Friday, 15 August 2014

Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev - Review

Andrei Kurkov is Ukraine’s most famous author and he may be the best contemporary novelist writing in Russian.  His books are translated into beautifully simple, elegant English and ‘Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev’ has just been published by Random House. 

Kurkov’s first language is Russian and his novel, The Good Angel of Death, does a good job of lampooning Ukrainian nationalism.  However he is also a fervent supporter of the ‘Maidan’ protesters who overthrew President Yanukovych, in Kiev.

His diaries are an enjoyable, partial account of events in Ukraine between November 2013 and June 2014.  Kurkov has little empathy for countrymen who did not support the violence in the capital which deposed Yanukovych.  Nor does he include in his book any of the atrocities committed by nationalist militias, some of which are still taking lives in the Donetsk region, where the new regime is not generally accepted. 

Although he expresses some concerns about the conduct of Pravy Sektor neo-Nazis, he does not really acknowledge the darker aspects of Ukrainian revolution.  The only hint is an aside about his son, who disapproves of Maidanistas attacking the police and is ostracised by his classmates as a result. 

Still, this is a likeable and readable book.  It discusses the politics of the crisis in Ukraine,  but it also describes banal incidents of family life which take place against the backdrop of emerging civil war.  We read about Kurkov’s daughter using rising inflation as an excuse to demand more pocket money, for instance, or his son refusing to be parted from a tablet computer, while hiking up a Crimean mountain.

Ukraine Diaries is an entertaining personal account of a contemporary conflict, written in the capital, by an enthusiast for ‘Maidan’.  Although the author travels around western Ukraine as the war unfolds, his ‘dispatches’ do not come from the eastern and southern regions where the bulk of the killing takes place. 

He is fairly unabashed about his depiction of Russia as authoritarian and backward, while he sees western Europe as a model for a hopeful future in Ukraine.   He is boundlessly cynical about the motives and claims of the Kremlin and pro-Russians, yet incredulous that there might be any misconduct by the new regime in Kiev.

To his credit, Kurkov seems not to have cleaned up his observations with the benefit of hindsight.  The emotions provoked by events appear immediate and authentic.  He has also left in several predictions which proved to be inaccurate, in particular, insisting that 'there won't be a civil war', and quite a bit of overblown instant analysis.    

It is more enjoyable, for me at least, to read a well written book, like this, making an argument with which I don’t agree than a badly written book articulating a more amenable perspective.  Simply because Kurkov writes so beautifully, I thoroughly liked his diary.

Monday, 11 August 2014

No justification for World Cup boycott

David McCardle, at the ever stimulating Futbolgrad, asks whether western countries should boycott the 2018 World Cup, which is due to be played in Russia.  He writes quite a complicated article, arguing that the competition is likely to cause popular protests against Vladimir Putin’s regime.

I’m unsure about how realistic that notion is.  The Sochi Winter Olympics were outrageously expensive, but didn’t prompt threatening demonstrations and Russia is not Brazil.  A stronger argument for refusing to boycott the Russian World Cup is simply that a boycott would be wrong.

So far the most prominent voices suggesting such action are either chauvinist American politicians, like John McCain, or English people who still harbour hopes that the tournament will be moved to England.

Ever since the decision was taken to stage football’s greatest spectacle in Russia there has been whinging in the UK media.  This is inspired, I suspect not by humanitarian concerns, but rather by resentment that England’s bid was not successful.

The fact that Russia is now embroiled in a Ukrainian civil war promoted by western money has no moral bearing on whether the competition should be held in that country.  Unlike Qatar, it is a country with a long football tradition.  It has also never staged the tournament before and it is prepared to invest hefty sums of money to ensure success.

Come 2018 visa restrictions will be waived and supporters heading to Russia will have a wonderful time.  There is no call to boycott the Russian World Cup and there is certainly no justification for FIFA to consider a change of host.  

Friday, 1 August 2014

My favourite Liverpool XI

As a Liverpool supporter, it’s hard to summon up any resentment toward Luis Suarez, even though he’s now decided to pursue his career in Spain.  Kenny Dalglish signed the controversial striker from Ajax for £22.8 million, back in January 2011, and the club recouped about £75 million through this summer’s transfer to Barcelona. 

In the intervening three and a half seasons, Suarez scored almost 70 goals, most of them sublime, becoming, in the process, arguably the greatest player to pull on the red shirt.  He didn’t spoil his relationship with Liverpool fans by joining another Premier League club and, as well as enough money to buy a large part of Southampton’s squad, he left memories which will fuel many decades of pub-bore conversations.

He’ll always be one of my favourite players, unless he does something utterly daft, like signing for Man United, and his departure got me thinking about who else might make up a completely subjectively picked XI of crowd favourites, from across the years. 

I’ve compiled my personal selection, below.  Just to emphasise, this is not an attempt to pick the best possible team out of the many talented footballers who have represented Liverpool.  It is simply a list of the players who I enjoyed watching most, or for whom I have the greatest affection. 

It is slanted unashamedly toward players I can remember clearly, rather than those who won the most medals.  It doesn’t contain anyone who played before the late 1980s, most of the team were at their peak from the mid-90s onwards and it doesn’t include Michael Owen. 

The XI isn’t chosen for tactical balance either, although it is arranged roughly in the 4-4-2 formation, without any wing-backs or ‘false 9s’, because that is the way in which The Almighty intended football to be played.
 
GOALKEEPER

Let’s be honest, even when Liverpool dominated Europe, goalkeeper was never a particularly easy position to fill.  Bruce Grobbelaar provided the archetype of the eccentric, erratic ‘custodian’ beloved of journalists in Shoot magazine.  Every now and again he would make a particularly outrageous error and get replaced, for a game or two, by Mike Hooper, who was less extravagant, less unpredictable and also had much less talent.

Liverpool has had some solid goalkeepers since those days.  Brad Friedel was not known for conspicuous mistakes and Pepe Reina had a number of flawless years, before errors began to creep into his performances.  Nevertheless, there have also been a series of less convincing players in this position.  David James, who explained one howler with reference to late night video-game sessions, Sander Westerveld, Chris Kirkland and Pegguy Arphexad.

My choice is in the Grobbelaar / James / (Mingolet?) tradition of unpredictable Liverpool goalkeepers.  Jerzy Dudek became immortal after his wobbly legged performance during the 2005 Champions League final.  The Pole was also a talented keeper, who, at 41 and having retired, is probably still better than his execrable countryman Artur Boruc.

Jerzy Dudek just pips Jose Reina for my no.1 jersey.

RIGHT BACK

No, Glen Johnson is not a contender.  The two possible choices who just bubbled under were Steve Finnan, a reliable southern Irish full-back, and Marcus Babbel, whose solid defending and attacking forays were important assets to Liverpool, before he contracted a rare illness, which forced him to miss an entire season and join Blackburn Rovers.

My selection also suffered a shortened career.

Rob Jones was a classic, old school Liverpool buy, signing from Crewe Alexandra before becoming the best player, in his position, in the league.  By all accounts he was no intellectual, acquiring the nickname ‘Trigger’, which British footballers bestow habitually on their less academic colleagues.  However there was nothing dim about his defending.  In his first Liverpool match he neutralised the young Ryan Giggs. 

Jones was eventually released, due to persistent injury problems, which prevented him from fulfilling his potential and being recognised as one of Liverpool’s greatest ever defenders.

