Friday 22 February 2019

Breaking the Westminster mould?

And then there were twelve. (Or maybe still eleven, because at the time of writing, Ian Austin, the latest ex-Labour MP to tear up his party card, hasn’t quite decided whether he’s going to join the TIG-gers, aka The Independent Group.)

But was The Independent Group really the best name the Band of Very Unhappy MPs could come up with? Why couldn’t they be more bold and call themselves the Nice People Group? Or The Sensible Group? Or something even more vacuous?

I know it’s easy to mock. But after weeks, nay months, of their shilly-shallying, surely we are entitled to expect something a bit more, well, I don’t know, a bit more inspirational?

I acknowledge they had a problem. The obvious choice – The New Party – has been tried before, in the 1930s, by Oswald Mosley (a former Labour MP, as it happens), and it didn’t turn out well.

The truth, I fear, is that they couldn’t choose the most honest name for themselves because it would immediately reveal the paucity of what they agree on. The Remainers Party? Honest, yes, because that is what they do agree on. An electoral winner? Hmm, maybe not.

Yes, I know I sound cynical. But when you’ve got a former Labour MP whose sub-conscious somehow dredges up the words ‘funny-tinged’ when she’s discussing voters from ethnic minorities, and a former Conservative MP who thinks George Osborne’s austerity programme was a jolly good idea, well, somehow I reckon a hefty dollop of at least scepticism is definitely required.

I wondered, as I heard them lay out their stalls this week, why they hadn’t decided to join the Green Party. Nice people, hearts in the right place, anti-Brexit, what’s not to like? (Unless you live in Brighton, where they ran the council between 2011 and 2015, but that’s another story.) And it could help them tap into the support of all those soon-to-be voters who walked out of school last week to demonstrate their concern about climate change.

But then I heard the Greens’ co-leader Si├ón Berry tell the BBC’s Politics Live programme that all eleven of the Independent Group had voted for the expansion of Heathrow airport. So that put the kibosh on that idea. (I assume cuddling up to the Lib Dems would be regarded as a bad move on the grounds that the brand is still too seriously tarnished by the party’s participation in the Cameron-led coalition.)

The group’s statement of principles is so anodyne that it would make a manifesto promoting the values of motherhood and apple pie seem dangerously edgy in comparison. ‘Our country faces big challenges which urgently need solving. Our aim is to reach across outdated divides and build consensus to meet those challenges. We will make decisions based on evidence – and arrive at them by debating with tolerance and respect.’

(As of Friday morning, by the way, the Statement of Independence on their website still began with the words ‘We are leaving the Labour party …’, which will be a bit of a shock to the self-styled Three Amigos, Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston, who are all under the impression that they were, until this week, members of the Conservative party.)

Yes, it’s early days. We are promised more high-level defections, even a leader perhaps, and some actual policies in the days to come. If some of Mrs May’s ministers decide to clamber aboard the Good Ship Independent, who knows, the picture may start to change very quickly indeed.

So stay tuned next Wednesday, if you have the stomach for it, because that’s Mrs May’s next Date with Danger. Another vote in the Commons, more threats of rebellion from within her own ranks, and another potential defeat.  

Meanwhile, I have some questions for the Group of however-many-it-is-by-the-time-you-read-this. What kind of organisation do you have on the ground? Are you ready to fight an election? If you want to entice pro-Remain voters away from Corbynised Labour, are you ready to take on the Momentum war machine? How much cash do you have? Who and where has it come from?

Those who welcome the emergence of the Independent Group will gaze longingly across the Channel to Emmanuel Macron, who invented a totally new party in his own image, swept into the Presidency and seized control of the National Assembly as an unashamedly pro-EU centrist. I mean no disrespect to the TIG-gers, but I don’t immediately see a British Macron among them.

Miserabilists like me will instead point to once exciting new political starbursts like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and even that same M Macron in France, whose popularity lasted about as long as a bottle of vin rouge in the Lustig household, and ponder on the fragility of politicians’ promises.

On the other hand, good feminist that I am, I definitely welcome a new political grouping in which the majority of founder members are women. (Which raises the question: where stands the Women’s Equality Party on all this?)

Those of us with long memories, of course, will recall the heady days of the SDP, another pro-Europe, largely ex-Labour breakaway group, when in alliance with the Liberals, they won twenty-five per cent of the vote in the 1983 general election, just two per cent behind Labour. And when, thanks to our crazy voting system, they won just twenty-three seats, compared to Labour’s 209.

