There is a tendency to portray the British ruling class as a somewhat buffoonish collection of toffs, removed from the realities of life.
And there is some truth in it. The establishment in Britain is indeed an inbred collection of incompetents. But they are also an incredibly nasty and dangerous bunch of people.
Last week we got an insight into their world.
British former special forces officer Simon Mann was released from Equatorial Guinea, in central Africa, where he had been sentenced in July 2008 to just over 34 years in jail.
In March 2004, Mann, Nick du Toit and three other South African mercenaries had attempted a coup with wealthy international backers and the approval of a number of governments. It failed and Mann was arrested.
Various murky forces had been working to get Mann out of jail. Anonymous friends and security sources were described as “thrilled” and “delighted” to hear that a private jet was bringing Mann home.
For instance, Rupert Allason, the former Conservative MP and a “military and intelligence expert” involved in negotiating the release, said he became involved at the request of a mutual friend of Mann’s, a member of his gentlemen’s club.
The Equatorial Guinea coup organisers were a group of public schoolboys and financial racketeers who have grabbed fabulous wealth through arms deals.
Educated at the posh Eton school, Mann is a descendant of one of Britain’s wealthy brewing families, which accumulated money and influence in the mid-20th century.
His father George captained the England cricket team in the 1940s, as his father had before him in the 1920s.
Mann attended Sandhurst, Britain’s prestigious military training academy, and went on to become a member of the SAS. He spent time in Northern Ireland, Europe and Central America.
Mann left the military in 1981 for a new career providing bodyguards to wealthy clients. From there, he helped to set up Executive Outcomes, a security outfit which was soon sending armed men into Africa.
He returned briefly to the military in 1991 as an adviser to Britain’s Gulf War commander, General Peter de la Billiere.
Later Mann took part in the establishment of Sandline International, which was “involved” in a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone.
In a note sent out to his legal team after his capture, Mann moaned, “Our situation is not good and it is very urgent. They [the lawyers] get no reply from Smelly, and Scratcher asked them to ring back after the Grand Prix race was over...
“We need heavy influence of the sort that... Smelly, Scratcher... David Hart and it needs to be used heavily and now. Once we get into a real trial scenario we are fucked.”
“Scratcher” was a nickname given to Mark Thatcher, son of Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and “Smelly” to businessman Ely Calil.
Lord Archer was thrown into the melee when phone records linked him to Calil and a J H Archer was found to have deposited a large amount of money into Mann’s offshore bank account days before the coup attempt.
Archer was also on friendly terms with Thatcher, but has refuted any link to the plan, a denial backed by Mann.
With Mark Thatcher it is clearer. “Educated” at Harrow public school, Thatcher stood out even among the fellow posh boys, earning the nickname “Thickie”. This didn’t prevent him amassing a £60 million fortune.
In 1986 Thatcher played a key role in brokering a corrupt contract between British Aerospace and the Saudi Arabian government, part of the £20 billion al-Yamamah deal.
Thatcher pocketed a commission that has been reported as being anything from £12 million to £20 million. The other name on the email was David Hart. Both he and the coup participants say he had nothing to do with the coup attempt.
For two decades the fanatically right wing David Hart was a major behind the scenes player in the Tory party. Another old Etonian, he was a former bankrupt and millionaire.
Hart first came to public attention during the 1984 Miners’ Strike.
From his suite in Claridge’s hotel, Hart bankrolled a scab miners’ movement, orchestrated a sickening press campaign that portrayed scab miners as heroes and coordinated the legal action that saw the miners’ union funds seized by the courts.
Hart’s entry to Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street inner sanctum was eased by his links with Ronald Reagan’s right wing government in the US.
He was particularly close to CIA boss Bill Casey in the early 1980s.
After the Miners’ Strike, Hart went on to serve as a secretive adviser to both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. He also worked as a consultant for arms manufacturers BAE and Boeing.
Margaret Thatcher’s private secretary Andrew (now Lord) Turnbull recalled anger in Downing Street that “Hart was shabbily dressed in jeans and a sweater, or sometimes a not too well fitting check jacket”.
Other former civil servants believed he had become too emotionally attached to the scab miners.
Snobbery runs deep in the establishment, even among their own.
But they also maintain a spirit of “fair play”. So a whole number of key witnesses in London have not even been questioned about the coup, such as Greg Wales, Mann’s former business partner. He was accused in a South African court of helping to plan the coup and approaching the Pentagon for support.
As an aside, Justin Longley, the nephew of Sir Richard Dearlove – chief of MI6 at the time of the coup attempt – was a friend and associate of Mann. He described Wales as a “spook”, an accusation that makes a phrase including pots and kettles spring to mind.
It should come as no surprise that both the foreign office and the British intelligence services knew about the planned coup months before its attempted execution.
It should also not be surprising that the gentlemen’s club closed ranks again to protect one of their own, however much of a fool he may be.