Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Angels can tell the difference

Readers are invited to watch the above video, and see if you can tell in which city it was filmed. Here’s a clue: it’s not a city where a taxi driver is likely to say ‘mamma mia’.

I bring this up by way of an introduction. A minor nationalist tantrum recently erupted in Italy after former Croatian President Stjepan Mesic was invited to attend the opening of a museum, dedicated to the famous medieval explorer Marco Polo, in the Chinese city of Yangzhou. At the ceremony, Mesic was quoted as describing Marco Polo as a ‘Croatian-born world traveller who opened China to Europe’. Polo was, according to some (disputed) accounts, born on the Dalmatian island of Korcula, which was populated by Croats, in the town of the same name. The island was possessed by various different medieval states and rulers, including Croatia, but was ultimately conquered, along with other Dalmatian territories, by the Venetians, who ruled it for hundreds of years until the Venetian Republic was destroyed in the French Revolutionary Wars at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Italian daily Corriere della Sera responded to the ceremony at Yangzhou by accusing Croatia of having ‘kidnapped’ Marco Polo, and added a little nationalist rant about how ‘the island that Croatians now call “Korčula” was culturally Venetian, as is obvious from the old town, the Marcian Lions over the doors and the cathedral of St Mark’, adding for good measure a reference to the expulsion of ethnic Italians from Dalmatia and Istria by the Croatian Partisans following World War II, as well as a further complaint about the late Pope John Paul II’s reference to the medieval Croatian Christian heritage of Split – Croatia’s second city, which was also under Venetian rule. Corriere della Sera asked rhetorically ‘How is it possible that the Italian government and diplomatic service allowed someone as incredibly famous among the Chinese as the author of Il Milione to slip through their fingers, to the possible detriment of friendly relations, commerce and tourism?’

It should not need stating – again – that modern national identities cannot simply be projected back only ancient or medieval territories or individuals. That the actual identities of ancient and medieval – and indeed modern – territories were complex, nuanced and multifaceted. That modern nations have ethnically and culturally diverse roots; roots that should be celebrated, not denied in the name of crude nationalist models of homogeneity. Just look at the ethnic range of individuals who play a key part in English and British national history: the Norman-French William the Conqueror; the Dutch William of Orange; the Irish Duke of Wellington; the half-American Winston Churchill; and so on and so forth. The British royal family was originally German; its name was change from ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’ in 1917. Think of the diverse ethnic backgrounds of leading British politicians today: Labour leader Ed Miliband (Polish Jewish); Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (Dutch, Russian); London mayor Boris Johnson (Turkish); former Conservative leader Michael Howard (Romanian Jewish); former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind (Lithuanian Jewish) – and that list is, of course, both incomplete and itself an oversimplification. Etc. etc. etc.

Arguments between nationalists over the possession of ancient or medieval historical figures of the ‘He’s ours ! No, he’s ours !’ variety have all the seriousness of primary school children fighting over possession of a particular lego brick or action man. But as with children’s toys, so with ancient and medieval historical figures, the best policy is to share. So the Duke of Wellington belongs to both Britain and Ireland; Charlemagne belongs to both France and Germany; Alexander the Great belongs to Greece, the Republic of Macedonia, Albania and others; Mother Theresa belongs to India, Albania and Macedonia; and so on.

Marco Polo, or Marko Polo, likewise belongs to both Italy and Croatia. The origins of his family are disputed, but I have never seen any evidence that he identified himself as either Italian or Croatian by nationality. The Venetian Republic of Marco Polo’s time was not an Italian national state; it ruled a far-flung multinational empire that stretched at times all the way into the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean – for example, Cyprus was under Venetian rule for nearly a century, and the Venetian influence can be seen prominently in the walls that surround the old town in Nicosia, still known as the ‘Venetian walls’.

Of course, Venetian rule in Korcula and other Dalmatian and Istrian territories was the rule of a colonial master, but that is no reason for Croats today to deny the strong Venetian influence on their culture – any more than Indians and Pakistanis should stop loving cricket; a sport bequeathed to them by British imperialism. Any more than Italians should deny the influence on their own culture of those who occupied parts of Italy over the course of hundreds of years: Normans, Arabs, Spanish, French, Austrians and others helped to shape the Italian nation that we have today. Any more than Croats should deny the influence on their culture of Serbs, Hungarians, Austrians and others. Culture doesn’t divide neatly along national lines.

