Thursday, March 29, 2007

Iran's Martime Claim

Is This What The Arrest Of Our Naval Personel Is About?

From "Limits in the Seas, No 114, Iran's Martime Claims" (Published by the United States Department of State, the Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs on 16,March, 1994.)

On May 2, 1993, the Government of Iran completed legislative action on an "Act on the Marine Areas of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Oman Sea." On July 6, 1993, the Iran notified the Secretary General of the United Nations of the legislation. The legislation provides a reasonably comprehensive set of maritime claims to a territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and continental shelf, and Iran's jurisdictional claims within those areas. Many of these claims do no comport with the requirements of international law as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOS Convention). The Act replaces provisions of earlier Iranian legislation

For the full document see here, trawl down to page 44 for the map.

Our Co-ordinates Fall Into Both Iraqi And Iranian Territorial Waters

If the legislation I quote above has not been amended since 1993, then an examination of the Maps produced by the Government and those shown in the link I provided above will show that our troops were arrested in Iraqi Waters according to Iraqi Legislation (as shown in my earlier item) and Iranian Waters according to Iranian Legislation.

The Iraqi Leglisation would seem to conform to the International Laws of the Sea, which are violated by the Iranian legislation.

But it would seem that in an answer to the Pete Wishart of the SNP, Margaret Beckett was incorect to inform the Commons that there is no ongoing dispute between Iran
and Iraq over these border locations.

Indeed if Iran and Iraq (and Iran and the International Community) are in dispute about the borders then troops out on a patrol boat, without helicopter coverage and several miles away from their Frigate were clearly being placed into what should have been known to be a serious danger.

If we admit to these shortcomings, it might help to ensure the release of Faye Turney and her companions.

What Are The Fabians True Colours?

Fabians Join In the Crack

When Fabianism and Northern Ireland come together, I am bound to take an interest.

I rejoined the Fabian Society when I retired from parliament, having been a Local Society Secretary nearly 50 years ago. Speakers in those days included the local Labour MP, Mannie Shinwell. Whilst only last week I addressed the Sheffield Fabians even though I was somewhat under the weather.

On Northern Ireland, I served for almost a decade on both its Commons Select Committee and on the British Irish Parliamentary Body. So I was hardly ever away from the island of Ireland in that time. Yet I had never once visited the north or the south until I became an MP.

Labouring in Ulster

There are around 100 members of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland. They have no Regional or Constituency structure and the national Labour Party makes no efforts to recruit members or to run candidates.

It is only after a legal threat, that Labour decided to allow a Regional Forum to be set up if the membership in the Province ever reaches 200.

The Fabian Society has now stepped in by setting up a Local Society in Northern Ireland. As the Fabian Society has been affiliated to the Labour Party ever since the latters initial formation in 1900, this could be a significant move for those looking for Labour to have a future in Northern Ireland politics. It might even encourage those attending its discussions to join the Labour Party and for the Labour Membership to nudge nearer that 200 threshold.

Fabians Need To Be Well Red

But nothing is ever simple in Northern Ireland politics, even if we do now have a Paisley-Adams Alliance. In setting up a Local Society in Northern Ireland, the Fabians have changed their normal rules for membership.

Normally, membership of a Local Fabian Society is open to those who are eligible for membership of the Labour Party. Others can join as affiliates.

But for Northern Ireland purposes, the Fabians will also allow members of the SDLP and the Irish Labour Party to join their Local Society. Why are they doing this, when the people concerned could join in any case as associate members?

Labour has cultivated a position in Northern Ireland which is neither Green nor Orange, in order to enhance the principles contained in the Belfast Agreement. Why are the Fabians (who have a special relationship with the Labour Party) saying they prefer to accommodate the Green rather than the Orange?

Is it not better to keep out of these sectarian games? I managed to be immersed in the politics of the island for a decade without getting myself into a great deal of hassle. I always claimed to be neither Green nor Orange, but to be Red. It is something I recommend to the Fabian Society who certainly at one time used to be a bunch of democratic socialist intellectuals. They should know the significance of colour coding for Northern Irish politics.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Thalweg And Sinuosity

Complexities Of The Current Crisis

At the time of the capture of the 15 Sailors and Marines by the Iranian Forces, who exactly was where?

Even if we could precisely pinpoint the places, we might still not have fully established whether events took place in Iraqi or Iranian territory. For the laws of the sea are sometimes laws unto themselves.

1. Two Places Are More Complex Than One

H.M.S, Cornwall and the Power Boat containing our troops where in different positions at the time of the incident. As far as I am aware, we have not been told how far they were apart. It is possible that one was in Iraqi territorial waters and the other in Iran's.

2. Comparing Maps

Even if our maps showed that both the Frigate and the Power Boat where in Iraqi waters, what do the Iranian maps show?

