Friday 28 November 2014

Please, no more awards for Tony Blair

I have a proposal for an urgent new UN security council resolution: that it shall be deemed contrary to the spirit of the United Nations charter to give any more awards to Tony Blair.

The US would probably veto it. But surely it's still worth making the point: enough already. Perhaps you recall Tom Lehrer's complaint when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize: "Political satire just became obsolete."

The latest Blair bauble -- a "Global Legacy Award" -- comes from the US branch of Save the Children, which says the former prime minister was recognised for his role at the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005 which pledged to "make poverty history" and agreed to write off $40 billion in debt owed by by the world's poorest countries.

But the award doesn't seem to have gone down too well with some of Save the Children's own staff. An internal letter signed by 200 of them called the award "morally reprehensible" and said it was "inappropriate and a betrayal of Save the Children’s founding principles and values." An online public petition protesting against it has been signed by more than 100,000 people.

As it happens, I'm not one of those who believe that Blair is evil incarnate. I met him on only a handful of occasions during his time as prime minister, and I was always left with the impression of a man possessed of almost messianic certainty that he was put on earth to make it a better place and rid it of bad people.

I do believe that he made an appalling error of judgement in backing President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. It was an error that involved the UK in one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of recent times -- I described it some months ago as "the most disastrous military adventure since the German army marched into Poland in 1939."

So yes, Tony Blair must share responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed the 2003 invasion. I suspect that one reason why so many people now feel such deep antipathy towards him (including, I imagine, many who voted for him in the past) is that to this day he has never admitted that he got it wrong. (He did, though, tell the Chilcot inquiry in 2011: "Of course, I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life.")

Compare that to, for example, Hillary Clinton, who also backed the invasion, but who wrote in her memoirs: "I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple." If only Mr Blair could find it within himself to say something similar …

I'm sure you'd want me to be fair-minded about this. (Actually, I'm not at all sure, but I'll try anyway). Because there is a case for the defence, and it was robustly put by Tony Blair's former director of political operations, John McTernan, in The Guardian.

It goes like this: first, that as a result of Blair's commitment as prime minister to halve UK child poverty by the end of this decade, "huge sums were spent and the number of children in poverty fell. It was one of the greatest triumphs of government social policy … "

Second, that at the Gleneagles summit, "the ambitions of the development movement were not just tabled, they were fulfilled. Debt became, for a time, not just an issue to campaign on but one to resolve once and for all … The persuasive power of the UK hosting and chairing the G8 – the power of the bully pulpit – was used to change Africa for good."

And that, presumably, is what Save the Children US regards as Blair's "global legacy". (We'll assume for the sake of argument that the presence of several former top Blair aides in the higher echelons of the Save the Children management structure has nothing whatsoever to do with it.)

The McTernan defence has some merit. But to me he sounds too much like a character witness giving evidence on behalf of a defendant in the dock. "Members of the jury, he may have committed a terrible crime, but don't forget all the charity work he did." It's not really a defence at all, it's a plea for leniency.

So please, no more awards. Ever since Mr Blair picked up the US's highest civil award, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour, in 2009, he's been collecting them like a schoolchild picking up gold stars for good behaviour. "Look, mum, I got another one. Aren't I good?"

It looks needy. And it's undignified. And it sends out an appalling message: that those countless unnecessary deaths in Iraq don't matter -- that history has already expunged them from the balance sheet because Tony Blair also did some good things.

But those deaths do matter. They matter a great deal, and they are a reason for profound, lasting shame. So let's save the baubles for more deserving recipients.

Finally, and please excuse the trumpet-blowing, I thought you'd like to know that last Tuesday I was named at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards as independent blogger of the year.

Friday 21 November 2014

It's time for Israelis to wake up

The worshippers were slaughtered as they prayed. Their killers stopped only when they themselves were killed. And then some of their co-religionists praised them to the skies, as heroes and martyrs.

I'm describing the appalling, sickening scenes at the Kehilat Bnai Torah synagogue in Jerusalem last Tuesday, when four rabbis and an Israeli police officer were killed in an attack by two Palestinian cousins.

But I'm also describing the equally appalling and sickening scenes at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron more than 20 years ago, when an Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire and killed 29 Palestinian worshippers as they prayed. Another 125 were injured.

Israelis rightly reacted with grief, shock and anger at the Jerusalem synagogue attacks, and there are now real fears of a descent into even greater religiously-fuelled violence.  And there was particular anger at statements from Hamas, which holds power in Gaza, and the Islamic Jihad movement, which praised the killings and called for more of the same.