The question arises, therefore, of why a supposedly respectable Italian newspaper should throw its rattle out of its pram just because a Croatian rather than an Italian politician was invited to attend the inauguration of a museum in China dedicated to Marco Polo. This may be put down in part to the legacy of Italian irredentism, and of the trauma of its defeat, with regard to the Croatian (and Slovene) Mediterranean coastal territories, following attempts to conquer them in both World War I and, under Mussolini and the Fascists, in World War II. Despite the enormous brutality inflicted by Fascist Italy on the inhabitants of these territories, the Italian attempt was ultimately defeated almost completely. By 1945, the Yugoslav Partisans had liberated all South-Slav-inhabited territories that had been annexed by Italy since 1918. So far as the Croat inhabitants of Dalmatia and other Croatian coastal territories were concerned, the Partisan struggle was above all a Croatian war of national liberation from the traditional Italian enemy. Apart from the great port of Trieste (which would have gone to Slovenia had the Western Allies not insisted it be returned to Italy), the Yugoslavs were, thanks to their military victory, able to keep all these territories after the war, so Dalmatia and most of Istria were reunited with Croatia, while the rest of Istria and other Slovene-inhabited territories were reunited with Slovenia.

Although the lands in question had overwhelming ethnic-Croat and ethnic-Slovene majorities, yet nationalistic Italians – not just Fascists – experienced this as a grievous loss of Italian national territory – particularly as regards Istria and the port of Rijeka, which had been annexed by Italy between 1918 and 1924. Italian resentment was undoubtedly exacerbated by the killings and expulsions of ethnic Italians in the territories in question by the victorious Partisans and the confiscations of their property, yet there is no equivalent degree of enduring German nationalist bitterness against Poland and the Czech Republic, where the post-war ethnic cleansing of Germans occurred on an incomparably larger scale. Italian nationalists simply disregard the actual ethnic composition of the terriories and the history of Italian Fascist expansion there, and view them through the prism of Italian victimhood and loss. Hardly surprising, therefore, that an Italian insistence that Marco Polo be considered Italian should slip effortlessly into an angry restatement of the traditional nationalist claim of coastal Croatia’s ‘Italian’ character.

Which brings us back to the advert at the start of this post. The Italians and Dalmatian Croats are close to one another in their culture and heritage; close enough that a Croatian city can plausibly be passed off as Italian-speaking in an advert for an international audience; and close enough also for many Italians not to appreciate the distinction. But the Dalmatian view is different. In Marco Polo’s alleged birthplace of Korcula town, a Partisan war-memorial depicts a Partisan with a sword slaughtering a Venetian lion. A peculiar product, it could be said, of a cultural symbiosis between two neighbouring peoples that stretches back to the time of Marco Polo and beyond, and of which the famous explorer may himself have been a product.

PS As an aside, those familiar with the city in question will note that it’s impossible for the hero to be standing beside that particular statue and to see the angels walking towards him across the piazza. But the makers of the advert can be forgiven for wanting to make the most of the scenery…

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Friday, 6 May 2011 Posted by | Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Italy, Slovenia | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vote Conservative or Labour

Let’s face it, whatever the results of tomorrow’s British general election, the world isn’t going to end. Not since the 1970s has so little divided the principal British political parties. Watching the three televised debates between Labour’s Gordon Brown, the Conservatives’ David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, the striking thing was how similar were their political visions. Where one of the party leaders stood out from the consensus – as Cameron did over Europe, or Clegg over Trident – he was attacked by his opponents in moderate, civilised terms. This is as it should be: the great ideological conflicts of our age have been resolved in the domestic sphere, and the choice is principally over who will best manage the existing order. In this sense, we are a step ahead of the US, where such battles are still being fought out.

Cameron and Clegg have placed a lot of emphasis on the appeal for ‘change’. This is highly ironic, given that the British people do not want real ‘change’. If they did, there would be real electoral benefit to be had for politicians in adopting radical policies. The fact that all three principal British parties adopt such moderate policies shows their awareness of the fundamentally conservative (with a small ‘c’) inclinations of the British electorate; to threaten real ‘change’ would be electoral suicide. Cameron’s and Clegg’s talk of ‘change’ is simply an attempt to play up to our spoilt, cry-baby, navel-gazing culture of political commentary. Some countries face real problems; here we have the MPs’ expenses scandal – for all the whining that it provoked, you’d think we were the victims of a veritable genocide. A year ago, on the way to the airport, I met a young man who had served as a soldier in Afghanistan; after spending time there, he told me, he found it ridiculous how much we Britons like to complain about so little. This explains the relentless media hounding of our current prime minister; unexciting and undistinguished as he is, Brown has been reasonably competent at his job; he certainly does not deserve such vicious treatment.