LEFT BACK

The left side of defence has been another problem position for Liverpool over many years.  Last season Aly Cissokho was drafted in on loan to provide cover for Jose Enrique and soon became one of the most heavily criticised players in the squad.  Enrique’s injury meant that John Flanagan, who is naturally right footed, also deputised at left-back. 

My choice for this position is Jean Arne Riise (oooh aaah).  The marauding Norwegian had a vicious left foot, which made him a potent attacking threat for Liverpool.  His shots, free-kicks and corners were a vital part of the team’s armoury for most of the previous decade.
 
Unfortunately Riise’s Liverpool career ended sadly, with an own goal helping Chelsea to win the Champions League semi-final in 2008.  He was sold to AS Roma in the summer, following that incident.  I still believe that the transfer was too hasty.  He returned subsequently to the Premier League, with Fulham, and became one of the strongest players in their side.

CENTRE-BACKS

I have only hazy childhood memories of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, so my two centre-backs were very easy to pick.  Jamie Carragher developed from a raw youth, who was once sent off for throwing a coin into the crowd at Arsenal, and became Liverpool’s most reliable defender. 

Without his heroics in the 2005 Champions League campaign, Liverpool would not have been champions of Europe.  Indeed, with Steven Gerrard, Carragher was the beating Scouse heart of the squad for a number of years.  He now forms part of Sky Sport’s much celebrated analysis team, with an old adversary, Gary Neville.

My second central-defender is Sami Hyppia.  Liverpool invested £2.9 million in the Finn and it proved to be one of the most successful pieces of business which the club transacted in modern times.  Hyppia spent 10 years at Liverpool and was a classy fixture in the centre of defence, as well as a source of headed goals at the other end of the pitch. 

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS

The first part of the central midfield pairing is also easy to select.  On many occasions Steven Gerrard picked Liverpool up by the scruff of the neck and carried the team to victory, practically by himself.  Most famously, the captain inspired a comeback against AC Milan in the Champions League final.

Gerrard’s thrusting runs have been a feature of Liverpool’s play since the 1990s, although Brendan Rodgers asked him to play deeper last season.  Some supporters questioned his ability to operate in the new role initially, but he soon won them over.    

His severest critics (who support rival clubs and are jealous) will say that he hasn’t reproduced his club form for England, particularly at major tournaments.  Frankly, who cares?  They’ also claim that he gives the ball away too frequently, attempting ambitious long-range passes, rather than keeping it simple.  These are the type of people who understand football chiefly by playing Football Manager on their PCs or reading statistics provided by Opta.  Anyone with any feeling for the game knows that Gerrard is a genuine match-winner, which is a priceless commodity on the football field. 

It’s more difficult to select a partner for Steven, in midfield.  There are a lot of candidates, none more impressive than Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, who formed part of what Liverpool supporters described as ‘the best midfield in the world’, a number of years ago. 

If I had a substitutes’ bench those two would certainly be on it, but I’ve plumped for another ‘character’, the German-Scouser, Didi Hamann.  He may have liked a cigarette (reputedly) and a drink with his great mates Stevie and Jamie, but he was a classy midfielder in his own right and a World Cup finalist.        

Let’s not forget, either, that he watched the first half of the 2005 Champions League final from the bench, and joined the action at half-time, just as the famous come-back got underway.

LEFT WING

I’ve delved further into the past to select my left winger.  That’s because, as a child, the player who made most impression on me was John Barnes.  He wasn’t the slimmest forward on the park, but he glided past defenders with consummate ease.  As a result, when I kicked a ball around the garden, providing my own commentary, I was most often John Barnes, masterminding an unlikely 5-4 defeat of Manchester United in the FA Cup final.

Even as he became older, slower and chunkier, throughout the 1990s, Barnes’ class was apparent.  He was deployed less frequently on the wing, but he had the deft touch and intelligence to find space infield, on a pitch filled with younger, faster and less injury-prone players.  “He’s beaten one, two, three defenders.  Johhny Barnes scores an incredible goal and Liverpool have won The World Club Cup for the tenth time!”  *wheels away from 7’ by 3’ goal and capers across the garden, jumping and punching the air*

RIGHT WING

The ‘Spice Boys’ era at Liverpool became notorious during the 1996 FA Cup final.  After prancing around the playing surface in flashy white suits, prior to kick off, the team capitulated to bitter rivals, Manchester United, conceding a late goal, scored by Eric Cantona.  Horrendous memories.

However the team also contained some bright, young English talent.  Steve McManaman was synonymous with that side and he was also one of its most impressive stars.

Like Barnes, McManaman practised the old-fashioned art of dribbling with rare skill.  He could look lanky and ungainly, but his close control was exceptional and he often made defenders appear very silly.  As a result he was one of the Premier League’s most feared creative players in the early to mid 90s, even though, ultimately, he didn’t win enough medals at Liverpool.

STRIKERS

So who should play up front with Suarez?

I’ve ruled out Ian Rush for two reasons.  Firstly, I do not remember well his initial, highly successful spell at Liverpool, when he was the most prolific finisher in the Football League.  Secondly, I do remember clearly his less lethal period, after he’d come back from Juventus.  Rush was certainly still a top class striker, but he competed with John Aldridge and others for a starting place and he struggled with injury.

Aldridge was another great goalscorer, but he was also one of Jack Charlton’s leading ‘Plastic Paddies’ and he has talked some nonsense about international football over the years.  

I would have liked to find space for Peter Beardsley, whom I remember most fondly taking apart Nottingham Forest on a couple of occasions and starring in Liverpool’s 9-0 demolition of Crystal Palace.  However, no XI of 'fan favourites' would be complete without the man Liverpool supporters nicknamed ‘God’.

Robbie Fowler had barely started his career at Anfield when he scored 5 goals in a 5-0 League Cup victory against Fulham.  He averaged more than a goal every two games during his first spell at Liverpool and was a key part of Gerard Houllier’s famous ‘treble’ team, which won the FA, League and UEFA Cups in 2001.

Simply, he was a player whose positioning and instinct for scoring goals were unmatched by any other centre-forward.  
              
A recap:
1.       Dudek
2.     R Jones
3.      Riise
4.      Hyppia
5.       /23  Carragher
6.       Hamann
7.       McManaman
8.       Steven Gerrard
9.      Fowler
10.   Suarez
11.   Barnes

So that’s my (completely subjective) favourite 11.  Please feel free to comment, criticise or share your own selection.  

Monday, 28 July 2014

MH17 passengers victims of a preventable war

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Cuba - not the easiest place from which to follow world news.  The internet is restricted and slow, wifi scarcely exists and the English language edition of the island’s only daily newspaper, Granma, publishes mainly stagnant propaganda on behalf of the Castro brothers. 

As a result, I’ve had to catch up with the tragic story of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine on its scheduled route between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, resulting in almost 300 deaths.  Western countries and the current authorities in Kiev claim that the passenger plane was struck by a missile fired by ‘pro-Russian’ forces and supplied by Russia.  These allegations are refuted by the separatists and have drawn a flat denial from the government in Moscow.

For the time being, it is difficult to determine the exact truth.  Investigators from the Netherlands are struggling to access the crash site, which lies in territory fiercely contested by both sides in Ukraine’s civil war.  It is certainly likely enough that the plane was mistaken for a Ukrainian military aircraft and shot down.  It is also possible that the US government is manipulating intelligence information, to distort aspects of the incident deliberately, for propaganda purposes.

