Clive Ponting, Hero 217

Clive Ponting, doyen of British whistleblowers, anti-imperialist historian and campaigner for Scottish independence has died at his home in Kelso, age 74.

Clive came closer than anybody else to saving British society and industry from the horrors of Thatcherism. There is a danger in history of believing that everything that happened was inevitable. In fact Thatcher’s government after two years in office was extremely unpopular just before the Falklands War. Conservative party support was at 23% in the opinion polls, well behind both Labour and the Liberal/Social Democratic Party. Thatcher’s later popularity was entirely unexpected and based on a tidal wave of jingoism as a result of a short, successful war with Argentina. Without the Falklands War the privatisation of water, rail gas and electricity and the destruction of 90% of British heavy industry may either not have happened or have been short-lived.

The Argentinian dictator Leopoldo Galtieri was as obnoxious as Thatcher, and also a desperately unpopular leader looking to unleash a wave of nationalist support. The Falkland Islands are one of the UK’s most pointless surviving colonies, though unlike most at least are not a tax haven. After Galtieri sent his forces on April 2 1982 to occupy the Falklands, the United States were leading international efforts to broker a compromise agreement, when all possibility of a peaceful resolution was destroyed by the UK sinking the battleship General Belgrano.

It is worth noting that the Argentinians had occupied the Falklands without one single British casualty. On 2 May 1982 when an advanced British nuclear submarine sunk the old second world war cruiser Belgrano, killing 323 Argentinians in the most horrible of fashions, not a single British person had been hurt in the Falklands War.

The claim that the ancient Belgrano was a serious military threat was always spurious. Clive Ponting, a Principal level civil servant in the MOD, blew the whistle on the fact that it was not, as claimed, heading towards the Falkland Islands when it was destroyed, but was in fact steaming away. The truth of the matter is that the decision was never a military one, but was a murderous political decision, to make inevitable the war the Tories wanted so badly to revive their political fortunes. As we have seen with Brexit, imperialist hubris and sheer atavism are very easy to awaken in British nationalist society, steeped in tales of Empire and World War.

Clive Ponting’s revelation put a temporary dent in support for the war but it could not ultimately make any difference to the vast surge of Tory popularity from the easy military victory which ensued. That popularity was used by Thatcher to go on to destroy her “enemies within” – industrial workers – and change British society fundamentally to one based unquestioningly on the notion that the only human motive is private greed.

However Clive Ponting achieved something vital; when he was tried under the Official Secrets Act for his leak, which he heroically avowed, the jury accepted his public interest defence and acquitted him, against the clear direction of the judge. He had made the official secrets act a dead letter. When I blew the whistle on torture and extraordinary rendition, in circumstances very similar to Clive, I too was plainly in breach of the official secrets act. From first hand accounts of friends who were at senior level meetings in the FCO with Jack Straw, I know that the only reason I am not in jail now is that Straw and Goldsmith feared a “Ponting verdict” – that a jury would refuse to convict me for doing good. I believe the same is true of Katharine Gun.

Of course, New Labour were never going to accept that kind of limitation on power, and they instituted secret courts for national security cases, with no juries and where the security services can introduce “intelligence evidence” that the defendant themself is not permitted to see. Clive, Katharine or myself would be quickly in jail, without a jury, if we did our whistleblowing today. And of course the state currently believes it has found another way to jail me without the intervention of a jury. So I fear Clive’s achievement has not outlived him, but his name deserves to be remembered with great honour.

In recent years, Clive became a fairly frequent below the line commenter on this blog, modestly identifying only as “Clive P” and bringing his government experience and academic research into the discussion. Like me, he came to believe that the only way to free British society from ingrained imperialist thought would be to break up the UK itself. Having retired to Kelso he became a strong supporter of Scottish Independence.

I am mortified we never met. We emailed each other quite frequently, and a couple of planned meetings fell through because one or the other of us was unwell. He had to cancel a planned talk on Independence at Doune the Rabbit Hole as his health deteriorated. In June he contacted me aware that his health was failing. He had things he wished to say before he left us, on what he had learnt from his experiences and on the authoritarian tendencies in the British state. I discussed this with Alex Salmond and we all agreed the Alex Salmond Show would be the best venue for this. Clive asked that we wait a few weeks until he had recovered strength from his latest rounds of chemotherapy. Sadly that strength never came back. He deserves to sleep well after a good life lived.