The incident seems to have occurred near the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab river (which the Iranians call the Arvandrud). At its mouth the river is about half a mile wide - Iraq has the western section, Iran the eastern. Perhaps the capture was at a point where the river had entered the Gulf and was now going into both Iraqi and/or Iranian territorial waters. Again the two vessels could have been at different places (river or sea) as well as in different territories. The possibilities are then further complicated by whether we use an Iraqi or an Iranian map to plot positions.

There is even a crazy theoretical possibility that we were in Iranian territorial waters according to our maps, by the Iranians swooped in what was Iraqi territory according to their maps!

3. Rhine Maidens

For almost 60 miles as the crow flies (but more as the river winds) the middle of the Shatt-al-Arab forms the approximate boundary between Iraq and Iran. The exact boundary, however, is determined according to the Wagnerian sounding principle of the Thalweg - which is used for drawing national boundaries along the Danube. But I like to think of Wagner's Rhine Maidens swimming down to the Thalweg to hide their gold.

The Thalweg is where the valley of the river bed descends to and the water flows at its fastest speed. Thankfully by Basra is reached, there is Iraqi territory on both sides of the river. For the river is then only 760 feet wide for what has traditionally been Iraq's main port.

4. A Coast Or A Corridor?

A 1958 Iraqi Law defined its territorial sea as being twelve nautical miles in the "direction of the high sea, measured from the low-water mark following the sinuosities of the Iraqi Coast".

"Sinuosity" is about curved, tortuous and undulating areas - which is a good description of the Iraqi Faw Peninsula which is at the southern-most tip of Iraqi land.

Its sinuosity is seen by the fact that whilst the distance from the Kuwait border to the Iranian border is only 20 miles, the position from the southern tip of Iraq to the coast of Kuwait is some 30 miles. That's Peninsulas for you.

The details of this law may have changed in the past half-century. Not least because Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. Partly because he wanted to extend the borders at the Shatt-al-Arab to the Iranian side of the river. But in the end he had to accept the Thalweg and was unable to use the river as it was full of sunken ships.

Yet the principles of the 1958 Act in relation to sinuosity and its expanding of the area of Iraqi territorial waters,remain.

Saddam next invaded Kuwait in 1990, which would have given him an extra 150 miles of coastline even without its sinuosities. But that did not work out either.

Clarity Is A Start

I hope that Blair understands all these complexities about Naval manoeuvres, different maps, thalwegs and sinuosity. But who is going to tell Bush as he plays battleships in the Gulf?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Ourselves Together

Green And Orange Unite

Who ever thought we would see this ? Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams on the same platform - even if it is symbolically divided in the corner.

I wonder if they have yet spoken to each other in private - or whether they ever will.

The surprising thing is that the grumpy,dour Paisley probably has more of the social graces when mixing with people informally. Immediately he is away from the public domain, he adopts a fatherly smile and can easily pass the time of day.

I say that his approach is fatherly, even though I am just 10 years his junior - for that is how it felt to me. My room in the Commons was on the same corridor as that of the genial Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church. So we regularly chatted when we met. I immediately knew why those of his constituents who are Catholics have found it easy to take their constituency concerns to him.

That It Should Come To This - Training To Kiss Babies

I did not get to know Gerry Adams as well as this. He refused to take his seat in Westminster and only occasionally used the facilities which were eventually provided for him. I heard him address meetings and press conferences and asked the occasional question.

I did, however, have a detailed conversion with him in an empty Commons Central Lobby on a serious case involving the consequences of certain PIRA activity. Without his accepting responsibilities, this went well. He displayed all his abilities as a leading politician and delivered.

I just wonder whether Protestants will be able to turn to him on case work as easily as Catholics do with Paisley. But if ever the two of them start to enjoy some typical Irish/Ulster crack, then I am sure the old man can teach him a trick or two.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Football, Trade Unionism and Iraq

Three of the main subject areas I cover on this blog are Football, Trade Unionism and Iraq. Tim Lezard recently drew the three areas together in this fine article.

But our shared interests are hardly surprising. Tim and I were part of a delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan last April and travelled regularly with our Iraqi Trade Union friends past the impressive football stadium in Arbil.

An earlier blog of mine on the Iraqi people's love of football and its targeting by terrorists appeared under the heading of the "Killing Fields".

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Lembit's Curse

Back in January I posted what was intended to be a satirical article on the love life of Lembit Opik, the Lib Derm MP. In it I called him "Lemsip Optrex". This has now rebounded upon me.

My wife and I met Lembit in the Commons recently at a reception and discussed the questions my article had raised. It was all very civilised and light-hearted.

I have now developed a heavy cold and running eyes. So what do I have to take to handle the situation, but the regular medical treatments of Lemsip and Optrex?

There are two consequences which follow. First I will have to stop making fun of Lib Dems (although that is a very difficult commitment to live up to) in case they silently curse me. Secondly, until the Lemsip and Optrex work their magic my blogging might be thin and even more bemused than usual.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Clear The Decks

The news of the capture of 15 British Navy personnel in the Gulf is made more poignant for me through a number of past experiences.

