All my children and many others loved Sister Pamela Hussey. Pamela would have been 100 on 7 January 2022. She died peacefully on 13 December in Cornelia House, in the Harrogate care home of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She made up for missing the traditional letter from the Queen by receiving one from each of two Popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, congratulating her on her Diamond Jubilee as a nun. An Anglo-Argentinian, Pamela grew up in Buenos Aires which makes the occasion being noticed for a second time, and by Pope Francis, seem more fitting.
Pamela wanted to join the war effort and sailed in 1942 from Argentina on one of the perilous Atlantic crossings to the Bay of Biscay and, hugging the French coast, northwards to wartime Britain. She joined the Women’s Royal Naval Services (WRNS). For three years she worked in Scarborough as a wireless telegraphist in an offshoot of GCHQ Bletchley – where she is on the Roll of honour - and returned in 2014 to open a new centre through the good offices of Prince Charles. In 2018 she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for her service during the Second World War presented in person at her care home by a representative of the French Government. As a special operator she learnt Morse Code spending hours on end waiting for German U-boats to break cover and surface to communicate with their base revealing their location. It was hardly the most effective use of a woman who was a fluent Spanish speaker, who would take a degree in modern languages at St. Anne’s Oxford and, having joined the SHCJs in 1950, teach languages for ten years.
The first time I met Pamela was in 1981 when she became a volunteer administrative assistant in the Latin America department of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) where I had also just started working. It was a critical and intense period in the Cold War. Dictatorships and oligarchies, backed by the CIA, ruled many of the Latin American States with appalling human rights violations as a consequence. Pamela gravitated to the El Salvador desk at CIIR, making several field trips, sharing the department’s admiration for the Archbishop of San Salvador, St. Oscar Romero, his courage, work for justice and his theology and after his assassination publicising his life. Pamela had the advantage of looking frail and conservative when she wasn’t. She was the scourge of US Foreign Service personnel who were entirely unprepared for the passion and anger of this diminutive and well-spoken woman when they tried to defend the indefensible. To her great pleasure her work was first recognised in 2000. She was awarded an MBE for her tireless defence of human rights.
The last time we met I asked Pamela what training as a Woman Religious was like in the strict self-effacing convent discipline of the 1950s for someone like her. “Well”, she said, “I complained to the novice mistress that my personality was being crushed. She replied: ‘Pamela, your personality is oozing out of every pore’”. And anyone who knew Pamela would agree. In a quiet sort of a way Pamela had style. Decidedly not the dressy kind but more her old fashioned politeness which set her at ease with a huge spectrum of people whom she would address as ‘dearest’. One of my happiest memories of Pamela was her 70th birthday party in 1992. We had a lovely meal in the upper room of the now defunct Gay Hussar. Jon Snow and George Foulkes MP, later Baron Foulkes of Cumnock, were there. She was in her element. So was everyone else though sadly the number of empty bottles arrayed on the table in front of the group meant a photographic record of the event for the CIIR Annual Review had to be censored. Even at Apley Grange she would take a daily walk to the local hotel for morning coffee with her copy of Le Monde or La Croix to keep up with international and Church affairs. The last time I saw her she confided that she had Alzheimer’s then promptly recited a long poem word perfect from memory.
Pamela was a feminist. Books she wrote, Freedom From Fear: Women in El Salvador’s Church and, with Marigold Best, Life Out of Death, the Feminine Spirit in El Salvador and Women Making a Difference bear witness to that. She felt deeply the betrayal of women who had fought against the Latin American dictatorships and who were expected after victory to return to traditional roles. Her life offered yet another example of the extraordinary range of Women Religious’ gifts to the Church. Her death brings down the curtain on a period when the witness of many Women Religious was within the struggle for liberation against tyranny, justice against repression, life against death. There will never be another Pamela.
She leaves a younger brother, now aged 96.
May She Rest in Peace.
A bad month for Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party is in the nature of things a good month for Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party. And after the massive 34% swing in the North Shropshire byelection a good month for the Liberal Democrats. That said there is no easy path to government opening up for the Leader of the Opposition. He still faces the seemingly impossible task of winning back 125 seats to achieve an overall majority at the next election.
Despite his devastating public questioning of the Prime Minster last Wednesday, the Labour leader got complaints that he had not called for the Prime Minister’s resignation. No killer instinct and all that. In fact Starmer used Prime Minister’s Questions to good effect saying it was up to the Conservative Party to deal with their failed leader, aiming to pin the blame on the Party he will still have to defeat whenever Johnson goes.