Whatever the precise details, this loss of life is another tragic result of war.  The eastern part of Ukraine has become an out and out warzone within Europe, with all the dreadful consequences which that entails.  There are dangers now in the air above the contested region, as well as on the ground.  Human Rights Watch says that forces loyal to the facto government in Kiev have been launching unguided Grad missiles aimed at suburbs around Donetsk and at the weekend there were reports of more civilian casualties.

War causes chaos, misery and death, often indiscriminately and almost always impacting civilians directly.  Its effects can easily spill out beyond the confines of the warzone.

It is easy to cast Vladimir Putin as the villain whose nationalist ambitions have plunged Ukraine into anarchy and Russia’s opportunism when it annexed Crimea was one of the defining moments of the crisis.  However, it was not Putin's government that sponsored ‘regime change’ on the streets of Kiev, targeting a President who was, for all his faults, elected democratically.

Ukrainians, whether they look to Washington or Moscow, are victims of governments which have used them as the rope in a political ‘tug of war’, resulting in a vicious civil conflict.  They have been joined now in their victimhood by the passengers of flight MH17.  

Monday, 7 July 2014

Northern Ireland blogging nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

I spent a little while over the weekend slimming down the ‘blog roll’ of websites on the right hand side of this page.  The majority of links were either defunct or more or less disused.  It made me think, if the ‘weblog’ is not dying, its best days are certainly behind it. 

Of course, my own site has become a fitful affair.  There are times when a visitor might expect to see tumbleweed blow across their screen, rather than a fresh new article, and when I do post, the number of hits is negligible. 

I’ve never had an enormous interest in theoretical discussions about blogging as a medium.  Personally, if I hadn’t written blog-posts, I would have written something else.  I would have pitched my material to newspapers, or offered articles to magazines, or squirreled them away in notebooks.

I didn’t start a blog because I wanted to be a blogger.  I started a blog because I enjoyed writing.

Still, all those dead and dismembered links caused more than a twinge of nostalgia.  Five years ago, when Three Thousand Versts was short-listed for the Orwell Prize, there was a rich network of blogs writing about politics in Northern Ireland.  Most of them are no longer active. 

On the pro-Union side, A Pint of Unionist Lite is gone, but not forgotten.  O’Neill’s informative and interesting posts remain available online, although the site is disused.  The same is true of Everything Ulster, although beano’s ‘EU hiatus’ has lasted now for over six years.  Burke’s Corner, which tackled philosophy and politics from a Burkean perspective, has attracted a squatter, while Redemption’s Son left behind few traces.  Its writer, Richard Cairns, like Lee Reynolds, the author of Ultonia, has moved on to bigger and better things.  Nothing remains of the hilarious Bobballs either, so far as I can see.

There were many others too.  It took quite a deal of virtual pruning to get rid of them all.  Some were good, lively sites but others were fairly boring party political blogs - little more than adverts for aspiring politicians.

On the nationalist side there is a similar pattern.  El Blogador has disappeared.  Splintered Sunrise, once very regularly updated, has remained dormant since 2012.  O’Conall Street didn’t outlive the political career of its writer, Conall McDevitt. 

Nationally, the picture is not much different.  Even the ‘blogfather’, Iain Dale, closed down his celebrated Iain Dale’s Diary, in 2011, although he does have a very slick site elsewhere which includes blogposts, but is more of a shop window for his media empire.

I’m not sure the closure of so many blogs indicates a lack of interest in the topics they cover.  It has more to do with social media and the trajectory of debate online.  Many websites and discussion forums have struggled or closed down altogether because the focus of readers and posters has switched to Twitter.  That’s unfortunate, because blogs allow for longer and more thoughtful writing.

Before the internet, to make a contribution to a debate, usually through a newspaper, magazine or journal, the writer had to order and present his or her thoughts so that an editor would deem them publishable.  The web ensured that anyone could contribute, but, with blogs and, to a lesser extent, forums, to attract readers and to get them to read your post, it had to be more or less readable.

Twitter, by contrast, allows people to spill their guts, instantly, about any topic.  There’s no price whatsoever to offering up your opinion to the masses.  You don’t need any knowledge, you don’t need to write especially coherently and you certainly don’t need to have anything worth saying.  It takes next to no mental effort - just two working fingers and an electronic device.

I suppose we should celebrate the ‘democratisation’ of debate, or some similar mumbo-jumbo.  After all, on Twitter and Facebook, one person’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s, irrespective of expertise, knowledge or intellectual capacity.   

There was, however, an element of excitement about being among the first wave of weblogs to capture attention in Northern Ireland, which it would be a pity to forget.  Those blogs formed something of a network of ideas, with bloggers bouncing off each other’s posts, debates taking place across multiple sites and playing out over many thousands of words.         

What it all amounted to, who knows?  But it was fun, while it lasted.

To the retired bloggers; wouldn’t it be great if it could all happen again someday?  To the survivors who keep plugging away, fair play, but it’s just not the same as it used to be.

Disclaimer: Just because I didn't mention your blog, doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy it!  Either you're still blogging or it slipped my mind!  

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The US never has been and never will be a football country

Why have so many neutrals been supporting the USA in this World Cup?  There is a natural tendency to back an underdog, but remember that the United States contains 330 million people. 

Some people clearly think, deep down, that the greatest sport in the world needs to be endorsed by Americans, to have truly global credentials.  Let’s be clear, the fact that the United States has never taken to football is a reflection on that country's sporting predilictions, rather than the greatest game in the world.

The US took over 90 minutes to be beaten by a small European nation with an average World Cup pedigree and that has now been taken as some type of triumph.  It really isn’t.

Football has no need to proselytise.  It already is the world’s game.  It has no requirement to expand into any new territories, because the ‘new territories’ are the freakish exception, rather than the rule. 

Meanwhile, sport in the US is generally a poor spectacle.  ‘World’ competitions span one country, cobbled out of dreadful stop-start pass-times, brought to prominence because they allow television advertisers a great deal of time to flog their wares.  Baseball may have some merits, but gridiron?   

Let them get on with it.  Football doesn’t need the US, nor does it need Qatar.  It is a sport founded on tradition, where the allegiance of supporters passes through generations.  Its heartlands are in Europe, South America, Africa, parts of Central America and parts of Asia.  There, the faithful will not be dissuaded by the vagaries of a single tournament.

If you have been supporting 'that' country and you are a genuine supporter from elsewhere, you ought to have known better. It isn’t a football nation and it never will be.  Americans will always call the sport ‘soccer’.  They’ll always associate it with teenage girls.  They’ll continue to prefer their ridiculous pass-times.  Let them get on with it. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Ukraine - sorrow the sensible reaction

One year ago, Ukraine had its problems, but it was stable and peaceful.  Twelve months later, the east and the south of the country are ravaged by civil war, while the Crimean Peninsula has become part of Russia.  The lowest estimates suggest that over 300 people have died so far during the conflict, and the BBC reports that over 14,000 refugees have fled the fighting and crossed the Russian border.

The turmoil which has engulfed Ukraine, since President Yanukovych fled the country following protests and violence in Kiev, is, above all, desperately sad.  From the Rada's declaration of independence in 1991, until the latter part of 2013, the country’s fractious, fragmented politics remained peaceful, barring the odd bout of fisticuffs in parliament.  The new nation state managed to span, more or less successfully, a complicated patchwork of cultural identities, languages and political affiliations.

The two sides in the civil war now badly need a little time and some common ground in which to shape an accommodation.  While the situation in Ukraine is confused and confusing, it is clear that months of propaganda and demonisation, from either side, have had a polarising effect.

