Friday 28 October 2016

Aleppo: our generation's shame

‘Let me take you to east Aleppo … in a deep basement, huddled with your children and elderly parents, the stench of urine and the vomit caused by unrelieved fear never leaving your nostrils, waiting for the bunker-busting bomb you know may kill you in this, the only sanctuary left to you, but like the one that took your neighbour and their house out last night; or scrabbling with your bare hands in the street above to reach under concrete rubble, lethal steel reinforcing bars jutting at you as you hysterically try to reach your young child screaming unseen in the dust and dirt below your feet, you choking to catch your breath in the toxic dust and the smell of gas ever-ready to ignite and explode over you.’

These are not my words; they are the words of one of the United Nations’ most senior officials, Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and its top emergency relief coordinator. He is a former Conservative MP and was a minister in the Department for International Development from 2010 to 2012. Not a man, in other words, who is prone to hysterical and exaggerated outbursts. (You can read the full text of his speech here. It's worth it.)

They are also the words of a man who is, as he told the UN security council on Wednesday, ‘incandescent with rage’. And they were aimed, above all, at Russia, whose UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, reacted with disgraceful insouciance by suggesting that O’Brien should leave his comments ‘for the novel you’re going to write some day.’

If only it were fiction. And how obscene that a senior Russian diplomat should suggest that it is. Here is more from O’Brien’s description of life in east Aleppo; and it is not fiction: ‘Bombings take place in plain sight, night and day, day in and day out. Hospitals destroyed, doctors killed. Schools destroyed, children denied education. Water stations destroyed, families cowering in basements. Peoples’ lives destroyed and Syria itself destroyed. And it is under our collective watch. And it need not be like this – this is not inevitable; it is not an accident – it is the deliberate actions of one set of powerful human beings on another set of impotent, innocent human beings.’

The Russians, whose indiscriminate bombing raids in support of Syrian government forces are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties (far greater, for example, than those inflicted by the Islamic State group and their allies), have been dropping leaflets over civilian areas of east Aleppo. O’Brien quoted what they say: ‘This is your last hope … Save yourselves. If you do not leave these areas urgently, you will be annihilated … You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom and nobody will give you any help.’

Ponder those words in all their stark cruelty: ‘Everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom.’  Their cruelty lies in the fact that they are true; as O’Brien himself pointed out, it need not be like this – it is not inevitable, nor is it an accident. The suffering of the people of Aleppo is the result of a deliberate policy, deliberately carried out.

And it is not only the people in the east of the city, under siege by government forces, who are the victims. As befits a UN official, O’Brien also drew attention to attacks by rebel groups on the other side of town: over the past month, rebels fired ‘more than 184 mortars and other projectiles into western Aleppo, reportedly killing at least 100 people, including 17 women and 22 children, and injuring 533 persons.’

So how can this unconscionable tragedy be stopped? Amid all the glib talk of no-fly zones, few commentators are prepared to spell out what would be the consequence of shooting down Russian warplanes. Impose more sanctions on Russia? Does anyone really think that would stop them?

Too often, the world looks the other way when thousands of people are being slaughtered: Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the Rwanda genocide of 1994, the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. But to say something is difficult is not sufficient, and to turn away is immoral.

Stephen O’Brien deserves the highest praise for pointing the finger directly where it needs to be pointed: at the governments represented on the UN security council. He looked them in the eye and he gave it to them straight: action must be taken and the violence must be stopped.

‘It is within your power to do it. If you don’t take action, there will be no Syrian peoples or Syria to save – that will be this Council’s legacy, our generation’s shame.’

Friday 21 October 2016

Trump: the tantrums of a three-year-old

On 20 January 1993,  I was in Washington DC to observe the inauguration of a new US president. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the outgoing president had left a note for the man who was about to move into the White House.

‘You will be our president when you read this note,’ it said. ‘I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.’

The man who wrote the note was the Republican President George H.W. Bush. The man to whom he wrote it was the Democrat Bill Clinton, who went on to serve eight years as president.