Last April

First, less than a year ago I looked down upon Iraqi territorial waters where this incident has now taken place. I was travelling by plane from Arbil in Northern Iraq to Dubai in the Gulf State of the United Arab Emirates. So I looked out of a port side window in order to see the Shat-al-Arab River where it forms the border with Iran.

As we moved south we came to Iraqi territorial waters and then to the High Sea in the Gulf. These immediate areas were packed with shipping arriving and leaving from the Iraqi Faw Peninsula and neighbouring Kuwait. It was in the Iraqi waters that it is claimed the capture of our troops took place.

50 Years Earlier

Secondly, when I undertook my National Service in Iraq in 1955 and 1956, I was stationed at an RAF Movements Unit at Basra. It was situated on the bank of the Shat-al-Arab River. Earlier versions of the Naval Frigate, the HMS Cornwall turned up from time to time at our quayside. On one occasion, a group of us bordered one of these Frigates and travelled down river to a port near the edge of the Faw Peninsula in order to play a cricket match against the British Management at an Oil Refinery.

When we approached the Iranian town of Abadan on the opposite side of the Shat-al-Arab, we had to be cleared from the decks in case we were spotted by the Iranians. RAF troops seen on a Frigate would have created a diplomatic incident. We did, however, glance out on Abandan from a position just below the deck.

By Boat on the Shat-al-Arab

Finally, I was a regular traveller by a petrol-driven boat from our camp to the docks in Basra when my job was extended from my original work of linking with Iraqi State Railways. I then also covered Shipping Line work, with a group of us sometimes needing to go down stream to visit Ships anchored on the Iraqi side of the river. But it was normally just myself with an Iraqi who drove the boat - we were once driven back by stormy weather.

Such trips on the river occurred in an area close to where eight British troops were captured by Iranians in 2004.

The Current Crisis

It is to be hoped that Margaret Beckett's efforts quickly work and that the 15 captured troops are immediately released. It is important for their own well-being and that of their families, friends and colleagues. It is also a crisis we can do without in the massive complexities of our relationship with Iran and Iraq.

I will be paying special attention to developments. Not least because I see them through the prism of my past experiences.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007


Victory With Victor?

Victor Meldrew is supporting Peter Hain for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. I go a step further and keep pressing Peter to stand for the Leadership itself.

So what have Richard Wilson (who played the roll of Victor Meldrew) and I got in common which leads us to see just what it is that Peter has to offer the Labour Party?

The Wisdom of the Aged

Simply that we are old enough to know a thing or two about both Peter and the needs of the Labour Party. Victor and I are both "threescoreyearsandten" being born within a fortnight of each other. We, therefore, have memories which go back to the triumph of the real Labour Party under Attlee in 1945.

Our knowledge of Peter goes back to the 1970s. We saw Peter's anti-apartheid work with the campaigns on Stop the Seventy Tours against the white-only South African rugby and cricket teams. My banner at the latter said "Hit Apartheid For Six".

We have both probably absorbed many of the 21 books and pamphlets which Peter has written since 1971, where his advocacy of libertarian socialism has matured over time.

We also saw Peter's involvement in the setting up of the Anti-Nazi League and his move into the Labour Party in 1977. Twenty years later we saw him set off on a commendable Front Bench career, where he often pushed the boundaries as far as he could under New Labour with responsibilities for Wales, Africa, the European Union, the Leadership of the Commons and Northern Ireland.

To Boo or Not To Boo?

Mind I wasn't always a fan of Peter's. When he moved from the leadership role he had played in the Young Liberals to join the Labour Party at the age of 27, I was annoyed when he immediately appeared on a Tribune platform at a Labour Party Conference before he had served his apprenticeship with us. So I roundly heckled him from the body of the meeting.

Then in the pages of Tribune, Neil Kinnock condemned the unruly mob who had attempted to disrupt the meeting. I responded with a letter defending the right of the little people to boo.

Peter has not forgotten the incident. As Leader of the Commons in 2003, the prefaces to a question and answer on ex-miners chest diseases went as follows -

Harry Barnes: "May I welcome the new Leader to his post? I have obviously changed my opinion since I heckled him at a Tribune Rally just after he moved over from the Liberal Party....."

Peter Hain: "First, I thank my hon.Friend for his historical reference. It was 26 years ago, if I am right in September 1977 and, as I recall, it was a very friendly heckle....." ( Which, of course, it was not. HB.)

I was in the Commons last week for a St. Patrick's (Early) Day Reception. Unfortunately, duties arising from the Northern Ireland Election results prevented Peter turning up. It was a pity because I would have put my case to him for his standing for Leader. And if he had rejected what I had to say, I could always have booed him again.

You never know what 70 year olds like Victor and myself will get up to.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Two Worlds of Roy Hattersley

Putting The Boot Into Foot

In using a book review to condemn Michael Foot's leadership of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983, Roy Hattersley has opened himself up to criticisms here and here.

A partial understanding of what Roy was himself up to at this time can be shown in his activities at the Labour Party Conference in 1981.