This week there were developments offering some hope for compromise.  Following President Poroshenko’s proposal of a ceasefire, successful talks with ‘pro-Russia’ leaders took place in Donetsk.  The Guardian claims that this truce has been patchily observed so far, but Russia took further steps to ease tension, yesterday, when Vladimir Putin asked the Duma in Moscow to withdraw its permission for Russian troops to intervene in the Ukrainian crisis.

The new President in Ukraine is reported to have a peace plan.  It is said to be based on an amnesty for ‘rebel fighters’ and a degree of autonomy for the eastern regions of the country. 

If Poroshenko does make proposals along these lines, they would be relatively close to measures which Moscow believed could reconcile eastern Ukrainians with the new government in Kiev, toward the beginning of the crisis.  It is a tragedy that it has taken so many more months of bloodshed, hate-mongering and, now, civil war, to reach this point.  

If ever there were a time for governments in the US and EU to exercise a moderating and calming influence, it is now.  Poroshenko should be nudged along the road of dialogue and compromise, rather than encouraged to attempt to defeat militarily the various pro-Russian groups based in eastern Ukraine.

It is endlessly tempting to take a partisan or simplistic view of the Ukrainian civil war, based on pre-conceived notions about Russia, but it is also unhelpful and unenlightening.  The situation remains complicated, contradictory and difficult to decode, particularly from a distance. 

There is an increasing body of evidence which disproves the notion that groups in Slavyansk, Donetsk and other pro-Russian strongholds are waging a proxy campaign on Putin’s behalf.  Watch the Sunday Tomes journalist, Mark Franchetti, confound his hosts on a Ukrainian discussion show, by refusing to back up propaganda about ‘Russian’ militias.  Read Julia Ioffe, a seasoned critic of Putin, admitting that everything about the war is shrouded in confusion. 

Ukraine has a legitimate grievance about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, an act of opportunism which stoked separatism in other regions.  However the ‘counter-terrorist’ operation launched by Kiev against pro-Russian protesters has left a trail of civilian dead in Odessa, Mariupol and Slavyansk which has also nourished separatist feeling.

Many Ukrainians in western and central Ukraine are convinced, no doubt genuinely, that Russia is fighting a war of conquest against its troops, in the east of the country.  Many Ukrainians and Russians in the east and south believe, equally sincerely, that ‘fascist’ militias, fired up by extreme nationalism, are pursuing a campaign of genocide aimed at ensuring a mono-cultural, mono-lingual state, within Ukraine’s existing borders.

No doubt there have been incidents in the grubby, bloody fog of civil war which lend legitimacy to both of these viewpoints.  Unfortunately, rather than urge calm and moderation, politicians and media in ‘the West’ and Russia have been inclined to inflame the situation by encouraging one or other perception.  It’s a dangerous game, to which a range of commentators have contributed.

For instance, read Anne Applebaum, in a frankly disturbing article, championing the cause of Galician nationalism and dismissing the concerns of Ukrainians who are appalled by the influence of Pravyi Sektor and other far right nationalists in the new regime and its security forces.  More nationalism, rather than less is her perverse recipe for a successful Ukraine.

My gut feeling is that the only sensible reaction to the situation, from foreign observers, is genuine sorrow, rather than a rush to take sides.  The deterioration of protests in Kiev into a bloody coup and the subsequent slow descent into civil war are a national tragedy for Ukraine, as well as a serious emergency for the immediate region and the continent of Europe as a whole. 

The situation has been aggravated by powers in the west and Russia playing out their rivalries through Ukrainian politics.  The least people in Ukraine now deserve is a concerted international effort to promote peace and compromise as the basis of a solution, as well as a much more honest attempt to understand how political and cultural differences in the country have been allowed to cause violence.

Monday, 2 June 2014

The developing situation in Ukraine

A number of months on and after any number of possible pretexts, the predicted Russian intervention in eastern and southern Ukraine has not yet materialised. 

The most notorious blood-letting took place in Odessa, where thugs from Pravy Sektor and nationalist football hooligan gangs torched the House of Trade Unions along with many of the people inside, accompanied by allegations that police colluded in the incident. Russia also expressed its opposition in strong terms as Ukrainian forces killed up to 50 members of pro-Russian forces who were occupying the airport in Donetsk.  Its military, however, still did not get involved.
 
While the Kremlin has waged a propaganda war against the new regime in Kiev, which has been returned in kind, there is clear reluctance to become embroiled in any sort of conflict in eastern Ukraine.  There are even grounds to argue that, since its actions in the Crimean peninsula, Moscow has acted with surprising restraint.

Of course, the government in Kiev continues to allege that Russia is taking an active role in organising the uprising in parts of the east and south.  However there has been little verifiable evidence to sustain that allegation.
 
Meanwhile Vladimir Putin has indicated that he is prepared to deal with Petro Poroshenko, the Roshen chocolate tycoon who won a presidential election the legitimacy of which Moscow contests.  A map of Ukraine which shows turn-out figures, universally low in the east and south, illustrates graphically why there are such concerns.

The new President has not made rapprochement with Russia easy.  The bombardment of Donetsk airport happened before he was even inaugurated.  He has also cosied up to former Georgian Prime Minister, Mikheil Saakahsvili, whom Moscow regards as responsible for the war in 2008, and looked to create a joint military brigade with Poland and Lithuania, an act which will be interpreted as a statement of intent to join Nato.

The situation in eastern Ukraine, observed from distance, now bears many of the characteristics of civil war.  Atrocities have occurred on both sides and that can only cause attitudes to become more polarised.
 
There is a heavy responsibility on the EU, the US and Russia to use diplomacy and work toward an agreed solution.  If they continue to play out their geo-political rivalries in Ukraine, blood will continue to be shed.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Guest post: Tony Benn: Myth and Reality

TONY BENN: MYTH AND REALITY 
A guest post by Phil Larkin
Introduction
Few can have missed the passing on of Anthony Neil Wedgewood-Benn (commonly known from around 1972 by his self-created title “Tony Benn”) last week. Over the last decade and beyond, ever since he stepped down as an MP in 2001, he had gained the reputation for himself as the kindly old sage of the British left, puffing his pipe, drinking large mugs of tea, appearing on stage at Glastonbury and providing stirring orations at ‘Stop the War’ Campaigns (in whatever corner of the world war happened to be taking place). He was sort of a sanitised, grandfatherly George Galloway, with far superior manners and courtesy. My main and abiding memory of him before his death was the very funny (and revealing) spoof interview which he did with Ali G: apparently he had jumped at the chance to explain the idea of socialism to young people when offered the interview (of which more below). I also recall him shepherding Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness around the Palace of Westminster, showing them the office and other facilities they would be entitled to although they did not sit as MPs. In sum, he had become a form of eccentric national treasure, welcome on many TV programmes to expound on his “convictions” and the great issues of the day. In addition, he was regarded (and he propagated this idea himself in no small measure) as someone who held steadfastly to his convictions and never wavered in his views. Yet, as one obituary rightly pointed out, this latter phase of his life was only the third in a long and complex career spanning over six decades. This aim of this piece is to cast a hopefully not uncritical eye over that career and some of the benign myths that have surrounded the man over the years. I would like him to be remembered for what he was, not for what he was not.

