I worked in Northern Nigeria during the early 1970s. The army managed to pack in three military coups during that time. One, the Dimka coup in 1976, was plotted in a polo club and supercharged by champagne. During military coups, we used to wait for the reaction of the regional, divisional commanders. Would they come on the radio in support? If only half of them bobbed up, pledging support, it could mean they were divided and, possibly, we were looking at the beginnings of a civil war. When the men with the guns disagreed with each other, it was time to decamp.
So national and state elections, which reinstated since 1999, are a step forward. Not a very big one given that the rival presidential candidates lack detectable policies other than winning. Access to power still continues to follow the money and name recognition. With some two hundred very rich ruling families still running the show through two big Party machines, only old political warhorses in their 70s need apply to be Presidential candidates. But for this weekend’s elections there are also new young faces, mostly products of US universities with distinguished careers, standing on real policies and in their 30s. But without the huge Party machines of the PDP, Peoples Democratic Party and the APC, All Progressives Congress, with their extensive national clientship networks, these new contenders can’t possibly win.
To win the Presidency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s electoral rules require more than 25% of the popular vote in at least 27 of the 36 states as well as an overall majority of the national vote. This has resulted in complex coalitions and agreements across the different regions, plus a ‘zoning’ principle that Muslim and Christians occupy the Presidency by turn. Nigeria has a little over 84 million registered voters, but since national censuses are rigged it is very hard to allocate any percentage of the vote to any particular region. It is generally assumed that there are more people in ‘the North’ but not necessarily a critical difference in overall numbers of voters from the South. The electoral system is designed to minimise the regionalism, ethnicity and religious differences that blighted Nigeria in the past and led to dreadful bloodshed.
Both the Presidential candidates this year are Muslim Northerners with Muhammad Buhari, who is seeking re-election relying on solid support in the North-West, and Atiku Abubakar, estimated to be worth $1.4 billion, with much support in the North East where he has been Governor in his home state of Adamawa. Buhari is vulnerable on a number of counts: his health and his failure to stop Boko Haram’s terrorism in the North-East which has created 1.8 million displaced people. Buhari disappointed expectations about his ability to curb corruption, his promise in his successful 2015 campaign for the Presidency. But he is the incumbent and the incumbent always won in the past (except for his own victory in 2015).
Boko Haram’s sensational kidnapping of the Chibok school girls made international headlines. The continued terrorism needs explanation. Corruption under Buhari is, and was, a causal factor in the failure to end the Boko Haram’s (BH) insurgency - spectacularly so under his Christian predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. Troops avoided contact with the enemy because they were outgunned: someone in the Federal Capital, Abuja, probably trousered the money allocated for up-to-date weaponry and vehicles. Officers in the air-force stationed in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital in the North-East with a population of over a million, depended on loans from friends in town because they weren’t paid. Recent Boko Haram attacks suggest that the proclaimed victory over them is premature. Urgent reform is needed to create an adequate counter-insurgency force to quell them. There have been some improvements. A few years ago only one of the four main roads into Maiduguri was not controlled by BH. And that was unsafe. Lack of security in the North-East will count against the incumbent.
With two Northern contenders, the ‘zoned’ Christian Vice-Presidential candidates have more importance. Yemi Osinbajo, Buhari’s running mate, should pull in a big Christian Pentecostal vote from the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a huge international mega-Church. Peter Obi, a Catholic and Papal Knight of the Order of St. Sylvester, is Atiku’s running mate as Vice-Presidential candidate, a former Governor of Anambra State in the South-East. Meanwhile former President and king-maker Olusegun Obasanjo has endorsed Atiku.
Northern Nigeria should not simply be described as Muslim. Since the 1960s there has been an ever growing presence of the Pentecostal Churches. Will the Pentecostals outvote the Catholics? This may be a question both the Presidential candidates are asking even though Presidential races do not offer a simple Muslim/Christian choice.
My guess would be that Buhari as incumbent with a good residue of loyalty from the seven Northern States, plus a solid Pentecostal vote pulled in behind Yemi Osinbajo will still have trouble warding off Atiku’s challenge. The PDP apparatus is still strong and Atiku can throw millions of Naira at his campaign whilst hoping for a national Catholic vote through his running mate. The question is, all things ethnic and regional being equal, does religion play a significant part? No-one knows. There are just too many variables to predict.
The problem is, if the Presidential election is closely run, the possibility of violence increases. One thing is sure, the time for the new, young, challengers, who might set Nigeria on a path to recovery, has not yet come. And another sure thing is that Nigeria, with its 200 million citizens, will somehow muddle through in the state of astonishing chaotic vigour to which they are accustomed.
The statistics that suggest young people in this country are amongst the most anxious and miserable in Europe are particularly depressing for a grandparent. By commission or omission, the world our children and grandchildren are inheriting is the world we have collectively made. The current struggle to get social media platforms to eliminate addictive portrayals of self-harm is a worrying symptom of a wider malaise. I do not understand the psychology of self-harm but it must have something to do with rejection, isolation, frustration and pain. But it clearly leads to human tragedies. For a long time those with immense social media power have pretended that their cyber-platforms do not entail the responsibilities of a publisher towards the vulnerable, particularly the young.
Once this very human pain, rejection and frustration come into focus, the question follows: Is a whole country capable of collective self-harm? Fintan O’Toole presents some whacky ideas in his Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. But he convincingly answers yes to that question. He describes the pathology of England’s identity crisis as a nation. “Self-harm is surely not the only logic in England’s experience”, he asks hopefully, after vividly describing the dynamics of what he calls ‘sadopopulism’ in recent years. The consequences of this national turn to predictable self-harm are legion.
