Saturday, 4 October 2014

2015: A Year of Anniversaries and Landmarks...

Skip Kite's feature-length film about the life and times of the late Tony Benn, Will and Testament, covers most of aspects of his personal and public life - his parents, wartime service in the RAF, the death of his brother Michael, his marriage to Caroline, his renunciation of a peerage and subsequent career in Harold Wilson's Cabinet, his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, his condemnation of Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

But one event is missing, quite important as it happens: Tony Benn's opposition to Britain's membership of the European Economic Community from the late 1960s and all that followed from that, principally his idea for a referendum on Britain's membership two years after the deed was done. What may seem to some an interesting but redundant bit of history is likely to crackle into life once again next year, the year of the General Election.

For those with a taste for historical synchronicity, next year two important anniversaries are due to take place. June 18, 2015, will be the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which saw a coalition of European powers defeat the army of Napoleon Bonaparte and end French dominance of the continent. The other anniversary on June 5 marks the 40th anniversary of the 1975 referendum the result of which saw Britain defeated by another coalition of European powers. The vote to stay in the ten-state ECC, as it was then, underwrote French dominance of Europe at least until the reunification of Germany in 1990.

The difference between Britain now and the Britain in that long hot summer of 1975 when I was 26 is that ordinary people have alternative means of communication to get to the truth of things. I spent this afternoon and half the evening, for example, watching Michael Elliott's 1996 four-part documentary for BBC 2, A Poisoned Chalice, about the formation of the EEC and Britain's various attempts to come to terms with its mutable manifestations - the EEC, the European Community and now the European Union.

Usually, this deeply troubled relationship is pitched as a battle between self-government and government by the EU, in a word sovereignty. The way we would do things over here is not the way they do things over there. Those with a tendency towards this Manichean view of things would not have enjoyed Elliott's second film which explained how Edward Heath's Conservative Government gerrymandered the vote on the European Communities Bill in 1972 with the collusion of the Labour Party - at least the pro-European part of it.

The vote, 309 in favour, 301 against, was accomplished because of a secret deal between the chief whips of the two main parties which meant that during votes on the 12 clauses in the 37-page Bill, sufficient Labour MPs were absent to give the Government a majority. Tony Benn described this as a "coup d'etat by a political class who did not believe in popular sovereignty." He's on film saying this, but oddly, not in Will and Testament.

The 1975 referendum - either in or out - was fought on economics by the pro-lobby which had more than £1.5m to spend on it. There was Shirley Williams, then part of the Labour Government, going round telling housewives that prices would not go up. But, as Heath later admitted, membership of the EEC wasn't about economics, stupid; it was about federalism. Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, from opposites sides of the Commons, both saw that and said so unequivocally. In February 1974, Powell advised Conservatives to vote Labour at the General Election if they valued British sovereignty.

In 1970 Edward Heath assured the public: "Entry could only take place with the full-hearted consent of the British people." Powell said later of that statement: "He knew he hadn't got it and this is coming home to roost on his successors." The ousting of the Iron Lady by the Tory Party hierarchy in 1990 tends to obscure the travails of her successor John Major. Defeated in the House of Commons on the Maastricht Bill first time around, then a vote of confidence and in 1995, 20 years after the referendum, a call-my-bluff resignation as leader of the Conservative Party. Euro-sceptic John Redwood challenged him and lost. Next year, 20 years after that 'back me or sack me' leadership stand-off, 40 years after the referendum on Britain's membership, the issue of the greater European empire (28 states and counting) will be back.  

In spite of all that's happened since June 5, 1975 - including the Exchange Rate Mechanism fiasco, the wars caused by European meddling (first in Yugoslavia and more recently in Ukraine), the bail-outs, the immigration free-for-all - the pro-marketeers, as they were known 40 years ago, still bang on about the benefits of being in 'the club'. The more far-seeing among their opponents are now working out practicable strategies for getting out of this bankrupt institution. To paraphrase the 1975 feel-good pop song in support of staying in, we've got to get out to get on.

The cost to the British taxpayer of EU membership over the next five years is £40 billion according to the Office for Budget Responsibility - more than the £17 billion that Chancellor George Osborne says he still needs to take out of public spending.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Waiting for the Bombers...

Early this afternoon, under the awning of a cafe table in the centre of sunny Bradford, I read the last 18 pages of Robert Fisk’s 1,286-page book The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. Getting through it – on trains, buses, in cafes, the office and our back yard – has taken just over two months.

