Adam Curtis TV -
The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was a triumphant assertion of Britain’s power in the world. But it was held in a city that was still ruined from the bombing ten years before. Britain had been bankrupted by the War. Many of those clustered around the new Queen knew that it could no longer afford to rule the world. Adam Curtis, The Mayfair Set I: Who Pays Wins ***** Channel 4 1999
Colonel David Sterling, a war hero famous for founding the Special Air Service, the SAS. What Sterling would do was to sell to other countries Britain’s military power: Britain would supply them with modern weapons and with mercenaries who would fight their wars for them. ibid.
Sterling set up his own political party called Capricorn Africa. He proposed an alternative form of power where people like himself would civilise the black majority. It attracted widespread support among the white middle-class settlers. But it was firmly rejected by politicians in London. ibid.
In 1962 John Aspinall opened his own gambling club, the Clermont Club in Mayfair. Stirling was one of its members. The Clermont was deliberately designed to recreate a time when Britain had been rich and powerful. The set that Aspinall gathered around him at the Clermont were like Stirling disaffected right wingers, men who felt themselves out of tune with the consensus politics of the post-war world: they included James Goldsmith, a playboy and ferocious gambler who was to become a close friend of Stirling’s; the tycoon Tiny Roland who Stirling already knew from his time in Africa; Lord Lucan, a descendant of the man who had led the Charge of the Light Brigade; and Jim Slater, a takeover tycoon and asset-stripper who ran the notorious Slater-Walker. What united all these men was a belief in decisive action: it was this they believed that made Britain great not moderate post-war governments. ibid.
Then an event occurred in the Middle East which gave Stirling the chance to reassert Britain’s power abroad but in a new different way: in September 1962 Egyptian troops invaded the Yemen. ibid.
They proposed a plan: a group of ex-SAS men would mount an operation to fight the Egyptians but they would do it privately. ibid.
[Prince] Faisal was terrified that Nasser would invade his county next and agreed to the British idea: the Saudis would pay for the war. ibid.
The Saudis agreed to pay for the British mercenaries but also to smuggle weapons into the Yemen. ibid.
What was invented in the Yemen was a new private form of foreign policy for Britain, paid for by other countries’ money. But then at the very moment when Stirling’s team seemed to be on the brink of success, an economic crisis hit Britain which threatened his whole concept: in 1964 a new Labour government was elected: almost immediately there was a run on the pound. ibid.
To save the pound Labour decided on wide-ranging spending cuts, and one of the main targets was defence. Denis Healey had been made minister of defence, and in 1965 he began a series of enormous cutbacks; he closed the overseas’ bases and brought the troops who had once protected the empire back home. ibid.
[Denis] Healey believed that instead British defence industries should make money for the country. The Americans were selling weapons throughout the world and Healey wanted Britain to compete with them and earn precious foreign currency. But Britain was not very good at selling weapons until David Stirling decided to get involved. ibid.
He [Khashoggi] told Lockheed that the only way to win the [arms] deal was to bribe the Saudi government. Ten years later in a Senate investigation Lockheed’s chairman admitted what had happened. Stirling told the British government they would have to do the same as the Americans: pay commission to their agents in King Faisal’s entourage. If they didn’t, Britain would lose the deal. In December 1965 the Saudis announced they would buy the British planes: the bribes had worked. It was the biggest export deal in Britain’s history. And King Faisal came on a state visit to celebrate it. It was also the beginning of the modern arms trade with the Middle East which has grown to dominate Britain’s economy. And from it also came a much wider commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia. ibid.
By the late ’60s many of Britain’s former colonies were being torn apart by civil war. In Nigeria the federal government were fighting a vicious campaign to stop Biafra from seceding. The British government were secretly supplying the federal side with weapons. Their aim was to protect Britain’s oil interests in Nigeria. ibid.
The federal government won helped by the British arms. But the resulting scandal clearly showed the limits of openly using arms sales as a tool of foreign policy. As coups and civil wars spread throughout the Third World, Stirling was determined to find a subtler way to maintain Britain’s influence in the world. He set up a secret organisation called WatchGuard: its job was to provide Africa and Middle-Eastern leaders with a private army of British mercenaries. They would prevent the rulers that Stirling approved of from being overthrown. WatchGuard was a great success. Stirling organised protection for leaders in Africa and the Middle East. ibid.
In Oman many of the Sultan’s advisers were ex-SAS men. They ran the Sultan’s guerrilla war against Marxist rebels. The rebels made a propaganda film attacking the Sultan and his British mercenaries. But the British won. ibid.
By the early ’70s [David] Stirling had become a successful businessman. He arranged enormous arms deals, and his mercenaries kept many third-world leaders in power. Almost single-handedly Stirling had created the foundations of Britain’s modern privatised foreign policy. It is a hidden world of vicious guerrilla wars fought by British mercenaries, a world that occasionally surfaces in scandals like the Sandfire affair. It all began with Stirling selling Britain’s military power to countries he approved of. ibid.
The price of oil had been massively increased as a result of the Arab/Israeli war. The oil-producing states led by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia were furious at American support for Israel. Their action had catastrophic effects for Western economies. ibid.
Government attempts to hold down wages led to violent strikes. To Sterling it seemed that the country he had fought to keep great was now collapsing from inside. ibid.
David Stirling returned to his traditional recruiting ground, the clubs of Mayfair. He formed an organisation called Great Britain 75. It was a group of military men, many of them ex-SAS. They planned to take over the running of Britain if the strikes led to the collapse of civil order. Stirling also formed a secret organisation within the trades unions itself; its job was to fight and undermine the leftwing union leaders. Much of the money to fund Stirling’s operations came from his friend at the Clermont Club – James Goldsmith. Like Sterling, Goldsmith believed that politicians no longer had the power to control Britain. ibid.
Through the summer of 1976 Arab oil money continued to leave London. The heads of Arab banks now became powerful figures ... Denis Healey began a series of savage cuts in public expenditure. It was the only way he believed for Britain to get a loan from the IMF and avoid bankruptcy. But it was clear to many in his party that he had given away control of the economy to the markets. ibid.
Stirling’s mercenaries returned home after twenty years of trying to keep Britain powerful. The country they came back to was very different from the one they had left. ibid.
Berlin: All attempts at revolution however seductive and romantic would always lead to disaster, and that power always had to be restrained. Adam Curtis: The Trap III: We Will Force You to be Free, BBC 2007
The computer networks and the global systems they had created hadn’t distributed power; they had just shifted it and if anything had concentrated it in new forms … Power was exercised over the individual in new and surprising ways. Adam Curtis, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, BBC 2011
He [Clinton] had been persuaded to give away that power to the financial markets with the promise that this time they would create a new kind of stability. A new kind of democracy free of the corruption of elite politics. But it was now becoming clear that in reality America’s political power had just been transferred to another elite – the financiers of Wall Street. And when faced by a crisis, they had simply used that power to rescue themselves. ibid.
The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make differently. Adam Curtis, Can’t Get You Out of My Head I: Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain, David Graeber, BBC iplayer 2021
We are living through strange days. Across Britain, Europe and America societies have become split and polarised. Not just in politics but across the whole culture. There is anger at the inequality and the ever-growing corruption. And a widespread distrust of the elite. But at the same time there is a paralysis, a sense that no-one knows how to escape from it … And never a different tomorrow. ibid.
Because in the age of the individual what you felt and what you wanted and what you dreamed of were going to become the driving force across the world. ibid.
Often power that was decaying and desperate to keep its ascendancy. These strange days did not just happen; we and those in power created them together. ibid.