Unless a wide range of British institutions, most notably the Bank of England, have mutated into a conspiracy of REMAIN propagandists – and by this I mean alumni of the Boris-Davis-Farage school of casual liars – they are, responsibly and urgently, giving a warning to both government and people. There is now a wide-ranging consensus from those in a position to know, a virtually unanimous conclusion, that a No-Deal exit from the EU is catastrophic and any viable future May-fudge would have damaging consequences for the economy and particularly for the poor. So why is it foolish and undemocratic to heed this warning and to give the British public their right to respond to it in a People’s Vote?
Trying to avert economic disaster is, of course, instantly dismissed as Project Fear. Yet after a decade of austerity shouldn’t we fear a decline in GDP, productivity, investment and employment? Especially when those who have suffered most in the last decade will be the worst affected. Some fear is salutary. Is a doctor’s warning “if you continue to gain weight you risk getting diabetes, heart problems and possibly cancer” Project Fear? Self-harm, reinforced by images and feelings of intense frustration, is compulsive. Its distorted perception of social, political and economic reality means it tragically ignores warnings, seen as conspiracies to block a resolution of the problem. Project Fear is anything you don’t want to hear.
The Corbyn faction of the Labour Party, despite Labour’s membership being overwhelmingly in favour of Remain and a Peoples’ Vote, is now toying with joining Theresa May, apparently in a quest for a kinder variety of self-harm,. It is a shabby tactical game. Every time I hear the Shadow Trade secretary’s, Barry Gardiner’s, dulcet tones on the radio, he sounds to me like a clever scammer selling a Ponzi scheme to the unsuspecting. Labour Party policy on BREXIT is crystal clear. Everything is still on the table we are told. Except the truth.
These are strange political times. Members of the Labour front bench abstain from a whipped vote, betray their fellow MP, Yvette Cooper, and do so with impunity. McDonnell and Corbyn have a calculated difference of emphasis in public. Keir Starmer has the impossible job of shepherding a herd of cats into following a coherent policy. It all feels like a phoney war, the lull before the storm. Under fifty days and counting. Which reminds me to cancel my direct debit to the Labour Party, and get an international driver’s licence. The Labour Party leadership has now become more than a walk-on part in the BREXIT debacle.
I don’t know about you, but I draw the line at paying a membership fee to the Labour Party to promote a policy whose results will be a less catastrophic version of national self-harm: banking on more food banks to feed the poor, further cuts in public services, even more understaffed NHS, increasing numbers of homeless on our streets, and giving the waiting paramilitaries in Ireland a new casus belli. That is not why for the last fifty years I have voted Labour. As you get older you get more risk-averse. And that, I confess, on behalf of my grandchildren, is one reason I am not willing to go along with such dangerous risks.
Every revolution is different. But some, like the Iranian Revolution whose 40th anniversary falls this year, are more different than others. From a popular uprising against the pro-Western Shah and his secret police, SAVAK, there emerged an Islamic Republic led by Khomeini, an intransigent and brutal Ayatollah.
Forty years ago, the CIA was monitoring the Iranian Left but missed the significance of the Mullahs. They recognized its importance after the American Embassy had been sacked and hostages taken. Meanwhile Grand Ayatollah Khomeini returned from France to eliminate his secular compatriots in the revolution, as well as his religious opponents. Suddenly Shi’a Islam, or at least Khomeini’s idiosyncratic confection of French revolutionary popular sovereignty and Islamic dictatorship, burst onto the international scene as a new threat.
Khomeini’s rule by Shi’a jurists, velayat-al-faqih, was presented as a divine dispensation. Shari’a Law ordered society. Any evolution of the revolutionary process towards a more open society was slow, fragmented, subject to major challenges and reverses. Over the years, alongside the power of the Supreme Leader, backed by his Revolutionary Guards, grew a ‘liberal’ wing of Mullahs and lay politicians and civil servants. Ayatollah Hassan Rouhani, the current President, is that wing’s most recent leader. President Khatami, before him, followed much the same path.
In the midst of these internal conflicts, at the turn of the century, I participated for several years in - what I privately called “Six a side with the Ayatollahs” - formal dialogue and discussions with the Iranian Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue, part of the government-controlled Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation. The numbers on the Iranian side were sometimes more than six. The team was usually a mix of Muslim lay scholars and a Hojjat-al-Islam, a clerical grade one below Ayatollah. During one visit to Iran by a delegation from the Church of England, a key meeting was attended by a laid-back character wearing blue-jeans. He clearly outranked the Hojjat in the chair and turned out to speak fluent English. Intelligence service A further strand in the tangled national skein of power.
For us western visitors, what went on in Evin prison, the persecution of the Bahais, the severe consequences of conversion to Christianity, and all the other pervasive human rights violations, were difficult to square with the warm hospitality and the friendliness of our hosts. Our interlocutors seemed like academics anywhere else: keen to discuss the new French philosophers, particularly Foucault. I remember the hacking cough of a cleric next to me at dinner, who told me he had been gassed in the Iraq-Iran war. More touching were the young couples walking in the mountains which cradle North Tehran who, when they saw you approaching, sprang apart. All smiles, and hands held again, when they realized you were not Iranian.
There were funny incidents. The austere Ayatollah Emami-Kashani, who was leader of the Friday prayer in Tehran at that time, lamenting at length the fact that youth were falling away from religion. He fluffed his answer when I asked if he ever talked to any youth. Maybe it was left un-translated. I didn’t tell him how much like a Catholic bishop I knew in Galway he sounded. He told our bemused delegation through the translator with some pride that he had gone to Rome and met a “Rock Singer”. It was some time later before I realized this was Ratzinger, the Cardinal, soon to be Pope.
Perhaps the most revealing incident of a further visit took place in late January 2006 after news of the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons of the Prophet, spun for maximum political effect, had just landed in Tehran. Our hosts had a prepared a statement for us to sign condemning the offence to Islam while praising Iran as the epicentre of interfaith dialogue and toleration. We were even told that the cartoons were now a compulsory item on the Danish schools’ curriculum. We did not sign.
