Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The Miliband brothers and New Left Review

Readers will, I hope, forgive the name-dropping, but it isn’t every day that a childhood friend is one step away from becoming Labour leader, and two steps from becoming our next prime minister. I haven’t seen Ed or David Miliband for over twenty years, but at the age of around eleven and twelve, I used to meet up regularly with Ed to, ahem, exchange ZX Spectrum games, and I still remember the note of despair in his voice, when one of our laborious attempts to ‘back up’ a game proved unsuccessful. I saw less of David, who was older, but the last time we met made a vivid impression on me, when he was a rising star in Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party of the late 1980s. Kinnock was then desperately trying to modernise the Labour Party, thereby earning the hatred of left-wing hardliners, who viewed him as a traitor to socialism (‘Kneel’). I was one such Kinnock-hating hardliner; a teenage member of the Labour Party Young Socialists, which was dominanted by the Trotskyist ‘Militant’ tendency, with which I was then in sympathy. David turned up at a party, dressed immaculately in suit and tie, looking more like a business executive than the activist of a left-wing party, and I thought to myself, ‘He really has sold out’. I told him that I was feeling very disillusioned with the turn the Labour Party was taking. He knew exactly what I meant, but didn’t want to argue with me; ‘Faith !’, he urged me.

Of course, it was the people like David who turned out to be the revolutionary pioneers, and the people who stuck to the politics that I then adhered to who were the reactionaries. The Milibands’ parents Ralph and Marion, and my own parents, belonged to a broadly Marxist and ‘New Left’  intellectual and social circle, some of whose members were close to the journal New Left Review (NLR) and the publishing house Verso, or were members of the International Marxist Group, the British wing of the ‘Fourth International’ originally founded by Leon Trotsky. Other members of this circle included Tariq Ali, Susan Watkins, Robin Blackburn, Perry Anderson, the late Peter Gowan and others. Some of these people have evolved politically over the past quarter of a century, while others have not, but to the best of my knowledge, not one of their children – children like me, David and Ed – has remained true to that vision of politcs as it was in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

This is not surprising when you consider the respective achievements of those who did remain true to that vision of politics, and those who ‘sold out’ and moved toward the centre or moderate left. The New Labour revolution, of which David and Ed were pioneers, brought the UK the minimum wage; freedom of information; gay civil partnerships; peace in Northern Ireland; devolution in Scotland, Wales and London; a more multiethnic population through mass immigration; and in foreign affairs, humanitarian interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, at least three of which have been successful. By contrast, the only ‘achievement’ in the same period of the members of the New Left circle who remained hardline anti-capitalists and ‘anti-imperialists’ has been to contribute to the anti-war demonstrations over Iraq in the first half of the 2000s that, although large, dissipated after failing to prevent or halt the war, leaving nothing behind.

Shortly after the Kosovo war of 1999, I spoke with Tariq Ali and his partner Susan Watkins, the editor of NLR, who bemoaned David Miliband’s role in supporting the British intervention in Kosovo: ‘What would his father say ?’ Ali, Watkins and Perry Anderson – NLR‘s intellectual guru – have by contrast remained faithful to the politics of anti-capitalism and ‘anti-imperialism’, which has meant the publication by NLR and Verso of books and articles sympathetic to the regimes of Slobodan Milosevic, Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-il. According to a Guardian editorial earlier this year celebrating NLR‘s fiftieth birthday, probably written by Seumas Milne, ‘Left-wing in an age in which prospects for the left are so bleak, serious in a celebrity culture and thoughtful in a time of instant opinions, the NLR remains a necessary publication.’ Necessary, perhaps, for ageing lefties of Milne’s type, who have an emotional need to convince themselves that the dead-end politics of yesteryear are still somehow ‘radical’. For what young person today honestly believes that Castro’s Cuban dictatorship is a harbinger of a better world, as opposed to a clapped-out anachronism ? 

What is most offensive about this brand of politics isn’t even its moral bankruptcy. It is the peculiar combination of intellectual bankruptcy and unwarranted arrogance. Ali, Anderson and co. simply haven’t had any original political ideas since the 1980s at best; they stopped evolving over two decades ago, yet still feel they represent the cutting-edge, radical alternative to the neo-liberal order. They are like old-age pensioners sitting on the park bench, muttering to one another about how the whole world has gone to pot, and how things were much better in the old days, and periodically shouting at teenagers that they didn’t fight in the War so that young people could go around dressed like that. Or like ageing baby-boomers who are still awestruck by how technologically advanced are their calculator digital-watches and portable cassette-players, with which they listen to the music of dangerous, anti-establishment bands like Wham and Duran Duran. The NLR is the political equivalent equivalent of a calculator watch; it is ‘new’ in the same way that the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea is ‘democratic’.

The Miliband brothers were born of Marxist parents at a time when radical left-wing politics still had some rationale; they took what was best in their parents’ politics and moved forward. Others have been left behind.