Compromise Or Confrontation

At that time, Roy was Joint Chair of the Solidarity Group of MPs which was considered to be on the right-wing of the Labour Party. Prior to what (in those days) were key elections for the NEC of the Labour Party, he addressed a Solidarity fringe meeting. He opened up two options.

On the one hand, he looked for coming NEC election results which would help to heal the wounds in the Labour Party by seeing an advance by right-wing candidates in the (then) Constituency Section which would facilitate the development of a mixed and broader Church. But then he ended up on a more brutal note about the Bennite Left and quoted the slogan "Do not fire first, but if it is war they want let it begin here".

When the election results were announced, Dennis Healy was safely re-elected as Deputy Leader and five lefties bit the dust in the Constituency Section. The potential broad Church was now tilting well to the right.

The "New Socialist" Debate

Roy's immediate response was to seek a move which would either come to terms with the Bennite Left or would undermine them.

He made his initial move for a position of compromise-through-strength at a fringe debate run by what was then the Labour Party's theoretical journal entitled (believe it or not) "New Socialist".

The journal organised a ding-dong right-left debate with Roy and Roger Godsip of Apex on the one hand and leading Bennites, Audrey Wise and Ken Coates on the other.

Roy started with a number of points designed to interest the left or (if that failed) to appeal over their heads to the audience. These included advocacy of high levels of public investment in manufacturing with equity thereby passing into public hands, a socialist incomes policy that would not be a form of wage restraint, what he called genuine forms of industrial democracy and a system of planning agreements. All raving acts of socialism by today's standards.

But instead of Audrey being wise and Ken cottoning on, they looked around for sticks to beat Roy with, such as the failures of the past Wilson-Callaghan Governments and divisions over the European Union. What they should have done was to have got Roy to reveal his full hand and then to nail its socialist potential to the table.


I attempted to get called when the meeting was finally thrown open to the floor, to argue that the left should talk turkey with Roy. I wasn't lucky and the ding-dong continued from both the floor and the platform.

Roy had had enough and he left the meeting before the close. When it was all over I dashed up to the late Audrey Wise and sounded off at her at length for the missed opportunity. She could not get a word in edge ways, which must have been a fairly unique experience for her.

Roy was, in fact, willing to continue with his broad Church efforts for a period after the Conference. I had written up my Conference fringe experiences for the ILP's "Labour Leader" under the title "The Two Worlds of Roy Hattersley". He responded with a detailed letter which dealt with his proposals for Labour's Economic Strategy.

But with the 1983 electoral disaster (and the scuttle from socialism) on its way, the Church which Roy went on to help build did not engage with what was left of the left.

The Westminster Terrain

By I became an M.P. in 1987, Roy was Deputy Leader. At an early meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, he revealed that he had settled into a position where he was no longer seeking an accommodation with the left. Chris Mullen had just been elected. He was a former editor of Tribune and had worked closely with Tony Benn. When Chris made a contribution from the floor it was something of a mirror image of Roy's approach at the 1981 New Socialist meeting. Although he was in no position of strength, Chris sort a broad Church approach. In dismissing Chris's comments Roy said (in what passed for humour) "well I have to tell you, we are not taking prisoners."

Roy was now in the wrong one of his two worlds. So when the Tribune Group supported him for re-election as Deputy Leader, I left them.

But once Tony Blair arrived on the scene, Roy moved into his other world. This is because Roy is a labourite wherever he resides. It is a pity that back in 1981 the Left did not know that eventually something alien was waiting for them in the wings -New Labour.

Neil Kinnock and Roy were seen as the dream-team. The paradox is that a real dream team earlier might have been Michael Foot and Roy Hattersley, or even vice-versa. But only if Roy had been in his broad Church mode, whilst next to such a fine comrade.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Stadium of Bright

Yet More History

As I keep pointing out, my local football team is the oldest team in the world. 6 years ago, Sheffield FC moved into the ground which is 15 minutes walk from my home.

Although they engaged in ground improvements with the help of a grant from the Football Foundation, they only leased what was then known as the Coach and Horses ground - named after the neighbouring pub.

A sponsorship deal led to a re-christening of the ground. It is now known as the "Bright Finance Stadium". As first and foremost a Sunderland supporter, I call it the "Stadium of Bright".

The Club has now purchased the ground outright. This is the first time in its 150 year history that it has owned its own ground. So when I went to see them play Glasshoughton Welfare yesterday, I was witnessing their first game ever on their ground!

Game On

Although it was a fine day for football with top of the League Sheffield playing a team who had lost three quarters of their away games,this was not to be the type of dream result that we had dreamt about.

That expectations were high can be seen by the size of the crowd. At 385 it was over 50% up on the norm. Few of these came from Glasshougton as its average home crowd is only 50.

For 35 minutes or so, Sheffield seemed to be coming to command the game. Then suddenly, Glasshoughton realised that this was not a lost cause. A goalmouth punch-up in front of Sheffield's goal revealed that the situation was getting tense.