After this tense day my wife and I went out for a chilly evening stroll. There was almost no-one about. This was posh Tehran where women wore their headscarves so as to reveal the maximum amount of hair while escaping prosecution. And unlike poorer, industrial south Tehran, few women dressed all in black. But the streets were empty and dark. A car screeched to a halt. There were two youngish men in it. We felt nervous. The window came down. We braced ourselves. A growling bass voice said: “You are Welcome”. For a moment the curtain which concealed the feelings of ordinary citizens had lifted.
I recommend that anyone formulating policy towards the Islamic Republic tries to tune in to each of the major contending forces within Iran. None of them have reason to trust Britain after British involvement in the CIA instigated coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. And, after the Iraq-Iran war, Iranians do not need to be told they have comprehensible national security and foreign policy concerns. But Iran is capable of change and of conciliatory negotiation.
Despite the US withdrawal and sanctions, Iran continues to comply with the 2015 nuclear deal to forestall its development of a nuclear weapon, signed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council: UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany. The deal, made against the grain by Iran, is some measure of its potential for negotiation. Trump’s and Israel’s attempt to scupper this agreement is an act of culpable irresponsibility at a time of nuclear proliferation. It is a rejection of Iranian progressives and vindication of its militarist hard-liners.
President Rouhani took a great risk by settling for a nuclear deal and permitting intrusive monitoring. He has complied with the agreement’s provisions. But he is undermined by Trump’s policy which is frankly imperial in character as well as crass, and which vindicates the adventurism of the Revolutionary Guards. The question which arises, urgently now, is whether the USA can recognize and act upon the complexity of contemporary Iran. The choice is between fostering and rewarding those Iranians seeking evolutionary change, with due concern for national security, or encouraging those wedded to militarism and expansion of Shi’a influence through proxy wars in the Middle East.
Savage attacks on peaceful demonstrators have put Zimbabwe in the news again. Hopes of change have been dashed. For the army and police, extreme violence remains the sole recourse for dealing with grave social and economic problems inherited from One Party rule under President Robert Mugabe.
I became acquainted with the Zimbabwe story forty years ago just before Mugabe came to power. In 1978, I went to Salisbury, now Harare, to discover who was killing missionaries from the progressive Bethlehem Mission in Immensee, Switzerland. Of course Bethlehem Fathers were not the only people being killed at that time. Rhodesia was almost at the end of a brutal civil/liberation war. Ian Smith’s security forces had budded off a counter-insurgency unit, the Selous Scouts, which sometimes dressed up as vakomana, Mugabe’s ZANLA (Zimbabwe National Liberation Army) guerrilla forces, in order to catch ZANLA sympathisers. They called it “dragging”. A significant number of the Bethlehem priests supported the liberation struggle. But it was unclear which side in this bitter struggle was responsible for their killings.
Working with the courageous Rhodesian Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, we were led a merry chase: we finally discovered that the private detective ‘helping’ us was taking his instructions from Smith’s security forces, so not surprisingly bodies disappeared from wells, and we always seemed to arrive a day or so too late. But you learnt fast. In such wars it is often impossible to know who is on which side. The old man with a bicycle stubbornly standing on your side of the road, refusing to get out of the way, was most likely stopping a mission vehicle going over a mine. The missionaries always put me in the second vehicle on mined roads. Years later it became evident that the missionaries’ deaths were caused by ZANLA commanders many of whom had personal grudges, like being expelled from school, against individual clergy.
The war was terrible with atrocities on both sides; the insurgents should neither be romanticized nor demonised. Elderly women were denounced as witches to the vakomana and summarily executed. Sadistic area commanders could wreak havoc. Even if they were reported to ZANLA headquarters in Mozambique, it could take a long time to get rid of them. Yet support for ZANLA and Mugabe was overwhelming. Bishop Abel Muzorewa, part of the Executive Council of Smith’s short-lived Interim Government 1978-1979, would never be able to win an election or capture the dominant Shona-speaking vote. I told the Foreign Secretary, Dr. David Owen, as much after my visit. He listened.
The offices where I worked in London were a drop-in for exiled Zimbabweans struggling for independence, seemingly idealistic young men and women. I did a television programme with one, Simbi Mubako, a law lecturer at Southampton University, to highlight the human rights abuses in his country and the need for the British government to act. After Independence in 1980, Simbi was appointed Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs. In January 1983, Mugabe’s North-Korean trained 5th brigade began to eliminate members of ZIPRA, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, the armed wing of the largely Ndebele-speaking rival ZAPU, (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union) under the leadership of the old nationalist Joshua Nkomo. This was followed by the killing of suspected ZAPU members. In the Bulawayo area more than 20,000 people were killed and many more detained during a purge lasting from 1983-1987, called Gukurahundi, (the early rain that washes away the chaff).
I wrote to Simbi asking him to speak out against these human rights abuses as he had done in Britain against those committed by the Smith regime. His reply was saddening. I must return to Zimbabwe and he and I would go round Matabeleland together and I would see that all the allegations were either false or exaggerated. I replied that he must know that if we travelled around, as we would, in a government vehicle with an escort, nobody would dare say a word. With the now President Emmerson Mnangagwa as Minister of State Security in charge of the CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation), widely believed to be complicit in the massacres, it was probably more than Simbi’s life was worth to respond otherwise. He later became a High Court Judge.
The Mugabe regime illustrated with terrible clarity what political life meant in a one-Party state: the accumulation of wealth. And wealth in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe meant amongst other things extensive land-holding. Politics had very little to do with justice, the wellbeing of citizens, or the electoral promises made at independence. In 1978 I imagined it had. Democracy and elections are supposed to enable citizens to get rid of governments that destroy their economy, society and political life. But Zimbabwe’s birth in violence meant that democracy did not have a chance; with most other institutions, except the Churches, eroded and struggling, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces were, and remain, the country’s unelected rulers wedded to extreme violence.