Hamas said the attack was in response to the death of a Palestinian bus driver, who was found hanged in his vehicle last Sunday. An autopsy found that he had committed suicide, but a Palestinian doctor who participated in the autopsy has said he believes the driver was murdered. Islamic Jihad said it "salutes the operation in Jerusalem which is a natural response to the crimes of the occupier."

To Israelis, to Jews outside Israel, and indeed to just about everyone else, there is something especially abhorrent about any attempt to justify, let alone encourage, such cold-blooded slaughter in a place of prayer. In an article in the US publication The Atlantic, the leading American commentator Jeffrey Goldberg wrote: "Hamas's endorsement of the massacre of Jews at prayer in their holy city confirms -- as if we needed confirming -- that its goal is the eradication of Israel and its Jews."

And he contrasted Hamas's praise for the Jerusalem attack with what the then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said after the Goldstein massacre in 1994: "You are not part of the community of Israel ...  You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out." (Rabin was assassinated by an extremist Jewish gunman the following year.)

His disgust was not, however, shared by all Israelis. A quick check with Wikipedia reminds us that to Goldstein's supporters, he was every bit as heroic as the Jerusalem synagogue attackers were to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Goldstein was described by one rabbi at his funeral as "holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust". The epitaph on his gravestone, which to this day is regarded as a shrine by some Israelis, calls him "a martyr with clean hands and a pure heart."

Even more shocking to my mind was an article published in the leading Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post in February of this year, on the 20th anniversary of the Hebron killings, written by David Wilder, described as "a spokesman for Hebron's Jewish community".

(Context: Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, overwhelmingly Palestinian but with a vocal and militant Jewish settler minority. It's where the patriarch Abraham, revered by both Jews and Muslims, is said to be buried, and where in 1929, long before the establishment of the state of Israel, 67 Jews were massacred in one of the worst atrocities of the British mandate era.)

This is what David Wilder, who described Goldstein as a friend, wrote: "Baruch Goldstein was not a bloodthirsty terrorist whose goal in life was to kill as many people as he could, as often as he could. He was a brilliant doctor, whose purpose in life was to save other people’s lives. His purpose in life was also to actively support and promote Jewish life in the State of Israel."

He went on to describe Goldstein's murderous rampage as "a tremendously appalling error, which cost the lives of many people, which cost him his own life, and which left an indelible stain on Israel."

And then he continued: "That having been said, and realizing the horror of his act, it must be examined and remembered in the perspective of what was happening around us and to us. Had there not been an intifada, with some 160 Jews killed, with very little government attempts to protect the Jewish victims, he never would have broken and committed the acts that he did.  And we cannot and must not forget that what he did, as ghastly as it was, was miniscule compared to the terror and death Israelis have faced at the hands of hundreds of Arab terrorists over the past decades."

Change a couple of words here and there, and it's not hard to imagine friends of  Ghassan and Uday Abu Jamal, the Jerusalem synagogue killers, saying exactly the same.

Yes, it's one article, by one man. An extreme viewpoint, not shared by the vast majority of Israelis. But Israelis need to confront a truth that too often is ignored: they too have their zealots, and their murderers. They too have spokesmen who glorify mass murder. When they recoil in horror from the triumphalism of some Palestinian groups, they need to remember -- just occasionally -- to look in the mirror.

Jerusalem has been at boiling point for several weeks, with many Palestinians angered by calls from some religious Israelis to change the status of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, cherished by Jews as the site of their ancient temples and by Muslims as the site of al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam.

I am the son of refugees from Nazi Germany. I am also a former Middle East correspondent who was based in Jerusalem. I grieve for all those killed in both Israel and Palestine in what seems to be an unstoppable cycle of violence. I hope I don't have to spell out that I unreservedly condemn the killing of Jewish worshippers in Jerusalem as much as the killing of Palestinian worshippers in Hebron. And just in case there's any doubt, I'm no fan of Hamas, whose corrupt, brutal rule in Gaza, and whose cynical use of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians, has brought nothing but misery to Palestinians both in Gaza and the West Bank.

Nevertheless, and it gives me no pleasure to write this, it is time for Israelis to wake up, because their complacent belief that the status quo works perfectly well for them is dangerously wrong. Their insistence on voting for political leaders who have no serious intention of seeking a resolution of their historic conflict with the Palestinians is leading them ever closer towards the abyss.

Every time the Israeli government announces a new plan to expand its (illegal) settlements in the occupied West Bank, Palestinians hear the words "we are stealing more of your land". And the longer Israel maintains its vice-like grip on the throats of the people of Gaza -- not allowed to leave, not allowed to fish, not allowed to trade -- the greater the risk of yet more violence.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is by no means the most hardline member of his own Cabinet, says Israel will "settle the score with every terrorist" after the Jerusalem synagogue murders. It's the kind of talk that fuels yet more violence, and more hatred. It does nothing to lessen tension.