I am back in the US this week, watching with appalled fascination the closing stages of a presidential election campaign unlike any other in recent memory. On Wednesday night, I sat with friends watching the last of the TV debates between the two presidential candidates, as President Bush’s successor as the Republican party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, called Bill Clinton’s wife Hillary, his Democratic party opponent, ‘such a nasty woman’ .

We have come to expect over the course of the past few months extremes of vulgarity and mendacity from Mr Trump that have set new lows in campaign standards. Even so, you could hear millions of American jaws hit the floor as he refused on Wednesday to say that he would accept the result of the election. Yesterday, he refined his position somewhat – he will accept the result, he said, if he wins.

It is difficult to imagine a clearer challenge to the most basic of democratic principles: that the loser of an election concedes to a victor and accepts the verdict of the voters. But Mr Trump has revealed himself to have not a single democratic instinct in his body: like all narcissists, he cannot bring himself to accept that there are any circumstances in which he may not be automatically entitled to be granted whatever it is that he wants.

As I watched him on Wednesday, I realised who he reminded me of: a three-year-old who has been told that he cannot have the toy he wants to play with. And when he referred to the ‘bad hombres’ he said he would deport across the Mexican border, I heard the unmistakeable sound of the racist bigot Mr Trump has revealed himself to be.

All the opinion polls suggest that Mrs Clinton is on course to win a clear victory on 8 November. But we Brits have good reason to be wary of opinion polls: after all, they got the result of last year’s general election wrong, and the result of the EU referendum wrong.

But suppose that the American polls are right: for the first time in this country’s history, it would have a female president, a development every bit as significant as the election of its first black president eight years ago. It is a measure of Mr Trump’s malign presence on the electoral scene that her potential achievement warrants barely a mention.

It is all too easy for the transatlantic visitor to see parallels between the Trump and Brexit phenomena. Both are born out of a profound cultural and political chasm that divides progressives from conservatives and liberals from authoritarians. And both demonstrate a depth of anger among voters who feel that their views have been ignored that has gone unrecognised for far too long.

I would be appalled if Donald Trump were to win in less than three weeks’ time. But I do not regard Hillary Clinton’s likely victory with equanimity: I worry about the vehemence of her attacks on President Putin of Russia, and I worry too about her hawkish instincts when it comes to the maelstrom of conflicts in the Middle East.

For that reason, if for no other, I have taken solace in the sheer genius of a new online game that has developed since Wednesday’s TV debate. It has been all over Twitter, imagining how Trump might summarise, using the same language he used in the debate, some of the best-loved classics of English and America literature.

Macbeth: ‘Tremendous king. Made Scotland great again. But those witches. Came in from Syria. Nasty women. Europe is a mess.’

A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times. The best! Was it the worst of times? WRONG! It was the best. I have hotels in those two cities.’

The Great Gatsby: ‘You're telling me that Gatsby is great? Wrong. Terrible driver. Weird parties. No, he's not great. Trust me folks.’

And if you think this is not the time for laughter, I would be tempted to agree. The alternative, on the other hand, doesn’t bear thinking about.

Friday 14 October 2016

Brexit: The Fight Back

Well, well, the Labour party has finally got its mojo back. After a year of trauma-induced civil war, Labour MPs seem to have suddenly woken up and remembered what they’re paid for: they are Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and their job is to oppose the government.

Take a bow, Keir Starmer, the fresh-out-of-the-box shadow Brexit secretary, who leapt into action as soon as he was appointed and immediately discombobulated the prime minister. Take another bow, Ed Miliband – remember him? – who galvanised his fellow MPs, from all parties, into challenging Mrs May’s Brexit-means-whatever-I-say-it-means power grab.

Sir Keir, as you may remember (yes, he really was named after Keir Hardie), is a former director of public prosecutions who was first elected to parliament only last year. The unlamented former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith absurdly dismissed him as a ‘second rate lawyer’ the other day, a jibe that even he realised was so crass that he felt compelled to apologise the following day.