Genesis
Benn was the scion of the wealthy Benn publishing house, and both his grandparents were Liberal MPs. He could also trace his ancestry to the famous Wedgewood family, enlightened employers of the Victorian era whose pottery was, and is, famous throughout the world. His father, William Wedgewood-Benn, was originally a Liberal MP who crossed the Floor of the House of Commons to join the Labour Party in 1928, becoming Secretary of State for India in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Government of 1929 to 1931. He later was elevated to the peerage during World War II, becoming Viscount Stansgate in 1942. Born in 1925, Benn remembered meeting with Gandhi, Ramsay MacDonald, Lloyd George and a whole host of other political greats at a very young age. His mother Margaret, a theologian, was something of a radical feminist for the age, advocating the ordination of women years before this was accepted by the mainstream Anglican Church. It was within this rarefied atmosphere that Benn was to be brought up. He was educated at the exclusive Westminster School, where he appears to have been something of an unexceptional pupil who was, according to one of his schoolmasters, “a little too conscious of Anthony Wedgewood-Benn.” I would assert that throughout his life he was to carry traces of the public schoolboy mentality which manifested itself in his thought and behaviour, despite the efforts he made to disguise them. He later tried to expunge all reference to his public school education in his Who’s Who entry. A spell as a pilot officer during World War II and a PPE degree at Oxford (where he became President of the Union) followed. While at Oxford, he met Caroline Middleton de Camp, daughter of an American lawyer whose wealth matched that of his own background. They married in 1949 and were to have a very happy family life until her death in 2000.

Becoming an MP and Renouncing the Peerage
Although he worked for a while as a BBC Radio producer after World War II (he was to master this medium, as well as the later medium of television very expertly), politics was his main focus, given his family background. In November 1950 the opportunity to contest the Bristol South East constituency arose unexpectedly, which he duly won, and remained MP for this seat for the next 10 years. In those early days his position on the political spectrum was difficult to define: certainly he was not associated with the Bevanite hard left during this period, and was regarded as on the centre-right of the Labour Party. Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour Party during the later 1950s, is reputed to have viewed Benn as over-pushy, bumptious, and too eager for office. His heroes and inspirations of this time appear to have been the prophets of the Bible and the great Parliamentary figures of the English Civil War. Denis (later Lord) Healey recalled him at this time as a “harmless but engaging eccentric”, while Roy Mason in his autobiography recalls being stopped by a very agitated Benn in Westminster Palace one day, and being asked when his birthday was. When Mason told Benn that he was a few months older than him, Benn walked away relieved and elated: Benn still retained the title of the youngest MP in the House of Commons. Mason (a former Barnsley coal miner) remarked caustically on this incident, regarding it as “schoolboy one-upmanship.” I am inclined to agree.

His real rise to public fame came on the death of his father, Viscount Stansgate, in 1960, when Benn automatically inherited his peerage, preventing him from sitting in the House of Commons. Benn wished to retain his seat in the Commons, maintaining his right to renounce his peerage. He stood again for election to his constituency, and won once more, even though still disqualified to take his seat. Outside Parliament he continued to campaign for the right to renounce the peerage, and the Conservative Government of the time accepted the need for a change in the law, with Benn being the first peer to take advantage of the Peerage Act 1963 and return to the Commons in 1963.
However, and not for the first time in his life, the fulfilment of one of his passionate obsessions carried consequences which he had not thought through, or could not foresee. The Peerage Act 1963 also allowed the Conservative peer Lord Home to renounce his place in the House of Lords and become Prime Minister in 1963 as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. This legislation was bound to assist the Conservative Party to a much greater degree than the Labour Party, with the former having a much higher proportion of hereditary peers. Another suspicion of mine is that this period in the public limelight gave him a profile which he would not ordinarily have had, and a taste for playing the rebel which he never really lost for the rest of his long life. This was to have near catastrophic consequences for the fortunes of the Labour Party in later years.
Postmaster General and Minister of Technology
With the coming to power of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in 1964, Benn reached ministerial level, first in the role of Postmaster General. Again, during this early period as a minister, his political position was not regarded as that of the hard left; rather, he came across more as a technocrat in his attitudes and a hardworking, generally successful minister more than a political partisan. However he was still prone to a little radical posturing on occasion: his plan to remove the Monarch’s profile from stamps in favour of the 17th Century Parliamentarians was thwarted by personal opposition from the Queen herself (one wonders what Benn’s Irish groupies in later years would have thought of his aim to put pictures of the likes of Oliver Cromwell on national stamps!). In the Cabinet itself he managed to get up the nose of certain colleagues with his eccentricities: for Roy Mason he tried too hard and too earnestly to be working class, without having the slightest clue how to do it. For instance, he would insist on pint pots of tea being served to him, believing it to be a proletarian habit. One is reminded irresistibly of George Orwell’s (another public schoolboy socialist) attempts to play at being working class in some of Benn’s antics.

As Postmaster General he presided over the opening of the Post Office tower, then the UK’s tallest building. He also thought that it would be a good idea to have a “rotating restaurant” at the top, where diners would sit at tables which revolved around concentric circles, meaning that the person who you were facing and speaking to would change as the circles rotated, allowing you to meet more people and ensuring, like King Arthur, that no-one could be at the head of the “round table.” A great idea in theory, but in practice the restaurant itself was so high up that diners would frequently suffer from travel sickness and queasy stomachs as the scenery of the city down below revolved before their eyes. Added to this was the fact that the restaurant menus were so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford them. The restaurant closed. Once more, Benn suffered from the law of unintended consequences.

Promoted to Minister of Technology in 1966, Benn’s most memorable achievement in this office was probably the development of the supersonic airline Concorde, which was partly manufactured in his Bristol constituency. Benn’s imagination was captured by the idea of Concorde to the point of obsession: there can be no denying that it was a magnificent technological achievement. However, the fact remains that the project was simply not commercially viable, since only very wealthy travellers, often with business expense accounts, could afford to fly the airline. Both the UK and French governments later came to regret persevering with Concorde, with it finally being removed in the early 2000s. Unintended consequences had reared their head again.
Interestingly, at this period of his career, Benn was an advocate of both the EEC (which later became the European Union) and of nuclear power. Given his later standpoints on these two subjects, especially his later championing of coal powered stations and the miners during the 1984/85 coal strike, it somewhat pulls the rug from out under his image of a man who never changed his convictions on anything. In reality, he was probably just as liable to make a complete volte-face as any of us.
Opposition, Cabinet, and Drift to the Hard Left
The defeat of Wilson’s Government in 1970 by Heath’s Conservatives took most people by surprise. Along with his colleagues Benn spent four years in opposition. His relative enthusiasm on the EEC having cooled by the early 1970s, with Heath’s bid to apply for membership, Benn campaigned for a referendum on this issue, and the shadow cabinet voted to support in March 1972, prompting Roy Jenkins to resign as Deputy Leader (a precursor to his later political direction a decade later). With Labour back in power in 1974, Benn returned to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Industry. The mid to late 1970s saw him move ever leftwards while in office, and as Industry Secretary he attempted to extend the principles of nationalisation into British economic life, setting up worker co-operatives to re-energise ailing industries in various parts of the UK. It appears that this policy initiative, together with his late discovery of the works of Marx, convinced him of the necessity of what he termed “collective” or “common” control over as much of national industry as possible, by which he meant nationalisation. Yet anyone who has ever been involved in any state-managed institution, even in a school or as a civil servant (and the public sector in Northern Ireland where I grew up is very large) will know the many possibilities/opportunities that exist for waste, poor management, inefficiency and nepotism there, as well as the problem of low productivity. None of Benn’s worker co-operatives lasted the distance, with the last of these, Triumph Motorcycles, folding in 1983. The massive problems associated with the imposition of a command economy, a strategy propounded by Benn, were shown up in a very sharp light with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, but, despite this, Benn continued to expound on the inherent wisdom of nationalising as much of the UK’s economy as possible right until the end of his life.