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Thursday, 20 May 2010 Posted by | Britain, The Left | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

David Cameron and William Hague look set to help South East Europe

William Hague, the new British foreign secretary

‘Compared with a decade ago, this country is more open at home and more compassionate abroad and that is something we should all be grateful for…’. So said Britain’s new prime minister David Cameron, paying tribute to the outgoing Labour government. Britain is embarking on a new political era, and it is sad to see so many self-proclaimed ‘progressives’ still stuck in the same ideological trenches they inhabited in the 1980s, unable to view ‘progressive politics’ in anything other than anti-Tory terms, and damning the Liberal Democrats for their supposed ‘betrayal’. Cameron presented Britain with a historic opportunity to reconstitute our mainstream party of the right as a party of the centre. Had he failed to form a government, the Conservative Party could quite possibly have moved back towards the right. I have been critical of the Liberal Democrats in the past, but Nick Clegg’s decision to form a coalition with Cameron was a supremely responsible act, rescuing Cameron’s ‘progressive Conservative’ project and moderating any right-wing tendencies that a straight Conservative government would have had. The new British government enjoys greater legitimacy than any other combination arising from the election would have done; as much as is possible, it broadly represents what the nation wants, which is a change of government but not a move to the right. The Labour Party will benefit from a rest after thirteen years in office. Those who see British politics purely through anti-Conservative or anti-Labour lenses are still living in the twentieth century; the formation of a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition shows that old distinctions between ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ parties no longer apply.

Crucially, the foreign and defence portfolios in the new government are in the hands of Conservatives. Of course, Britain’s last Conservative government under John Major had a disgraceful record in world affairs – either failing to halt or actively aiding and abetting genocide in Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda, while undermining our alliance with the US. But not all Conservative politicians are the same – Winston Churchill was not Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher was not Edward Heath. There is cause for concern at the continued influence in the party of elements complicit with Major’s disastrous policies, such as Malcolm Rifkind and Pauline Neville-Jones. But the signals coming from Cameron and from the new foreign secretary, William Hague, are promising.

There is absolutely no reason why the Conservative commitment to greater British sovereignty within the EU is ‘anti-European’; on the contrary, it is the Franco-German-dominated Euro-federalist bloc that is anti-European, as it seeks to divide Europe between the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’, and to exclude countries like Turkey and Ukraine from the European family. In his recently leaked memo, Hague has made it clear that his government will be ‘firm supporters of enlargement’ and ‘favour an outward looking Europe’.

Hague has also said that his government will ‘want to see a more muscular EU approach in Bosnia’. He has consistently spoken up for Bosnia; last year, he criticised the ‘weak and confused’ EU response to the ‘pressure to fragment the country’ and said: ‘It is moving slowly in the wrong direction and – despite all the efforts and all the bloodshed and all the sacrifices there – it’s moving in the wrong direction without alarm bells sounding in most European capitals.’ He warned that the crisis in Bosnia threatened to derail efforts to expand the EU to include Serbia, Croatia and Turkey, and promised: ‘People think the Balkans are what we debated in the 1990s and now we can forget about it. In fact, it’s a crucial area in foreign policy in the next five to 10 years and will get a lot of emphasis in the next Conservative administration.’ Earlier this year, Hague wrote to his predecessor, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, to express his concern at Britain’s arrest of Bosnia’s former vice-president Ejup Ganic.

Cameron, too, has spoken out for the rights of the vulnerable nations of South East Europe. As early as 2003, before he became Conservative leader, Cameron wrote a stirring defence of Macedonia; ‘the country – and I am determined to call it Macedonia – has a perfect right to exist. The population is overwhelmingly Macedonian, with a distinctive language, culture and history.’ Criticising ‘Greek pettiness’ toward Macedonia, Cameron called for an active policy to support it and the former Yugoslavia generally: ‘Let Macedonia into Nato and guarantee its borders. Ensure there is a speedy framework for getting the former Yugoslav republics into the EU so they can benefit from free trade and structural funds. Recognise the fact that Macedonia paid a substantial price for looking after Albanian refugees from Kosovo during the war – and pay aid in respect of it. Above all, stay involved to give the region the stability that it needs so badly.’

When Russia attacked Georgia in August 2008, Cameron was quicker to react than Gordon Brown and more forthright; he flew to Tbilisi to stand shoulder to shoulder with Georgia’s leaders, and to state that ‘I think it’s important that the world’s oldest democracy must stand with one of the newest when it’s been illegally invaded by another country… We wanted to come to express the strongest possible support of the British people, British government and British opposition for Georgia, its independence and integrity.’ He later drew the parallel between Russia and 1930s Germany: ‘Russia’s pretext — that it has a right to step in militarily to protect its citizens — has chilling echoes from Czech history, and dangerous implications if it is now the basis of Russian policy. Such a doctrine cannot be allowed to stand.’ Far from being ‘anti-European’, Cameron defended Georgia from a pro-European perspective: ‘We should not accept that while the Czech Republic, Poland and the Baltic States are in Nato and the EU, with their full measure of independence and liberty, other countries on Russia’s periphery that have not yet become members are somehow condemned to exist in a political no-man’s-land.’

