Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Trump's views would get surprising support over here

We can all agree Donald Trump is an idiot, or as Conservative Scottish leader Ruth Davidson MSP said, quoting Prince Hal addressing Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry IV, a 'clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch'. But sadly, that doesn't mean his poisonous gibberish isn't gleefully welcomed by a certain, disaffected community.

So, while more than 100,000 people and counting have signed a parliamentary petition calling for Trump to be banned from entering the UK, echoing calls from MPs like Sarah Wollaston and Tulip Siddiq:

... but a substantial number of people have also signed a petition which could easily be a part of Donald Trump's policy platform:

Sadly, it seems, small-minded, impractical, illogical, racist idiocy is not reserved for absurdly coiffed, perma-tanned, fascist bullies wanting to become US president.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Salmond should do his homework on Tony Benn

Tony, Emily and Hilary
Alex Salmond, among others, has indulged in some pretty hateful unpleasantness in the wake of the vote to bomb Daesh in Syria last night, claiming that Tony Benn would be spinning in his grave at his son Hilary's support for airstrikes.

Salmond told LBC:

‘I’ll tell you this. His father, whose speech I heard in the Iraq debate all these years ago, would be birling in his grave hearing a speech in favour of a Tory prime minister wanting to take the country to war. That’s just a reality.’

Quite understandably, it has provoked Emily Benn, Tony’s granddaughter and Hilary’s niece, who has demanded the former SNP leader retracts his comments. She tweeted:

‘Mr Salmond, Your comments are both deeply offensive and simply untrue. I hope you reflect and retract them.’

And inevitably, for her efforts, Emily Benn was included in further abuse with some commentators calling the shadow foreign secretary a ‘murderer’ and ‘disgrace’ who should be expelled from Labour.

It strikes me that Alex Salmond cannot be a very good judge of character. He must have met Tony Benn on dozens of occasions and yet seems not to be aware of how immensely proud he was of his son and his progress in the Labour Party.

If Mr Salmond had wanted some hints as to what the late Mr Benn would have made of his son’s speech last night, he could have taken some direction from Tony Benn’s own words in his Diaries when the 2003 invasion of Iraq was on the agenda and the two Benns had very differing views.

For example this is an entry from Wednesday, October 17, 2002:

Turned on the seven o’clock news. Hilary was on – his first appearance as a minister, with a difficult brief, because the aid agencies have called for a pause in the bombing of Afghanistan to get the food in, and Claire Short and Blair have turned it down. Poor Hilary had to defend them, but he was very competent. He said the aid is coming in anyway, and obviously we all hope for the best.’

And as Blair was pushing Britain towards the invasion of Iraq, on March 17, 2003, Benn wrote:

‘Hilary rang me up tonight to talk about Iraq. I told him, say what you really think, that’s the right thing to do. Say what you really think to people because you’re not in the Cabinet. I was touched that he should have thought of ringing me. I think that possibly will have helped him, but he said he might ring me later tonight.’

And then on the day of the actual vote, March 18, 2003, Tony Benn’s entry said:

‘Well, at ten o’clock there was the vote. I haven’t got all the figures, they’ll all be in the records, but about 140 Labour MPs revolted, which was eighteen more than last time, and a majority of backbench MPs, but the Government won overwhelmingly. Then on the second vote against the Government resolution, the Government had a bigger majority. That means the war is authorised by the House of Commons.
‘Hilary obviously had to vote with the Government, and there you are.’

The vote on bombing Syria was nothing like as significant as the invasion of Iraq and yet Tony Benn managed to write just twelve words on his son's voting to support the conflict with no hint of fury or sense of betrayal whatsoever.

Evidence of Tony Benn's immense pride in his son was also palpable when the veteran Labour MP introduced his son to the House of Commons in 1999. As Hilary Benn took the oath of allegiance to the Queen, Tony, sitting on his usual backbench seat, wept with pride. The Telegraph reported it thus:

'as the young man's voice resonated through the Chamber, the veteran parliamentarian, who under all the brimstone is actually a grand old softie, blinked back the tears until they could no longer be kept at bay.'

The writer added that it was 'as charming a moment as we have had for some time'.

And finally, Alex Salmond could always have recollected what Tony Benn - that great anti-Fascist who never failed to 'have a purpose firm' - had called his memoirs; Dare to be a Daniel. I fear, though, the sentiments of that hymn may be lost on the SNP for dissenting voices seem not to be allowed therein. Without exception all SNP MPs voted against bombing Syria, without question or deviation.


Alex Salmond has issued a clarifying statement. Unsurprisingly, he didn't apologise at all. This is what he said:

‘ “Birling in your grave” is a well-known Scottish idiom, which means a deceased person would be enormously surprised by the current turn of events. I think it is a fair comment that Tony Benn would have been astonished to hear his son make a pro-war speech in favour of a Tory Prime Minister’s war plans. There was certainly no disrespect meant to Tony Benn, who I held on the highest regard. Not least of which because of his passionate anti-war speeches – for which I was present. The labour Party would be better employed demanding an apology from the Prime Minister for calling their own party leader a “terrorist sympathiser”.’