Of course, there are things wrong with our country; top of the list, I would put the atrocious quality of our schools, and the consequent deleterious effect that poor education has on the morals of our youth. But distressingly, education barely featured in the three leadership debates. It was sad to hear all three party leaders pander to the moronic anti-immigration consensus; Clegg at least had the courage to advocate an amnesty for long-term illegal residents of the UK. Mass immigration is economically necessary and culturally beneficial for any thriving, dynamic modern society; the only way drastically to curb immigration would be to have an economy so poor that nobody much wanted to come and work here.

Instead of educating our population about immigration’s benefits, our politicians find it easier to pander to tabloid-driven popular xenophobia. I am, however, reassured that their talk of curbing immigration is just in order to placate the masses; as Clegg pointed out in the third leadership debate, the Conservatives’ talk of an annual ‘cap’ on immigration makes no sense if most immigrants come from the EU and can’t be prevented from coming. Yes, Mr Cameron/Brown, of course you’ll curb immigration if you win the election, nudge nudge, wink wink. If it keeps the less sophisticated part of our electorate from voting for the fascist parties, I’m happy for you to pretend. But really, it would be better if you challenged popular prejudice instead of playing up to it.

This does not mean the election is irrelevant. The first big question is, if Cameron wins, whether he will prove to be a Conservative Tony Blair, and firmly cement his party in government, as in opposition, as a forward-looking party of the centre. Or whether he will prove a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the Conservatives will ape their divisive predecessors of the 1930s and 80s. I am cautiously optimistic that the first scenario is more likely.

The second big question is, of course, whether we will get a hung parliament and, consequently, electoral reform. The existing electoral system cannot really be justified on democratic ground, but I cannot honestly pretend to be heartbroken that the little parties – the BNP, UKIP, Greens, Respect, etc. – are effectively excluded from parliament – God forbid that any of them should exercise influence over our foreign policy, or that any of them except the Greens should exercise influence over our domestic policy.

A system of proportional representation that resulted in a three-party system might be more democratic than the current two-party system, but it would also be more rigid; at present, elections offer the chance of real change of government in response to public dissatisfaction; a three-party system could condemn us to a succession of similar coalitions. A case could be made that this is the price we must pay for something less arbitrary and unfair than the present first-past-the-post system, with so many votes wasted and so many voters denied a real choice. But it is not a simple question.

The main parties’ differences over foreign policy are greater than their differences over domestic policy, and it is here that the Liberal Democrats’ talk of change is ominous. A party whose leader puts the word ‘illegal’ in front of ‘war in Iraq’ should not be in government: it is one thing to oppose the war in Iraq for honourable reasons; quite another to adopt the ideological jargon of the deeply reactionary ‘anti-war’ movement. Being opposed to ‘illegal’ wars translates as only favouring military intervention abroad when it is authorised by the UN Security Council; in other words, when it is supported by Russia and China. Clegg complains that the Conservative Party is allied with homophobes and climate-change deniers in the European Parliament, yet he seems to feel that our military intervention abroad should be contingent on the approval of two of the world’s most brutal and dangerous regimes.

What is more objectionable: the Conservatives forming a new European Parliamentary grouping with a Latvian party, some of whose elderly members commemorate the SS, and with a Polish party hostile to homosexuality ? Or the Liberal Democrats upholding the sanctity of a UN Security Council whose Russian member uses weapons of mass destruction against its own Chechen citizens, ethnically cleanses Georgians from South Ossetia, racially persecutes Caucasians, murders human rights activists and carries out terrorist bombings against its own population ? To say nothing of its Chinese member… Let us not forget: the reason that there are any ethnic Albanians left in Kosovo today is because NATO waged an ‘illegal’ war in 1999 to halt Slobodan Milosevic’s genocidal campaign against them. 

When David Cameron courageously spoke out in defence of Georgia from Russian aggression in 2008, Liberal Democrat shadow foreign-secretary Ed Davey shamefully condemned him for ‘macho talk’. Davey believes in the need to ‘talk to Tehran’, to avoid ‘antagonising the Russians’, to ‘engage Russia and China’, to ‘fully back the UN’. A foreign policy decided by the Liberal Democrats would ensure that, were another Bosnia- or Darfur-style genocide to occur, Britain would avoid doing anything ‘macho’ that might actually stop it, but would work through the UN, in partnership with Russia and China, to ensure that absolutely nothing meaningful would be done. Davey is my local MP here in Kingston and Surbiton, and as the electoral race here is a two-horse one between the Liberals and Conservatives, with Labour running a distant third, I am going to vote Conservative.