In the context of a new and frightening pandemic wave, a prudent reticence shown by the Leader of the Opposition serves the Common Good. Neither does the Labour Party want a new and possibly competent leader of the Conservative Party to have time to win back the voters’ trust before the next election. In any case Conservative MPs themselves will only write the requisite number of letters to the 1922 Committee when they finally conclude Johnson has become a clear-cut electoral liability. For the time being it is Johnson whom Starmer must defeat.
There is a tendency to underestimate Sir Keir Starmer. His legal background has been derided by the Prime Minister. But the diverse skills of a successful, radical QC and a Director of Public Prosecutions heading the 6,000 strong Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales, skills so cavalierly dismissed by Jonson, are transferable to politics: strategic thinking, good judgement, shrewd tactics, self-discipline, getting timing right, projecting integrity and competence, conviction that crime is a Labour Party issue. A certain caution is no bad thing - at the right time.
Under the present First Past The Post system (FPTP) a candidate whom the majority of voters in a constituency reject can still win. Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1983 winning 13 million votes which elected 397 Conservative seats. Labour plus Liberal/SDP alliance won a total of 16 million votes and ended up with 232 seats. FPTP exaggerates the lead of the largest party, a kind of ‘winner’s bonus’, and can hobble third Parties. Or as Professor Curtice puts it: “The problem with first past the post is there is no post”. Any negotiations between the Lib Dems and Labour to address this bias would be affected by the memory of Tony Blair’s pulling back from discussions with Paddy Ashdown on electoral reform once in power. Some form of electoral pact with minority Parties is sometimes discussed but is not the straightforward, common-sense, solution it seems.
Peter Kellner, former president of YouGov, for example, estimates that ‘intelligent tactical voting’ could increase Liberal Democrat seats to c. 50 but could not jointly produce an overall majority for the combined Parties in opposition because of the regional geographical concentrations of their supporters piling up votes in their strongholds. The problem with our present electoral system, according to John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and go-to expert on elections is that out of the 650 seats in the House of Commons there are only 88 marginal seats – a marginal being defined as neither of the two biggest British Parties having a lead of more than 10% over the other. That means an awful lot of votes unlikely to make any difference. In 1955 there were 166 marginals. Deciding who should be given a clear run in marginal constituencies is the obvious occasion for bitter and protracted local as well as national disputes. And, given the failure of Cameron’s 2011 referendum on voting reform, the Liberal Democrats might be insisting on an actual manifesto pledge to introduce some form of proportional representation.
Though it is often defended on the grounds it produces majority government, under FPTP there is no systematic relationship between votes cast for a Party and the number of seats they obtain. Providing a second choice, the Alternative Voting system (AV) is designed to solve this problem. But as the 2010 election demonstrated, as well as Theresa May’s second term between 2017-2019, when the DUP and SNP gained considerable leverage after her disastrous 2017 election, neither can FPTP be guaranteed to create a functioning majority in Parliament.
Electoral reform has had little appeal to voters though they seem unfazed by the abandonment of FPTP in elections for the Assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as Metro-Mayors. In 2011 David Cameron’s Coalition Government paid the price the Liberal Democrats had extracted in exchange for their entry into coalition: a national referendum on the adoption of AV. The Conservative Party were opposed and a majority of the Labour Party too. The result was 68% against and 32% in favour on a 42% voter turn-out. So our current system remains with 98/100 rural constituencies returning a Tory Member of Parliament whilst 41% of those voting in these constituencies support another Party. Not a very promising outcome for advocates of electoral reform decided by referendum.
Given the magnitude of our overlapping crises and the need for national unity and solidarity, there are arguments for at least exploring the possibility of electoral reform or of coalition government. Yes, the mishandled Liberal Democrat dalliance with Cameron’s Conservatives was a disaster for the former. On the other hand, during the Second World War, holding positions in a coalition government did the Labour Party ably represented in the War Cabinet by Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, Stafford Cripps, no harm at all. Indeed Labour’s presence in government, coupled with their adoption of the Beveridge Report and the aspirations of the British public for a new start, produced an unexpected Labour landslide and an overall majority of 146 seats on 5 July 1945.