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217 thoughts on “Clive Ponting, Hero

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  • Marmite

    Good to hear about this.

    I have always felt so alone whenever questioning people around me why they feel the Falklands War was heroic, good, or necessary, or right. I have never understood the stupidity that I find among the English in this respect.

    It is good to know there were people like Ponting.

    I can only hope that there are people saving all of Craig’s posts for posterity, because if historians have to go by the BBC and the mainstream press to find out about such things, then future generations will have been criminally deprived.

    • Goose

      The population take their cues from the tabloids and TV news.

      Invariably, where there’s a bad system or corruption,the media is controlled in some way. Never overtly though, they like the little story they tell the world about the UK having a gloriously independent ‘free press’. It’s controlled through ownership and connections, ultimately money; editors and journos who are ‘on side’. Overt control would be far too crude for the British establishment.

      • Squeeth

        True, it’s rare to see a paper with a hole in a page where something has been cut out, it never gets put in.

      • Colm+Herron

        Spot on Goose. As you wrote: “Overt [media] control would be far too crude for the British establishment.”

        I hear the hypocritical outrage on the BBC today about the curbing of press freedoms in Hong Kong. Par for the pathetic beeb.

      • N_

        Don’t forget class loyalty and hatred of the proles – and “hatred” is the right word. When that reaches a certain degree, you don’t need a woman sitting at a desk at the end of every hotel corridor.

  • joel

    RIP Clive Ponting. I see justifications are still being presented on this board for the cherished Gotcha! moment, hallowed high spot of a tinpot war. No doubt those still celebrating the sinking of the Belgrano concur with the official narrative on the whole conflict, that it restored British greatness and respect in the world. Will Brexit further burnish that greatness, as maintained by the Daily Express, Boris Johnson and Co? Again, believers are incredibly thin on the ground in the world beyond the sceptretd isle….

    • squirrel

      Considering something a legitimate act of war is an entirely different matter to considering it worthy of celebration.

  • Brian

    When Napoleon Bonaparte was criticised for winning battles simply because of luck, he famously retorted: “I’d rather have lucky generals than good ones.”
    Margaret Thatcher can be considered lucky in the Falklands war. A number of torpedoes that hit a number of British ships did not explode. Some were later found unexploded inside the ships.–%20An%20Argentine%20submarine,exploded,%20the%20Sunday%20Times%20reported.
    If all of the torpedoes had exploded many ships would have sunk or been crippled.
    The loss off lives and chances of winning the war quickly could have changed the popularity of the war and Margaret Thatcher’s popularity.

    I remember watching when Margaret Thatcher was on a morning breakfast show and they allowed phone in questions from members of the public. Expecting support and soft questions. They were surprised when a well informed woman put some hard questions about the sinking of the Belgrano. Questions about Belgrano on the edge of the exclusion zone. Questions about a breakthrough in the Venezuela peace talks some 24 hours before the sinking of the Belgrano that Margaret Thatcher claimed not to have received in time. Margaret Thatcher said all the classified secrets would come out in 30 years time. But there is much we will never know

    • N_

      @Brian – “Questions about a breakthrough in the Venezuela peace talks some 24 hours before the sinking of the Belgrano”

      Yes, the reason why the Belgrano was sunk was to ruin the path to a peaceful resolution as proposed by Peru, which was talking to both sides and to other countries locally too. The Thatcher government wanted war.

      Were the talks in Venezuela or Peru?

    • squirrel

      The intercepted Argentinian message which gave war orders to the Belgrano did come out under the thirty years rule. That the Swiss Crypto-AG machines that the Argentinians were using were thoroughly compromised was definitely something that needed to be kept secret.

      There is much to malign Thatcher for, but not this. She acted decisively and legitimately

  • vin_ot

    Seems like a vicious spat between the Sheriff of Nottingham and Edward Colston over ownership of a broken umbrella.