Mind you, the SDP’s legacy does live on. Three of its former members now sit in Theresa May’s Cabinet: two of them are the business secretary Greg Clark and the Scottish secretary David Mundell. (Mr Mundell, by the way, is said to be a leading candidate in the who-will-jump-next stakes, which brings to mind one of my favourite Winston Churchill quotes, after he rejoined the Conservative party in 1924, having left to join the Liberals twenty years earlier. ‘Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.’) 

The third ex-SDP member in the May cabinet is the transport secretary Chris Grayling, officially awarded (by me) the title of Most Incompetent Minister Ever in All Of Human History, and described witheringly by Anna Soubry this week as a man whose career has ‘advanced on pitiful failure after failure.’

Probably best not to remind her how he started out.

Friday 15 February 2019

Shamima Begum: the (unpopular) case for compassion

She ran away from home at fifteen. Now she is nineteen and is nine months pregnant with her third child. Her first two children are already dead: a son died at the age of eight months, and a daughter at twenty-one months.

Her name is Shamima Begum, and she now says she wants to come home, because she doesn’t want her third child to die in the same way as the first two did.

But there’s a problem: Shamima left her home in Bethnal Green in east London to join the Islamic State group in Syria. She says she doesn’t regret her original decision but now she has had enough. She is, in tabloid-speak, a ‘jihadi bride.’

In a remarkable interview with Anthony Loyd of The Times, who found her in a Syrian refugee camp, she said: ‘I know what everyone at home thinks of me, as I have read all that was written about me online. But I just want to come home to have my child. That’s all I want right now. I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child.’

(If you haven’t already done so, listen to a recording of the interview here. I think you’ll be struck by how much like an ordinary London teenager she sounds.)

So suppose you had to make the decision. Would you allow her back to the UK? Or would you, like our wannabe next prime minister Sajid Javid, tell her: ‘If you have supported terrorist organisations abroad, I will not hesitate to prevent your return.’

Sure, it sounds straightforward enough. Even at fifteen, Shamima Begum knew perfectly well what IS was and what it did – but did she have the maturity to understand the consequences of her decision to run away? Actions taken by children, even teenage children, are usually treated differently from those taken by adults. That, after all, is why the judicial system handles children differently from adults.

And let’s remind ourselves what the official police position was when she and her two schoolfriends ran off to Syria. In March 2015, the then head of counter-terrorism for the Metropolitan Police, Mark Rowley, said: ‘We have no evidence in this case that these three girls are responsible for any terrorist offences. They have no reason to fear, if nothing else comes to light, that we will be treating them as terrorists.’

His view now is that Shamima Begum should expect to be thoroughly investigated and, if the evidence suggests she has committed crimes, prosecuted as an adult, if she ever manages to find her way back to the UK. Which surely is just as it should be.

We know nothing, of course, of what she and her friends have been up to during their time in Syria. I’m sure UK intelligence officials would love an opportunity to talk to her to find out exactly what she did and what she knows. Yes, she joined a terrorist group, but does that automatically make her a terrorist?

Or does it make her a victim of grooming? And if she is a victim, given that she is a British citizen, does the UK government not have a duty of care, a responsibility to do what it can to remove her from danger and arrange for the help that she will certainly need?

Here’s what I would do, and I make no apology for being in what I suspect is a rather small minority of people who prefer compassion to condemnation when it comes to mistakes made by vulnerable teenagers.

First, British officials should make contact with the mainly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who have been battling IS in its last redoubt. If, as may well be the case, there are British special forces on the ground, it shouldn’t be too difficult for them to find a frightened pregnant nineteen-year-old from Bethnal Green in a refugee camp.

Second, if she confirms that she does indeed want to come back to the UK – presumably after the imminent birth of her child – arrangements could be made. On arrival, she would be transferred into the custody of the police while her baby is placed in the care of her family or social services.

Police, security officials and social workers would then question her intensively to ascertain the degree to which she is still a vulnerable young person, quite possibly suffering severe trauma after spending four years in a war zone, and whether she was responsible for, or participated in, any criminal acts while she was there. (It is, of course, perfectly possible that she is both.)

But let us also consider the words of Richard Barrett, former director of global counter-terrorism at MI6, who presumably knows a thing or two about how to protect the UK against terrorist threats. Writing about British nationals who decided to join IS, he wrote: ‘Like it or not, these individuals were products of our society, and it would make sense to take a good, hard look at why they turned their backs on it in such dramatic fashion. This can help us find ways to build the social cohesion that we increasingly need in the face of growing nativism and intolerance.’

Much has been made of Shamima Begum’s statement to The Times: ‘I have no regrets.’ But I’d suggest that equal attention is paid to what else she said. ‘The caliphate is over. There was so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they deserved victory … I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child.’

