Tel. +44 (0)20 7287 4414
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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

The wounded leader: a cautionary tale

Theresa May is at the weakest yet most dangerous stage of her miserable leadership. The scheduled European election might not happen if May overcomes resistance to the Withdrawal Agreement, which has hardly changed since first presented. It was at Chequers that the Cabinet was first told of the thin gruel on offer. Brexit secretary David Davis having been sidelined, the proposed deal was a concoction between Michel Barnier and senior civil servant Olly Robbins (with major input, allegedly, by the German government).

It would be naïve for Leavers to think that Robbins, though out of the news recently, has been released from his role in subversive statecraft. For May and Robbins, there is historical precedent in the dog days of David Lloyd George, whose favoured civil servant was Frank Wise. Like Robbins, Wise was a communist who idealised the Soviet Union. Looking back a hundred years later, it was incredible that so much power was entrusted to such an inappropriate person, who was acting in the interests not of his own country but of a foreign regime. Perhaps in years to come the same will be acknowledged of Robbins.

The story of Edward Frank Wise (1885-1933) is told by Giles Udy in his fascinating, scholarly tome Labour and the Gulag: Russia and the Seduction of the British Left. In 1920 Wise was appointed by Lloyd George, prime minister of a Liberal-Conservative coalition, to lead the British team in negotiations with the Bolshevik leaders in Moscow. Lenin's revolution had succeeded: the White Russians were annihilated, the Tsar and his family executed, and by today's value billions of pounds of British business investments were expropriated.

To facilitate trade, the Bolsheviks needed recognition as the legitimate Russian state, but the British government was worried that writing off the seized assets of private businesses would look very bad. However, Lloyd George ignored ministers' unease and made Wise his main man in an unprincipled policy of appeasement. Unprincipled because the Soviet Union was not only an ideological adversary to Great Britain; it was actively stirring revolution in this country, funding terrorism in Egypt, India and Ireland, and capturing British trawlers in the Barents Sea. Yet Lloyd George was committed to the goal of peaceful relations, however this could be achieved.

Like now, the period following the Great War was a politically febrile time. The Labour Party wanted to emulate the Soviet pioneers of the cause of international socialism. Strikes were spreading throughout industry, and radical voices were leading the masses towards a popular revolt. The enemy of striking Clydesiders and intellectual Marxists was Britain itself. In 1921 a meeting by a patriotic society at Central Hall in London was stormed by communists, who tore the union jack to shreds and replaced it with the red flag.

Wise used a version of 'project fear': without a trade deal, Europe would lose its supply of grain, causing famine. Although he attended some cabinet meetings, mostly he acted autonomously and did not keep ministers informed. His catastrophising should have been challenged: the Russians had scarcely enough wheat to feed themselves. Millions of peasants would starve after farms were commandeered by the apparatchiks.

The Russians worked with Wise to create the London-based trading organisation Centrosoyuz. After the coalition under Lloyd George fell in 1922, Wise was not trusted by the Tory government. True patriots Winston Churchill and Lord Curzon realised that the only way with the Russians was to stand firm against their unreasonable demands and acts of aggression. Wise resigned in 1923 and became director of Centrosoyuz. He would have rejoiced at the first Labour-led government in the following year, led by Ramsay MacDonald.

Simplistically regarded today as a failed prime minister, who compromised Labour ideals to preserve a troubled establishment, MacDonald was actually of the hard Left. Virulently anti-capitalist, he had supported not only the Russian revolution in principle but also in its horrific practice, such as the execution of priests. In 1924 he granted de jure recognition to the Soviet state without going through Parliament, with Wise, by then on the Kremlin pay roll, busily working behind the scenes.

Like MacDonald, Wise had enthused over the Bolshevik victory. In 1914 he had joined the Independent Labour Party, which called for the overthrow of European governments by an internationalist proletariat. In 1924 he stood as a ILP candidate. But it was not until 1927 that his treachery was exposed.

For years Russian money had found its way to seditious movements. Indeed, the communist Daily Herald newspaper founded by George Lansbury would have folded without Moscow gold, melted down in Stockholm en route. A suspected IRA link to a Soviet bank led to a police raid, which revealed a complex money laundering operation involving the Kremlin, Centrosoyuz and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Amidst protestations by the Labour Party, the police found that substantial funds were being sent to the IRA. Junior members of staff were blamed, but there is little doubt that Wise knew what was going on.

This did not stop Wise from being appointed by the government in 1929 for secret negotiations with the Russians on reopening diplomatic relations. He was elected as a Labour MP ifor Leicester East, and continued to promote Russian interests, as in his barnstorming maiden speech in the Commons.

The tortuous conspiracy theory of Russian interference by Guardian writer Carole Codswallop, for which she was awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism, pales into insignificance compared with the government's dealings with foreign powers. There is no persuasive evidence that Arron Banks and the Leave campaign were funded by Vladimir Putin's government. Lloyd George, however, appointed a man with known pro-Soviet beliefs to represent Britain, just as Theresa May delegated Olly Robbins, a Europhile (and earlier a Stalinist) to break bread with the EU negotiators.

Why did Lloyd George and May make such destructive choices? Arguably, by the end of his career Lloyd George had lost faith in Britain, as he was increasingly criticised for wartime decisions and the loss of a generation in the mud of Flanders. The loyalty of May has been stretched to the limit by her plummeting popularity and frequent remarks of 'the worst prime minister ever'. A Remainer at heart, May never wanted a clean break with the EU, and preferred the continental progressive polity of Angela Merkel to any Brexit bravado in the Cabinet. Criticisms of her premiership mounted when she lost the Conservative majority in the unnecessary 2017 election, her ineptly wooden response to the Grenfell Tower disaster, and her duplicitous Brexit dealings. Judging by her actions, she has turned against her party and the 17.4 million Leave voters. 

Beware, for May has a sting in her tail. With months left of her premiership, she is capable of wreaking much harm on Britain and its place in the world. She overruled her Cabinet to work in partnership with the neo-Marxist, IRA-sympathising leader of the Labour Party on a soft Brexit, breaking her solemn promise that the UK would leave on the 29th March. Last week she gave the green light for the Chinese company Huawei to build the 5G communication network in Britain, against the advice of security experts and risking the close 'Five Eyes' arrangement with the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. She has undermined the special relationship with the USA, and Donald Trump despairs of her supine dealings with countries and organisations jealous of Anglo-American economic and cultural success.

As you read this, a man in Whitehall is carving out our future as an island dependency of the EU.That's what May wants from Robbins, and he will happily oblige.   

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