Sometimes a relatively obscure event takes place which has profound consequences far beyond its original location. For example, the positioning of the star at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was one of the causes of the Crimean War, which contributed to the eventual downfall of the Russian autocracy, removed the British Prime Minister and is still causing boundary disputes between modern Turkey and its neighbours.
A small fuss has arisen in the UK over an ill-advised letter sent by an MP. Usually such an action has only local relevance, and the story soon blows over. But the more we find out, the more disturbing this story becomes. It is creating pressures which could potentially bring down many governments, as no country can claim to be free from the corrupt connections which are coming to light.
Those old enough to remember the Watergate Scandal and its impact might soon be calling this one Lettergate. It has the potential to be just as big—even bigger. As we saw back then, there is a global public primed to feast on an orgiastic mess of corruption, dictatorship and secrecy, which eagerly awaits each new salacious development. There is no telling where this one act of folly might lead, or who will get burned in the process.
Would you be so kind?
Few people had heard of Chris Heaton-Harris before October 2017. He is the Conservative MP for Daventry, a place most couldn’t pinpoint on a map. But he has now made himself notorious by writing to to a number of university Vice-Chancellors, asking for the names of the professors who are teaching about Brexit at their universities and copies of what they are teaching.
On the surface, the MP’s letter is a simple information request. But it was not regarded as such by the people he wrote to, for various reasons.
Firstly, Heaton-Harris is a strong supporter of leaving the EU, and most academics are not. It is therefore clear that Heaton-Harris expects to find these professors teaching things he doesn’t like. Heaton-Harris and his supporters regard those who oppose Brexit as “enemies of the people”, and here he is, seemingly asking for proof so he can denounce individuals publicly.
Secondly, he sent this signed letter on official House of Commons notepaper. An MP is only allowed to do this when they are conducting official business connected with their own constituency. He also gave no reason why he wanted this information. All this implies that the powers-that-be, rather than this one MP, want the information for some reason they daren’t give.
Thirdly, if Heaton-Harris wanted to know what was being taught at universities he could have done what everyone else does: look at their websites, obtain their prospectuses or attend their lectures. Asking for this information in an official capacity, without giving a reason, smacks of government monitoring of academic work. No university Vice-Chancellor in the democratic world would accept that, as they all insist that independent thought is what their university is there for, and this principle must be respected.
When this letter was made public it provoked a furious backlash, along the lines of “McCarthyite Witchhunt“. The MP did not respond, but the following day Boris Johnson’s brother, who is the Universities Minister, claimed Heaton-Harris had merely been “researching a book he might one day write“. He did however also say that the letter probably shouldn’t have been sent.
Eventually Heaton-Harris tweeted that he believed in academic freedom. But otherwise he has remained silent, despite the press beating at his door. This means he has been instructed to keep his mouth shut. But Heaton-Harris is always advertising his other statements, even if they cause his party problems. So something greater than merely party discipline is making him comply with this request, however embarrassing that is for him.
Skeletons out of the cupboard
What is that something? A clue has emerged in a seemingly unrelated development. Following the scandals surrounding expenses the House of Commons is taking a hard look at its practices. As a result, the government has admitted that a number of MPs are under suspicion of sexually harassing people who work there, and often for the harasser themselves. Through the Leader of the House it has denounced such behaviour, and says it is now serious about stamping it out.
Who are these MPs? The names of some of those on the Conservative side, and what they are accused of, were included in a document some national journalists got hold of. Though the names were redacted for official publication, the internet has resolved this problem. Sure enough, Heaton-Harris’ name appears there, alongside the allegation “inappropriate with female researchers + handsy in taxis” – implying that he employs researchers so he can sexually molest them, not because he wants them to research anything.
This is only an allegation at present. But Heaton-Harris has reason to be concerned by it. Theresa May’s former Communications Director, Katie Perrior, has now stated publicly on TV what was long suspected: that party whips gather this information so they can blackmail their colleagues with it. Anyone who threatens to vote against the government is threatened with having compromising information about them exposed.
Already one of the MPs mentioned on the list has resigned due to its contents. This is former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who has next to his name “Odd sexual penchants and sexual with fellow MP Mike Freer – a drunk”. Heaton-Harris is a whip himself, he knows what is in his own file and how it can be used against him by his party.
People have often asked why MPs continually vote for things they are known to personally disagree with. We now have hard evidence of why. We also have hard evidence that Heaton-Harris himself is one of those at risk of blackmail, who can be leaned upon to do whatever the leaner wants.
Who is in charge?
We don’t know if Heaton-Harris was blackmailed by figures in his own party, or the government, to write to the university Vice-Chancellors. But the chances are we soon will, because there is evidence that his instructions came from the top.