His successful campaign to hold a referendum on EEC membership also produced the opposite effect to that which he had envisaged. The British electorate voted in favour of maintaining membership by a margin of two to one. Once again, Benn had not thought through the consequences of his plans carefully enough. During the campaign the self-proclaimed socialist luminary found himself on the same side as such right-wing naysayers as Enoch Powell. It is said that during the 1975 referendum period, Harold Wilson’s hatred of him had become pathological, with Wilson remarking on Benn’s drift leftwards while in office: “Tony immatures with age.” Wilson took the opportunity of his unsuccessful “No” campaign to demote him to the lesser position of Energy Secretary, where he would have less influence on overall economic policy.
On Wilson’s resignation in 1976 Benn stood for the Labour Party leadership, coming fourth out of the six cabinet ministers who stood for election. On the second ballot he withdrew his candidature, throwing his support behind the veteran left-winger Michael Foot. Despite this, James Callaghan, who won the leadership contest, kept him in post as Energy Secretary. Perhaps Callaghan would have been better to have taken that opportunity to sack him from the Cabinet altogether, thereby removing the publicity which this position gave him. My guess is that Callaghan calculated that it would, in the words of President Johnson, be better to have Benn “inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.” Certainly Benn was always a great speaker with a silver tongue, and a new Prime Minister would have feared having such an opponent on his own backbenches. Until Labour lost power to Thatcher’s Conservatives in May 1979, Benn continued to move to the left of the political spectrum – his pronouncements always went down well with leftist delegates and Party activists at the annual conference, while figures such as Denis Healey and James Callaghan found themselves often being booed or shouted down. Benn was rapidly becoming both the mouthpiece and the tool of the new left within the Party.
The Destructive Phase
Labour’s loss of power in 1979 saw the beginning of the second phase of Benn’s career, of which in my view he had good reason to be the least proud. It is important to give a little political background to 1979/81 before proceeding further. It is easy to forget that in its first two years of office the first Thatcher Government was so unpopular that it was not expected to last beyond another election. With sky-rocketing unemployment and increasing social unrest (including very violent race riots Brixton and Toxteth), this should have provided a strong basis for a moderate Labour government to return to power relatively promptly. Thus some of the worst ravages of what later became known as Thatcherism could perhaps have been prevented. This was not to be, largely due to the actions of Tony Benn, (and those in the Labour Party who encouraged and supported his course of action), self-styled tribune of the people and champion of the poor and oppressed.

By the end of 1979/1980 Benn had come to a number of conclusions about the direction Labour should take, and the policies which it should adopt to gain the support of the British electorate. The first was that there should be more democracy within the Party, with members and activists deciding policies from the conference floor. The reality that this would have made any form of coherent Labour policy on any issue practically impossible did not seem to have occurred to him. He then launched into an attack on his former cabinet colleagues, accusing them of breaking promises which, in truth, they had not made, and of not adopting sufficiently leftist policies, despite the fact that the British electorate had roundly rejected such policies in the 1979 election. In addition, Benn never explained why he had at no time chosen to resign from the cabinet during the 1970s because of these alleged broken promises.

The second strand of his strategy was expressed in his keynote address to the Labour Party Conference in 1980, while Callaghan was still Party leader, where he stated that the next Labour government would, “within days”, gain the necessary powers to nationalise key industries, and impose capital control. Effectively this would have meant remodelling much of the British economy on the Soviet model, which even by the early 1980s was beginning to show signs of extreme fatigue. Within weeks, he continued, would all powers held by Brussels be returned to Westminster, signalling a withdrawal from the EEC (despite the fact that the UK electorate had already expressed their intentions on this subject in 1975, and he had fought for their right have the referendum in the first place!). Combined with a withdrawal from NATO, an avowedly anti-US foreign policy, unilateral disarmament, the creation of no less than 1,000 new peers to oversee the abolition of the House of Lords, and British withdrawal from Northern Ireland (amongst other schemes) was his grand vision for a UK political future to be fulfilled. Of course the right-wing press vilified him for these policies, and the entire Labour Party became badly tainted by association. Thatcher must have been rubbing her hands with glee.

By 1980 the procedure for electing the new Labour Party leader had changed to a position more in line with the Benn had fought for, but James Callaghan had shrewdly decided to resign before the new rules had come into effect, thus provoking a leadership election which Benn had little chance of winning. He was reluctantly persuaded not to stand. Michael Foot was to win the leadership election, an outcome bad enough for the fortunes of the Party, but even worse was Benn’s decision in 1981 to stand against the incumbent Denis Healey for Deputy Leadership, despite the impassioned appeals of Neil Kinnock and others, as well as Foot himself, not to stand and thereby preserve Party unity. This contest proved to be rancorous and was fought in full view of the public. As Healey later stated, Benn made a point of inviting groups which had no affiliation to the Labour Party along to his public meetings: one such group was the “Posadists”, which believed that socialism would be brought to earth by extra-terrestrial beings. Conversely, in one of Healey’s public addresses in Birmingham, he was shouted down by a large group of IRA supporters. All this occurred in the full, unforgiving glare of the media. By a margin of less than 1% did Healey eventually win the deputy leadership contest, but by then the damage was well and truly done in the eyes of the UK electorate. Healey notes that at least some of the MPs who voted for Benn in the contest were those right-wingers looking for an excuse to quit the Labour Party altogether – this they duly did later in 1981, with Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers, Shirley Williams and David Owen forming the Social Democratic Party in another blaze of media publicity. Benn’s actions gave them the green light to leave. And there was even worse to come.
           
Benn’s general standing within the Labour Party, and his position within the National Executive Council meant that he was a leading light during the creation of the infamous Party Manifesto of 1983, described accurately by Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in political history.” The overall thrust of the Manifesto was for the Party to act as if the election defeat of 1979 had not taken place, and that a huge dose of renationalisation of (then crumbling) British manufacturing, swingeing controls on capital, withdrawal from NATO, the EEC, and Northern Ireland, an incoherent policy on nuclear disarmament, and an immediate end to the sale of council houses to long standing tenants, was just the medicine the nation needed to face the future. In June 1983 the UK electorate gave its verdict on the manifesto: a landslide victory for Thatcher and the Conservatives ensued, with them capturing 397 seats in the Commons, compared to a paltry 209 seats for Labour and 23 for the SDP/Liberal Alliance.

Growing up in a predominantly nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the received wisdom on Thatcher’s 1983 and 1987 election victories usually ran something like this: “Sure the English are that stupid/snobby/greedy etc. that they’d always vote for the Tories.” Yet even a cursory glance at the popular vote during the 1983 election does not support this wisdom: while the Tories gained just over 13 million votes, the combined votes of Labour and the SDP/Liberal Alliance totalled over 16 million, suggesting that a large majority of the UK electorate was really hankering for a return to moderate consensus politics rather than the divisiveness of Thatcherism. Instead, they were offered no viable alternative at all. Justly, in my view, Benn lost his own Bristol seat in the 1983 election.

