Daily archives: June 5, 2011

Miriam Karlin

I mark with great sorrow the death of my friend Miriam Karlin. Even I am too young to remember when she was at her most famous, one of the biggest stars of British television in the early 1960’s. A RADA and RSC actress of great distinction, she maintained that the same discipline of performance needs to be applied to sitcom work, and that is why sitcoms seldom do work nowadays.

Of course I knew her largely as a political campaigner, with a great interest in human rights everywhere. Her activism, despite ill health, against the war in Iraq was just a continuation with a life constantly devoted to helping the underdog, be it struggling actors or victims of human rights abuse in Palestine or Burma. Towards the end she could not do much more than compose letters to editors, but she still kept doing that.

I recall arriving in her little flat near Great Portland Street tube station a few years ago, to be met by Miriam, hobbling on her stick, brandishing a copy of The Times at me, eyes flashing with indignation. It was how I found out that David Aaronovitch had published an article calling me anti-semitic. Miriam was even more furious on my behalf than I was myself, and wrote a letter to the paper (it wasn’t published). But I won’t forget what she said; she said her own mother was an Aaronovich, and that many of their family had been killed in the holocaust, and that those who had suffered would be horrified to see their legacy perverted to a neo-conservative agenda.

I also remember her coming to see Nadira’s one woman show at the Arts theatre to give Nadira notes. There are hundreds of actors who have benefited from Miriam’s generosity with her time and experience over decades. She told Nadira to let the words paint the picture; the text contains all the emotion – just deliver it clearly, and as your character would. You don’t have always to convey the emotion other than simply and through the words.

Miriam really did live her life largely for others. I am so sorry it has ended.

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Trouble Abroad for Clegg

The IoS did a splendid job of presenting my article. But the original, before editing for space, was rather more stylish, i feel. You might also note that the passage on Libya was an addition at the resquest of the IoS. I suggest I think my headlune was rather better:

Trouble Abroad for Clegg

I recently received a circular email from a friend, a Liberal Democrat activist, a well known and respected party conference speaker for many decades, of precisely the type whose dress sense has provided cheap lines to political commentators throughout that period. He was furious that party conference delegates, elected by their constituencies, are to be required to submit their details to the police and to a private security company for vetting. He is of course absolutely right – it hardly promotes democracy for party conference delegates to be subject to police veto.

In any other decade of the last century and a half, such an arrangement would have been ridiculed out of existence. Unfortunately, the number of people who really care about such questions of liberty appears to be fast dwindling. But undoubtedly there is a concentration of people who do care about liberty in the Liberal Democrats.

Liberty is of course an universal concept, and Liberal Democrat activists, as witnessed by their conference resolutions, are distinguished by an extraordinary interest in two places – their local government, and abroad. Human rights, ethical foreign policy and support for international law are a part of the very weft of the liberal tradition.

There is therefore mounting concern that the foreign policy of the coalition government is entirely indistinguishable from that of New Labour, or that which William Hague might exercise were he not in coalition. That is likely to become a more acute pressure point for their activists than the media has so far noticed.

Let me refer to one touchstone issue; extraordinary rendition and the use of intelligence obtained under torture. Lib Dems believe that British complicity in the excesses of George Bush’s CIA
at the height of the “War on Terror”, represents a deep dark stain on the record of New Labour. In the second of the Prime Ministerial election debates, Nick Clegg startled his opponents by devoting part of his vital opening comments to this issue. Last year’s annual Liberal Democrat Assembly in Liverpool saw a full conference debate.

But the issue is a prime example of a win for the Lib Dems evaporating in delivery.

It was announced with great fanfare at the start of the coalition government that there would be an inquiry into the question of UK complicity in torture. But then the establishment clawed the ball back. It was announced, astonishingly, that the inquiry would be conducted by Sir Peter Gibson, former Commissioner for the intelligence services, who had every year in that role reported that MI6 were “trustworthy, conscientious and reliable”. Sir Peter Gibson was thus being asked to investigate whether he himself was negligent, amoral or corrupt.