The words of a pastoral letter from the Zimbabwean Catholic Bishops distributed on 17 January 2019 show that they, at least, have not abandoned hope. “While for many, hope for a better Zimbabwe might appear lost, we reaffirm St. Paul’s message that when all else fails, there are three pillars that remain to hold on to: Faith, Hope and Love. We believe in a God of second chances…” Many also believe that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But Lord Acton’s is not necessarily the last word. He was, incidentally, writing about Popes as well as Kings.
So, on the one side, there’s Acton’s unromantic “certainty of corruption by authority”, on the other the Bishops’ virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. Zimbabwe has to play for its future with this loaded dice. Africa has so often been the graveyard of idealism. And the God of second chances has so often seen them squandered.
Either Parliament, after a second Glorious Revolution, or the public, after a second referendum, will now have to decide about BREXIT. The meaningful vote was meaningful. The Labour confidence motion was duly tabled and lost. There is talk about negotiating a permanent customs union. And there are indications behind the scenes of a Parliamentary revolution against the Executive, cross-Party moves to take control of the BREXIT process. Due consideration of a second referendum option has drawn closer.
Hyperbole about the negative consequences of a second referendum has consequently been cranked up in the last week, and will doubtless be cranked up some more. “Catastrophic”, “Unforgiveable”, “Betrayal” “Damaging our Democracy”, “Divisive and Disappointing”, “Stimulating violent right-wing extremism”, and “Opening the doors to Populism”. Can Dominic Grieve, asking the British public in his QC’s-crystal voice to confirm their June 2016 decision in the light of new information, be talking about the same thing?
In this Orwellian world, every criticism of a future People’s Vote should be applied to the first 2016 referendum. It was unforgiveable of David Cameron to land us in this situation then walk away leaving Theresa May to mop up. BREXIT has tipped the country into a catastrophic constitutional crisis. What has been divisive and disappointing is the inept and inflexible conduct of negotiations, stymied by being a dual negotiation between the Tory back benches and the EU. The tone of the BREXIT debate not only fed into right wing extremism, it created a climate in which the tragic death of a Member of Parliament at extremist hands took place. Phrases such as “red, white and blue BREXIT” and repetition of “the will of the People”, referring to 52% of them, opened the doors to populism. Government felt obliged to adopt, over a long thirty months, a series of sanitized populist appeals to the electorate.
The first referendum was indeed damaging to our democracy. The Leave campaign involved an unprecedented level of calculated deception followed by a litany of mistakes, lies and half-truths that undermined trust. Channel 4’s drama-documentary BREXIT: The Uncivil War confirmed how the Leave Campaign’s new techniques and technology, deployed by Dominic Cummings, directed marginalized voters’ anger towards the EU. ‘Take back control’ was a brilliant appeal to the emotions. I had forgotten ‘Turkey’, the incredible lie that Turkey was going to join the EU so that Izmir and Istanbul were about to decant their Muslim populations into Britain.
Looking back, it was a bad mistake to have a simple majority plebiscite on an immensely complex issue, a betrayal of parliamentary responsibility, to rescue a divided Tory Party. It was a mistake to tell the public that in our representative democracy they should do more than advise their representatives in Parliament. Instructing their elected representatives on an uncharted course of action - which a majority of parliamentarians believed ill-advised - challenged the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty. And, it was after all Parliamentary sovereignty which Leave proponents were keen to retrieve from the pooled sovereignty of the European Union.
The subsequent Brexiteer campaign against permitting the British public a genuine democratic choice in a second public vote has been relatively successful. It amounts to saying that the public should not be permitted to act on accumulated information about the salient features of the choice that they were asked to make. The Prime Minister and sundry Brexiteers pretend to know in telepathic detail what 17.4 million voters meant, and intended, when they voted Leave.
It is impossible to have a constructive conversation about a second referendum if you think an informed electorate is irrelevant to the conduct of democracy. Dominic Grieve’s reasoned argument is immediately, and successfully, twisted into “telling the people they got it wrong, making them vote again until they get it right.” In other words, playing one hundred percent into the story of the arrogant elite that doesn’t listen to the people. From another part of the same elite, we are daily given a dog-whistle reminding us that the public must not be allowed second thoughts on BREXIT lest it triggers right-wing violence. This amounts to Project Fear Mark Two: summoning a very dangerous genie out of the bottle. Are we really going to allow the contours of a future Britain to be determined by the blackmail threat of right-wing violence?
A second referendum is understandably presented as a betrayal by those strongly invested in Leave. But in reality Ireland, Denmark and France have adopted the expedient of a second referendum to resolve an EU choice, and in Britain we have done the same for issues involving devolution and the Welsh and Scottish assemblies. None of these second votes have resulted in civil war or fascist tyranny.
So what is Parliament going to do with its sovereignty if the second Glorious Revolution occurs? To wrest the driving wheel from the Tory Executive, Parliament in its present disarray is going to face a dangerous struggle; it may end up ingloriously in a ditch. As for the Executive, doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different outcome is usually taken as a sign of madness. Theresa May’s stubbornly held conviction that she can dictate her red lines to all and sundry while negotiating terms with the EU that go counter to the EU’s foundational principles fits that description.
It may also fit the description of a second referendum as a last resort to confirm democratic legitimacy of the first. But I doubt it. Second referendums statistically have a habit of reversing the outcome of the first. We won’t ever know unless we give it a try. Or unless we are obliged to go to the Electoral Commission as the only way of climbing out of the ditch. Which would mean that attempts to take control and direct events by Parliament had proved more inglorious than glorious.