Jamie Holmshaw in the Sheffield goal now displayed fine form and was called on to bring about further top saves in the second half. It was, therefore, disappointing that he moved unwisely towards the corner of his penalty area in the 73rd minute as Glasshoughton broke down their left wing. Stuart Dove then lobbed the keeper to score a great goal. Expect it wasn't one of those carefully crafted, gentle up and unders. Under pressure he managed to crack the ball and clear the keeper at the same time.

Sheffield were now stirred back into action and after another 15 minutes, they levelled the scores thanks to a fine diving header by David Wilkins from a telling cross from Jon Boulter. Yet just before the end of added time, a Stuart Dove free kick from just outside the Sheffield penalty area rattled the crossbar. So we were then content to settle for a share of the spoils.


From past experiences, I would not be surprised if Sheffield don't end up signing Stuart Dove. It happened. for instance, after David Wilkins scored against us for Arnold Town.

Whilst Sheffield drew, their rivals for the top League spot Retford Town won 5-2. Which adds spice to Tuesday's nights six pointer at the Stadium of Bright with Retford themselves.

As I explained to our Club Chairman this is a clash which I am obliged to miss. Heaven knows how we will win without my will-power to push us on.

Although I have to admit that this magic hasn't worked over our past two home matches. In case I did not mention it, one of these was the last game in the 150 year era of Sheffield not owning their home ground, whilst the other was the first of the new era!

At least the lads from the real Stadium of Light won 2-0 at Barnsley as part of their current 11 game unbeaten run to move into 3rd place in the Championship. I am still on song for my two teams to win promotion this season.

The future is Bright - well, at least, the Stadiums are.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Fly In The Ointment

Plus 10 Minus 5 ?

With a ten point lead in the Northern Counties East League, Sheffield FC might appear to be strolling to automatic promotion to the Unibond. The only fly in the ointment could be Retford United, the team in the runners up spot.

For Retford have three games in hand and the two teams have yet to meet each other in home and away fixtures. If Retford win all these five games (and nothing else changes) then they would get into a 5 point lead.

Furthermore, Retford are the team on a roll. Admittedly they lost their last League game 3-1 at Armthorpe Welfare. But this is claimed to have been due to perverse refereeing decisions involving the sending off of two Retford players.

Until Saturday , they were undefeated in a run of 17 League games which included 14 wins. Then yesterday evening they outclassed Sheffield FC themselves at my local ground in the semi-final of the League Cup (known as the President’s Cup) 4-0.

Don’t Panic, Don’t Panic

One of the excuses for Sheffield FC’s humiliation is that they had three key players cup-tied and others were injured or rested. See the Club's own match report.

Concentrating on the League, we play lowly Glasshoughton Welfare at home on Saturday, followed on the Tuesday evening by non-other than Retford again. So the League contest with our rivals is obviously much more important than the chance last night to get into a Cup Final.

There is, in fact, an indication that this isn't just special pleading. We keenly wish to be up into a higher League for the time of our 150th Anniversary. The Manager even complained about the inconvenience of the President's Cup games in the Club's Programme for the first round clash with Arnold Town at the start of the season. I pointed this out at the time.

Postponing Postponements

There have been a series of postponements to Sheffield's home clashes with Retford. Mainly due to muddy pitches.

The League game has been postponed at least twice. Initially being programmed for November 25, then again being postponed on 16 January. Whilst yesterday's Cup clash was supposed to have been held on 27 February. It was moved to Tuesday of this week, then late-on pushed back a day.

Unfortunately, I am obliged to miss Tuesday's clash. But I am not too worried. It only needs another down pour to get it postponed once more.

Whenever the game is played, we may have learnt a valuable lesson from yesterday's match. Don't float long crosses into the Retford penalty area, as they have a tall set of tough defenders.

The Track Record

Sheffield have, however, got the better of Retford once this season. We knocked them out of the FA Cup in the Preliminary Round.

We fought out a grim goalless draw in the driving rain at home. The replay also ended up all square at 1-1, but we won 3-0 on penalties.

But this was all back in September before Retford went on that 17 game unbeaten run in the League.

Yet we can claim to be holding our own against Retford this season (if you ignore the goal difference) with a win, a draw and a defeat.

A Happy Ending

The final clash between the two sides is due to take place at Retford's ground as the penultimate match of our season. Whether I make the trip may depend on two factors. First, will we have wrapped up the League Title by then? Secondly, Sunderland are at home to QPR that day and they might need my voice to shout them on to victory to gain an automatic promotion to the Premiership.

Life is hectic when you support winning teams.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Iraq : We Can Help Where We Can

The fact that the huge daily distasters in Iraq seem to be beyond us, is no reason for failing to act on other smaller (yet significant)problems which arise. Here is a further report on the attacks by US and Iraqi troops on the Trade Union Headquarters in Baghdad. How to help is shown on the earlier item I posted here. Even if what I suggest is just a small act in itself, it is better than doing nothing.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Shaking Up What's Left

A review of Nick Cohen’s “What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way” (Fourth Estate, 2007.)

Love it or hate it, this is a readable and serious political romp.