We hear a lot from the Brexiteers about the 17,410,742 people who voted for Britain to leave the EU. It was the will of the people, we are told, and parliament is morally, if not legally, bound to act in accordance with their wishes. The truth, of course, is that it was the will of 37.4% of the electorate. We hear rather less about the 16,141,241 people who voted for Britain to remain in the EU, representing 34.6% of the total electorate. The UK, in other words, is fairly evenly split, and the government would do well to acknowledge it.

So the prime minister’s grandiloquent claim at the Tory party conference that the country has voted for a ‘quiet revolution’ was, shall we say, a terminological inexactitude. And MPs are well within their rights, as the elected representatives of the people of the UK, to represent all their constituents equally, not just those who Mrs May chooses to believe see the world in exactly the same way as she does.

This does not mean that MPs should try to reverse the result of the referendum. Not yet, anyway. It does mean that they have a duty to challenge, question, and probe every claim that the government makes and every action that it takes, in the interests of the country as a whole. That is what they are there for.

And let’s hear no more of this nonsense about how Remainers should just quietly accept the result of the referendum and stop complaining. Is that what the Brexiteers did when they lost in 1975? Of course, it isn’t – they kept on complaining, and campaigning, and organising, until they got what they wanted. Remainers are perfectly entitled to do exactly the same.

Mrs May, the chancellor Philip Hammond, and the home secretary Amber Rudd, all believe – or believed – that it would be in Britain’s best interests to remain a member of the EU. You would expect, perhaps, in the circumstances, that they would do everything they can, while respecting the result of the referendum, to minimise the damage likely to be caused by ripping up the UK’s membership card and slamming the door as we storm out.

There is another way, and they know it. But Mrs May has chosen, in her own words, to ‘seize the day’, to do all the things she has long wanted to do – reduce immigration, re-introduce grammar schools, and turn her back on the UK’s international human rights obligations.

On the subject of which: is someone going to ask her why her foreign secretary apparently thinks Russia should be investigated for war crimes committed in Syria, while her defence secretary thinks UK troops should no longer be subject to the Human Rights Convention? It is so shameful that it gives hypocrisy a bad name.

Perhaps it will eventually be something like the Great Marmite Crisis that will persuade her to think again. Not about UK troops being permitted to commit human rights abuses with impunity (have we really come to this? Have we learnt nothing from the past?), but about the very real impact that a plummeting pound, to be followed by rising inflation and decreased investment, will have on real voters.

How’s this for a scenario? Mrs May sends off her Article 50 letter next February or March, and the clock starts ticking. France and Germany are so embroiled in their own election campaigns that their response to the UK’s formal notification amounts to little more than: ‘Oh, you’re leaving?  What a shame.’

Businesses and investors start to panic. This is not what they had in mind. Prices rise, as does unemployment. MPs, most of whom are not pro-Brexit, start to feel the pressure from frightened constituents. Can Mrs May stop the clock? Can anyone?

No one has thought this through. A legal challenge is now before the courts and could force the government to seek MPs’ approval before posting that fateful Article 50 letter. Never has a coherent, united, determined opposition been more essential.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Keir Starmer, your country needs you.

And if you still feel in need of some cheering up, this might help. There’s even a voice in it that you might recognise.

Friday 7 October 2016

Theresa May in la-la land

A weakened and divided UKIP to the right of her, a weakened and divided Labour party to the left of her, and a hole in the centre where the Lib Dems used to be. No wonder Theresa May thinks she rules the world.

But I’m afraid she is in for a nasty (her favourite word) shock. Her message to the Conservative party conference on Wednesday was audacious if you took it at face value – and deluded nonsense as soon as you started to pick it apart.

It was politics as fantasy. A speech delivered by a prime minister who seems to believe that the question on the referendum ballot paper last June was: ‘Do you want Theresa May to reinvent the UK in her own image?’ and that 99% of us voted Yes.