This is hard to believe. But I’m assured by family members in Canada that the most in-demand present for young children in North America last Christmas was Dookie, the pooping Unicorn. I won’t give away manufacturers’ scatological details only add that it comes with a “squatty potty”. The rest I leave to your imagination or the imagination of the under nines.
My family demographics did not provide me with any equally reliable information on the popularity of pooing Unicorns in Britain. But thoughtful Remainers will instantly see what a wonderful present Dookie would have made for the children and grandchildren of the Tory European Reform Group and their hangers-on. What a great symbol for the Leave campaign as a whole. A large model should go up on a plinth in Parliament Square in time for Tuesday’s vote. And who better than Sir Ian ‘Dookie’ Smith to unveil it?
I should not limit these festive thoughts to the Conservative Party alone. Thanks to Jeremy Corbyn, matters are moving beyond darkly funny to car crash serious. I was disturbed to find that Andrew Rawnsley, a commentator who is usually forensically objective, in his last two Observer columns, was beginning to crack and sounding honest-to-goodness angry. Things must be bad.
What also struck me were the latest figures Rawnsley quoted for the current opinion of Labour members and supporters on Leave, and how they would vote in a second referendum were it to be organised. 88% of Labour members and 71% of Labour supporters would vote Remain, assuming it was on the ballot paper. 89% of members and 73% of supporters now thought it would be wrong to vote Leave. The last You-Guv sample of 25,000 Labour voters came plum within this range and also found that 75% favoured a second referendum.
Jeremy Corbyn significantly increased Labour Party membership because he appeared as a radical new voice offering a different sort of politics. As Rawnsley pointed out, his core appeal depended on his being a listener promising that Labour Party policy really would be determined democratically in accordance with the views and priorities of its members. This distinguished Jeremy Corbyn from earlier Labour leaders - who looked to a wider public - and got Labour members chanting his name.
Well, it was all, at best, a bit of a disappointment, at worst a con-trick. Mr. Corbyn only agrees with his base when his base agrees with him. He still inhabits the arguments of the 1970s and has always been ideologically – and stubbornly – opposed to the European Union, seeing it as an international capitalist club. The tortuous presentation, ambiguities and obfuscations of Labour Party policy on BREXIT have served to obscure the simple fact. Pity Sir Keir Starmer. There is a massive THREE QUARTERS majority in his Party for Remain, but Corbyn persists in reneging on his contract with the members and ignoring them on this vital issue.
At least so far. Because there is growing evidence that parts of Labour’s membership have emerged from denial and moved into anger about what they are coming to see as Corbyn’s betrayal of their future. The number of Labour held constituencies with predominantly Leave populations may offer more pragmatic explanations for his behaviour. But there are many courageous Labour MPs who are behaving as leaders of their Leave communities and putting the national interest, and that of their constituents, before their political careers, and calling for a second referendum in the light of the future economic consequences of Brexit in their impoverished regions.
If, in the face of his many young members, Mr. Corbyn pursues his Brexit politics to date, a performance smacking of abject hypocrisy, he will pay the price. And so will the Labour Party. Momentum is not the young ones Corbyn Fan Club of commentators’ myth. It has a more diverse membership. But it has enough youthful followers, with youth’s sensitivity to hypocrisy, for the movement that has kept him in place to fade away as quickly as it coalesced. Those who come up fast usually go down fast.
The irony of the Brexit car crash is that it may be Theresa May who survives to fight another day. But Corbyn’s days are numbered unless he gives up the ideas about the EU he swallowed in the 1970s. He needs to honour his pledge to his membership, and consider the national interest, instead of ineptly finessing his own misguided version of ideological purity.
I am sure, if he tries, Jeremy Corbyn could find a Pink Dookie on e-Bay the better to fulfil grandparental duties to which the hand of history calls him. Meanwhile he should heed a radical who has ideas that might genuinely reinvigorate the Labour Party: Amartya Sen. “While purity is an uncomplicated virtue for olive oil, sea air, and heroines in folk tales,” he wrote, “it is not so for systems of collective choice”*. Shame he left out unicorns.
*Amartya Sen Collective Choice and Social Welfare San Francisco 1970, 200
Five years ago I wrote a review of Rupert Shortt’s book Christianophobia: a Faith under Attack. “This ought to be a major foreign policy issue for governments”, was its conclusion. “That it is not tells us much about a rarely acknowledged hierarchy of victimhood”, he added. He must have been pleased last week when the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, launched an independent global review, led by the new Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, into how government is responding and should respond, to the global wide persecution of Christians.
Yes, delivered during the slow news days between Christmas and New Year, the announcement was probably a carefully timed marker in the forthcoming leadership contest in the Tory Party. But the review is a good thing in its own right. The timing was also appropriate on religious grounds, falling two days before the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates Herod’s slaughter of baby boys in his efforts to murder the new born Jesus, an early example of collateral damage.
New Year is as good a time as any to make a confession: I was unnecessarily negative about one or two aspects of Christianophobia. “Where one religious minority is persecuted, so are all to varying degrees”, I declared. “Shortt’s striking title might seem to encourage us to champion the rights of our own faith communities rather than to work beside other religious leaders to promote religious freedom for all”. I did admit that these reservations might seem a little precious. In retrospect I think they were.
True, the clunky title Christianophobia could be seen as a religious me-too response to Islamophobia and the more ancient Antisemitism. But this would be to ignore the point Shortt was trying to make that persecution of Christians was somehow treated as less newsworthy, and less of public concern, than the persecution of other religious minorities around the world.