In 1945 the Labour Party was led by a clever, competent but modest man of the political Left with personal integrity, trained as a barrister, whose colleagues grumbled about him. Clement Attlee won 393 seats against an eccentric, charismatic, and ruthless opponent whose exaggerated English persona, despite an American mother, had gained him widespread popularity in the national crisis of war. Post-war, the mood changed dramatically. Winston Churchill won only 213 seats.
We should not, of course, draw the wrong lessons from history. The past is another country. We are in a life and death struggle with a virus and with carbon emissions not with the Third Reich. Though Mr. Johnson might enjoy some elements of the comparison. Starmer has a tough road ahead but we shouldn’t discount the possibility of surprises in politics. Sometimes an absence of charisma can come as a blessed relief.
See TheArticle 17/12/2021
Britain, France and the USA fall in an out of love regularly. Relations between Britain and France have recently reached a new low point. A number of disputes are commonly presented as the reason. But there is one ultimate cause: mutual hostility. Mutual hostility plays well in politics on both sides of the Channel. Yet, we are neighbours and share a broad spectrum of democratic values. This raises the question: why?
A long history of conflicts large and small has to bear some of the blame. Nothing extraordinary in that. It was an American writer, James Baldwin who said: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them”, a reflection on racism in the USA but the aphorism applies no less to the UK and France, and not just to racism.
Thanks to decades of Second World War movies, in Britain we often seem trapped, not in the glory of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, but in our memory of May 1940, the heroic, alone-against–all-odds stand after France fell. Not such a bad trap when it comes to sustaining a sturdy sense of national identity during loss of Empire, but a misleading guide for navigating the contemporary world of great power blocs and militarised autocracies. Policy and diplomacy require a finer grained understanding of history. The military historian, Professor Michael Neiberg, in his recent When France Fell; The Vichy Crisis And The Fate Of The Anglo-American Alliance (Harvard University Press) provides it.
“When we mislead ourselves about our past, we not only fail to learn, but we sometimes learn exactly the wrong lessons”, Neiberg warns. Well, we mislead ourselves when we fail to acknowledge that Hitler began losing the war after he invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, and fail to recognise how much we owed to the Soviets’ dreadful sacrifice of human life. We also misread the impact of events by forgetting that the USA in 1940 was nothing like the incomparable military force it became and is today.
The fall of France was a mighty shock not only to us but to a militarily weak USA. Kabul taken in a week was nothing compared to the surprise of Paris taken in a month - supposedly protected by the ‘impregnable’ Maginot line but breached at Sedan. The Americans saw this calamitous rout as the disappearance of a vital defensive barrier from the Wehrmacht thrusting west to the Atlantic. They feared, with a touch of paranoia, possible threats to the USA by coups in Latin American states and French colonial possessions becoming available as Nazi launch-pads for attacks. Unsurprisingly they thought that Britain would be the next to fall.
As colonial powers Britain and France had large and powerful navies. After the French armistice with the Germans on 22 June 1940, American policy was directed at stopping the Nazis getting hold of the French fleet: it consisted, according to Neiberg, of an aircraft carrier, eight battleships, twenty cruisers, seventy destroyers and seventy-eight submarines. To Britain’s chagrin, President Roosevelt recognised Vichy – (essentially the south-east two-fifths of France beyond the extensive Nazi occupied zone minus the French coast) – largely to keep Marshall Philippe Pétain, its figurehead and hero of the First World War, from handing, or being forced to hand over, his ships to the Nazis. It was an embrace based on fear.
On 3 July 1940, Churchill authorised an attack on the French naval base of Mers-el-Kébir, Oran, Algeria, killing 1,300 French sailors and destroying or wrecking three battleships and four destroyers. The battleship Richelieu, the pride of the French fleet undergoing repairs in Dakar on the West African coast, was also attacked and disabled. The Americans denounced the British action in public but breathed a modest sigh of relief in private. The French never forgot Churchill’s ruthless attack on an erstwhile ‘ally’.
Admiral Jean-François Darlan, Commander-in-Chief of the French navy, was an unscrupulous quisling interested only in backing the winning side to forge a path to power, he rose rapidly to become de facto head of the Vichy Government under Pétain, and sent countless French Jews to their death. He surfed an incipient French civil war. General de Gaulle called him ‘the root of evil’. Neiberg memorably corroborates de Gaulle’s assessment, quoting a description from an American officer: “a short, bald-headed, pink-faced, needle-nosed, sharp-chinned little weasel”.