Nick Cohen wishes to shake up wide elements of left and liberal opinion whom he feels can’t see some clear home truths about terrorist, nihilist, totalitarian, criminal and fascist activities in the modern world.

When a writer is driven by such a passion, they are liable to look for evidence and arguments that will tug at the heart strings. It is this very passion which explains both the strengths and weaknesses of this book
Post Modern and Anti-Imperialist Blunders

The author is not claiming that the Bush administration, with support from Tony Blair has been spotless in its moves to police sections of the world. But he is highly critical of those who condemn the Bush-Blair Axis and then go on to “understand”, excuse or even endorse the acts of Muslim extremists and others - including those of the late and unlamented Milosevic.

Nick Cohen believes that such errors of judgement are widespread and arise from two major factors.

First, many on the Left see what they term as forms of Western Imperialism as merely reaping what they have sown in countries such as Iraq. The plight of the Iraqi people under attack from criminals, sectarians, religious bigots and people with wild international agendas are then written off as only having been created by the forces which invaded that country.

Secondly, post-modern viewpoints of an avant-garde nature on cultural relativism have led many to excuse Non-Western excesses against homosexuals and women as just being part of alternative and distinctive cultures. Monstrous actions are then accepted as being essential parts of such life styles. It is then believed that we have no right to criticize what our own mind-sets can’t comprehend.

Nick’s Pickings

I have a great deal of sympathy for Nick Cohen’s negative thesis. He targets many who often make me moan and groan; including Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Robert Frisk and the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition.

Yet like an old fashioned “balanced” Manchester Guardian editorial, I nevertheless feel that some of the above do come up with criticisms of Western excesses which we do at times need to take on board. Although I also recognise that the modern-day Guardian also fits well into the camp that is under criticism.

One of my main concerns is the way that Nick Cohen builds up his case. He is in danger of constructing a counter-mythology of his own. Even though he recognises the excesses of Guantanamo Bay and Al Ghraib, pressures for Oil privatisation and many other Western style failures and abuses; his criticisms are only made in passing and merely give the appearance of statutory condemnations made to protect his back.

Vigour Instead of Rigour

His arguments often lack rigour. He uses what he feels will best hit the emotions and create the mood he is seeking. Plays, poems, psychiatric experiments and hoaxes are all drawn upon.

The socialist shortcomings of Stalin, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf (“a pacifist and screaming snob”) are delved into to show that some elements of the left have always been liable to flip over to elitist, dictatorial and totalitarian extremes.

When he moves on to tackle the more modern nonsenses which have arisen within socialism, he provides racy tales about the follies of Tony Cliff, Ted Grant and Tariq Ali. But there is no mention of any figures over the past 20 years on what is left of Labour’s hard left. The Bennite past remarkably does not get a single look in.

He concentrates instead upon the living-dead of recent socialism - trotskyists and troglodytes such as Gerry Healy.

Genesis Of the Present Dilemma

To Nick Cohen, the modern dilemma for left liberal opinion started under Major’s Conservative Government when it failed to move to defend Bosnians from acts of Serbian paramilitary genocide ( which the International Courts have just accepted was at least aided by deliberate inactivity from Belgrade, although the guilt goes much deeper than sins of omission.)

The Conservative acts of appeasement provided no counterpoint to a growth of sympathy on the left for Milosevic, which was motivated by a concern not to see the continuing break-up of the former Communist Yugoslavia.

When a Labour Government finally joined moves to protect Kosovo Albanians fleeing from Serb forces in 1999, many of the Left opposed the move pointing to the bombing of civilians which NATO undertook in and around Belgrade.

It seemed to me that there were two sides to the coin. We could and should have acted in defence of Bosnia (and even earlier still to counter the ethic battles which raged between the Serbs and Croats.) Yet much of the eventual bombardment from the air hit civilian areas with the military only experiencing the collateral damage. This is a continuing problem with Western-led military action.

We need the development of alternative means of anti-insurgency, drawing upon those we move to protect. We should no longer act as if we were involved in a hot version of the Cold War.

Whose Side Are We On ?

Nick Cohen’s position on Bosnia is important in showing that his condemnation of extremism in the Muslim world isn’t part of a general anti-Muslim stance. For Muslims were prominent in what had been a fairly integrated Bosnian Society.

Under the stimulus of Al-Qaeda’s destruction of the Twin Towers, he next supported military action in Afghanistan which also had the key justification of seeking to overturn the Taliban’s marriage of modern totalitarianism techniques with medieval reaction.

I again went along with this stance, but I was still a continual critic of the inappropriate methods of US led warfare and their occupational techniques.

Whilst Nick Cohen is in no doubt that the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq were fully justified to tackle Saddam Hussein’s expansionism and his genocide against wide categories of his own people, he displays an ambiguity towards those of us who warned against invasion because of its destabilising consequences but immediately after the event moved to support Iraq’s own complex forces of democracy and pressed for the tackling of terrorism.