I'm assured by a Scottish friend his definition of 'birling' is questionable to say the least.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

A perilous path to an inevitable war

Assuming the House of Commons votes as expected and consents to allowing the RAF to bomb Islamic State (ISIL) targets in Syria, from the furious level of debate going on one would be forgiven for thinking Britain was preparing to deploy a taskforce of the size used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But, instead of tens of thousands of British troops being despatched to the border to gather as part of a massive international invasion force, Britain plans to add a few planes – Tornadoes and Typhoons – to the eight Tornadoes already carrying out bombing sorties on ISIL in Iraq. We are assured that this exceedingly modest force will produce real, tangible results; that we will witness the Brimstone missile – which adorns the Tornadoes but not the Typhoons – accurately decapitating ‘the snake’ with the minimum of collateral damage and those already fighting really cannot cope without our input.

It may be the case that this small increase in airpower does, indeed, make an important difference but there must certainly be a risk it simply adds yet more complications to a perilously messy battleground. And while we wait to see how the military action plays out, the political risks on all sides will remain immense.

There seems to be universal agreement that defeating ISIL cannot simply be done from the air but the motion to be voted on tomorrow rules out deploying British forces - one wonders whether this will remain a firm pledge if there were a Paris-style atrocity in London. Instead, we are, apparently, hoping to rely on 70,000 ‘moderates’ to secure land vacated by ISIL as they retreat from our bombs. There is a great deal of scepticism about this assertion and, in what was an otherwise impressive performance by David Cameron in the House of Commons, it was the closest the prime minister came to a ’45 minutes from attack’ claim. If things go wrong, if little evidence of this force emerges and terror returns to the streets of Britain, it will appear as though Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, massaged the views of the Joint Intelligence Committee to push Britain into another conflict. His authority will be dashed for good.

Moreover, it has emerged on the eve of the debate and vote Cameron has told his MPs:

'You should not be walking through the lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers'

This thoughtless, dim comment blows apart Cameron's attempts to build a broad coalition for bombing ISIL in Syria. There are many differing, and honourably held, views about how to tackle this terror threat but no one taking part in the debate here feels any 'sympathy' for ISIL. It is an astonishingly offensive and foolish thing to say which not only insults vast numbers of people across the country - probably a majority - who oppose further military action but may also galvanise parliamentary opposition on all sides.

For Jeremy Corbyn, it is hard to find anything in his self-destructive handling of the situation about which to be positive. While the debate should be focused on the rights and wrongs of military involvement in Syria, what we might be able to achieve balanced against the inevitable risks of conflict, the centre of attention has been Corbyn and the furious split that has emerged within Labour. Corbyn has a strong mandate and plenty of support within the wider Labour Party as a whole but he is a terribly isolated figure within the parliamentary Labour Party. It is not hard to imagine figures such as Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn and Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle vacating their positions soon.

As a permanent rebel, Corbyn was never likely to inspire much loyalty from his shadow ministers and when it is so blatantly clear his policies – on matters such as Trident and military action – contradict the opinions of so many of his close team, he was always on a hiding to nothing. While not having a collective policy on the matter of whether the country goes to war or not is a blow to Labour’s authority, offering his MPs a free vote on the matter was always the likely outcome and should have been offered from the outset. Instead we’ve been exposed to Corbyn at one moment trying to be the diplomat allowing debate within the parliamentary party while in another attempting an impression of a tough guy, insisting that he and only he would be deciding Labour policy.

There is no doubt that misguided military action in the region has helped create the stage upon which the ISIL death cult has been able to flourish and we can’t afford another incompetent intervention like Iraq and Libya. We must try and starve ISIL of funds and weapons – as Corbyn has argued – but in the short and medium term this does nothing to stop further attacks in Europe and more terror in their lands. 

It is impossible to present a good answer to this desperate situation. Bombing at any stage will cause civilian casualties, but we see civilians being murdered in horrifically perverted ways on a daily basis by ISIL regardless. Without Syria returning to a stable state the refugee crisis that has swept across the Middle East and into Europe cannot be solved. ISIL can play no role in the future; but fighting them from the air, across a land beset with chaos, seems unlikely to contribute to any sort of stability. Yet, it is at this moment that the UN has called, with remarkable unanimity, for states to join war against ISIL, wherever its war-mongers can be found.  And, whilst ISIL can ignore the border between Iraq and Syria, it makes no sense for those fighting the cult to do the same.  Furthermore, even if our military power is unlikely to make any significant difference to the outcome, our commitment to supporting our close political allies – especially France, at this time of great need – will be valued.  What is more, if we were to refuse to fight in the air over Syria, where Raqqa has been declared the capital of the ‘caliphate’, we would be handing these people a propaganda victory.

And yet, I must repeat: there is no good answer to this desperate situationI find myself in the odd position of thinking that, were I to have a vote tomorrow, I would probably side with Corbyn, despite little of what he has said influencing my thinking. I would oppose getting involved now on the basis of that dodgy ’70,000 moderates’ claim and the belief that a much more comprehensive international coalition needs to be formed to do the job properly, both during the conflict and, even more crucially, afterwards. 

The only certainty is that we cannot ignore ISIL.  This is a movement inspired by violence and it will not neglect us.  Whatever is to come, we can be pretty sure it will be terrible.  Perhaps the only logical conclusion is to acknowledge that, ultimately, we surely cannot rule out doing the job properly and using British ground forces.