Yet, when you think about it, this neglect of public outcry about the persecution of Christians is puzzling. Religious art is part of the cultural acquis of Europe. Try the Anglo-Saxon Exhibition at the British Library. At Christmas, carol services and other religious events, from Nativity plays to midnight masses, are crowded. The season reveals the residual Christian belief and practice in British society. And all year round hundreds of amateur and professional choirs around the country practice and sing sacred music composed by the great classical composers, often performing in churches. The Christian words they sing, the symbols and paintings, are an integral part of British and European culture and identity. They cannot be wished away by sleight of hand of the National Secular Society. Yet, before the Hunt review, nobody except Church leaders seemed officially too bothered about the Filipina housemaid in the Saudi household refused time off to attend the Easter Liturgy. Or the Christians languishing in jail in Pakistan under trumped up blasphemy charges. Or the repression of evangelical Churches in China, Copts in Egypt, and the wider exodus of Christians from the Middle East. And so on. Indeed being bothered about this persecution has often been associated, rightly or wrongly, with Right Wing political positions.
Shortt suggested the number of Christians currently under threat in 2012 as 200 million. UK government last week gave the figure of 250 Christians killed per month around the world because of their religious identity. It is very difficult to determine which killings are parts of general purges of dissidents or in rampages of militias, or the direct targeting of Christians as a defenseless minority. The figures from the FCO are reliable and paint a shocking picture. So what approach can realistically be taken to curtail these particular human rights violations?
I would still point to the promotion, protection and independent monitoring of the right to religious freedom as the starting point for effective action. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights originated in reaction to secular totalitarianism but notably in the commitment of people of faith to establish the right to religious freedom. It would be a profound irony if religious freedom became the human right that finally fell by the wayside in the 21st. century.
The Anglican Bishop of Truro has undoubtedly a difficult task. But, an evangelical and former head of the Church Mission society, he is unlikely to pull his punches. The case of Asia Bibi is telling. After being released following eight years on death-row on blasphemy charges, the British government failed to offer her asylum in the UK, apparently on the grounds it might endanger consular staff in Pakistan. These are some of the many hard realities and limitations that the Bishop is going to have to face in his future recommendations.
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Israel’s conflictual relationship with Israeli Arabs, the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza lies at the heart of this year’s prolonged and passionate argument about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. More precisely it frames Jewish identity in the UK today and shapes the debate whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic. This contentious British domestic question relates to the foreign reality of life in the Gaza strip and Southern Israel and to Israel’s role in major violent outbreaks in 2009, 2012, 2014, and during this year’s border fence protests in which 170 demonstrators were killed. Most observers see Israel’s reaction to the danger from Gaza as disproportionate. What then is known about the orchestrator of this threat to Israel’s security, Hamas?
Tareq Baconi in his Hamas Contained, Stanford University Press, 2018, provides insights into Hamas’ history, thinking and strategy. Hamas emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987 as a radical Islamist movement in competition with the PLO. In the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas, deemed a terrorist organization by the USA with links to Iran, took 76 out of 132 seats, clearly beating Fatah with its 43 seats. This democratic victory threw an ill-prepared Hamas into government of Gaza (it lost control of the West Bank to Fatah) and triggered a debilitating blockade of the Strip by Israel. The USA under President G.W. Bush gave Israel the opportunity to place Hamas in the post- 9/11 frame by talk of a global war against terrorism. Bush used diplomatic, financial and military means to help Israel isolate the two million Palestinians living in the coastal territory, often described as the largest open-air prison in the world with its 70% youth unemployment, poverty and despair fostering attacks on Israel.
Since 2006, Hamas related groups have intermittently attacked southern Israel with rockets, and constructed tunnels to move vital goods in and out, as well as infiltrating fighters and suicide bombers to kill Israeli soldiers and civilians. Over time Israeli military retaliation aimed at curtailing Hamas’ capacity to strike targets in Israel, dubbed “mowing the lawn”, has become increasingly severe. In the course of 51 days, ending in late August 2014, Netanyahu unleashed Operation Protective Edge: aerial attacks on Gaza using F-16s, Apache Helicopters, dropping one ton bombs, followed by a ground assault into Gaza. Tareq Baconi writes that bombs struck housing, schools, hospitals, mosques and power generators, killing 2,200 Palestinians, 1,492 of them civilians and 551 of these children. “Within Gaza, eighteen thousand housing units had been rendered uninhabitable and 108,000 people were left homeless”. During this same period there were sixty-six Israeli combat deaths and six civilians killed.
Baconi tells the complex, and evolving, story of Hamas’ rise to power, its struggle with Fatah and the PLO, to its current containment within Gaza, whilst clearly explaining different strands of Palestinian thinking and ideology. He describes Hamas as defining its role, in contrast to Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, as a religiously motivated resistance to “Zionist” settlements inside the territory occupied by Israel after the 1967 war, and until recently, more generally to the wider Israeli occupation since 1948. Against the PLO, the internationally approved negotiator of the Oslo accords, derided by Hamas for achieving nothing, Hamas presents itself as the movement for liberation of the occupied territories.
Hamas frames itself as the - last - anticolonial movement comparable to the ANC’s apartheid-era analysis of itself as fighting against Afrikaner “internal colonialism”. In its own eyes and those of many Gaza residents, Hamas is conducting an armed struggle, or asymmetric warfare, for the land and soul of the Palestinian people against an overwhelmingly powerful military enemy, for the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Because of his efforts to explain objectively, Baconi risks being accused of providing Hamas with historical legitimacy. That is clearly not his intention. Nor mine. But Hamas’ interpreting the conflict in a frame of settler colonialism has as much, or as little, sense as the ANC’s old analysis. Both conflicts could be described as resistance movements facing an opponent with a dramatically different level of coercive military power and different history of occupancy of the contested land. The Palestine-Israel conflict has the additional complexity of each side’s ethnic identities and strong religious claims to a divinely mandated terrain. It is not called the Holy Land for nothing. Establishing new States did not work for “Christian nationalism” in South Africa. Baconi finds scant evidence of any ongoing commitment to the Oslo Accords or to peace-making initiatives on either side. Pursuit of a Two State solution has come to nothing.