We are guilty of marching with the Stop the War Coalition in that mass demonstration, but we are then patted on the head for our subsequent stance. On the latter, we are at least seen to be acting in the best traditions of the old left in the Trade Unions and in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Indeed, he goes as far as to dedicate his book to the late Hadi Saleh, the Iraqi Trade Union leader who was brutally murdered by terrorists in Baghdad in 2005. Yet Hadi (whose meetings I chaired in the Commons) had been an opponent of the invasion, although as soon as it took place he returned to his homeland and become an activist and organiser for furthering trade unionism and democracy inside Iraq.

I have always argued that Hadi’s opposition to the invasion and the use he then made of the new openings it provided, were both correct positions. Although I grant that those of us who opposed the invasion were under an obligation to say what alternatives we sought in order to end Saddam’s reign of terror. This always seemed to me to involve support for the very type of clandestine activity which Hadi and his comrades were involved in. With practical acts of solidarity from outside of Iraq this could have opened the way for progressive Iraqi forces themselves to have instigated regime change.

On The Zionist Question

In dealing with the general situation in the Middle East, Nick Cohen adopts a strong position for the defence of Israel, whilst arguing that a solution of the Palestinian conflict requires a confrontation with both Jewish and Muslim ultras.

There is then a strong criticism of those liberals who camouflage forms of anti-Semitism under a cloak of anti-Zionism.

Here it seems to me that it is fruitful for the left to avoid such dangers by clarifying what we understand by the use of the concept of “anti-Zionism”. For it is possible to adopt forms of Zionism and anti-Zionism at the same time.

Zionism was initially a movement to establish a Jewish State in Palestine. With the establishment of a State of Israel with its widely recognised borders and its theoretical rights for its Arab citizens as embodied in its Constitution, a major element of the initial project has been achieved.

Without recognising the rights of settlements on the West Bank nor of Israel’s freedom to act at will in Gaza and the Lebanon, those of us who recognise the right of Israel to exist and to take reasonable action to defend itself have, in fact, come to accept a partial Zionist position.

Many of us have not done this from ideological positions, but mainly as a matter of coming to terms with what we saw as the politics of the situation. Although those of us who were young children at the time of the holocaust, may have developed Jewish sympathies which gave little consideration at the time to the Arab Question.

On Zionism, we need to be clear that we are opposed to its expansionist form and to any desire to treat Arabs as second class citizens.

Many anti-Zionists obscure the distinction I have made. Their ill defined form of anti-Zionism allows them to gain the acceptance of those who wish to destroy the State of Israel, whilst telling the rest of us that they aren’t anti-Semitic as they actually favour a two State solution to the Palestine problem.

Clarity on what we mean by anti-Zionism might not be everything, but it sure is an important starter.

But whilst we have a three card trick being played by some to obscure the distinctions we need to have in our mind between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism, Zionist lobbies (of both the types I describe) can also be used to hide counter criticism of un-praiseworthy acts by Israel or its supporters. We should avoid being fooled by the language tricks on both sides of this divide.

Walking and Chewing Gum

Nick Cohen’s achievement is to alert us to the very real dangers of the contemporary evils I listed earlier, including totalitarianism. Although he needs to recognise that these will not always be experienced in their absolutists forms. As Mary Kaldor has pointed out in relation to Iraq “by spring 2003 the regime exhibited characteristics that are typical of the last phase of totalitarianism - a system that is breaking up under the impact of globalisation, unable to sustain its closed, autarchic, tightly-controlled character” (Iraq: the wrong war, 21.4.05, Open Democracy web-site.)

There is, however, an urgent need to contain, push back and end the forms of development which concern Nick Cohen. It is, of course, difficult to achieve his aims without the involvement of the world’s major economic, cultural and political power - the USA. After all without our moral support, they will still either automatically intervene in some form or they will go into an even more dangerous form of isolation. We need to acknowledge this, yet seek to significantly influence their role.

Democratisation at the level of the world’s major institutions, within the USA and in bodies such as the European Union or within ad hoc cosmopolitan groupings, is an essential. It is needed to direct these structures towards only justifiable interventions which are directed towards worthwhile ends and which ensure the use of the best available humanitarian methods.

The democratic taming and revitalisation of such power structures is part of the very means by which we make it easier to make the world and its peoples safe from the forces which Nick Cohen wishes us to face up to.

Even though hard choices have to be made in situations of crisis, we can’t always easily choose between Imperialism on the one hand and Fascism on the other. We will often need to tackle both at once as we learn to “walk and chew gum at the same time” - to use a phase employed by Nick Cohen. George Orwell used to understand this.

In The Meantime

I appreciate that we can’t wait for improved forms of democracy, before we next act to protect ourselves and others. Although each crisis does offer a democratic opportunity of its own - like the world-wide marches against the invasion of Iraq, whose main humanitarian drive Nick Cohen fails to understand.

Whilst we wait for a full democratic break-through, we have no option but to decide how to deal with passing problems according to the complexities of each set of circumstances. So despite serious problems, I am solidly opposed to an attack on Iran.