The sad truth is that Israelis have grown far too confident that their overwhelming firepower -- and the continued support of the US Congress -- makes them invincible. It does not.

Friday 14 November 2014

In defence of Ed Miliband

Perhaps I'm the last person in the country -- but I still like Ed Miliband. More than that, I think he could be a pretty good prime minister. Yes, I know there aren't many of us left, and I want to try to analyse why.

Let's leave aside all those voters who would never dream of voting Labour anyway.  And those who couldn't possibly vote for a party whose leader "looks weird". And those who would never vote for anyone at all. The people who interest me are the voters who do intend to vote, who may well have voted Labour in the past (especially when Tony Blair was leader), but who now cannot imagine themselves voting Labour again.

According to a recent YouGov opinion poll, nearly 40 per cent of voters think Labour cares more about the lives of ordinary people than other parties do. You might think that should convert into lots of votes from ordinary people.

But then you look at some other figures: which party has the better team of leaders? Who's more competent? Who has more ideas for making the country better? On every count, the Tories do better than Labour.

Most people have better things to do than follow the day-by-day (more often minute-by-minute) twists and turns of Westminster politics. They form their political views from a mix of sources: family and friends; TV; the newspapers.

As it happens, many of Mr Miliband's ideas are popular. According to a poll carried out in September, Labour's policies on the NHS, the minimum wage, apprenticeships, the self-employed, and energy pricing are all backed by more than half the voters who were asked.

On their own, though, popular policies are not enough. The politicians proposing them must also be regarded as credible -- pollsters like to say it's a bit like choosing a surgeon or a plumber: even if you're confident that they know what to do, you also need to be confident that they will be able to do it. 

So try this as an experiment: next time you're with a group of friends, ask them what they think of Ed Miliband. Then ask them the same question about David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

My guess is that many of your friends will say something along the lines of "They're all the same. Can't tell them apart. Wouldn't trust any of them." You may well say the same yourself.

According to YouGov, people who dislike Ed Miliband describe him as unconvincing, unelectable, out of his depth, weak and irritating. Those who like him (yes, it's a much smaller number) say he stands up for ordinary people, is intelligent, honest, genuine and decent.

It doesn't help that the leaders of the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems look much the same and sound much the same. It also doesn't help that the economic crisis from which we are only now beginning to emerge began under Labour, and continued under the Tory-LibDem coalition -- so if you've been suffering the consequences of casino banking and austerity for the past five years, it's extremely tempting (and by no means entirely unjustified) to blame the lot of them.

They all make the same promises; they all blame each other; they all "passionately believe" that they have all the answers. I suspect one reason, although not the main one, why Nigel Farage is doing so well is simply that he looks and sounds different.

Mr Farage is a big problem for Mr Miliband, and not only because he cynically articulates the fears of some traditional Labour voters. He takes up huge amounts of media space that might otherwise be occupied by Labour. UKIP is simply more interesting than Labour at the moment; it's the new kid on the block; it's news, not history. The same goes for the SNP, whose vertiginous rise in popularity threatens to lose Labour sackloads of Scottish seats next May.

So Mr Miliband struggles to find airtime other than when his own party succumbs to one of its periodic bouts of internecine insanity. Add to that the determination of his right-wing media critics to damage him at every opportunity, and you have a dangerously toxic brew. It did for Neil Kinnock, and it may well do for Mr Miliband as well.

He told the BBC's Nick Robinson that he's "not in the whingeing business" about media coverage. (It's worth watching the interview here.) What else can he say? But he needs urgently to assemble a media team who can do for Labour in 2015 what Alastair Campbell did for the party pre-1997. I have the impression that Mr Miliband tends to care more about getting the ideas right than about selling them -- admirable, but also short-sighted.

Sometimes he reminds me of Barack Obama: they are both thoughtful men with interesting ideas, and they both have ruthless ambition that they disguise well. (Obama challenged Hillary Clinton when no one thought she could be beaten; Mr Miliband challenged his own brother in an act of breath-taking audacity.)

The result of next year's general election may well be a total mess. David Aaronovitch of The Times summed it up well: "The bookies …  very roughly suggest a 20 per cent chance of a Tory victory, a 20 per cent chance of a Labour one, 20 per cent of one or the other ending up in coalition with the Lib Dems and a 40 per cent chance of no two parties being able to form a majority government together."