The prime minister wants us to be in no doubt: she is not Dave. If it was always possible to imagine her predecessor as a Cavalier, all periwigged, shiny-faced and tight breeches, she is a Roundhead, stern, no-nonsense, disapproving of fripperies. She would never have joined the Bullingdon Club, even if they had allowed her in. (Mind you, the snazzy clothes and shoes are a glaring contradiction, a sign perhaps of some inner conflict still raging. Is she really a crazy party girl, forced to deny her true nature by the dictates of her father, an Anglican vicar?)

Mrs May apparently thinks she now has free rein to do all the things she has wanted to do during those long years she sat at the Cabinet table and bit her lip. Reintroduce grammar schools? Try getting that through the House of Lords. Workers’ representatives on corporate boards? Wait till the CBI’s lobbyists have wined and dined a few Tory backbenchers.

Oh, and then there’s this thing called Brexit. Not a thing at all, of course, but a process, a long, difficult, fiendishly complex process that could well take a decade, or even two decades, to complete.  A process, by the way, that Mrs May, in theory, was opposed to all along, although she has now jumped on board with all the unbridled enthusiasm of a born-again religious convert.

But watch what happens to investment plans once the truth about the UK leaving the single market kicks in – and listen out for the screams of anguish from hi tech bosses as they discover that whizz kids from overseas have started looking for opportunities anywhere but in the UK. Plus the wails from the universities who rely on fees paid by overseas students to balance the books, once word gets out that Britain isn’t so keen any more on students from beyond our shores.

Some major banks are already reportedly making their plans to move out of London. According to the Brussels-based website Politico EU, suiters from Paris, Frankfurt and Dublin are already hard at work in the City, and Luxembourg has been sending industry experts, lawmakers and consultants across the Channel to offer advice on ‘contingency planning.’

Perhaps you wouldn’t be too distressed to see the backs of those over-bonused bankers, but you should probably bear in mind that the UK financial services industry generates between £190 billion and £205 billion of revenue annually and employs 1.1 million people, according to a report this week. The industry also pays between £60 billion and £67 billion in taxes each year. They’ll leave a helluva hole in the government’s coffers if they up sticks.

Mrs May clearly thinks there is mileage in being rude about the UK’s corporate culture. I’d like to think that she is right, because there is a lot to be rude about. But wait till the Conservative party’s donors start kicking up a fuss, and all those non-executive director Tory MPs report back from frosty boardrooms.

Worst of all, though, wait till people have had a chance to ponder what on earth she meant when she said: ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.

Tell that to the 135,000 NHS employees in England and Wales who were born overseas. Or the tens of thousands of British school and college leavers who hope to travel or find work abroad. Or the refugees and asylum seekers who fondly believe, as my own parents did more than 75 years ago, that Britain was a country where they could find a safe haven to build a new life.

Citizens of the world are also known as cosmopolitans, people who, according to my dictionary, are ‘familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures’. Both the Nazis and Stalin railed against such people (Jews in particular were called ‘rootless cosmopolitans’), and we know where that led. I sincerely hope that Mrs May had no idea what deeply unpleasant undercurrents she was tapping into when she spoke those words.

On the other hand, what she said about inequality, tax dodgers and market failures could have come straight from the mouth of Ed Miliband. What she said about the role of an interventionist government in improving the lives of ordinary people would be music to the ears – if they believed that she meant what she said – of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

But what she and her mini-me home secretary Amber Rudd said about immigrants was straight from the UKIP playbook. Let us not forget who was home secretary when those vile ‘Go home’ billboard vans took to the streets three years ago. It was not exactly Mrs May’s finest hour. Fortunately, Ms Rudd is already frantically rowing back from her nasty (it’s that word again) suggestion that companies should be shamed into disclosing how many foreign workers they employ. But the message was clear enough: foreigners not wanted. Go home.

Are you a Labour voter unhappy with Jeremy Corbyn? Climb aboard Theresa’s train: she is the champion of the working class. Or are you a UKIP supporter, in despair as your party’s MEPs punch each other’s lights out? Don’t worry, Theresa knows how you feel: she’s there for you.

It’s hokey cokey politics: left foot in, left foot out, right foot in, right foot out. It’s also la-la land. All things to all voters? In your dreams.