But that doesn’t mean that my thought processes fit in with those of Andrew Murray or George Galloway. For the Iranian regime needs working upon (being pulled into discussions, for instance) to move it away from its own development of nuclear weapons and its Shia expansionist instincts.

I also realise that in politics, we often are pressed into a need to act quickly in accordance with our gut reactions. I am not, therefore, arguing that before we can act we have to engage in a never-ending series of academic seminars. But regular thought and discussion on the left about our democratic, humanitarian, libertarian and socialist values will help us to see the wood as well as the trees.

The paradox of Nick Cohen’s stimulating book is that it was in an earlier work of his that he showed us what had taken place within the Labour Party which set back the very processes of thought which I recommend above. Although things were far from perfect beforehand, it was those “Pretty Straight Guys” (Faber and Faber, 2003) around Tony Blair who helped abandon the Labour Party’s traditional ideals. The problem for Nick Cohen is that in “What’s Left?“ he throws away his earlier perceptions along with the murky bathwater which he has now discovered.

When he twigs and produces a synthesis of “What’s Left?” and “Pretty Straight Guys”, it should really be something.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

John McDonnell's Farm

See here for an exchange between John McDonnell and myself via my comment box. When he becomes Prime Minister and transforms the House of Lords into a socialist institution, I have high hopes that he will call upon me to be a commissar(responsible for political education and organisation.)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Urgent : Support Needed For Iraqi Trade Union Centre

Labour Start states that - "On 23 February 2007, US and Iraqi forces raided the head offices of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), the country's national trade union center. They arrested one of the union's security staff (later released unharmed), destroyed furniture, and confiscated a computer and fax machine. And then did this again two days later, causing further damage to the union headquarters. The union is condemning the attacks as unprovoked. It is calling on the occupation forces to return all the seized property, and to pay compensation for damages."

Send A Message Of Support for the GFIW Via "Labour Start".

The issue has also been raised by Dave Anderson MP with Jack Straw, who has promised to have the matter investigated.

I am an honourary member of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) who merged to form the GFIW which is the Iraqi's TUC. These are fine people who are in need of your solidarity.

So far, everyones a fruit and nut case

The Labour Leadership contest is in danger of turning into a complete and utter farce.

The Three Stooges : Clarke, Milburn and Meacher

Ignoring the Byzantine policy-making structure which they helped to foist upon the Labour Party, Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn now propose to set up their own policy debate via a web-site. Yet as every blogger knows, comment boxes seriously degenerate after the first wave of entries - just have a look at Harry's Place.

John McDonnell is probably correct when he states that "nobody can believe that this is anything other than a smokescreen for the launch of a pre-emptive coup against Gordon Brown by the Blairite ultra-right." For when this duo are supposed to be tackling Gordon Brown on policy matters, instead they concentrate on what really worries them - his slump in the opinion polls put down to a lack of charisma.

On the third stooge, see this one I made earlier.

At The Starting Blocks

A. Gordon Brown. He has been the economic wing of New Labour, even though he has had one of the longest sulks about his leader, even challenging that of Ted Heath over Margaret Thatcher. For those in a democratic socialist position, he is a non-starter - unless he is suddenly going to return to the days of John Smith.

B. John McDonnell. He was fine when we shared rebel division lobbies against New Labour excesses. But everything can't be put back in one fell swoop. His campaign isn't meant to build a meaningful challenge to old, new or right-wing Blairism. He is merely for spreading the socialist gospel. But even that aim will backfire in widespead defeat.

C. Micheal Meacher. He has no credabilty on his chosen ground of the centre-left. He tucked in with the New Labour Government and then got the sack. He had missed his chance to resign and build a base amongst the very back-benchers he is now trying to appeal to. When he was finally free to move, he came up with a futile conspiracy theory about 9/11. He had been surfing the net without discernment.

D. Godot or God-damn-it. This is the yet unknown candidate of the dreams of Charles Clarke and Allan Milburn (they are probably waiting for us to turn out on the streets to shout for them.) If what emerges is a substitute for Blair/Brown or the right wing varient feared by John McDonnell, then this could be the candidate from hell.

Who Is Doing The Thinking On The Centre-Left ?

The leftward leaning (but pro-capitalist) think-tank Compass has washed its hands of the Leadership Contest and is running a strange and premature ballot for its members for the Deputy Leadership instead. As the returning officer, it is asking its members to vote for Jon Cruddas. Are they serious ?

As I keep arguing, only Peter Hain (of the booming Northern Ireland economy) can save the centre-left from the folly of a Leadership contest where it currently has no real presence. OK, I am on the left but we can't do anything without a centre. Why do I seem to be the only to be making the case for Peter4Leader? Perhaps I am the only one who isn't mad after ten years of New Labouring.

If Peter does not make a move, then I will probably have to end up voting for John McDonnell (if he makes the ballot paper). But this will be due to a non-emotional spasm and will be an act of desparation. And without John in the contest, it will have to be Gordon or abstention. I can't belieeeve it.