From that sententious opening you would be correct in assuming that I think I am not quite the same man I was on July 24 when, hesitatingly, I bought the book in Waterstone’s. I knew it would be polemical, I knew it would take me to places I did not want to go, above all I knew it would expose me to views of invasions and conflicts, from Afghanistan to Palestine, that I did not want to accept. The fact that Fisk lived in Beirut, had lived there for the best part of 30 years, had risked his neck to interview all concerned in these conflicts and invasions, unlike officially embedded correspondents or those who gaze upon terrible events from afar and pass judgement in the safety of book-lined studies, may have played a part in persuading me to take a chance and buy it.

Yes, all right, it is too long and there were times when I wondered whether Fisk was taking a perverse pleasure in the litany of horror he chronicles, from the massacre of Armenians by Turks, to the torture in the jails of Iran and Iraq and shoot 'em up policies of Israel and the United States. Then I realised that by putting names to the liquidated, the disappeared, he was bringing the corpses back into history. I didn't like it. You may not have the stomach for it. But, at least we have a public record of the things done to real people that have been obscured by silence or jargon - "targeted killings" or Donald Rumsfeld double-speak: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." I was an apologist for these people who talked about Iraq as a line in the sand in thje West's valiant "war against terror". I was a nodding dog because, though I should have known better, I didn't want to listen to those who said the 2003 invasion of Iraq was wrong and that it would lead to greater disaster. Reading this book made me realise that everything I thought I knew about the Middle East was wrong or at least was more wrong than right. If that doesn't satisfy you, tough; you'll just have to take my word for it: that book has made a difference. 

The coincidence of finishing it on the day that MPs in Parliament were debating whether to send in RAF bombers against the executioners of Islamic State merely reminded me of history’s barbed-wire ironies, the snagging statements of intent by presidents and prime ministers whose words cause others to bleed.

As MPs rose to address the nation, and posterity, I read: it was little wonder that as the West’s moral and physical power was smashed in the Middle East, a new wave of al-Queda-style bombings reached us across the world, even taking the lives of more than fifty Londoners on 7 July 2005 when the city’s tube and bus systems were attacked by suicide bombers. Prime Minister Blair still insisted this had nothing to do with Britain’s role in Iraq – a claim that seemed all the more mendacious when it was revealed that the British security apparatus had already warned of just such attacks after Britain occupied southern Iraq...

No one grasped that the leader of the Islamic side in this so-called war – bin Laden – was now irrelevant. The billions of dollars spent in trying to find him proved that we had still not understood the reality of the attacks of 11 September, 2001: bin Laden had created al-Qaeda, but his role was now largely ceremonial, theological rather than now existed in the minds of thousands of Muslims. The monster – as Western journalists like to refer to their enemies – had grown up and propagated.

Who created that monster? We did. Fisk’s book rewinds history back to the start of the Great War and the botched settlements in the Middle East that followed the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and Arabia. But if you read William Dalrymple's Return of a King, you can trace the origins of present day bitterness in Afghanistan back to Britain's first botched venture into the country back in the early nineteenth century. Fearing a joint attack on its Imperial interests in India byTsarist Russia and Napoleonic France, Britain sent out an armed embassy loaded with gifts; but in seeking friends and allies we backed the wrong tribal leaders, which later resulted in military defeat in the first Afghan War followed by British reprisals of such savagery that they would never be forgotten or forgiven by future generations. I bought and read Dalrymple's fine book last year.

The monster emerged in the form of the Taliban in Afghanistan and then al-Qaeda and now Islamic State. Different groups with different agendas perhaps, but all nourished by spilt blood and broken promises.  Professor Paul Rogers, from Bradford University’s department of Peace Studies, suggested as much when he told me: “The Taliban were supposed to be defeated in six weeks; Saddam Hussein in three weeks. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been going on for 13 and 11 years respectively. It is tempting to say we should destroy Islamic State, but you have to be incredibly cautious. The toughest elements of IS are Iraqis who fought against the Americans after 2003. I think they will probably welcome it (US and British bombing) because it supports their case against the West.”

Fisk’s book, published in 2006, concludes with the Iraqi insurgency and its ramifications, the shock waves of which are still making the horizon quiver. Interestingly he includes a quote from T S Eliot, made in 1946: Justice itself tends to be corrupted by political passion; and that meddling in other people’s affairs which was formerly conducted by the most discreet intrigue is now openly advocated under the name of intervention. Nations which once shrank from condemning the most flagitious violation of human rights in Germany, are now exhorted to interfere in other countries’ government – and always in the name of peace and concord. Respect for the culture, the pattern of life, of other respect for history; and by history we set no great store.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then farce. Those who fail to learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them...Given the present circumstance we may extend that dialectic: the only lesson we learn from our mistakes is to repeat them with more expertise.