  • ISayMoo

    Pointing wasn’t a whistleblower, because there was nothing to blow the whistle on. Admiral Belgrano may have been steaming in any direction: it was armed and close enough to the theatre of operations to be a military threat. Sinking it was a justified military action. The Argentinian Navy never considered it anything else.

    “Argentine Rear Admiral Allara, who was in charge of the task force of which General Belgrano was part, said: “After that message of 23 April, the entire South Atlantic was an operational theatre for both sides. We, as professionals, said it was just too bad that we lost the Belgrano””

    “La Nación published a reader’s letter from Admiral Enrique Molina Pico (head of the Argentine Navy in the 1990s) in 2005 in which Molina Pico wrote that General Belgrano was part of an operation that posed a real threat to the British task force, but was holding off for tactical reasons. Molina Pico added that “To leave the exclusion zone was not to leave the combat zone to enter a protected area”. Molina Pico explicitly stated that the sinking was not a war crime, but a combat action.[53]

    General Belgrano’s captain, Héctor Bonzo, died on 22 April 2009, aged 76. He had spent his last years working for an association called Amigos del Crucero General Belgrano (Friends of the Cruiser General Belgrano) whose purpose was to help those affected by the sinking.[54] Captain Bonzo also wrote his memories about the sinking in the book 1093 Tripulantes del Crucero ARA General Belgrano, published in 1992. In this book he wrote that it is “improper to accept that (…) the attack by HMS Conqueror was a betrayal”.[55] During an interview in 2003 he had stated that General Belgrano was only temporarily sailing to the west at the time of the attack, and his orders were to attack any British ships which came within range of the cruiser’s armament.[56]”

  • Gordie

    I was really sorry to hear Clive Ponting died. I remembered him on the telly as a kid responding to his charges and speaking out against the Thatcher government on being acquitted. This was a big thing in our house in Aberfeldy given the frustration at seeing the ill effects of policy after policy inflicted on people that didn’t even make sense with regard to their stated intentions. I had heard about the books he wrote but when I saw him speak up for Scottish independence I had no idea that he stayed in Scotland and supported its cause. I was proud of him when I heard him talk in support of us. He stuck in my mind and I was really sad to hear that his time was up. I have no doubt he was a fine lad indeed and I’ll need to buy a few of his books.

  • Blissex

    BTW as to “whistleblowers” someone who is in part kind of a whistleblower has given some really curious details on links between the Steele dossiers, Dearlove, and some american republicans in Cambridge UK (paywall):
    It should be noted that Steele’s “primary sub-source” told the FBI his first queries about Page were made in the first week of July, 2016, while Schrage’s conference ended on July 12th, with Dearlove giving a speech denouncing Trump in front of Page on that date.
    Schrage has less direct knowledge of Steele’s efforts, but what he did see suggested the Halper and Steele narratives were connected early on. For instance, Page first appeared in Steele’s reports to the Clinton campaign just seven days after Schrage’s Cambridge conference, when Dearlove and Halper met Page for the first time. Other parts of the story suggest Halper’s later efforts at “gathering information” were on some level intended to “confirm” information in the Steele dossier.

  • Goose

    Trump is reportedly thinking of pardoning the incredibly courageous Edward Snowden. Hopefully it’s true and it could also help Assange.

    I had another glance at :

    I’d forgotten certain details, like the fact former British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short admitted that in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 she had seen transcripts of conversations by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

    Quote from the Der Spiegel article :

    He[Obama] gave assurances that the NSA is a clean agency that isn’t involved in any dirty work. Obama has given his word on this matter. The only problem is that, if internal NSA documents are to be believed, it isn’t true.

    The classified documents, which SPIEGEL has seen, demonstrate how systematically the Americans target other countries and institutions like the EU, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna and the UN. They show how the NSA infiltrated the Europeans’ internal computer network between New York and Washington, used US embassies abroad to intercept communications and eavesdropped on video conferences of UN diplomats. The surveillance is intensive and well-organized — and it has little or nothing to do with counter-terrorism.

    Well worth another read. The hyper-aggressive nature of it , is what’s most shocking and the lack of respect /treatment of allies.

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