Benn in later life was often breezily to state that he was a life-long learner, and that he had frequently learned from the mistakes that he had made. However, never once did he ever come close to admitting that his actions in running for deputy Party leadership in 1981, with all the resulting adverse publicity for Labour, was in any way mistaken. He preferred to dignify the wilful recklessness and stupidity of his own actions with platitudes about his decisions being based on “policies/issues and not personalities.” Largely because of him and his acolytes, the Labour Party was left with a reputation for crankiness, in-fighting, and fractiousness that it took well over a decade and the coming to power of Tony Blair to shake off. In fact, he and his supporters came damn close to destroying the Labour Party as a force in British politics. It is small wonder that Labour was not returned to government until 1997. He also was instrumental in providing an open goal mouth for the Tories to romp home in the 1987 election and win the 1992 election, and allowing Thatcher in particular to claim that her policies had received a ringing endorsement from the UK electorate, when, in reality, this was not the case. Who paid the price for Benn and his followers’ mistakes? Certainly not them. The people who paid were those tens of thousands of miners who lost their jobs in the pit closures of the 1980s and early 1990s, industrial workers who were thrown on the scrapheap of life due to the systematic destruction of the UK’s manufacturing base during the 1980s, 16 year old school leavers who were allowed to languish on the dole and not provided with proper skills and training for a fulfilling career, and the grim and depressing list goes on and on.

Anyone under 40 or so who wishes to gain a flavour of these times could do worse than have a look on Youtube at Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, set in a depressed Liverpool in the early/mid 1980s. While there undoubtedly needed to be some serious restructuring of the UK manufacturing base, and there was bound to be a vast scaling back of the coal industry, none of this had to take the abrupt and harsh form that it did under Thatcher and the Tories. Benn cannot, and should not, be singled out as the scapegoat for all these evils, but he does share in responsibility for permitting them to happen. For the remainder of his life he still insisted on referring to the 1983 election result for Labour as a “victory”, and his running for deputy leadership in 1981 as a “healing process.” What planet did this man live on?

It says a lot about the charitable nature of the Labour Party that it was prepared to allow Benn the earliest possible opportunity of standing for Parliament after he lost his Bristol seat in 1983. My own inclination would have been to keep him as far away as possible from any forum/platform from which he could have damaged the Labour Party any more than he had. Perhaps he would have then become the venerable old leftie sage he later morphed into at a much earlier date, or even have disappeared into obscurity. He won the Chesterfield by-election in March 1984, with Denis Healey coming to speak on his behalf during his campaign. Yet, after all the chaos he had already caused, what do you think “Saint Tony” did after the 1987 election? HE CHALLENGED NEIL KINNOCK FOR THE LABOUR PARTY LEADERSHIP IN 1988!!! Luckily by this stage he was too marginal a figure in the Parliamentary Party to be in with any real chance of victory, but it demonstrates to me that, like the French Bourbons, he had forgotten nothing and learned absolutely nothing from the events of previous years. Even his manifesto for the Party leadership had hardly changed one iota from the 1983 general election.

So why had Benn doggedly pursued the levers of control in the Labour Party, on foundations which almost definitely would have made it permanently unelectable? One reason is, as Denis Healey suggests, he did not understand the march of modern history and of the socio-economic changes at play during the last quarter of the 20th Century. Another reason was his undoubted self-obsession and unwavering belief in his own moral rectitude that amounted almost to a messianic complex. My own private theory is that there was still enough of the public schoolboy and aristocrat left in him to engender the belief that he had some sort of natural entitlement to leadership. Renouncing your peerage is one thing, junking ingrained attitudes is quite another.



TV Personality and National Treasure
Removed from the inner sanctums of power, and regarded by the later 1980s as a man whose opportunity had passed, TV producers (especially those of programmes on affairs of state) were keen to have him on their shows: he was never less than exciting and stimulating as a speaker, both in Parliament and outside, and always remained telegenic, knowing how to maintain a commanding television personality. His strongest gift always remained the power of persuasive speech, and, in his own words, he had become “harmless.” In the introduction to this article I mentioned the interview which he did with Ali G, describing it as “revealing.” What made it so funny for me was the gulf between the lofty plane that Benn inhabited, and the real nature of the interview. He simply did not grasp that the whole thing was a spoof and that he was being wound up, insisting on being as sincere and articulate as ever in his answers to Ali G’s blatantly ridiculous questions.

If respectability and public affection had come his way in the final quarter of life, sound political reasoning had not. His political standpoint had effectively petrified in around 1979, and he remained as wrongheaded as ever. He passionately detested Tony Blair, declaring him to be the worst Labour Party leader and PM ever. Yet Blair had led the Party to three election victories in a row, and presided over Labour’s longest ever period in power. Benn could still heap sincere praise on mass murderers like Mao Tse Tung, who he still described in his copious diaries as “the greatest man of the twentieth century”, and be supportive of dictators such as Colonel Gadaffi and Hafez Al Assad. As late as 1997 he sent fraternal greetings to the North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il despite the fact that this man and his regime were responsible for the complete absence in North Korea of the human rights/civil liberties and democratic values that Benn claimed to hold so dear, and who enforced his authority by putting families in concentration camps. He had words of praise for extreme Islamist groups such as Hamas, and compared the Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan to a sort of “Dad’s Army”/Home Guard, fighting against external occupation.  We’ve all seen Dads Army on TV, and I can tell you now that I can see no parallels between those people in Afghanistan and Captain Mainwaring or Corporal Jones. Perhaps his least edifying moment came in 2003, when, as chairman of the “Stop the War” campaign he was approached by an Iraqi woman whose family had been executed by Saddam Hussein as CIA spies: Benn dismissed this as American propaganda. To me, that is even worse than hurling a racial insult at the woman: he had both insulted the family’s memory and called her a liar.   

Benn claimed to have five questions that he would ask of anyone in power, from Bill Gates to Barack Obama:

1.      What power have you got?
2.      Where did you get it from?
3.      In whose interests do you exercise it?
4.      To whom are you accountable?
5.      How can we get rid of you?

Few would disagree with the underlying spirit of these sensible questions. However, in his 2003 pre-War interview with Saddam Hussein none of these questions were put to the Iraqi leader by him, and neither, to my knowledge, were they ever posed to Gadaffi or Assad. Could it be that Benn held the leaders of western democracies to a higher standard of ethics and behaviour than dictators?

Also revealing are the tributes heaped upon him after his death by people like George Galloway and Gerry Adams. Benn always dogmatically subscribed to the policy of a united Ireland and advocated complete British withdrawal from the region of the UK we know as Northern Ireland. However, he never provided any solution to the inter-communal bloodshed which would inevitably have resulted from this withdrawal, and showed a complete disregard for the position of the Irish government which would have to shoulder responsibility for what would have been a war zone. Gerry Adams hailed Benn as a true friend to Irish Republicanism: of course he did, because the latter told Republicans absolutely everything they wanted to hear! It would have been interesting to hear leading Republicans’ private conversations on what they really thought about him. Lenin’s term “useful idiot” springs immediately to mind.

Conclusion
It is my hope that I have not portrayed Benn as a monster in what I have written above. He certainly was no-one’s idea of a fiend. While I will hold firm to the belief that much, if not all of the political criticism which I have levelled at him is fully justified, it is said that in his personal life he was a lovely man, with stories abounding of his many acts of kindness to people who were often complete strangers to him. Unlike George Galloway, who is just a bully and thug with a hide like a rhino, Benn’s courtesy was unflinching. He held no personal bitterness or rancour towards those who were his political opponents, and to this extent his life was a shining example. If anything I have written above is too harsh on the man’s memory, then it reflects more about my own frequently uncharitable nature. A very loving husband, father, and grandfather, I will miss him on the TV and in the newspapers getting on my nerves with his weird and wacky views on the world in which we live. I would go so far as to say that none of the political damage he ever caused to the Labour Party was meant intentionally, but arose because of his miscalculation and wrongheadedness. Winston Churchill once said that the definition of success was “the ability to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”: by this definition Benn was a resounding success.