The USA entered the war in December 1941 after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. North Africa and its ports had already become strategically critical. Control was contested by Vichy France in the form of Darlan, briefly ‘High Commissioner of France for North and West Africa’ until his assassination on Christmas Eve 1942, and the Americans and British who landed 73,000 troops on the Moroccan and Algerian coasts in November 1942 to engage the German forces in Tunisia. The Americans continued reluctantly to back Darlan, who was caught in Casablanca, and had to change sides becoming the Americans own ‘weasel’ until two bullets from a French monarchist liberated them from their flawed policy towards Vichy. The British, not grinning but bearing it, supported de Gaulle, their ‘Cross of Lorraine’ in London, and in this rare instance shared his opinion.
In retrospect, I would suggest US support for Vichy and Darlan set a pattern for their later backing of murderous dictatorships in Latin America. The motto for the early years of the CIA should have been ‘Coups Are Us’, two major blunders in the 1950s each with damaging consequences: Guatemala and Iran. As Talleyrand said of the restored Bourbon dynasty post-Napoleon: “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing”.
Apart from the military forces of the Third Reich, there were other fears shared by the Western Allies: communist subversion and anti-colonial uprisings, notably Islamic ones. But there was little love lost between them. Roosevelt couldn’t stand de Gaulle’s grandiloquence, associating him with the French Resistance viewed as a hotbed of socialists and communists. Holding his nose the US kept lines more than open to Vichy France. While Churchill knew that he had to put up with de Gaulle and the Free French however infuriating. Nothing was forgotten. In 1963 de Gaulle gave as explanation for his refusal to admit Britain to the European Economic Community his belief that it would mean opening the door to US influence. And it wasn’t just an excuse. Relations with Washington were bad and he downgraded his participation in NATO in 1966.
When France Fell is a compelling read. It is as if a Norma Percy documentary had been turned into a book, translating to print that fly on the wall experience and intimacy she achieves through interviews with the big players who created the action or tried to catch up with it. It provides corrective insights to a history we thought we understood. If you are interested in these critical years, it tells a surprisingly exciting and gripping story. The book would even make Christmas reading. If you think we should learn from how the proponents of realpolitik can get it very wrong, as in US policy towards Vichy, and draw the wrong lessons from it, it’s definitely for you.
See TheArticle 09/12/2021
Michel Barnier stares out from the cover of My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion. Distinguished, suave, reassuring, every inch the international civil servant. Not exactly the Professor Moriarty of the right-wing Press, nor the crumpled joker, Boris Johnson who rode to power on BREXIT.
The book’s sub-title is inadvertently accurate: it contains no spicy insider secrets or major revelations. This is the EU chief negotiator’s carefully calibrated historical record of 1,600 days of BREXIT negotiations – a long intermission in a political career. But not all entries, doubtless carefully edited with a politician's eye on the future, are put through the blander.
This is a chronicle of a hard BREXIT foretold. Theresa May’s January 2017 Lancaster House speech ruled out future membership of the Common Market and the Customs Union. This eliminated almost all EU models previously negotiated with countries such as Norway, Iceland or Switzerland. It left Britain, like South Korea and Canada, with a free trade agreement option. “Can we be sure”, an astonished Barnier asks, “that the referendum vote gave the British government carte blanche for such a total break?”
Britain’s ‘red lines’, announced before negotiations had begun, defined the UK’s negotiating positions and precluded the most mutually advantageous partnership models. British negotiators were stuck with seeking special privileges for a third party country, playing for time in the process, engaging in what the EU saw as ‘cherry picking’. May’s appointment of David Davis as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union opposite Barnier while she herself worked through an experienced, knowledgeable and competent civil servant Olly (now Sir Oliver) Robins, didn’t help.
On the British side there was misinterpretation, even denial, of the nature of Barnier’s, the EU’s own, red lines. The misunderstanding went deeper. As the BREXIT diary repeatedly reveals, the way of thinking on both sides was different. Barnier, for instance, insisted on logically sequencing British withdrawal with ‘divorce arrangements’ first, including UK financial obligations, rights of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU, peace and stability in Ireland. Barnier worked from basic principles. The Single Market, as the foundation of the EU, an ‘eco-system’ involving much more than economics, was inviolable, so between the Single Market and third party economies such as post-BREXIT Britain there had to be a ‘level playing-field’. Unity amongst the 27 member states, sustaining unanimous support for the EU’s negotiating position was essential, ‘everyone for all’ in short.
