Paul Routledge meets the ex-ambassador who wants to bring down the Foreign Secretary
Craig Murray, our troublesome former man in Tashkent, is at a loss to understand why he has not been charged under the Official Secrets Act. After all, he has disclosed secret diplomatic despatches from his time in the Uzbek capital, exposing torture and human rights abuses under the regime of President Islam Karimov – abuses that the Foreign Office ignored. And he’s still spilling the beans: for good measure, the Khanabad military base, run by the US on the outskirts of Karshi, which is supposed to have only two air force squadrons and 1,200 ground troops, has “more of both, not acknowledged publicly. It’s enormous, and it’s intended to be permanent.”
Now, sacked by the Foreign Office for speaking out against tyranny, Murray is investing some of his ?315,000 pay-off to stand as an independent candidate against the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in his Lancashire seat of Blackburn.
The old cotton town is an unlikely setting for a conflict over foreign policy. It does not usually register events in the outside world. The Wars of the Roses passed it by. The English civil war made little impact, and even the class war failed to rouse much interest. Straw, moreover, won a majority of 9,200 in 2001, and the odds against bringing him down are daunting. However, his majority has been as low as 5,000; Straw’s predecessor and mentor, Barbara Castle, once scraped in by 489 votes. And today, the Muslim vote, estimated at 20-25 per cent of the 73,000 electorate, is unlikely to support Labour en masse as before.
Murray believes he can be the grit in the oyster, taking up to 3,000 votes from Muslims and disgruntled Labour traditionalists. Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance polled almost 1,100 at the last election – before the Iraq war, the mistreatment of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay and the threats from the Home Office minister Hazel Blears of increased stop-and-search of Asians.
“I think Straw is in trouble, I honestly do,” says Murray. “And if he loses his seat because of foreign policy, that will make it impossible for Tony Blair to follow Bush if he decides to invade Syria or Iran . . . We can stop any war here in Blackburn.”
Murray also wants to forestall a domestic strategy based on the “complete bollocks” of intelligence from the security services, particularly MI6. Until he encountered Foreign Office indifference that intelligence was being gleaned by means of torture in Uzbekistan, “I didn’t realise fully that when they say this material is very useful, it doesn’t mean that it is very true . . . They really didn’t seem to care that it wasn’t true, if it served their purpose.”
Murray was born in Norfolk in 1958, the son of a gaming machine operator. After grammar school, he took a First in history at Dundee University and was president of the students’ union. He was a Liberal then (and probably is now), and took the civil service exams only because he couldn’t get a job in marketing. He was second secretary in Lagos in the late 1980s, first secretary in Warsaw after the Soviet downfall and deputy high commissioner to Ghana, before he was invited in 2002 to become the UK’s ambassador to Uzbekistan. He said “yes”, put down the phone, and took out the atlas to find where it was.
Foreign Office briefings gave him little idea of what to expect. “I felt like I had been asleep and woke up in the middle of The Quiet American. CIA people everywhere.” Karimov, who became first secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party in 1989, has held the presidency of the former Soviet republic since 1991 – with the help of crooked elections and referendums. Murray denounced the regime as “not a functioning democracy” and exposed the barbaric tactics of the security apparat (which included boiling a man alive) just three months after he took up his post.
He was recalled, accused of granting UK visas in exchange for sex and of drunken-ness – an easy allegation for a man who lists drinking as a recreation in Who’s Who, and mentions his membership of the Dzien Dobry (“cheers”) club in Poznan. Though the charges were dropped, Murray’s return to Tashkent was short-lived, and he was brought back to London to face the consequences of his undiplomatic behaviour.
Britain was anxious not to embarrass the United States, which has poured men and materiel into Uzbekistan since 2002, turning a blind eye to Karimov’s suppression of an ineffective Islamist revolt. The number of political prisoners is generally estimated at between 7,000 and 10,000, but Murray claims the true figure is twice that. Tashkent is the hub of central Asia, and the Americans want to hold on to the strategic advantage that the “war on terror” has given them in the region.
Murray, slightly portly and with a taste for three-piece suits, is becoming a figure on the intellectual protest scene. His character is the star of a new play for the Royal Court, Talking to Terrorists, which premieres outside London in April; in the autumn his book Should Not Be Known will be published. The title is from James Elroy Flecker’s collection of poems The Golden Journey to Samarkand, which speaks of the “lust of knowing what should not be known”. Murray also contemplates making a TV film debunking MI6.
Of Blackburn Rovers, enjoying their best FA Cup run in 40 years, Straw says: “I never make predictions. I just pray.” Perhaps he should spend a bit more time on his knees in the next five weeks.