Friday 23 February 2018

Corbyn and the Czechs: nonsense on stilts

Oh,  how I wish more people remembered the recent past.

Which Labour party leader was alleged by the CIA and some senior MI5 officials to be a Soviet agent?

Which deranged publisher of a mass market red-top newspaper tried to involve the royal family in a plot to overthrow that same Labour prime minister?

Which Labour leader sued the Sunday Times for libel -- and won -- after it suggested that he was regarded by the KGB as an 'agent of influence'?

Which Labour leader was alleged in the Mail on Sunday to have 'colluded with Soviet Communists' to defeat the Conservatives?

And which Labour leader was attacked by a newspaper columnist for having a kitchen that was as 'bland, functional, humourless, cold and about as much fun to live in as a Communist era housing block in Minsk'?

In each case, you'll be delighted to know, the answer is not Jeremy Corbyn. (The correct answers are Harold Wilson, Cecil King of the Daily Mirror, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband.)

The point being, of course, that attacks on Labour party leaders for being Communist stooges are about as original in the British press as complaints about the weather. The recent spate of 'Corbyn and the Czech spy' stories prove nothing more than a shameful lack of originality among current editors.

The Daily Mail has a particularly sewer-like record on such matters. As long ago as 1924, it published the so-called Zinoviev letter, which purported to be from the Soviet Communist party and which was intended to be highly damaging to the Labour party. It was, in fact, a forgery.

In 1977, the Mail published a letter that appeared to give permission to the state-owned motor manufacturer British Leyland to pay bribes to win overseas contracts. It, too, was designed to damage Labour -- and it, too, was a forgery.

There is nothing new about fake news.

So what heinous crime is Mr Corbyn said to be guilty of? He met -- once, or perhaps twice -- a Czech diplomat who turned out to be a spy. What did he tell him? According to The Sun: 'He reportedly handed over a copy of a newspaper article ...'  Which somehow doesn't quite rank up there with the blueprint for a nuclear warhead.

Yes, some MPs are spies. Some have even been Czech spies. Who now remembers Raymond Mawby, MP for Totnes in the 1950s and 60s who did indeed sell information to the Czech security service for more than a decade? Oh, sorry, perhaps I should have mentioned: Mawby was a Conservative.

And of course there was also John Stonehouse, a Labour MP who served in Harold Wilson's government, and who is best remembered for his bizarre attempt to fake his own death in 1974 by disappearing after leaving a pile of his clothes on a beach in Miami. He was arrested a month later in Australia, deported back to the UK, where he was convicted of fraud, theft and forgery, and sentenced to seven years in jail. He, too, it turned out, had been spying for the Czechs.

But Jeremy Corbyn? For goodness sake, what information could he possibly have had access to that would have been of the remotest interest to the spymasters in Prague?

Ah ha, says his supposed Czech handler Jan Sarkocy, aka Jan Dymic. As a result of what Corbyn allegedly told him, 'I knew what Thatcher would have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and what she would wear next day.'

Corbyn also, according to Czech secret service files quoted by the Daily Mail, had ‘an active supply of information on British intelligence services.’

Right. Deep breath. The Corbyn-Czech spy scandal boils down to no more than a claim that a young left-wing backbench MP knew the secrets both of Margaret Thatcher's kitchen and of her wardrobe, and, moreover, had useful information about British intelligence.

It is nonsense on stilts. To publish any of this stuff is an insult to our intelligence. Yes, Corbyn was, and is, a socalist, and he has never made any secret of his sympathy for socialist causes. But to claim, as to his shame, the defence secretary Gavin Williamson did, that Corbyn 'betrayed Britain' is nothing less than a gross calumny.

However, Corbyn's response to all this has been, I think, ill-advised. His video warning to the press barons -- 'We’ve got news for them: change is coming' -- sounded uncomfortably like a threat, and politicians threatening the media is rarely a good look, even when it is accompanied, as it was in Mr Corbyn's video, by the obligatory 'A free press is essential for democracy.'

By all means, hit back at the lies and the smears. But much better not even to suggest that you plan to take your revenge against the newspapers because you don't like what they write. That's Trump territory, and it is not where Labour should be.

I much prefer the Michelle Obama strategy: 'When they go low, we go high.'