While Boris Johnson’s brother (he is not on the list, but Boris is) was simultaneously defending and slapping down Heaton-Harris the Daily Mail newspaper, which has consistently promoted Brexit, was preparing its banner headline – OUR REMAINER UNIVERSITIES. The accompanying article, available online, maintains that universities are full of people who oppose Brexit and are trying to poison the minds of their students with relentless Remain bias.
This language is a rehashing of the Cold War era complaints that universities were full of Communist spies. It is true that academics often hold opinions which the world around them doesn’t like, and this is one reason they end up in universities: they can hold their opinions freely there without it harming their careers, at least in theory. When Communists and near-Communists were automatically regarded as enemies of the people they found the more independent and questioning university space congenial, and in some cases were directly linked with espionage activity.
But the difference is that working for enemies of the state, and recruiting and encouraging other people to do so, is a serious criminal offence. It is not in any way illegal to disagree with the UK’s decision to leave the EU, nor the reasoning behind it. Furthermore, the people who use this language now, and did then, attended the same universities and had the same professors. How come they weren’t “contaminated” in the same way? Do they possess some sort of magic powder, obtained from who-knows-where, which gives them alone the ability to have correct opinions?
The link between the hatred-spewing UK tabloid newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, and the government is well documented. The more the government investigates Brexit, the more it sees it is a problem: it still won’t publish the impact studies it paid for, and junior ministers and civil servants involved with the Brexit process are leaving their jobs at an alarming rate. But the government continues to justify its policy by saying it reflects the “Will of the People” – which means the one expressed in those particular newspapers rather than others, or more recent opinion polls.
Newspaper proprietors have a vast intelligence gathering network at their disposal, and a public platform for their views no individual politician ever has. It is a world designed for the megalomaniac, who exerts his own power over elected representatives whose futures ultimately depend on his patronage. At national level, you can do this. In the EU, with all its languages and largely unknown politicians, that is much more difficult. If being a megalomaniac got you into newspapers to begin with, are you going to be happy in a political institution where you can’t be one?
It is no coincidence that Chris Heaton-Harris wrote a letter which got people talking, and then a newspaper which shares his views, and which the government is scared of, followed it up with a front page article attacking Remainer bias in universities. Everything suggests that the press and government are jointly conducting a concerted campaign against “enemies of the people” who disagree with Brexit – not because they threaten national security, but because they threaten the existence of the government, and the undemocratic influence unelected press barons have over it.
Are we any different?
Anything connected with Brexit now attracts global attention, because leaving the EU hasn’t been done before. Every country is watching to see what the positive and negative outcomes of the process are, and whether they might happen their own countries. So even a small scandal, such as this, which gets connected with Brexit will not remain a purely UK affair.
If a letter about Brexit is shown to be part of a wider official conspiracy to stifle dissenters, involving dirty tricks and corrupt relationships with media figures with more power than the government, people in other countries will wonder whether the same is happening there. They will be reminded of their own government scandals, and the names of those involved. Once that process starts, it will be very difficult for anyone to stop it, for as long as the UK is unable to put out its own fire.
Belgium had the Marc Dutroux child abuse scandal. Senior Belgian government figures interfered with, and later stopped, the full investigation of this. Who were they working with? What did they know? Most of those politicians are still around, and their parties and press owners are too.
The French are used to second-guessing everything they read, as the media is regarded as a government mouthpiece whichever party is in power. They also have a historic sensitivity to “collaborators” and secret communication – sending an anonymous letter, even an anodyne one, is a much more serious offence in France than in other countries. Giscard-d’Estaing was damaged by accepting a gift from an African dictator, but that is small potatoes compared with what could easily be uncovered by anyone with inside knowledge.
Any country you could name has its dirty tricks, its political scandals, its corrupt backroom deals which are not designed to help the people. These scandals come and go because they are blamed on individuals, who are then disgraced. But if this conduct becomes seen as systemic, that is another question.
It took a long time for many in Eastern Europe to realise that they could not reform Communism, it was inherently corrupt. When they did, the whole system was swept away, and anything to the contrary was embraced for the sake of it, without thought or justification. Could we see Western Europe institutions and democracies crumble because their citizens perceive them to be irredeemable in the same way?
Everyone said this could never happen in Eastern Europe because those systems were too tightly controlled. That doesn’t apply in the West, and the complaints people once made about the Soviet Union are the same ones they make about their own governments now- dictators, corrupt, undemocratic. The nexus between an MP who can be blackmailed, a government held to ransom by press barons and a dirty tricks campaign designed to force particular views on the public and forbid others is easy to see, and getting clearer by the day.
The actual catalysts for the overthrow of Soviet bloc governments were relatively minor events, such as rubbish being dumped outside a mosque in Sofia. Already there is talk that the sexual harassment issue could bring down the UK government. But that is only part of a much bigger story, which has the potential to be played out in any country, as they all have a great many things to hide.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.