Hamas statements from its internal and external leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshal, quoted in the book, refer repeatedly to the enemy as “Zionists”. There is no mystery how some of the Labour Left have been accused of anti-Semitism. For them, rather than framing Zionism as one protagonist in a clash of nationalisms, the interpretation motivating the Oslo Accords, Zionism is the powerful last remnant of settler colonialism. This account of the singularity of the conflict is not necessarily anti-Semitic though it easily drifts into anti-Semitism. Most politicized South African young blacks whom I met in the 1980s referred to the “Boers” when they meant the South African security forces. A few were unsurprisingly anti-white. Some Labour Party members surprisingly, disgracefully, have crossed the boundary into anti-Semitism.
Baconi charts how Hamas’ strategy and tactics changed as facts on the ground changed, notably in the shifting sands of the Arab Spring in Egypt, and the leadership changes it brought, from Mubarak to Morsi, from Morsi to Sisi. But Hamas has retained its character as a nationalist Islamist movement despite persistent efforts to lump it with Da’esh and Al-Qaida – both of which it actively opposes. And the leadership has tacitly put aside a major ideological prop: the refusal to recognize the state of Israel. Given future flexibility, Hamas could move from ceasefire to meaningful negotiations given the right conditions.
Otherwise there are no grounds for optimism. Lives in southern Israel are insecure. Lives in Gaza verge on the insupportable. A humanitarian crisis beckons. Israel’s military power has entrenched rather than defeated resistance. Whether the Israeli government retains any vestigial desire for negotiation, now the USA has de facto finally abandoned its role as peace mediator, remains to be seen. Baconi has written a courageous, if depressing, book. Future peacemakers would do well to read it.
The spectacular social and economic development of China, its vast size and population, have turned China into the ideological threat to the West. Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, South Korea in the 1970s, for different reasons, have all demonstrated that respect for individual human rights comes second to economic development. Discuss the condition of many countries around the world today and it’s not long before the words “authoritarian” and “China model” enter the conversation.
Words are telling. Consider “authoritarian” – note not dictatorship or tyranny. Authoritarian is used to characterise dictatorships rich in essential resources or key allies. Maybe we are indicating a point on a scale of oppression. Perhaps if you harass, imprison or kill more than a certain number of your political opponents, the more condemnatory word dictatorship kicks in. Language subtly betrays attitudes and relationships.
“The China model” also bears thinking about. Is this on a national scale a matter of cultural choice and self-expression, an identity statement, like a particular car chosen by an individual? But the Chinese Communist Party ruthlessly imposes its uniform political and economic template. There is no choice if you are a Uighur Muslim, or a zealous evangelical Christian, or Falun Gong or a young dissident, or a human rights lawyer or an investigative journalist.
Are we then inadvertently, unconsciously dumping the idea of universal values and undermining the integrity and interdependence of the UN Declaration of Human Rights as we celebrate its seventieth year? On what grounds do we soften reaction to violations of people’s rights to different freedoms and give preference to economic rights? These questions have no easy answer.
If democracy, democratic culture and human rights – the complete UN list – are the touchstone of Western values and inform foreign policy, talking about different models risks becoming a hostage to fortune. Dictators are happy to talk about the Asian model or the African model of democracy, particularly when they are locking up their opponents, rigging their elections, manipulating religious sentiments, or playing on tribal or xenophobic fears of one sort or another. In most instances, these aren’t different cultural ways of doing democracy. They are ways of reinforcing the idea that individual human rights confront social, political and economic rights in a zero sum game - when they don’t. Their purpose is to justify abuses of power and the enrichment of elites,
The West may rightly be shy about claiming that genuine democracy and respect for individual human rights are no impediment to economic development. It has an inglorious history of colonialism to overcome. And Africa is a constant reminder. Rwanda is a near perfect example of the West’s attitude. German and Belgian Trusteeship Rule in Rwanda prior to Independence in 1962 did little to promote economic progress and contributed to social divisions and the rise of ethnic identities. I tell the story in my Church and Revolution in Rwanda Manchester University Press 1974. Twenty years later the world failed to intervene to stop the genocide in which hundreds of thousands died. But did Rwanda really need authoritarian rule to achieve successful economic development?
Governments and some international NGOs present Rwanda and its economic progress as a model for the whole African continent. It is indeed impressive, rags to relative riches without, for example, the diamonds of Botswana. But even given the imperative of neutralizing ethnic tensions after the genocide, President Paul Kagame did not need to eliminate political opposition for the country to prosper.
The massacre by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front’s military of at least 4,000 internally displaced Hutu in Kibeho camp on 22 April 1995 spelt the end to an initial post-genocide government of national unity. Criticism of government became hazardous. The later assassination of Colonel Patrick Karegeya in Johannesburg, and the attempted assassination of General Faustin Nyamwasa, former Kagame top intelligence officials, are two of the best documented cases of the perils of opposition.
In August 2017, Kagame won Presidential elections with 98.8% of the vote. According to Human Rights Watch, before and after the vote: “the Rwandan government continued to limit the ability of civil society groups, the media, international human rights organizations, and political opponents to function freely and independently or to criticize the government’s policies and practices”.
A democratic culture requires the promotion of the UN Declaration of Human Rights as the fabric of politics, civility and social harmony. Dictatorships, Presidents clinging to multiple terms in office through rigged elections and violence against opponents, are not different models of democracy, whether African, Middle Eastern or Asian, or early stages of a China model. They are models of tyranny. And the cost of opposing tyranny continues to be paid by those who try to overthrow it, as demonstrated by the extinguishing of the ill-named Arab Spring.
There is, of course, hypocrisy, arrogance and hubris in the West’s global promotion of its ideology of democracy. Gerrymandering in the USA, attempts to render voting difficult for African-Americans, a referendum in the UK manipulated by fantasy projections of the benefits of a no or a yes vote, are striking own goals. So is the influence of parts of the mass media that thrive on echoing resentment and xenophobia, and foster an ill-informed electorate. Growing inequality, high levels of relative poverty in the USA and UK, torture and rendition to “black sites”, lend themselves to counter-challenge through authoritarian propaganda: they are a gift for those who deploy social and economic rights to deflect attention from their own violation of individual rights.