Friday 16 February 2018

Downfall: the end of a tainted presidency

Imagine a ruling political party whose leader has become both a national and an international embarrassment.

He is mired in corruption allegations, involving nepotism, influence-peddling, and conflicts of interest. His administration is woefully ineffective, and his country suffers from eye-wateringly high levels of violence.

He has also been accused of serious sexual misbehaviour going back over several years.

If you're thinking Donald Trump, think again. Because I'm thinking Jacob Zuma -- and how his party, South Africa's long dominant African National Congress, forced him to resign as president. The comparison should shame every single Republican member of the US Congress.

The first thing that needs to be said is that -- unlike Robert Mugabe's comrades in neighbouring Zimbabwe -- the ANC did everything exactly by the book. Admittedly, they took their time about it -- Zuma's unfitness for the presidency was evident even before he took office, but the fact remains that when it came to the crunch, there were no tanks on the streets, just a series of votes by party members in meticulous accordance with the rules.

And the second thing that needs to be said is that -- even though the ANC is hardly a byword for good governance and transparency -- it surely deserves at least two cheers for the way it has handled the crisis.

It is true that for far too long, too many senior ANC figures were prepared to turn a blind eye to blatant corruption so long as they were among the beneficiaries. But the party did belatedly recognise that its leader was doing immense harm to both his party and his country -- so with courage and determination it did what had to be done. That it could -- should -- have acted sooner is beyond doubt, but eventually it did act.

Unlike, it has to be said, the Republicans in the US, who have shown neither courage nor determination but have preferred to sit on their hands with their eyes shut, even though they know that their president is likely to drag them towards disaster -- to say nothing of what he's doing to their country.

Given what Mr Trump thinks of countries he likes to refer to as 'shitholes', he is unlikely to relish the notion that South Africa has anything to teach the US in how to manage its affairs. And I certainly wouldn't go so far as to describe the ANC as a model of democratic propriety. Its record is not exactly unblemished.

But credit where credit is due. When they finally decided that it was time for Zuma to go, they got on with it. They elected a successor (not his ex-wife, which was his preferred option), and embarked on an impressively-managed transition. (I wonder, incidentally, how many British Conservatives have been enviously following the process. If only they could manage something similar ...)

So I say again: shame on US Republicans for wilfully failing to halt what the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls the 'contagion of dishonour' that is spreading through the White House, characterised by 'a lack of integrity, an absence of a moral compass, a narcissism in which the all-consuming need becomes to protect oneself and one’s boss.'

Mind you, the new South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, will have his work cut out. (There is an excellent profile of him, published in 2013, here.) He is a man of immense experience and substantial achievements, both as a trade unionist and, more recently, as a businessman who has amassed a fortune estimated last year to be worth more than 550 million US dollars.

Both his party and his country are in a sorry state. In the twenty-four years since the ANC came to power in South Africa's first post-apartheid elections, it has largely squandered its reputation as the nation's liberation movement. The Mandela glow has long gone, with both Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma having been exposed as sadly inadequate for the task with which they had been entrusted.

Ramaphosa was originally Mandela's preferred successor -- he was the ANC's lead negotiator in the talks that ended apartheid -- and he now has to find a way to satisfy the expectations not only of international investors but, just as importantly, of an understandably impatient and disillusioned electorate, far too many of whom have seen precious little improvement in their living conditions since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Among the first challenges that he will face will be the future of Jacob Zuma himself, because unlike Robert Mugabe, the ex-president does not appear to have been promised any immunity from the threat of criminal prosecution for corruption.

For all its problems, principally a stagnant economy and unsustainable levels of social and economic inequality, South Africa still boasts a largely independent judiciary, a vibrant free press, and a tradition of civil society engagement, all of which have served it well.

But it also has one of the highest crime rates in the world, with a murder rate nearly seven times higher than that of the US (thirty-four murders per 100,000 population, compared to fewer than five per 100,000). 

Mr Ramaphosa will undoubtedly disappoint the millions of South Africans who will be looking to him for a better future. But however far he falls short of their hopes, he will be better than Jacob Zuma.