The positions of all individual EU negotiating teams on specific topics were derived from these principles – ‘everyone for all’ applied particularly to Gibraltar ( Spain), Cyprus (UK military bases) and, of course, Ireland, (the Good Friday agreement). Throughout negotiations the EU position remained coherent. Barnier prioritised transparency towards all interested bodies, from the EU Council to Danish fishermen. In contrast, British tactics appeared more like the interplay between a weak trades-union and a powerful employer: bluff and piecemeal pursuit of concessions.
The UK had one overarching principle: ‘sovereignty’, sometimes just a matter of being seen to ‘Take Back Control’. Barnier had the advantage of representing the EU, an international organisation based on the closest possible mutually beneficial co-operation between national sovereignties in a globalised world. He found the British concept of sovereignty, frequently deployed as a trump card at critical moments, irrational.
The EU Commission task-force had other advantages over the British. Barnier was a team player leading a talented international team which he respected, drawn over the four years of negotiations from 22 different nationalities. He worked tirelessly to keep the different leaderships in Brussels, the Commission President and the different Commissioners, the Council and Parliament, plus member states’ Ministers and political leaders, business leaders, academics and trades unions, fully up to date - and was rewarded with broad solidarity and a lack of dissent from his approach and strategy.
In contrast Prime Minister Theresa May was negotiating on three fronts: with Barnier’s team, with BREXIT extremists on her back benches and with Northern Ireland’s DUP, who during her second term 2017-2019, brazenly took advantage of her slim majority to her detriment. Meanwhile Boris Johnson, a fifth column, was using his role as Foreign Secretary, after resigning as Daily Telegraph journalist, to position himself for a Conservative Party leadership bid championing the hard-line Brexiteers, prepared if necessary for ‘No-Deal’.
Barnier kept himself well-informed about the political shenanigans in Whitehall. When Johnson won the decisive second round of the Conservative Party leadership election on 23 July 2019, Barnier was reflecting on his ‘deliver BREXIT’ promise (‘get BREXIT done’). Two days later Johnson declared his determination to leave the EU by 31 October and make further discussions dependent on rethinking the Withdrawal Agreement, notably by removing the back-stop designed to prevent any ‘physical border’ within the island of Ireland.
To thwart EU strategy, Britain repeatedly made attempts to bypass Barnier’s negotiating team by directly contacting EU heads of state and Jean-Claude Junker, President of the Commission, in the hope of gaining support and weakening the Commission’s position. The old imperial ‘divide and rule’ was never going to work. At one point two key heads of state were refusing to take Boris Johnson’s calls. The UK underestimated the degree to which Britain’s withdrawal and behaviour was counterproductive, uniting a fractious EU divided over immigration policy and threatened by populism in Hungary and Poland.
Reading between Barnier’s carefully crafted lines, at the political level, from David Davis to Boris Johnson, there was a deplorable lack of preparedness for meetings and grasp of key detail. Following Theresa May, for whom there was some sympathy in Brussels - she knew her brief - there was a growing loss of trust. But Barnier kept a ‘stiff upper lip’. He writes of his commitment to avoiding anger, aggression and vengeance. The tone of the diary entries suggests that he succeeded. But the consistent denigration of malign ‘Brussels intransigence’ in Britain coupled with a readiness to tear up international treaties and attempts to re-negotiate hard won agreements clearly tried the most experienced of negotiators on the EU side.
Because the Withdrawal Agreement had come into force, Johnson’s threat of an Internal Market Bill in September 2020, enabling the reversal of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and a clear-cut threat to breach international law, shocked Brussels. This, Barnier writes, ‘from a country that, for centuries, has built its reputation on the trustworthiness of its signature’. Despite such signs of bad-faith, negotiations moved forward, shoals of fish in British waters to the left, French fishing boats to the right. An ‘ambitious and fair free trade agreement’ was reached on Christmas Eve 2020. 47 years of EU membership had ended. Here the book ends – though BREXIT problems do not.
The British government seems to have learned nothing from the negotiations. Barnier has. His valedictory last chapter nods rightwards towards the Gaullist Party, ‘Les Républicains’, which may or may not select him as their candidate in the coming French Presidential elections. Whether Boris Johnson fights the next general election as the Prime Minister who got BREXIT done will depend – excuse the anachronism - on the men in grey suits. They may be having them dry-cleaned in preparation, or perhaps pre-crumpled as I write.
See TheArticle 25/11/2021