Demolition job
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Date: 19 September, 2003

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'Every damning epithet that our government casts at the axis of evil du jour describes Britain as well. We are a rogue state, a terrorist state, an international outlaw, a totalitarian regime.'
Web of Deceit review

Mark Curtis's investigation into Britain's foreign policy since 1945 is a 'demolition job', says Steve Tomkins

Thank you Mark Curtis for the most depressing book I've read since English 'A' level.

Web of Deceit is a study of British foreign policy since the end of World War II, with the focus on New Labour. The message is simple: the bad guys are us.

Every damning epithet that our government casts at the axis of evil du jour describes Britain as well. We are a rogue state, a terrorist state, an international outlaw, a totalitarian regime.

Britain's role in the world, he argues, has been to bolster western economy and corporations by supporting and arming repressive regimes and terrorists. In 1997, we were told things could only get better. Only one thing has changed: 'Never in British history has there been such a gap between government claims and the reality of policy'.

The investigation is thorough and well documented. Curtis offers new light on British foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, our support for the aggression of the US and Israel, and our efforts to reshape the global economy for the benefit of the rich. He considers older, recently declassified records of British complicity in genocide, depopulation and repression in such places as Indonesia, Diego Garcia and Iran - a miserably familiar thread running through them all.

Most depressing of all perhaps, he argues that even the media and academics of every political colour are implicated by their willingness to accept the official interpretation of events, and failure to accept the possibility that their own government could be all that bad.

This is not intended to be a balanced analysis of strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons. It is a demolition job. I do not recall one remotely positive comment about any aspect of western politics or media that did not come in the first half of a sentence with a major 'but' in the middle.

Some readers will find this all to the good, just what we need to counter the unremitting propaganda of the status quo. Others, like myself, will feel Curtis's case would have been the more devastating for being less overstated, showing that he is able to see shades of grey, mixed motives and mixed results.

Take for example his statement that 'in its foreign policy, Britain has become a Single-Ideology Totalitarian State'. Yes, the lack of response to public protests over the war in Iraq and of accountability to Parliament are frustrating. But a state where the public can march against the war in their hundreds of thousands, without the remotest fear of retaliation, where the leader of the Liberal Democrats can oppose the war, where 121 government backbenchers can vote against it and where members of the cabinet can resign over it, may not be perfect, but surely cannot be called 'totalitarian', or 'single-ideology' without some terminological inexactitude.

One small but very good point will stay with me. Curtis insists that 'spin' is a misnomer - the term we are looking for is 'state propaganda'. How true. The word arose from the efforts of press officers to put a good 'spin' on the public gaffs of Ronald Reagan, but has come to refer to a whole state machinary devoted to massaging and concealing information to shape public opinion, something that does not deserve such a mild, almost affectionate word.

Web of Deceit: Britain's real role in the world, by Mark Curtis, Verso, 2003