Today's debate in the Commons was ostensibly about bombing IS in Iraq - at least that was the message from the Conservative chief whip's office yesterday; but I gather that during the seven-hour debate some Tory MPs were bidding up RAF air strikes to include Syria. Well, that's not what the House overwhelmingly voted in favour of. It would be the mother of all ironies if the West ended up bombing the enemies of Syria's Government when just 13 months ago David Cameron was all for bombing the Assad regime. 

Three days before finishing Fisk’s great and shaming ensemble of recollections, press cuttings and polemic, I saw a small story on page 25 of The Independent. The headline, ‘Rabbi’s car firebombed after he criticised Israel’s actions in Gaza’ didn’t prepare me for what I read underneath.
The torching of Rabbi Ahron Cohen’s Volvo estate happened not in Israel but in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, two weeks after the George Bernard Shaw-bearded rabbi publicly voiced disapproval of Israel’s military policy in supposedly independent Gaza. An anonymous neighbour said: “His views have angered a lot of people around here. A lot of families have boys in the Israeli army.”

I don’t imagine that Home Secretary Teresa May will be discussing with her officials whether these fighters for Israeli freedom should be allowed back into Britain, after all Israel is not a threat to our way of life, is it?

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

But What Have Wayne or David Got to Say About Isis?

The BBC's world affairs editor John Simpson is in Baghdad: therefore the situation with the masked and scarved gunmen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) must be serious.

The inextricable tangle of tribal rivalries at the heart of it certainly looks ugly and hopeless. Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular used to be like that in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a wretched internicene conflict of different religious militias. Do-good outsiders who wandered between the jaws of it were taken into darkness for four to five years. Remember Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy? 

At least they survived. Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft did not. Accused by Saddam Hussein of spying, he was hanged in March 1990, a fate that was to befall the Iraqi leader after the invasion of Iraq. American journalist Daniel Pearl was captured by Al Qaida in Pakistan, that wonderful country, and beheaded by his captors in 2002. The video of it was posted on the net.

We, for whom a crisis is the telly or the boiler going on the blink or the barn owl population taking a bit of a dip, seemingly don't have the capacity to measure up to the import of these terrible events. If Wayne Rooney or David Beckham had warned (on television news, of course) that ISIS are worse than the Taliban in Afghanistan we might have take more notice.

Instead ISIS insurgents executing Shia men with machine guns came as a bit of surprise on Monday.  We thought everybody was watching the World Cup.

One consequence of all this is the turn-around in diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Why, only a few years ago Ben Afleck was making Argo - about the US hostage crisis. Now we're the best of friends with Iran it seems, with the re-opening of the British embassy in Tehran to prove it.   

Nothing should surprise us in the murky world of real-politick. Were ISIS to achieve the impossible and take Baghdad, I wonder if the EU would send envoys to the city to work out a mutually beneficial trade arrangement.  Or am I thinking of Ukraine? 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Sanctioning Food Banks

More than 900,000 food parcels were handed out to just over 37,000 people in Yorkshire and Humberside in the past year by the Trussell Trust alone. Welfare reforms or cuts combined with the rising cost of living is the reason food banks are so busy even though the rate of inflation has gone down to 1.6 per cent and more people than ever are in work.

David Ward, Liberal-Democrat MP for Bradford East, whose constituency has seen a drop in Job Seeker’s Allowance claimants of about 900 over the past year, said he wondered if scaring people into jobs was part of the overall strategy. 

“Maybe the aim is to make it a hostile environment for people who are unemployed. The trouble is, the background to all this, is that the public at large believe the welfare system is dysfunctional and needs sorting out. They are pretty unsympathetic to people who are claiming benefits - the skivers, the scroungers, as they see it.

“But the system from the Department of Work and Pensions that comes through Job Centres is inefficient. There are delays, letters get sent to the wrong address, or people try to ring up and can’t get through. One man who I saw was given 14 job inquiries to follow up in two weeks. He had been to 11. But because he had not been to all 14 his Job Seeker’s Allowance was stopped - ‘sanctioned’ it’s called. It could take you seven months before you’re back on Job Seeker’s. What are you supposed to do if you haven’t got any money?” 