For Labour and the Conservatives are the only two credible parties of government. Labour has pursued a reasonably sound foreign policy, correctly both pro-European and pro-American, though since the uninspired Brown replaced the brilliant Tony Blair, Britain has been punching beneath its weight in world affairs.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have taken a courageous stand to break with the federalist-conservative Sarkozy-Merkel bloc in the European Parliament; to strike a blow against an inward-looking fortress Europe. As I have written elsewhere, the accusation that the Conservatives in the European Parliament are allied to extreme reactionaries is a red herring, given that both the Sarkozy-Merkel federalist bloc in the European Parliament and the Labour Party’s allies in the Council of Europe include some equally reactionary elements – Russian anti-Semites, Turkish genocide-deniers and Italian ‘post-fascists’. The question is whether the Conservatives in office will build an alliance for a broader, non-federalist model of Europe – as I hope they will – or retreat into the narrow-minded national realism that characterised John Major’s government.

I greatly admire the record of the Labour government since 1997, and am glad I voted Labour in the last election. I am hopeful, if not quite confident, that a Cameron government would be a worthy successor. If you feel optimistic, give the Conservatives a chance. If you want to play it safe, vote Labour.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010 Posted by | Britain, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Greenland moves toward independence – who’s afraid of ‘separatism’ ?

greenland-flagYesterday, Kalaallit Nunaat – Greenland – moved a step closer toward independence from Denmark. The Arctic country has become a subject in its own right under international law; its language, Kalaallisut, has become the sole official language; and it is taking over control of its own police and judiciary, as well as greater control over its natural resources. This move was based on a referendum that took place in November, in which 75% of Greenlandic voters opted in favour.

The festivities in the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk marking yesterday’s event were attended by Denmark’s Queen Margrethe and its prime minister, Lars Loekke Rasmussen. For the Greenlanders are fortunate in having, in Denmark, one of the world’s most enlightened imperial overlords. This is the same Denmark that has proven a staunch member of the allied coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the object of Islamist hatred over the Danish cartoon controversy. We may compared Denmark’s enlightened readiness to permit the peaceful secession of one of its territories and its sterling record as a member of the Western alliance, with the sorry record of Spain, Slovakia and Romania. These countries’ exaggerated fears of ‘separatism’ have led them, despite being members of NATO, to break ranks with most of the rest of the alliance to oppose Kosova’s independence from Serbia, and to align themselves instead with hostile Russia. Denmark, the more enlightened country on the issue of national self-determination, is the better member of the Western alliance.

Greenlandcoa#

Denmark’s ready acceptance of Greenland’s right to secede is in keeping with a proud Nordic tradition of enlightened resolution of national questions. Norway seceded peacefully from Sweden in 1905, as did Iceland from Denmark in 1944. Territorial disputes between Sweden and Finland over the Aland Islands in the 1920s and between Denmark and Norway over eastern Greenland in the 1930s were peacefully resolved by international arbitration. Finland granted autonomy to the Aland Islands in 1920; Denmark to Greenland in 1979, allowing the latter to secede from the EU in 1985. 

The contrast between the enlightened Nordic acceptance of the right of nations to self-determination on the one hand, and the nationalist resistance to ‘separatism’ on the part of Spain, Slovakia and Romania on the other, is not unrelated to the fact that, whereas Denmark has a long history of liberal constitutional government, Spain was still a dictatorship less than thirty-five years ago; Slovakia and Romania twenty years ago. Spain’s continued refusal to recognise the right of the Basque Country and Catalonia to self-determination is a continuation, in softer form, of the repression of these countries by the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. For their part, Slovakia and Romania have been among the most unreconstructed of the former Eastern bloc countries to join NATO and the EU.

Further still from the Danish ideal of tolerance of secession are repressive states with ruling ideologies hostile to liberal democratic Western values, such as Russia, Iran and China. These states rely on massive violence or forced assimilation to crush subject peoples. They are able to do this precisely because they reject Western values. Equally, as they are unconstrained by concern for human rights, they are ready to support other states that brutally suppress subject peoples. Thus, on 27 May of this year, Russia and China were among those members of the United Nations Human Rights Council that voted for a resolution in praise of Sri Lanka’s brutal campaign against the Tamil Tigers, who are fighting for a separate Tamil state, while Britain, France, Germany and other democratic states voted against. Other states that voted for the resolution included Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Egypt, Nigeria, the degree of whose concern for human rights is suggested by their alignment on this question.

The reality is that, by and large, the more enlightened and democratic a state is, the more ready it will be to accept the secession of a constituent territory or subject people. Conversely, the more repressive and undemocratic a state is, the less willing it will be to countenance such a move, and the more ready it will be to support the brutal suppression of such a move by another such state. It is very possible that Scotland will eventually secede from the United Kingdom; conceivable that Wales will do so, or that Puerto Rico will secede from the US. But while we Britons and Americans may or may not hope against such acts of secession, few of us are enraged by the prospect.