The West is not likely to win the ideological or ethical argument while economics and GDP growth provide the West’s dominant master discourse, demoting all else. We sing with dictators too often from the same economistic song sheet. If democracies hope to occupy the moral high ground, they themselves need to set a better example and urgently reform their own political and economic practice. Meanwhile, when democratic leaders argue that they are engaging constructively with tyrannical regimes, they need to be challenged about what has been achieved by such engagement. And when the real motivation is transparently economic self-interest, the West’s ideological position and its moral argument simply founder on their own contradictions.
My old Professor at University College, Galway, used to remark that when he got into his small, beat-up car it would often drive straight to a pub. The big, red China model, with its disappearances, extensive surveillance of citizens, new facial recognition technology, social credit data, and, in Xinjiang, “vocational training centres” (re-education camps), is driving straight into a dystopian, Orwellian future. To governments tempted to jump on board, just don’t go there.
Pity the many decent, honest politicians seeking the Common Good, who, because of the BREXIT debacle, will fall under a blanket condemnation of the “political elite”. We now know where their colleagues’ choice of personal ambition before national interest has taken us. A combination of magical thinking and lying has produced the most threatening political crisis in living memory: government and opposition hopelessly reduced to warring factions or a calculating inertia. The current conflict and confusion, political irresponsibility and incompetence, are a clear and present danger to democracy.
Once you start lying, falsifying and spinning, it is extremely difficult to stop. The latest lie derives from the previous falsification or spin. Take for example the claim that in our representative democracy, referendums are legally binding rather than advisory. The sovereignty of Parliament is the lynch pin of our form of democracy, so referendums cannot be definitively decisive; we are not a small Swiss canton governed as a direct democracy. One false statement leads to another. You end up hinting there will be riots in the street if there is a second referendum.
David Cameron on losing the 2016 referendum was not legally obliged to introduce legislation to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty leading to the UK’s future withdrawal from the European Union. He scuttled away leaving the task to Theresa May. She was temporarily delayed by the Supreme Court ruling that it required an Act of Parliament to empower her to start the process of withdrawal. So it was Parliament which, in March 2017, responding to the majoritarian 17.4 million who voted to leave, and not to the 16.1 million who wanted to remain, authorized the government to trigger Article 50. And it has to be Parliament who revokes their former decision – or, on the other hand, ratifies the lengthy Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on our future relationship with the EU. However in their present state of mind, Parliament is barely up to revoking the menu in the Members Dining Room.
Division plus deadlock is not an ideal context for a - second - referendum. The inflamed language of Tory speeches indicates a further attempt to confuse and misdirect the public. A second referendum, we are repeatedly told, would be a “betrayal” of the public. The people have spoken. Well, 17.4 million have spoken and 16.1 million have also spoken …and said the opposite. Thanks to a blizzard of misinformation at the time of the June 2016 referendum nobody had much idea where BREXIT was heading or what the consequences of leaving the European Union might be. Two years went by before the government thought it worthwhile to acknowledge the views of the 48% who voted to remain. Theresa May is now presenting her marathon negotiation with EU principles and house rules, her – preliminary - deal, as an attempt to heal UK divisions, and respond to some of the Remainers’ needs. But the agreement she brought home does not work as a compromise between factions in the Tory Party, the Opposition, the Lib. Dems, SNP, or DUP with whom she has also been negotiating. Hence the current deadlock.
In these dire Vegan times I must watch my language. But our carnivorous British and European ancestors might have described the choice of BREXIT in June 2016 as buying “a pig in a poke” i.e. unseen (a poke according to Mr. Google is a bag, from the old French poque). This caveat emptor about not buying big items until you can see the goods has remained common sense for some five hundred years. Having been sold a pig in a poke over two years ago, the British public has the democratic right to evaluate what they have subsequently found in the poke. So who is betraying whom here?
The overwrought reaction of Brexiteers to the simple proposition of a second vote is telling. From the mightily ambitious Jeremy Hunt, looking relatively good as Foreign Minister after Boris Johnson, we get warnings of civil unrest if there were to be another referendum. Why do they want to frighten the electorate out of an informed democratic choice now that we have a better understanding of what the different options entail?
Just imagine it. A disproportionate number of elderly and old people voted Leave and younger people voted overwhelmingly Remain. So will we see Zimmer frames clashing with police shields, mobility vehicles running down Remainers, pensioners manning barricades in seaside towns, bowls clubs storming Wormwood scrubs? But, as the ERG would be the first to admit, we are not French. Mayhem as the British response to being asked to advise our representatives in Parliament about whether we want them to ratify Theresa May’s agreement with Brussels or call it a day and seek to remain in the EU? I don’t think so. I would foresee cancelling some police leave in case of Right-Wing extremist violence. Though they don’t need No-BREXIT as an excuse.
Theresa May has a way out though she will probably soldier on pursuing Project Fantasy, seeking further EU concessions, and be humiliated. It is high time she delivered the speech I wrote for her, on 22 September 2018, free of charge, still available but sadly neglected, BREXIT: The End Game (www.ianlinden.com/blogs.html ). She will now need an extension beyond the end of March 2019 for her next move. Unfortunately, affairs are so disorderly there are no suitable chess metaphors left.
And spare a thought for those MPs who also want to do the right thing for their country and constituents but struggle to understand what that might be. Project Reality would be a start: seeking the people’s advice through a people’s vote, asking them to choose between the EU-Theresa May Withdrawal Agreement or remaining in the European Union, recognizing we are reduced to choosing the least bad of the ways forward.