Sanctioning has always been a feature of the benefits system. In Bradford, between 2009 and 2010 sanctions handed out to job seekers totalled 4,370. Two years later the figure was 9,320, implying a tightening up of the regime. The people who make the most referrals to Trussell Trust food banks, I was told, are Job Centre staff, the same people who, under pressure to meet targets, issue these sanctions. There is an appeals system, but you have to be canny or assisted to negotiate it. You have to be patient too because the backlog of pending cases is so great you can be waiting for 12 months - without money. Commonsense and discretion are not encouraged among Job Centre staff, I was told. If you are one of the lucky ones whom this part of the changing world has passed by, be grateful without feeling too self-satisfied. Being down on your luck may not have changed, but the manner of the help available has. 

Never having been in the benefits’ system I have no experience of its methods and means. I don’t know how it feels to be summarily sanctioned for contravening strict rules for the unemployed, to be told that state help will be withdrawn for four, seven, thirteen or even twenty-six weeks. 

Suppose I am not a feckless mumper acclimatised to living off the state. Suppose what little self-esteem I had vanished when I lost my job or had to stop working. Suppose being caught up in the welfare benefits command and control web with its system of sanctions and punishments and the sense of humiliation that goes with obeying Jobsworths proves unsupportable. Suppose what money I had saved up against ruin and despair had gone – there are so many ways to get financially wiped out these days.  When you ain’t got nuthin’ you got nuthin’ to lose might be a stimulating idea to those in transit from one interesting cultural experience to another, but the naked reality is, I suspect, more heart-gripping and desperate. But David Ward is right. Public sympathy is in short supply if the following online newspaper comment made recently in Bradford is anything to go by:- 

Charities should not undermine Government policy, which is to use starvation to force the lazy to get a job. It’s the only weapon left to use on benefit scroungers who think the state is just there to keep them in idleness. Poverty is a choice by the thick and the do-nothings. They have to be taught to live with the consequences. The next Conservative Government will do away with the freebies like health and education. The poor will then have to shape up or bear the consequences. (pcmanners)

In one supermarket we go to they’ve taken to security coding bacon, cheese and better cuts of meat because people have been stealing them. Two or three years ago a manager in another store told us that thieves nicking electrical goods was costing the store about £3,000 a week. I assumed this form of daylight robbery was connected to drugs. I don’t think people nick rashers to buy heroin, besides most of it has already been smoked. People are stealing food because they’re hungry.West Yorkshire Police, I was told, were after the addresses of food banks in Bradford so they could refer petty felons to them; evidently they saw no point in charging hungry people with stealing food. 

If ever there was a suitable time to revive Edward Bond’s play Bingo, this is it. In this play a mumbling, stumbling Shakespeare, retired to his New Place mansion in Stratford-upon-Avon, wondering if his writing career really amounted to much. “Was anything done?” he keeps asking rhetorically.  Bond draws a telling parallel between the insights into social injustice and cruelty uttered by King Lear and Shakespeare’s personal implication in Stratford land enclosures and the consequent poverty and hardship that came from it.

The old monstrous King gives his kingdom away to two of his three daughters and they, after proscribing his followers and blinding his ally the Earl of Gloucester, abandon Lear to the elements. In the midst of a terrible storm Lear is struck by a lightning bolt of insight which reveals the true state of his kingdom to his shattered but reorganised wits:-

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have ta'en
Too little care of this...Unaccomodated man is no
More but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.  

Bingo was first published by Methuen in 1974. My battered 1976 edition contains, just about, a seven-and-a-half page introduction by Bond. In it he says this:- I wrote Bingo because I think the contradictions in Shakespeare’s are similar to the contradictions in us. He was a ‘corrupt seer’ and we are a ‘barbarous civilisation’.  Because  of that our society could destroy itself. We believe in certain values but our society only works by destroying them, so that our daily lives are a denial of our hopes. That makes our world absurd and often it makes our own species hateful to us. Morality is reduced to surface details and trivialities. Is it so easy to live like that? Or are we surrounded by frustration and bitterness, cynicism and inefficiency, and an inner feeling of weakness that comes from knowing we waste our energy on things that finally can’t satisfy us?