In one obituary I read last week, it said that Tony Benn wished his epitaph to be “He encouraged us.” In his own way he encouraged me. He encouraged me to think through more carefully the consequences of my actions, words, intentions and opinions, something which I have not always taken care to do. He has also taught me the necessity of facing up to the world as it is, warts and all, and not seeing it as I would like to be.


RIP Tony Benn

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ukraine - pulling at the seams of a fragile state

Lenin stands watch in central Simferopol

It’s been an unsettling experience watching the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea unfold, over the past few months. 

During the summer I visited some of the places which are now attracting headlines.  Independence Square in Kiev, or ‘Euromaidan’ as it has become known, was full of locals and tourists enjoying the sunshine; eating ice-cream, posing for sketch artists and splashing in the fountains.  More recently it resembled the set of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie, with barricades, charred monuments and heaps of smouldering tyres.

Crimea was laid-back in the July heat.  Teenagers skateboarded beside the Crimean Rada in Simferopol, which appeared on TV screens a few weeks ago being ‘stormed’ by armed men.  The regional capital’s airport was busy with tourists heading to and from Russia or Kiev.  It was one of the first strategic targets to be seized by Russian troops, or local militia, depending upon whose word you rely, as the emergency deepened.

The Lonely Planet guide book says that Bakhchisaray, in central Crimea, has a Middle Eastern feel.  This baking hot, dusty town attracted coach trips from the coast during the summer, with its exotic atmosphere and ‘Khan’s Palace’.  This year it has become a magnet for journalists, who want to write stories about how pro-Russian feeling on the peninsula threatens Crimean Tatars.     

The ‘revolution’ or ‘putsch’ and its aftermath have been surrounded by propaganda and recriminations.  To add to the confusion, events have unfolded at disorientating speed.   For someone viewing from a distance, the blanket of fog which covered Kiev at the end of February was a neat metaphor. 

Media coverage has not in general reflected how complicated and unfortunate the situation in Ukraine has become.  A lot of it, especially the comment and analysis, seems to be informed more by pre-conceived ideas about Russia and the US, rather than genuine attempts to understand the story from different perspectives.

Admittedly, it’s hard to write about this crisis.  Many articles in newspapers are out of date by the time they’ve gone to print.  Information from Ukraine is confusing and often contradictory.  It is still not clear whether tensions in the east of the country could spark some sort of military confrontation.

Most articles in the UK media have plumped for the straightforward view that Russia, under Vladimir Putin, is an aggressive power, intent upon expanding toward the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.  Others have been a little more nuanced, suggesting that Putin’s actions during this crisis have been opportunistic, rather than planned.   The most accurate accounts point out that few, if any, of the key players acted honourably, as tensions increased after President Yanukovych postponed negotiations for an association agreement with the EU.

Ukraine has become the victim of a prolonged geo-political struggle between ‘the West’ and Russia.  Go back almost six years on this blog and you can read about the cultural and historical balancing act which Ukrainians continued to manage, more or less successfully, and the dangers of upsetting that equilibrium.      

Almost no-one now defends Yanukovych’s record in government.  Even his off and on ally, Vladimir Putin, has acknowledged that he was a greedy, corrupt and weak President.  There were ample grounds for Ukrainians to oppose and protest against his rule.  The fact remains, though, that he was elected  fairly.  Russia was understandably outraged when the US and the EU in particular urged protestors, in effect, to overthrow the government.

In the context of the protests at Euromaidan, it’s worth remembering that the opposition in Ukraine has continued to refuse to accept the outcome of the 2010 election.  Despite a clean bill of health from the Council of Europe, OSCE and the CIS, Yulia Tymoshenko disputed the results and her supporters were still camped on Kiev’s main street, Khreschatyk, during summer 2014, to protest.

Euromaidan harnessed popular disillusionment with the President, but it was driven, particularly in its latter stages, by an undercurrent of extreme nationalism and it did not represent accurately the spread of opinion in Ukraine about drawing closer to the EU.  Carl Thomson has written fairly about how Russian and eastern Ukrainian opinions were shaped by ‘Molotov cocktail throwing, firearm wielding young men who fought running battles with the police’.

Yankukovych was a rogue, but he was also a democratically elected President, who was driven from power by the threat of imminent violence.  Even so, the new government in Kiev had an opportunity to gain acceptance both from ‘the West’ and Russia.  

The basis of a compromise included a degree of power sharing with Russian leaning regions, official status for the Russian language and disarmament of armed paramilitary groups.  Instead, there were extreme nationalists from Svoboda (or ‘freedom’) in the administration, attempts to rescind liberal language laws and involvement of the far right Pravyi Sektor organisation in the police and military.

Russian descriptions of the new government as ‘neo-Nazi’ are certainly exaggerated.  The articulate young prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, for instance, is a moderate figure head, whose fluent English will endear him to western media.  However the involvement of an ultra-nationalist minority has made it much more difficult for Russian speaking Ukrainians to accept the new administration, and for the Kremlin to recognise its legitimacy.

It’s hard to see how the new government could have been constituted without involving extremists.  These far right groups were the ‘shock troops’ who drove the so-called ‘revolution’ as it became more violent.  Afterwards, in an attempt to claim legitimacy from ‘the people’, ministers were presented to Euromaidan for the crowd’s approval.  It was an odd, almost pre-modern ritual, with echoes of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.  Viewed from Moscow, where the opposition to Putin comprises a similar coalition of liberals, extreme nationalists and ultra-leftists, it may have looked like a salutary warning.

With attitudes in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine hardening, particularly in Crimea, events gained momentum.  The initial Euromaidan protests were followed by counter-protests against the government in Kiev.  The presence of Russian troops on the peninsula and the relatively chaotic state of the Ukrainian government gave Russia a perfect opportunity to act under the pretext of maintaining order.

Putin moved quickly.   A groundswell of pro-Kremlin opinion in Crimea, the reality that pro-Russian militias and Russian troops were firmly in control and demands from the Crimean authorities for a referendum on becoming part of Russia, provided a chance to annex the region.  It wasn’t right, but it did reflect the will of a majority of people in Crimea and it occurred against the backdrop of serious concerns about the legality of the government in Kiev.   

The Russian President denies that his troops will now move into Ukraine proper.  Despite the military build-up at Russia’s western border, it is likely that he is speaking genuinely, for the moment. 

There are frequent pro-Russian protests in cities like Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk and there have been clashes..  If the Ukrainian authorities, whose interior ministry troops are reportedly coordinating their activities with Pravyi Sektor, were to attempt a crack-down on demonstrators, if there were bloodshed, Putin would still feel extreme pressure to defend people who are viewed in Russia as ethnic Russians. 

The President is certainly not prepared to appear weak.  It is quite possible that he will again find himself reacting to events and making a pragmatic effort to carve out the best result for Russia, from a volatile set of circumstances.

Rather than talking about a new Cold War and continuing to tug at the unravelling seams of independent Ukraine, ‘the West’ should now attempt to diffuse tensions.  If the country can remain stable up to and through the Presidential and Rada elections, its new government can at least claim a credible mandate. 

If Ukraine is to remain a viable state within its current borders, the new administration will have to reach an accommodation with Russian speakers and reflect its complex make-up in an amended constitution.  The future is bleak if the country continues to be a chessboard for the US, the EU and Russia to play out their rivalries.