Trouble Abroad for Clegg 10

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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10 thoughts on “Trouble Abroad for Clegg

  • Mike Cobley

    As an LD party member I despair at the apparent acquiescence of the parliamentary party to the Clegg leadership. Apart from a few grumblers, all that be seen is a party whose MPs have willingly allowed themselves to be gagged. This cannot go on, and things that cannot go on frequently do not. The May elections represent a doom-laden straw in the wind – the public has reacted to Clegg's support for the Tories' gleeful kicking of the disadvantaged, resulting in the loss of half our councillors and 2/3rds of MSPs in Scotland. Coupled with the loss of support across all the demographics AND the colossal failure of the AV referendum, who can deny that Clegg is simply the worst leader ever of the Liberal Democrats, and the worst 3rd party leader in British politics since WW2?

    The revolt has to come, otherwise we can look forward to annihilation in 2013 and 2015.

  • maria

    Terrific piece. Also an excellent comment from Mark Golding there –
    America is running the show in Libya – the NATO commander is a US admiral. This is naked imperialism. America and Britain want to plunder the country. They don't want to help the people. They want to exploit the people. They want to steal the resources. Just compare the Gaddafi regime to the murderous King of Bahrain or the corrupt President of Yemen – Of course they are all despots, as despots go, yet Gaddafi is the kind of despot you would choose to live under: free education, free healthcare, housing help, and all kinds of benefits given to the Libyan people.

  • ingo

    Indeed mike, a good look at one's policies and re-adherence to them, for example, on their stated policy and prefered option of voting reform, STV, would show that the ship is turning. One could even go as far as to say that AV will never be discussed as an option again.
    It would also go down well to make a statement on future 'horizon events', with reagrds to coal;ition foreign policy goals.
    For example, should the Lib Dems be wholly behind any future campaigns against Iran and Syria, clearly be identified as in support of a beleaguered Netanyahu, now clearly in a corner since the forthright comments of the ex Mossad chief.
    A statement as to the cross border firing on unarmed demonstrators on the occupied Gholan heights presents an excellent opportunity to change tack, before it is too late.
    Good luck with it, for my part I condemn party politics and dogma as utter folly, I will not have anything to do with it anymore.

  • Jack

    I’m old enough (just) to remember the end of WW2. Among the legacy of that conflict was the simple widespread question – how could the German people have descended so low as to behave as they did?

    A a couple of generations on, we’re now in danger of having to explain to our own children and grandchildren how – after claiming to have learned the lessons of the Third Reich – WE (i.e. USA,UK, Israel and more than a few totalitarian states living off our support) have now effectively become the Fourth Reich in the eyes of much of the world. With results indisputably comparable with the excesses of the Nazis.

    My own shame at being so ineffective in influencing all this, in what is supposed to be a democratic country, pales only in comparison to the total lack of conscience shown by the miserable political sycophants who have taken over the UK – to whom human suffering is as nothing when set against their their own careers and bank accounts.

  • conjunction

    Another depressing example of moral vacuity would be the well documented fact – see Andrew Rawnsley's books – that Blair's unashamed enthusiasm for the Iraq war was met first with absolute incredulity by his cabinet – led by jack Straw who then became his biggest ally – who almost to a man then lay down for the remaining years of his Prime Ministership and applauded his every act.

    I wonder though, if it was ever thus. I have read a number of biographies of Victorian Prime Ministers and do get the impression that a series of major figures completely out manoevured all their contemporaries.

  • maria

    Cable reveals his fascist tendencies. Warns unions against coordinated strike action or else. He told a woman delegate (who asked him what part she had played in the banking collapse and why she was being penalised) ) that 'the country was poorer'. She had told him that she had not had a pay rise for two years, had lost her travel allowance and so on,. Not all of us are poorer Mr Cable. Have a chat to the bankers and ask what bonuses they have received lately and to the boardroom dwellers who have seen massive rises in their take.

    The IMF are in town apparently so Vince is making the right noises for them to hear.

    Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned delegates at the GMB union's conference that co-ordinated strike action may lead to tougher union laws.

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