To me, they sound like the words of a frightened, exhausted young woman, not the words of a dangerous terrorist sympathiser. She made a terrible mistake and will have to live with the consequences. But unless we discover that she was responsible for some ghastly IS atrocities, she surely deserves a chance to try to build a better life than the one she had in Syria.

Friday 8 February 2019

The liars who are destroying our faith in democracy

In case you still need evidence that we are abysmally served by far too many members of the political class, allow me to introduce you to Daniel Kawczynski.

You quite probably have never heard of him – he is, in fact, the Conservative MP for Shewsbury and Atcham, first elected in 2005, who now holds the seat with a majority of 6,600. He is also, I think it is fair to say, unusually ignorant, even for an MP.

Last weekend, he provided incontrovertible proof of that by claiming – on Twitter, of course, which has now firmly established itself as a global platform for nonsense of all kinds – that Britain, which he said had mortgaged itself up to the eyeballs in order to ‘liberate half of Europe’ during the Second World War, would remember how it was being treated by an ‘ungrateful’ EU.

He added, foolishly and erroneously, referring to US financial aid for Europe in the aftermath of the war ‘no Marshall plan for us, only for Germany.’ Which happens to be the exact opposite of the truth: in fact the UK received $2.7 billion under the Marshall Plan, which was more than any other single nation, including Germany, which received $1.7 billion.

Fine, you may think. Anyone can make a mistake. MPs don’t necessarily need to be history graduates. So obviously, once his mistake had been pointed out to him, which it was, swiftly and repeatedly, he would want to put it right.

Well, no. Because this is where Mr Kawczyinski proved himself to be stupid as well as ignorant. Offered the opportunity to correct the record during a radio interview a couple of days later, what did he do? He put down the phone. (You can listen to him here.)

Mr Kawczyinski is what you might call an extreme Brexiteer. Last year, he described Jacob Rees-Mogg as one of his heroes, and said he hoped that one day he would stand for the leadership of the Tory party.

He also has form. A few months back, he tweeted a picture of himself holding a couple of lemons in his local Tesco. How ridiculous, he suggested, that we have to buy EU-produced lemons rather than cheaper ones from outside the EU because of what he called the EU ‘protectionist racket.’

Except that his lemons almost certainly came from South Africa, which happens to have a trade agreement with the EU so that its lemons can be imported free of tariffs. If Mr Kawczynswki apologised for getting it wrong, I must have missed it.

Does he matter? On his own, no, of course not. He’s not the only stupid MP in the Palace of Westminster. But he is a symptom of a careless, cavalier disregard for the truth that characterises far too many of those who promote the Brexit cause.

Take the reaction to Donald Tusk’s colourful, if ill-advised, remark this week about a ‘special place in hell for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely.’

Cue outraged reaction from all the usual suspects. Nigel Farage, for example: ‘After Brexit we will be free of unelected, arrogant bullies like you and run our own country.’

Unelected? Not so. Mr Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland, was elected to his current position as president of the European Council by his fellow heads of state and government, who were themselves elected by their national electorates.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, was similarly chosen by heads of state and government, but he also had to have the support of the European parliament – which is itself, of course, made up of elected representatives.

Does the EU have too many presidents? Of course it does. As well as Mr Tusk and M Juncker, there’s also the president of the European parliament and the president of the council of the EU (not to be confused with the European Council – see above – or the Council of Europe, which has nothing to do with the EU at all. Please do try to keep up.)

Yes, it’s bonkers. But is it sufficient reason to tell deliberate lies? It is not.

In a hugely depressing piece in last week’s New Statesman, Jonathan Powellwho was Tony Blair’s chief of staff for more than a decade and who knows more than most about how Whitehall operates, described the government’s handling of Brexit as ‘perhaps the worst-managed negotiation in living memory’.

Voters aren’t stupid. They can work it out for themselves. As Powell wrote: ‘The most worrying thing of all is the resulting collapse of public confidence in the political system. The verdict of the public is devastating: in a recent private unpublished poll, 66 per cent of voters thought the current system of politics doesn’t work and has to be fundamentally changed … If the people lose faith in our democratic system we are a short step from a more authoritarian form of government.’

So here’s my parting thought for you: however the Brexit fiasco is finally resolved, who is going to start rebuilding public faith in democracy? A couple of weeks ago, I quoted Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times: ‘It is Britain’s misfortune that at its time of need it has been blessed with two of the most inflexible, small-minded, partisan and inept figures ever to assume the mantle of leadership in the nation’s two major parties. The UK has had bad party leaders before, but until now it has been clever enough not to have them at the same time.’

The sooner they are both replaced, the better for all of us.