It might explain why in a welfare state democracy, when people are stealing food to survive and others are being denied the means of survival by the state, painting pictures, writing books, listening to music and going to the theatre, feel self-indulgent activities. Socially we have come a long way from the England of Elizabeth 1, where terrible things occurred every day. The England of Elizabeth II in which I grew up encouraged the belief that the state would always offer a safety net to those who fell on hard times; that in spite of those who selfishly exploited it, having it there was a better idea than not having it there. I never had to use it, wouldn’t have had the first idea how to exploit it; but just knowing that a safety net existed allowed my generation to live a bit more courageously, to charge off all over the world or take up ventures that didn’t necessarily lead to a retirement pension and a silver cigarette case after fifty years. In short, old buggers like me have no experience of this brave new world of welfare sanctions, food banks and people nicking bacon and cheese to keep themselves going.

The likes of cpmanners  can’t wait for the day when the mumpers, the skivers, the scroungers – the poor – are dealt with once and for all. But even Hitler’s final solution backfired. His attempt to turn European Jewry into smoke resulted in the creation of state of Israel: the leader of the Third Reich was Israel’s true founding father. The mistake that pcmanners and all those like-minded make is that they will never be poor, that they have enough of the right stuff, the moxie, the will, to triumph over the worst that adversity can throw at them. Am I alone in hearing in that stentorian voice of malice – They have to be taught to live with the consequences – the angry, self-justifying, note of fear?  

Monday, 24 February 2014

Is History About to Repeat Itself?

With Russia making threatening noises about foreign intervention in neighbouring Ukraine and the the European Union sending in its foreign affairs supremo, the Baroness Cathy Ashton, I was reminded of events 22 years ago which arguably helped to provoke the first war on the European mainland since 1945.

But because I am a bear of astoundingly little brain I thought I'd better Google back to refresh my diminishing little grey cells. In 1992 the New York Times carried a report, parts of which I reproduce here:-

In a triumph for German foreign policy, all 12 members of the European Community, as well as Austria and Switzerland, recognized the independence of the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia today.
In a series of separate statements, various European governments asserted that the Belgrade Government no longer had a right to rule the two republics.
"Slovenia and Croatia have held referendums that showed clearly that their people want independence," a statement issued by the Danish Foreign Ministry said. "It is now time to fulfill the desire their people have expressed."
In Belgrade, the Serbian-dominated Government denounced the decision on recognition as "contrary to the sovereign rights of Yugoslavia." The Government said it would continue to function until all six Yugoslav republics reached an agreement on their future relations.
The action by the European Community marked an important diplomatic victory for Germany, which has vigorously supported Slovenian and Croatian independence. German officials announced last month that they would recognize the two republics regardless of the wishes of other European countries, and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher lobbied intensely for the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Mr. Genscher said in a radio interview today that he was "very happy" with his success. He asserted that Croatia "has achieved the highest imaginable standard of respect for minority rights."
Leaders of Croatia and Slovenia today expressed gratitude for Germany's support. Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel of Slovenia said recognition of his republic's independence was due largely to "the wise policy of the German Government."
But Serbian leaders deplored the European Community's decision and singled out Germany for special criticism. Vladislav Jovanovic, the Serbian Foreign Minister, described Germany's role as "particularly negative," and said he regretted that other European Community leaders had decided to follow the German lead.
"It is a very serious precedent to encourage unilateral secession in one multinational state," Mr. Jovanovic said in an interview broadcast on British television.
 Although most European governments favored eventual recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, some had sought to postpone today's announcement so recognition could be part of an overall peace settlement in the Balkans. But German officials insisted that recognition was the only way to force the Serbs to accept a settlement.
Germany's decision to press for quick recognition of the two republics, disregarding appeals from the United States and the United Nations, marked a new assertiveness that some Europeans find disconcerting.

Quite apart from the novelty of European Community members, as they were called then, taking the moral high ground on the principle of supporting the outcome of referendums, there is the suggestion that the EC embodies the principle of national sovereignty. I fear that people in the western half of Ukraine, at least, believe that. We should not encourage them in that chimera. But I daresay we will.

Remember what happened next in what was then Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1999? I can remember Srebrinicia, the term "ethnic cleansing", and television pictures of Sarajevo under Serbian artillery bombardment and sniper fire. I remember NATO warplanes over Belgrade and Kosovo. I daresay centuries of sectarian hatred and tribal mistrust played a big part in the killings - more than 100,000 - and the destruction. You would have thought the wise men of Europe would have realised that after the death of a strong leader, in this case Yugoslavia's President Tito, the destructive forces that he had contained were bound to explode at the slightest encouragement. Newly reunited Germany gave it, and boom!

If the freedom fighters on the barricades in Kiev ever do get their way and find themselves embedded in the European Union they will find that they have swapped the devil they know for one they are not familiar with.