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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