I wouldn't be at all surprised if we end up having two general elections next year, just as we did in 1974. If the May election leaves the country ungovernable, there'll be nothing for it but to ask voters to go to the polls again and hope for a clearer answer. (In 1974, a minority Labour government led by Harold Wilson was elected in February and then re-elected in October with an overall majority of just three. By 1977, it had lost its majority and signed the Lib-Lab pact, which enabled it to limp on until it was swept away by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.)

In the meantime, perhaps someone will notice that, according to the Financial Times, Treasury officials fear that David Cameron's tax cut promises "risk undermining fragile public finances and could be 'a disaster' -- and that according to one of his own Foreign Office ministers, the Lib Dem Lord (William) Wallace, Britain has no coherent foreign policy and is sinking into “sullen and suspicious nationalism”.

In my view, we deserve better.

Friday 7 November 2014

The fall of the Wall, Russell Brand and the 89ers

Twenty-five years ago, on 9 November 1989, I was on shift at The World Tonight as a newly-arrived presenter. It was the night the Berlin Wall was breached and history was made.

I don't need to try to remember what I felt that night because I kept a recording of the programme. So here's what I said at 10pm on the night the Cold War finally ended.

"Tonight's announcement from East Berlin [that east Germans would in future be allowed to travel directly to west Germany] must surely spell the end of the Berlin Wall. How long, I wonder, before the bulldozers move in to tear down that ugliest of eyesores which has disfigured Berlin for the past 28 years?

"Perhaps it's all too much to take in  -- the changes have come so fast that it's hard to keep up with the new realities of an eastern Europe in which a 40-year-old political dam has finally burst."

I do remember feeling as I spoke the words on air that perhaps I was over-egging it a bit -- I didn't really believe that the bulldozers would soon be moving in and that the wall would be literally torn down.

I have visited Berlin several times over the past quarter century, and I was back there last month -- 25 years on, you have to look hard to see where the wall once was. In most places, its existence is marked only by a barely-visible line of cobbles snaking through the city.

My 95-year-old father was born and raised in Berlin, but to him, 9 November represents an entirely different anniversary. It was on that same date in 1938 that Nazi mobs rampaged through Germany in an orchestrated orgy of anti-Jewish violence that became known as Kristallnacht. It was the moment when my father's family and many others finally concluded that there would be no future for them in Germany.

So 9 November is one of those rare dates that mark two entirely separate turning points in history. What would Europe look like if there had been no Kristallnacht? What would it look like if the Berlin Wall, by a mixture of accident and design, hadn't crumbled in 1989?

The historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a fascinating Guardian essay yesterday: "1989 has become the new 1789: at once a turning point and a reference point. Twenty-five years on, it has given us what is, politically, the best Germany we have ever had ... It has made possible the Europe we have today, with all its freedoms and all its faults. There is no corner of the world its consequences have not touched."

And he raised an interesting question: if Europe's two other major turning points in 20th century history, 1939 and 1968, produced their own, distinctive generations -- the 39ers who were formed by the Second World War, and the 68ers whose dominant reference points are the cultural, social and political upheavals of the 60s -- where are the 89ers?

Garton Ash suggested one possible answer: "I believe that the 89ers may not be those who were active then, or youthful witnesses at the time, but those who were born in or around 1989, and are only now moving from the university of learning to that of life."

In other words, they are the Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and others who are now in their mid to late 20s -- the young Europeans who barely recognise the existence of borders, who criss-cross their continent at will, seeking educational and employment opportunities wherever they may find them.

People like the high-flying young Bulgarian whom I met recently and who works in London as a strategist for one of the world's biggest banks. To her parents, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and who still live in Bulgaria, the life she leads is simply beyond imagining.

Some of Europe's 89ers are also what we might call the Russell Brand generation, who regard traditional politics with contempt. They are the generation for whom jobs are scarce, often insecure and poorly paid, and for whom home ownership is an unattainable dream, thanks to the lunacies of the property market. For them, the freedoms that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War -- freedom, among other things, from the fear of a thermo-nuclear war -- have brought few obvious benefits.

Yes, they can travel freely, if they have the money. Yes, they can buy trainers, jeans and T-shirts to their hearts' content, if they have the money. But the hopes of those who were in their 20s in 1989 have turned into the disillusion, and anger, of those who are in their 20s now.

Let us not forget that the events of 1989 were also a triumph for free-market capitalism, enabling a rapid process of globalisation to gather pace. Multi-national corporations were able to cut their labour costs by opening factories in low-wage eastern Europe, and the power of organised labour was greatly weakened. Capitalism creates losers as well as winners -- and some of the losers are 89ers. 

The 39ers were scarred by the horrors of a world war. The 68ers (yes, I'm one of them) were starry-eyed idealists who believed they would change the world. The 89ers? They look at those images from the night the Wall was breached, and they wonder. What did that historic night really mean for them?