This being so, it is not in the interests of the Western alliance rigidly to uphold the principle that subject peoples should not be allowed to secede unilaterally from existing independent states. Western respect for human rights means that Western states will never be able to support acts of repression by other states against subject peoples as unequivocally as our undemocratic enemies, while even moderate Western expressions of concern at human rights abuses committed during such acts of repression will earn us the ire of the states in question. Western support for Russia against Chechen rebels during the 1990s did not earn us any Russian gratitude, but Western criticism of Russian human-rights abuses in Chechnya certainly earned us Russian ire. Meanwhile, Russia’s crushing of Chechnya strengthened its grip on the Caucasus region, making possible the assault on our Georgian ally last summer. Simply put, Western support for Russia against Chechnya was a blunder; the democratic world should have recognised Chechnya’s independence in 1991, alongside the Soviet republics that declared independence at the same time. Equally, in the event that democratic Taiwan should declare independence from Communist China, while we may regret the clash with the latter that this will inevitably occasion, support for Taiwan would be the only honourable policy. In supporting Kosova’s secession from Serbia, Western statesmen have erred in pretending that this instance of secession is unique. Erred both because it is factually untrue that Kosovo is a unique case, and because pretending that it is will only tie our hands in the future, when dealing with states ruled by hostile, repressive regimes carrying out acts of mass violence against subject peoples.

Genuine democracies have nothing to fear from ‘separatism’; dictatorships and other repressive states do. It is time to accept the principle that, in certain circumstances, subject peoples should be permitted to secede unilaterally from a parent state. Such circumstances might include those where the subject people in question has suffered particularly extreme persecution, or conversely where it has proved itself worthy through practising good, democratic governance. Should they ever choose to exercise this right, the people of Darfur would qualify under the first condition; the Taiwanese under the second. Other conditions or combinations thereof might also warrant qualification. Kosova, for example, qualified not only because of the extreme persecution its people had suffered under Serbian rule, but also because of the constitutional status the territory had enjoyed in the former Yugoslavia. The question of whether a subject people has earned the right to secede should ultimately be decided in the court of public opinion in the democratic world.

But this does not mean that every secessionist movement or act should be supported indiscriminately – far from it. For the right of nations to self-determination is open to abuse. There are cases where an expansionist, predatory state conquers part of a neighbour’s territory, using the pretext of support for a national minority; the predatory state then ethnically cleanses the unwanted population from the conquered territory, creates an artificial demographic majority in favour of ‘independence’, then declares that this artificial majority has the right to ‘self-determination’. This is what Serbia did in Bosnia, Turkey in Cyprus and Russia in Abkhazia. There are cases where the population of a territory is split relatively evenly between supporters and opponents of secession, or where the secessionists are in the minority.

Clearly, in such cases, support for the right to secede should not be the default position. Rather, each demand for secession has to be judged individually, on its own merits – like a case in court. The example most often cited by opponents of national self-determination is that of the southern US states’ attempted secession in the 1860s; as this secession was motivated by the desire to preserve the barbaric institution of slavery, it is not an example that can be used to deny the right to secede to secessionist peoples with more legitimate motives.

The very real possibility that the democratic world might intervene to support a secessionist movement on its territory would act as an incentive for repressive states, both to improve their treatment of their subject peoples and to lessen their hostility to the democratic world. The possibility of losing Darfur would be likely to act as a greater deterrent to Khartoum’s genocidal policies there than the toothless indictments of the International Criminal Court. Conversely, where it is a case of a repressive state allied to the West, pressure to reform would take a different form. Because Turkey is a member of NATO and an EU candidate country, there is no possibility that the Western alliance will intervene militarily to end Turkey’s rule over its Kurdish-inhabited regions; Turkey’s territorial integrity is therefore secure. But the ‘price’ that Turkey pays for this is that it is required to improve its treatment of its Kurds and its human-rights’ record generally – something that, over the past decade, it has actually done. So long as Turkey continues to democratise, Kurdish support for secession is likely to wane, or at least to be increasingly channelled away from support for violent insurgency to support for peaceful, constitutional nationalist parties.

As surely as night follows day, more peoples that today are unfree will join the ranks of the Eritreans, Croatians, Kosovars and others which have already seceded in recent decades after fighting bitter wars of independence. There is no point regretting this, or attempting to halt the process. The Western alliance should be on the right side of history.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Monday, 22 June 2009 Posted by | Denmark, Greenland | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment