses the one true faith, be that neoliberalism or Brexitism. The Tories have grown beholden to both, with fervent believers on the frontbench spewing out falsehoods to fit their fantasies.
Because ideologues are fantasists. But a fantasist with power is not a fantasist.
The cost of cults
The financial crisis of 2008 was a banking crisis, not a public spending crisis. The manner in which it was mutilated from the former into the latter was via a ruthless propaganda operation driven by groups such as the Taxpayers Alliance (TPA), an astroturf outfit with opaque funding founded by Matthew Elliott, an ideologue who later helped run Vote Leave.
The TPA, which had rather little to do with actual taxpayers, pushed story after story about government debt and ‘public sector waste’ into the pages of an all too willing press in the wake of the global crash.
This pitch-rolling of public opinion opened the door for Conservative strategists desperate for an excuse to ‘roll back the state’.
George Osborne committed the party to fiscal savagery that decimated local government, including care services and social services. The working age benefit system was set on fire. The NHS is now on its knees, despite having far more limited cuts than most other public services.
Cameron’s neoliberalism was not Nazism. It was not Stalinism or Maoism. It will not be taught through the decades as an example of the evils of extremism. But it should stand as a terrible totem of what ideogues did to Britain.
Tory — and for the first five years, Lib Dem — austerity came with a death toll. The shredding of political norms began with austerity, not Brexit — the predictable, and predicted, deaths that resulted from the assault on disability benefits, housing benefit, adult care and social housing, to name but a few.
We don’t know for certain how many died — and many in the political class would rather not know — but we know that people did.
For probably the first time in my sentient life, British people died as the predictable result of intentional political decisions, devised, marketed and implemented by sociopaths and ideologues.
In his 2013 book, the political scientist Mark Blyth called austerity ‘a dangerous idea’. Not just wrong or bad — dangerous. By undermining living standards and driving people into poverty, austerity also weakens support for democratic settlements and increases support for political upheaval. This is what austerity does. This is what ideologues do.
A stink through society
But what has this got to do with Beverley on the Aylesbury estate?
The rot starts at the top. It does not stay there. A state that can abuse at the top can abuse all the way down.
In this instance — and in simplified terms — the Thatcher government declared an ideological war on social housing in the 1980s. Housing began to be seen as an asset as much as a home. London councils — both Tory and Labour — saw they could cash in on rising land values and house prices by demolishing postwar housing estates and replacing them with more expensive properties.
People like Beverley stand in the way.
And so the leaders of the council decide anything is justified to get them out of the way. Fencing is put up and security guards hired to make their lives difficult. The gas, heating and bin collections stop. Maintenance work is ceased.
Maybe the staff responsible don’t care. Maybe they do it under duress. Maybe management has convinced them that Beverley deserves it. But the council will lie to her, bully her and make her life miserable to get what it wants. As goes the top, so goes the bottom.
We see this in the failed states of the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions. Britain’s immigration and welfare systems have become systems to abuse people. Answering to ideologues at the top, management becomes inhuman. Staff are hired or trained to perform their function oppressively — disability benefit assessors being an obvious example. Decent staff drift away, replaced by people who don’t care about, or worse, actively despise the people they’re supposed to be helping.
And so disabled people kill themselves as a result of ministers assuming they were scroungers. People starve to death because George Osborne found a good attack line to use against Labour in a Budget. Elderly men and women who’ve lived in Britain for decades are hounded and terrorised because Damian Green accidentally announced a net migration target live on TV and it was more convenient for the sociopath class to just run with it.
Every level of state institutions becomes dehumanising, because they have had the humanity stripped out of them by people who never had any to begin with.
And you wonder why people are angry.
Even after all this, a question remains. Most people in political parties are neither sociopaths nor ideologues. How do they hold such sway?
The third piece of the puzzle is tribalism. It is tribal loyalty, the belief that one’s side is good and the other evil, that excuses the sins of one’s own side.
And as ever, reality can have a radicalising effect. It’s true that some Remainers — like me — want to reverse the result of a democratic referendum; of course committed Leavers will resent me. It is true that government policy has killed people; how could anyone imagine letting its architects stay in power? Ideologically driven austerity arguably delivered both — there’s that dangerous idea again.
There’s a damaging dynamic at play. When parties are less extreme — less ideologically driven, less sociopathically led — they are seen as less dangerous by people on the other side, who may therefore be more willing to publicly confront problems on their own side.
When both parties are more extreme, more dangerous, both tribes fall in line so as to beat the ‘evil’ other. And yet it is at this point when scrutiny and accountability within each tribe is most needed — at the very point it is least likely to happen.
Which brings us to Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn is not a sociopath. He is very genuine, concerned and considerate towards those who do not contravene his most treasured political principles — one of which is anti-Zionism. He is markedly less considerate towards those who do. But, for the most part, he will fight the corner of those who seek his aid.
And most of those in his tribe, many of whom are new to Labour, share his treasured principles. They are better principles than those on the other side. They see him extending empathy to refugees, homeless people, disabled people — the victims of the Conservative government. And they cannot imagine him behaving any other way.
So when claims of anti-Semitism arise, they are dismissed or downplayed — perhaps grudgingly accepted, but compartmentalised away from the leader.
To attack Corbyn over them is a smear, they think. And worse, it could help keep the Tories in power. The Tories whose policies kill. No dissent can be accepted against such an enemy. And thus suspicion of the complainants slowly seeps through the tribe.
I have written about left-wing anti-Semitism before; I won’t repeat it now. I raise it simply to show, in brief terms, why people who would never normally tolerate certain behaviour, tolerate it now. And why people who would never normally hurl abuse at those who raise concerns, hurl abuse now.
And Tories who believe (wrongly) that Corbyn is a Marxist, who are convinced (dubiously) that he will wreck the economy, and who fear (plausibly) that he is soft on anti-Semitism and soft on Britain’s enemies, will tolerate and campaign for a dangerous sociopath to be prime minister instead.
The long view of history
A Corbyn government would likely achieve major reductions in poverty, homelessness and hunger, and breathe life back into Britain’s public services.
For millions of people, it will be like coming up to breathe after a decade of suffocation. For party members, it will be self-validating vindication. They were right; the critics were wrong.
And when some of Labour’s more ambitious plans begin to come unstuck (they always do), few in the party will ask questions. When the response of Labour’s top tier is to seek more control, and to marginalise dissenting voices, it will be understandable. When institutions are increasingly staffed based on political belief rather than qualification and competence, it will be deemed necessary.
And if the economy does crack — it always does, eventually — then whatever it takes will be whatever it takes. Whatever that may be.
If Corbynism does come to power, it can be open, or it can be closed. I hope it will be open.
The bad guys
This decade will stand as one of the worst that British democratic politics has witnessed — albeit, for the most part, with popular consent. It may also be the last the UK witnesses as a unified kingdom.
Britain in 2019 should stand as a warning of what happens when a country’s politics is overrun by sociopaths and ideologues. There is no such thing as a good sociopath. There is no such thing as a good ideologue. And a country whose politics cannot rid itself of both will be reduced to rubble soon enough.