Just as whoever -- eventually-- follows Donald Trump can only be better, both for the US and for the rest of the world. So wouldn't it be wonderful if the US Congress would ponder on the lessons to be learned from South Africa.

And of course it would be beyond wonderful if they would also ponder the four hundred people -- four hundred! -- who have been shot in US schools since the Sandy Hook mass shooting in December 2012, seventeen of them killed on Wednesday alone at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Another medal of shame for the US Congress.

Friday 9 February 2018

Who remembers Syria?

Stop what you're doing, and read these words.

'It’s our moral duty to speak up ... We are not able to reach the conscience or the ears of politicians, of decision makers, of people in power ... We are running out of words.'

They are the words of Panos Moumtzis, the UN's regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria. And he sounds like a man close to despair.

Mr Moumtzis has been working for the UN for nearly thirty years, mainly with refugees and dealing with humanitarian emergencies in places like Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, Libya and Lebanon. I imagine he is not easily shocked.

Yet he clearly is shocked -- not only by the callous, indiscriminate air attacks by Russian and Syrian government warplanes on the country's few remaining rebel-held areas, but also by the Assad regime's unconscionable refusal to allow in any aid.

For me, this is where the media spotlight should be focused. I welcome, of course, the reported capture of the two British-born IS fighters who are said to have been responsible for some of the most gruesome atrocities against Western journalists and others in Syria in 2014. (I hope, incidentally, that they are put on trial rather than incarcerated indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay as two of President Trump's so-called 'bad dudes'.)

But here's another atrocity. In the past two months, according to the UN, not a single aid convoy has been allowed into any of the areas under siege by Syrian government forces, nor has permission been granted for a single medical evacuation. In the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, an estimated 400,000 people have received no deliveries of food, water or medicine since last November.

The enclave has suffered four straight days of unceasing bombardment this week; according to one monitoring group, fifty-nine civilians, including fifteen children, were killed on Thursday alone.

According to the New York Times, Mr Moumtzis spoke to reporters in Beirut earlier this week 'with a degree of emotion not usually conveyed in the United Nations’ carefully worded statements.'

I'm not surprised. After nearly seven years of war, nearly half a million deaths, and more than ten million people having fled from their homes (five million of them have left the country), we have lost interest.

Syria? Oh, yes, terrible tragedy. Pity there's nothing we can do. (Except go after IS remnants whom we have identified as a threat to Western security.)

In fact, not everyone has lost interest. Russia hasn't -- quite the opposite, as it seeks to finish off, on behalf of its client regime in Damascus, what is left of the opposition.

And nor has Turkey, which will do whatever it takes to crush a Kurdish revival in parts of northern Syria which border Turkey and which President Erdo─čan regards as an existential threat to his country's survival.

Perhaps you thought the war was all but over. Perhaps you also thought that President Assad had all but won. Even if the second of those assumptions may be true, the first is not. Just as they did in Aleppo, Russia and the Syrian air force are pulverising Assad's opponents into submission. Their action is brutal, it is calculated, it is clearly against international law -- and it works.

In September 2016, when rebel-held eastern Aleppo was under attack, another senior UN official, Stephen O'Brien (a former Conservative MP as it happens), addressed the Security Council in New York and pleaded with them to take action to stop the violence.

‘It is within your power to do it,' he told them. '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.’

They ignored him -- of course -- and countless more Syrians were killed and injured.

In Washington, US diplomacy is effectively moribund. All Donald Trump cares about is that IS are on the back foot, and he can claim the credit. What Russia is doing in Syria appears to have been of far less concern to him, although that may be about to change following reports on Thursday that US forces killed more than 100 fighters loyal to President Assad in the east of the country, possibly including some Russians. The Syrian government has called it a massacre.

The EU is overwhelmingly preoccupied with its own internal divisions: not only Brexit but also growing signs of rising anti-Brussels sentiment in Warsaw and Budapest. Germany has been without a government since elections last September, and it is by no means clear that the shaky coalition deal reached this week will result in an administration strong enough to take the initiative on the international stage.

When Aleppo was under attack in 2016, leaflets were dropped advising residents to flee for their lives. 'You know that everyone has given up on you,' the leaflets said. 'They left you alone to face your doom and nobody will give you any help.’

To our eternal shame, it was true. And it is still true now.