Next the inquiry was kicked far into the long grass. It would not take place until the conclusion of a number of court proceedings relating to individuals who allegedly had suffered torture. As if that were not enough, it has been decided that its proceedings will mostly be held in secret. Worst of all, its terms of reference will be limited strictly to individual cases of torture, rather than whether there was a general policy of collusion with torture by hideous regimes abroad.

This particularly concerns me because I was the only British civil servant to enter a written objection at the time to UK complicity in torture. I have testified before both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe inquiries that I have eyewitness evidence that there was such a policy. But I have been warned by senior friends still within the FCO that Gibson’s terms of reference are specifically being tweaked to exclude my evidence.

So much for the inquiry. But more crucially, the policy has not changed either. MI6 still receive, via the CIA, “intelligence” from Uzbekistan’s torture chambers. They were receiving “intelligence” from Mubarak’s torture chambers until the moment he fell, and still do so from other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. An FCO spokesman even used the killing of Osama Bin Laden to justify the efficacy of intelligence gained from torture.

All of which leads to the wider question of human rights and the consistency of our support for liberty abroad. It is to me astonishing that a government with a Lib Dem component is silent about the atrocious torture and murder of pro-democracy demonstrators and human rights activists in Bahrain, and even the continuing imprisonment and mistreatment of 53 medical staff whose crime was to treat demonstrators shot by the security forces.

It astonishes me still more that our policy in Central Asia toadies still more to the world’s most vicious dictators than it did under New Labour, in the interest of supply lines to Afghanistan and future oil and gas contracts..

Still less is there any sign of an intention to address dreadful longstanding British wrongs, such as the deportation of the whole population of the Chagos Islands to make way for a US military base on Diego Garcia.

The FCO still publishes an annual human rights report. Under Robin Cook, each country’s human rights record was subjected to stern analysis. That caused embarrassment by pointing up the gross double standards with which we treat Libya, Burma and Zimbabwe on one hand, and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan on the other. So Jack Straw had the format changed. Rather than by country, the report is ordered by theme, so that inconvenient abuses by allied states could simply be (and are) elided.

The coalition government has made no attempt to change the format or the mindset it represents.

There is a Liberal Democrat minister in the FCO, Jeremy Browne. In theory, he precisely carries ministerial responsibility for human rights. Now I have tried every internet search engine and scoured Hansard. But I can find absolutely no connection between Jeremy Browne and human rights before he was given this portfolio.

I strongly suspect that his lack of interest in the subject was his chief qualification.

Karzai has been privately assured by both the US and UK that neither will quit Afghanistan before his term of office ends in 2015 and he and his family leave to enjoy their very substantial fortune. His two predecessors as puppet rulers in Kabul, Dr Nasrullah and Shah Shujah, both met grisly ends once their sponsors departed, and the White House and No 10 both realise a repeat would make it hard to claim victory.

The greatest betrayal of liberalism by the coalition is the failure to tackle the increasing miltarism of British society, and our new assumption that war is the normal state of the nation. That great Liberal, Gladstone, was prepared to take on all the forces of jingoism headlong. While Leader of the Opposition, campaigning against the Second Anglo-Afghan War, he declaimed:

“Those hill tribes had committed no real offence against us. We, in the pursuit of our political objects, chose to establish military positions in their country. If they resisted, would not you have done the same?”
Political sophistication in this country has declined since Gladstone made that speech in 1880. It is impossible in 2011 to contemplate any mainstream politician, let alone the leader of the opposition, admitting that those fighting the British Army may have right on their side. Now our media is swamped by jingoism, and the liberals in government appear to have lost all connection with the tradition and philosophy they pretend to espouse.

Commentators have not in general considered foreign policy as an area where Clegg will face party revolt; they may be wrong.

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