Cameron’s audacious move to form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, outflanking the right wing of the Conservative Party and reshaping British politics, indicates that he may be a bold world leader in the years ahead. Let us hope so. The US and EU have dithered over the worsening crisis in Bosnia – as did the UK under Brown. A British government committed to a broader, more outward-looking Europe, committed to supporting and defending the states of East and South East Europe, is exactly what Europe needs.

Thursday, 13 May 2010 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Britain, Caucasus, European Union, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Marko Attila Hoare, NATO, Russia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ejup Ganic meets Franz Kafka

Ejup Ganic, who served as vice-president in Bosnia-Hercegovina’s first democratically elected government in the 1990s, is being detained without bail in a British prison. Even senior international and British statesmen have expressed concern at the manner in which he is being treated. According to Germany’s Christian Schwarz-Schilling, the former High Representative of Bosnia-Hercegovina, ‘By arresting Ejup Ganic in London, Great Britain has unintentionally taken part in the kidnapping of a distinguished Bosnian academic and participated in Serbia’s political ploy. Furthermore, reportedly rude and unprofessional behaviour of British authorities was in an open violation of most basic international legal principals, such as the Vienna Convention (Art. 36). It is unacceptable that an EU-member state is participating in this kind of political kidnapping.’

British shadow foreign secretary William Hague notes in a letter (see appendix) sent on 3 March to his counterpart, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, that  ‘A number of reports have been brought to my attention alleging that at time of writing, Mr Ganić has been denied consular access or visits from his family or his legal representatives since he was taken into custody at HMP Wandsworth on Monday. It has been further alleged that Mr Ganić was unable to attend the hearing on his case that took place today as the wrong individual was taken to the Court by the authorities, and that he will be held in detention until a further hearing next Tuesday as bail has been denied.’ According to Hague, ‘I am concerned about the risk of negative repercussions in our relations with the countries of the Balkans and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in particular if the treatment afforded to Mr Ganić is seen to be deficient in any respect. I have also seen that the alleged denial of legal and consular access to Mr Ganić is being broadcast as fact in a number of media outlets throughout the world. I am concerned about the potential that these stories have to do damage to Britain’s international reputation.’

The questionable nature of Ganic’s treatment by the British authorities is not confined to the manner of his detention; the charge against him appears to be equally problematic. As can be seen from the arrest warrant, which I reproduce below, the British judge who issued the warrant appears to be under the impression that Sarajevo, where the alleged ‘offence’ took place, is in Serbia !

Nor does uncertainty about the nature of the ‘offence’ begin in Britain. Serbia’s media is consistently claiming that the military action, that Ganic is accused of ordering, resulted in the deaths of 42 soldiers of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). In its portrait of Ganic published today, Serbia’s most eminent daily newspaper, Politika, writes of ‘2 May 1992, the day when the attack began on the JNA column that was withdrawing from Sarajevo’s Volunteers’ Street [Dobrovoljacka ulica], when 42 people were killed, 73 wounded and 215 arrested.’ The same figure of 42 deaths is attributed to the Dobrovoljacka ulica attack by other Serbian dailies, including Blic and Glas javnosti.

Yet the truth is somewhat different. A document posted on the website of the Interior Ministry of the Republika Srpska shows that the figure of 42 JNA deaths actually refers to all those killed or missing in combat operations all over Sarajevo for a five day period from 29 April to 3 May. Only five JNA soldiers were killed and one went missing as a result of the attack on the JNA column in Dobrovoljacka ulica.

The unseriousness of the case against Ganic is a reflection of its political character.

Hat tip: Alem Hadzic, Justwatch; Andras Riedlmayer.

Appendix: Full text of William Hague’s letter of 3 March to David Miliband, which has been made available to the press:

3rd March 2010

Dear David, I write regarding the detention of the former Bosnian Presidency Member Mr Ejup Ganić in London.

A number of reports have been brought to my attention alleging that at time of writing, Mr Ganić has been denied consular access or visits from his family or his legal representatives since he was taken into custody at HMP Wandsworth on Monday.

It has been further alleged that Mr Ganić was unable to attend the hearing on his case that took place today as the wrong individual was taken to the Court by the authorities, and that he will be held in detention until a further hearing next Tuesday as bail has been denied.

Can you confirm whether these reports are correct?

I would be grateful if you could have this matter looked into urgently. I am concerned about the risk of negative repercussions in our relations with the countries of the Balkans and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in particular if the treatment afforded to Mr Ganić is seen to be deficient in any respect. 

I have also seen that the alleged denial of legal and consular access to Mr Ganić is being broadcast as fact in a number of media outlets throughout the world. I am concerned about the potential that these stories have to do damage to Britain’s international reputation. 

In the light of public interest in these matters I am making a copy of this letter available to the press. I look forward to your urgent response.

The Rt Hon William Hague MP 
Shadow Foreign Secretary

Sunday, 7 March 2010 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment