Sunday, 17 July 2016

Erdogan: The Irresistible Rise of Turkey's Democratic Dictator

Some of the worst violence in Turkey’s failed coup against President Erdogan came around his presidential palace. That location is the natural focus of a coup, but what is very unnatural is the sheer scale of the recently finished Palace in Ankara.
Erdogan’s seat of government is not a modest town house like 10 Downing St. Even the French President’s Elysée and Barack Obama’s White House are housed and officered in modest surroundings by comparison. Thirty times the size of the White House, all seats of government of Turkey’s NATO allies could be contained inside its vast marble halls and endless corridors.
Being born into a poor but pious family from Turkey’s remote north-east in 1954 who had moved to one of Istanbul’s sprawling poor neighbourhoods, Recep Tayip Erdogan’s rise to the top ought to be a classic heart-warming log cabin to White House story. But his taste in mega-architecture reflects a personality that has more in common with the most grandiose of Ottoman Sultans or more recent tyrants.
The high-handed way in which Erdogan overrode normal environmental rules and budgetary procedures to push through his gigantic living memorial is typical of his style and why his critics call him an elected dictator.
It is Erdogan’s combination of genuine popularity with authoritarian disdain for dissent that marks him out from the dictators with whom he is compared. Another orphan-grandchild of the Ottoman Empire, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu is often seen as the unconscious role model for Erdogan. Ceausescu obliterated much of old Bucharest to build his Palace of the People before his fall in 1989. That vast building is seen a model for Erdogan’s palace in its mixture of ill-conceived styles and mega-scale. Both men were born into poverty and rose to the top and then plonked their monuments down on their people.
Romanians joked about the corruption in the Ceausescu family who lived at the expense of the people saying they had achieved Communism but only in one family. Turks have been known to note ruefully that Erdogan’s relatives have done well out of an ostensibly good Muslim government which has given them Islam in one family. But there the comparison with the Communist dictator fades.
When Ceausescu faced a crisis in 1989 it was because the people backed the army in toppling him. Yesterday thousands of Turks rushed into the streets to back Erdogan against the military mutiny. Corruption allegations even with evidence have bounced off him. Pictures of the bank-teller’s cash-counting machine found in his son’s home along with shoe-boxes of dollars and euros in 2014 ought to have shattered the President’s Teflon image but didn’t. It was the investigators who got it in the neck. Populist, Erdogan may  be, but such popularity is a political asset of phenomenal effect. However, the combination of an apparently miraculous rise from the bottom of society to the top of politics with a credulous majority share of population who mix Muslim piety with political naivety is a dangerous brew.
Self-made as Erdogan is, his rise did not take place in a vacuum. Decades of state-promoted secularism in largely Muslim Turkey had begun to erode before he entered politics. In fact, it was the emergence of organisations like Fethulah Gülen’s Hizmet  or “Service” movement thirty years ago which paved the way for self-consciously Muslim politicians to gain a popular base in Turkey. Although in 1996-97, Turkey briefly had an Islamic prime minister, Erbakan, whose Welfare Party backed Erdogan for his first big political role as mayor of Istanbul, the Army intervened behind the scenes to force Erbakan to resign and Erdogan was banned from politics for 5 years for reciting a poem comparing minarets to bayonets of an Islamic Turkey.
Although Gülen went into self-imposed exile in America shortly after this so-called “post-modern” coup, his movement continued to expand in Turkey and its members were key players in the promotion of  Erdogan’s newly-founded Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a Western-style  centre-right party on the German or Dutch Christian Democrat model.
Critics of Erdogan used to say he was a product of Gülen’s movement and that without the Pennsylvania-based preacher’s network of influence Erdogan would never have risen to the top. Well that maybe, but Erdogan has long since detached himself from Gülen and has been gobbling up his erstwhile patron’s network for years. It has turned out that the sorcerer’s apprentice has much more appeal on the streets than the reclusive cleric.
 Erdogan’s hypnotic appeal to so many Turkish recalls the most sinister of precedents.
People may say that no Communist ever got elected but Hitler came to power democratically. That’s true but Hitler never risked letting Germans vote him out of office. Since 2002 Erdogan has trounced his rivals in election after election.
Yesterday, President Erdogan repeatedly emphasised that he had been elected by the majority of ordinary Turks. It is his trump card. Liberals and secular Turks might scorn his self-made man’s mega-ego and vulgar buildings, but these criticisms wash over 50% of Turks.  Erdogan’s bullhorn voice and harsh rhetoric are seen by many of them as the ordinary guy shutting up the posh Western-educated elites who sneer at a president who can’t speak English.
Rather as the 48% of Remainers here were baffled and outraged by northerners and Brummies voting Leave, in Turkey the big liberal minority is very snobbish towards the bigger provincial majority who back Erdogan.
Growing up with the ambition to be a soccer professional rather than a Harvard PhD, Erdogan’s outlook on life chimes with the mentality of Turkey’s chavs. His strong religious views are as much a rejection of the secular elite which had run Turkey since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 as piety.
Erdogan came to fame when he won the mayoralty of Istanbul twenty years ago – and then lost it for reciting an Islamic poem saying the city’s minarets would be bayonets of the Turkey which he envisaged. Then the secularists were strong enough to slap him down. But not for long.
Mixing appeals to the Muslim majority to use their votes with sensible economic policies, Erdogan reinvented himself as a kind of Turkish Muslim version of  German-style Christian  Democracy. But his critics always liked to cite his comment to Jordan’s King Abdullah that he viewed democracy like a bus ride – you get off at your destination and don’t stay on board to go round again.
So long as the economy grew so did Erdogan’s popular appeal. He could trim back the influence of the military and bump up the Islamic aspects of society. The fact that he was elected to the Turkish Parliament for a Kurdish-dominated district in 2003 when his suspension from politics for making illicit Islamist statements in still secular Turkey came to an end, was taken as a sign that he could represent the alienated minority in the south-east.  The West saw him as a model for Arab states undergoing revolution in 2011. He could offer Arabs an example of how religious politicians could integrate people into a modern economically-prosperous democracy after decades of military dictatorship.
But it is precisely Erdogan’s response to the Arab Spring which brought out his capricious attitude to friends and partners. Hardly had he accepted Colonel Gadaffi’s Prize for Human Rights in 2010 than he sent aid to the rebels against the Libyan dictator. Bashar al-Assad and family were holiday companions. Then in 2011 Erdogan denounced his Syrian neighbour as a blood-soaked tyrant. 
So far so good, if Erdogan had been a model of respect for minorities and dissenters at home. But his switch from dialogue to all-out war against the Kurdish minority in south-eastern Turkey was a symptom of his most worrying personality traits: caprice ad cynicism. Sending in the Army and Airforce to crush the Kurds in the Assad-way was a way of keeping Turkey’s nationalists in uniform on side. If Turkey’s generals have been traditionally secular and suspicious of an Islamic politician they are much more ferociously nationalistic and hostile to Turkey’s minorities. By blaming the new conflict on the Kurds Erdogan rallied voters and steel helmets to his side.
A similar dirty game has gone on with his switch from backing the jihadi rebels against Assad to his new backing of the US-led war on IS. Having let Islamist jihadi radicals pour across the border with Syria as if it was a sieve, Erdogan suddenly declared himself the defender of moderate Islam against extremist terrorists. They have hit back inside Turkey, so now the country needs a strong man to defend it.
 Like many authoritarians, Erdogan is man of violent mood-swings. His affection can sour overnight and   just as quickly he can warm to someone he bad-mouthed yesterday. For instance, in the run up to the coup he was courting Israel’s Netanyahu whom he denounced as a child-killer during the Gaza war in 2010. Vladimir Putin was as suddenly back in favour as Russia had been Enemy No1 in 2015. The pilot of the Turkish fighter which shot the Russian plane down on the Syrian border nine months ago has duly been detained as a coup-plotter. The day before the coup, even Syria’s Assad was referred to in emollient terms by Erdogan’s prime minister.
Mercurial in politics and ruthless in personality, the extraordinary rise of Turkey’s genuinely popular authoritarian president is a fascinating story but also an unsettling one. Democracy is supposed to produce bland but reliable leaders. They accept their own people’s will and act as trustworthy partners with allies. Erdogan’s changeability at home and abroad as well as his imperious personality make me doubt that when his winning streak falters he will stand in front of his palace happily telling the media that he looks forward to spending more time with his family. After all his family and friends are beneficiaries of his political clout. If and when Erdogan falls, they will be the fall-guys for his regime’s many faults.

To register your interest in pre-ordering Mark Almond’s “Secular Turkey: A Short History” go to

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Oxford used to be the Home of Lost Causes. Now It is Their Bunker

                  An Oxford polling station's window assures voters "I'm IN"!

Bad losers are very un-British, or used to be at any rate. Fair play used to be the essence of Britishness. But die-hard Remainers loath it like every other British tradition.  
The hysterical reactions of local Liberal Democrats in Oxford to their defeat a week ago brings Peter Pulzer’s famous definition of Fascism to mind: “Fascism is when the wets turn nasty”. Neither liberal nor democrat, the hegemonists of North London and my own North Oxford are turning into Euro-fanatics whose contempt for democracy is becoming openly Fascist. 
The cult of youth, the contempt for the elderly and the preference for direct action – albeit taken by others – over the ballot box are all too Fascistic for comfort. The hunt is on even for our own Matteotti. The Telegraph’s Catherine Gee posed a hardly rhetorical question whether her reader’s would have killed Hitler or Stalin in their cradles and wouldn’t do “the same” to Nigel Farage? On the Sunday after the referendum I sat behind a BBC TV journalist screeching, “God, I want to smash Vote Leavers in the face”! She could hardly control her venom against “that foetus” Gove. One Europhile Oxford historian of the First World War was so shell-shocked by the result that he has been effing and blinding on Twitter all week about Oxford graduate “Outers” calling them “W*nkers” or worse for not voting like him!

St. Margaret's hall polling station in Polstead Road, Oxford ("I'm IN" in upper window)

All of this hate-speech has let the virus of a post-modern anti-democratic mentalityout into our society. Deploring on the one hand the intolerance of anti-migrant views allegedly underpinnng Brexit voters' choice, before decrying the need to heed their votes, at best the embittered Remainers call for a re-run and at worse pour personalised threats out into the internet against Leavers. PC Plod and ex-prime minister David Cameron are all agog about graffiti on a Polish centre in London. But the Thought Police ignore high-profile incitements to violence like the ones from public personalities which I have quoted.
Although I have lived surrounded by euro-conformists in leafy North Oxford, this kind of frenzied rejection of the referendum result took me by surprise. I should have known better, after all the first seminar paper I gave in Oxford was about “Fascism as the Revolution of Youth”. But none of us like to think it could happen here. 
Symptoms of the local totalitarian mentality were immediately apparent last Thursday on the path to my local polling station in Polstead Road which was festooned with Remain posters and it even had a Remain banner in its front-window! The house next door was the local Remain HQ and plastered with posters. Several neighbouring Remainers coming to vote could not see anything wrong with a polling station advertising only one option. Leavers often expressed a naive faith in British fair-play when the subject of possible fraud in the voting or more precisely the counting was raised. This is England, they boasted! That sort of thing only happens in Ukraine! However, for Oxford’s blinkered Remainers, who provide the election-organising and vote-counting class, it was striking that blatant bias and illegal campaigning at the polling site was given a pass when done by the right side. After all, everyone around here is Remain as one put it to me. The referendum was a festival of unanimity North Korea-style.

UK doesn't count votes in individual polling stations like Ukraine - Obviously, no need to!

As I wandered around the city on Oxford University’s Open Day today for potential undergraduates, I lost count of the times a scholar or stooge undergraduate was holding forth about what was wrong with the Leavers or “reassured” would-be students that the university as a Remain stronghold – which from its Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor downwards it is. No debate in this home of lost causes is taking place – or permitted.The forlorn Euro-flags fluttering from the windows of colleges whose student inhabitants decamped to Glasto without bothering to vote give the city the air of a Danzig or Nuremberg at the moment they fell to the Allies in 1945 when the swastikas were still draped over balconies. Once Oxford was romantically Jacobite, now it is the Bunker of referendum denialism.
One North Oxford grande dame was furious when her two veteran cleaners admitted to voting Leave. Poles are likely to replace them. East European competition has made it possible even for dons to afford servants for the first time since the Great War. Fine for them but economic self-interest not racism makes the native servant class less enthusiastic about falling wages.
In their frenzy of rejection, the Remainers are upside-down and back-to-front. The very same liberal voices which decried “racism” in Leave propaganda are now threatening us with – to coin a term – a “swarm of migrants” from northern France once Brexit is enacted. Others decry how elderly risk-takers have stolen the future of the UK’s cautious, conformist conservative youth represented by the stars of Glastonbury bleating about whether they’d need visas to go to Ibiza.
But it is the threats of violence against Leavers which should be attracting attention. After the horror of Jo Cox’s murder, the BBC as well as much of the liberal media was filled with pious calls for a non-polemical approach to campaigning. The no-holds-barred bile directed by so much anti-social media at Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage since was soon  getting out of hand.
Bojo baiting was everywhere. Even the country house opera set can’t avoid it.  At Grange Park Opera on Sunday, its director, Wafsi (a household first-name, like Boris, at least in her own troupe) came on stage to denounce Boris. When some audience member demurred, instead of shutting up Wafsi decided she who pays the piper calls the tune and turned to her orchestra to ask them if they hated Boris. A few moon-faced violinists began to bleat two legs good, four legs bad, but other players sat stony-faced. Imagine if a Leave employer had asked employees to join the chorus of Out and Proud!
If you thought the referendum result was a classic example of Britain’s ability to make a revolutionary change without bloodshed, don’t think the Remain camp are going to grin and bear defeat. 1945 or 1979 were models of radical change through the ballot-box. 2016 should be another triumph for our way of making big decisions but the liberal elite is in denial of their defeat just as the new Fascists were after the First World War.  Remember the Mussolini’s, Lavals and our own Sir Oswald Mosley – fan of a united Europe to his dying day – were all renegade lefties eighty years ago.
Hampstead harpies and North Oxford feminists are in the forefront of the hate campaigns against Leavers. Their over-emotional response to the Out vote and hysterical calls for violence against the majority who frustrated their choice recalls the mentality of the fanatic women sitting knitting at the foot of the guillotine during the French Revolution. To most of us, they are about as seductive as Madame Defarge’s knitting-needles, but having seen one killing during the referendum campaign, let’s not discount the drip-drip effect of hate-media on impressionable or unstable young people.  
France's polarised atmosphere in the 1790s produced its Charlotte Cordays as well as its real life Defarges. 
Is the Britain now somewhere between the meeting of the Estates-General and the Terror, on the brink of the abyss? Or is our country entering the festering decay of constitutional authority as happened in Italy and much of Europe after 1918? The rhetoric of the referendum deniers sounds more Fascistic. It has none of the libertarian, egalitarian or fraternal tinge of the French revolutionaries'. Instead it is overflowing with bile against the poor, the chavs, anyone who outvoted the liberal elite. 
With a Tory leadership election scheduled to last until September and the Blairite veterans of his bloody Iraq war bent on decapitating Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, the post-Fascist frenzy to suppress anything passing for the popular will has many opportunities to burst the banks of peaceful politics.    
Wouldn’t it be a bloody irony, if a consequence of the British people voting to recover their traditional way of life was marred by the introduction of European-style political assassination? Our embittered Euro-Fascists’ bark may be worse than their bite. But who can rule out the risk of impressionable and unstable youths turning violent under the influence of anti-social media having a go at Bojo or beating up elderly people as Out voters? One thing is certain:  no-one in the broadcast media or the ancient universities is doing anything to calm the situation. But, remember, the Liberal establishment colluded with the Fascists in Italy and elsewhere  ninety-five years ago, too.  

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Tony Blair is Yesterday's Man, but His Spirit Lives On inside Britain's Ruling Elite

[A version of this article appeared in The Mail on Sunday (25th October, 2015): ]

Sorry never was the hardest word for Tony Blair – at least before Iraq.

For twelve years until his carefully choreographed interview with America’s CNN, Mr Blair had presented himself as the innocent victim of bad intelligence who at least had made the world a safer place by toppling Saddam Hussein. No need to apologise then for the consequences of his actions in 2003. Long before the ex-Prime Minister adopted a new profile as prophet-in-chief at his not-for-profit Faith Foundation (modelled on the not-so-transparent Clinton Foundation), his messianic self-righteousness left little room for acknowledging his own faults, but plenty of energy for addressing those of others.

Symptomatic of Mr Blair’s peculiar mindset was his willingness from the arrival of New Labour in Downing St. in  1997 to apologise for dark episodes in Britain’s past, while refusing to take the blame for any bad consequences of his own policies, least of all for the ever-expanding chaos in the Middle East, Mr Blair was happy to glow with a perverse pride by apologising for the Irish Potato Famine in 1846 and ended his term as prime minister expressing his shame about the slave trade abolished in 1807. To be he even let slip his regrets for his pre-PC spanking of his children, but only to draw attention to what a paternal model he was now setting!  

But this happy scapegoat for Britain’s past sins was remarkably tight-lipped about his own responsibility for squandering British lives, not to mention Iraqi ones, from 2003. Nor until now has ever admitted that his policies have made people in Britain less safe.

Tony Blair used to taint anyone who said his actions had played into the hands of hate-preachers here and had helped fuse the bombs which hit London in July, 2005, with the brush of apologists for terrorism. Yet in his cosy chat on CNN, when the subject of the emergence of the most brutal terrorist threat yet in post-Saddam Iraq came up, he let slip, “Of course, you-you can't say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.”

That double-negative is the nearest TB has ever got to admitting that he helped to fuel the flames now licking Britain’s doorstep.  What is now clear [from the Mail on Sunday’s reporting] is that IS is not only an immediate threat to millions of people in Iraq and Syria, but the jihadi terrorists are burrowing away inside Britain. Funds are being raised here by a spooky convert to Islam for IS’s global ambitions but also to provide support to potential killers being recruited here and now to go out on our streets and repeat the butchery of Corporal Lee Rigby on a wider scale. The terrifying blowback from Tony Blair’s blithe commitment to President Bush to go into Iraq whatever the circumstances is gathering pace. Saying sorry is hardly going to stop that momentum.

Maybe we can sympathise a bit with Blair’s unwillingness to come clean. All of us confront the dilemma from time to time that conscience prods us that we have behaved shabbily but our self-esteem tries to silence it by whispering, “I couldn’t have done that, not me”!  As Prime Minister of “Cool Britannia” Tony Blair embodied the “Me Generation”. If only we knew how sincere he was, nobody would doubt his motives. A mental block stopped him following his spin doctor, Alistair Campbell’s advice always to kill a bad story by fessing up straight away and urging people to move on. Instead Blair’s pride insists, “Don’t hold me responsible. I was only Prime Minister.” He denies that he can be faulted for believing – if he did – faulty intelligence as though the tenant of Downing St. just swallows what is served up by his staff. (Since Blair was clearly dependent in his interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on the flow of scripted responses through an ear-pierce pioneered by Ronald Reagan and perfected by Barack Obama, maybe he was never more than a mouthpiece.)

Although “Better late than never” will be the kindest response that Tony Blair will get from the widows and orphans created by his feckless policy in the Middle East, in reality this was not an apology but a pre-emptive strike to dull the impact of criticisms likely to be contained in the Chilcot Report, which may even appear within months after years of careful drafting to meet Blair’s replies to his critics. What formed the Semtex in his interview was his admission that the spreading cancer of Middle Eastern terrorism is a result of his policies.

Even with Blair in perma-tanned retirement,  his poisonous legacy still threatens us here at home and abroad because too many policy-makers can’t shake themselves free from him as their role-model for success in modern Britain. Until Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader there was no official opposition to Blair’s approach to foreign policy  which was embraced by most Labour MPs as well as the majority of Tories.  

For the future, even a fulsome Blair apology for past errors will be a dead-letter if the government still clings to the Blairite approach to foreign problems. David Cameron and his peers belong to that long Blairite generation that knew only peace and prosperity as they grew up in the security of the Cold War. Tony Blair casually launched Britain into a succession of hot wars. Kosovo worked out bloodlessly for us in 1999, but it seduced Mr Blair into thinking any casualties would always be Theirs not Ours.

Sadly, despite the our forces’ heavy toll in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where nothing has been achieved worth the blood of a British grenadier, Tony Blair’s deadly political legacy to his successors in power today is a knee-jerk reliance on military force to grab today’s headlines even if no planning for tomorrow’s consequences has been made. It is also that for all the talk about terrorism, no responsibility is taken for policies which help to promote it.

So let’s not heap all the blame for Iraq and terrorism on Blair. Too many are still anxious to share the guilt - or claim the credit for another misguided war after one more poorly-planned intervention. 

Just as he demonised Saddam Hussein as the root-and-branch of all Iraq’s problems and argued that deposing him would transform the country for good, so critics of Tony Blair tend to blame him as the sole villain in the sorry tale of our futile involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. But remember how the self-proclaimed “heir to Blair”, David Cameron casually sent the RAF to bomb Libya in 2011 without a thought for the morrow, despite  the experience of Iraq since 2003. Let’s face it, the same mindset which saw a majority of MPs vote for war in Iraq in 2003, now sits in a majority in Westminster today.

Until now Tony Blair has refused to apologise for anything which went wrong in Iraq, but it is much worse that the House of Commons is still teeming with MPs, on both sides, who have learned nothing from it. Do those who want to bomb Syria as a panacea for the problems caused by invading Iraq really know what will come next?
The Blairites blithely insist that there was no alternative then or now to their failure to consider what might go wrong and that anyone who doubts that theirs was the only choice are friends of dictators like Saddam, Gaddafi or Assad. Complacent Blairites never have to face the brutal reality that life in the terrifying uncertainty of civil war is far worse than under a dictatorship. Instead in the USA as well as the UK, promotion and prosperity are the wages of waging dead-end wars in the Middle East.

The Blairite default position of bomb now and improvise if things go wrong compares badly with how past leaders dealt with their policies going pear-shaped.  In 1997, many commentators compared the photogenic Blair with his smart wife and young children with Jack Kennedy entering the White House in 1961. But no-one can imagine Blair responding to the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs with President Kennedy’s frank admission, “Not only were our facts in error, but our policy was wrong because the premises on which it was built were wrong.” Over Iraq, Blair blames his subordinates for briefing him wrong: it wasn’t his job to get the facts right, merely to spout spurious justifications on the basis of “the intelligence crossing my desk.”

Like many neo-conservatives, Tony Blair like to posture as a Churchillian figure who would never had truck with appeasement. Could there be a sharper contrast than that between “Bombs Away Blair” and Neville Chamberlain? Chamberlain’s appeasement is universally condemned today as the folly it was, but, however flawed his foreign policy, unlike Blair Chamberlain prepared for the worst even while dealing with Hitler. His fiercest critic, Winston Churchill, noted that Chamberlain had drafted detailed plans to mobilise Britain’s economy for war, to prepare evacuation and rationing if – when - Hitler cheated him. Without Chamberlain, there would have been war anyway, but Britain  would have been even worse prepared for it than was the case. Blair sat on his sofa in 10 Downing St. preening himself as the new Churchill but failed to dictate a memo about what to do after his anticipated triumph brought British troops back to the Euphrates. (Of course, as briefers of Blair admitted, the Prime Minister clearly did not know that British troops had been in Iraq after the First World War until well into his war preparations, but then in 2001 he knew not that he was embarking on Britain’s Fourth Afghan War!)

Marching into Iraq in 2003, or parachuting into Helmand three years later, Blair operated on the principle that our forces would be welcomed. There would be no need to fire a shot. Muslim tribes would settle down to adopt a New Labour lifestyle overnight. 

Past prime ministers were voracious readers of history. Think of Churchill living a soldier’s life on the North-West Frontier and reading by candlelight as much as he could in that university of life. That kind of self-education taught past prime ministers how to avoid old mistakes – even if they couldn’t avoid new ones. Both Tony Blair and David Cameron give the strong impression that their lives were shaped by a Harry Potter version of Britain. Instead of being places of learning and inquiry, Oxford, like Eton and Fettes, was just a stepping stone on that effortless path to the top.  Reality, past or present, plays little part in their showman’s version of history. Both have claimed that in 1940 the USA was fighting on our side during the Battle of Britain! A Disney version of history clutters their minds with sound-bites of battles fought on the back-lot at Hollywood. People used to sneer at the Prince Regent’s account of  how he led cavalry charges at Waterloo, but Blairite virtual reality – with only the squaddies and towel-heads shedding actual blood – is loyally repeated by BBC and SKY News.   

Since their careers were facilitated with magical ease as they rose to the top, perhaps Blair and Cameron should be forgiven for assuming that their touch, like that of medieval monarchs, could heal the sick and transform every problem they handle. Their good intentions are so self-evident that any doubt is malign or mischievous. Words of warning are insults.

How could anyone have thought that the only alternative to the dictatorships of Saddam or Gaddafi would be democracy? Shouldn’t chaos have been on their radars?

Even if chaos had been avoided why should anyone have expected thanks from Iraqis or Afghans for our intervention. Stendhal, who was a soldier in France’s revolutionary armies, noted with a novelist’s eye how bitterly humiliating Italians found being liberated by foreigners.

Think of General de Gaulle’s taunting of the British and Americans after the war. He knew that France’s liberation in 1944 was due to the “Anglo-Saxons”, so he spent the next twenty-five years trying to expunge that shameful dependency by twisting our tails whenever he could just to prove France was truly independent – even of its liberators.

Many Iraqis or Libyans had to die so a Blair or a Cameron could pose briefly before a carefully selected adoring audience of locals singing exactly the same songs of praise with which they had adored yesterday’s fallen dictators. Little wonder that resentment boiled up among the rest of the population.

Should we be surprised that after Blair’s admission that he had helped spark the rise of the murderous IS cult tearing Iraq apart that so many Iraqis today are making eyes at Russia that did nothing to topple Saddam? After all, the Russians also didn’t create the security vacuum into which fanatics like IS stepped. With local rulers either blaming us for spawning IS or actually funding and arming the radical jihadis, the situation is running out of control for us in the West.

An apology from Tony Blair won’t unmake the mistakes since 2003. Worse still it may act as an alibi for carrying on with the same policies only without him at the helm of state. As the sinister hand of IS spreads into suburban Britain from the anarchy spawned by intervention in Iraq, parliament needs to think more about defending us at home rather than hoping that a re-play intervention abroad will produce a better result.

Maybe it no longer matters if Tony Blair is never going to learn from the terrible human costs of wars blithely entered into. But David Cameron has paid no political price for helping to plunge Libya into chaos. Luckily, so far no British dead there. But what about sending our Tornadoes tearing away into Syria? Has a House of Commons which forgets that it voted to invade Iraq in 2003 and which  had no problems imploding Libya, really escaped from the shadow of Tony Blair? It is not only the PM of the day who should examine his conscience and try to learn lessons. A lot of MPs need to think before they vote to bomb. Even a good cause needs more than a knee-jerk reaction. From Afghanistan in 2001 via Iraq and Libya, our rulers have failed to ask what comes next – and then feign innocent surprise when it’s chaos. 

One truth Tony Blair likes  to repeat is how interconnected the world had become and he insists there is  no escape from globalism. But by creating conditions for the log-rolling growth of global jihadi terrorism, his legacy has left us at home and the world at large in a daily more dangerous place.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Royal Video from 1933 Shows How Lucky Britain Was to Lose Edward VIII

Opening Royal Archives from 1930s and 1940s Won't Damage the Queen's Reputation.

By Mark Almond

“Long to reign over us” sings the national anthem. And its prayers have been answered. Queen Elizabeth II has reigned successfully over this country since 1952 with every indication of many more years to come.

But longevity has its price.

Skeletons can fall out of long-forgotten family cupboards. Yet the irony of the current fuss about the 1933 holiday video showing the royals larking around doing fascist salutes seems to me that its 20 seconds encapsulate how lucky we are to have our current royal family.

What makes the video controversial is the behaviour of the future Edward VIII not his niece. Our Queen and her parents had no truck with the Nazis but her uncle did.

The man who became merely Duke of Windsor in December, 1936, after a brief reign was the black sheep of the royal family. It was his paying court to Hitler in 1937 and keeping in contact with pro-Nazi German royals even after the outbreak of war which casts a shadow over his reputation.

Let’s be fair to Edward VIII. The mass murder of the Holocaust was in the future then. The mass killing on people’s minds was the blood-drenched trenches of World War One. The future Edward VIII was painfully aware of the human cost of that war.

Responding to the plight of unemployed ex-servicemen during the Great Depression, the then Prince of Wales shocked British  politicians by declaring, “Something must be done.” He wanted to rescue the ragged veterans from the dole queue. The problem was that the most seductive answer to mass unemployment was offered by Adolf Hitler.

The Nazi leader knew how to play up to foreign leaders who had seen the horror of war, 1914-18. Wasn’t he a frontline veteran, too? Hitler’s success in conquering mass unemployment owed a lot to his massive rearmament. Naïve souls like the ex-Edward VIII were gulled into thinking he wanted peace and prosperity not war and plunder.

The ex-King had several close German relatives who had been toppled from their thrones in 1918 when Germany became a republic. They shared is resentment against democratic politicians and hoped Hitler would reinstate them. But Hitler used ex-royals like Philip of Hesse and the Duke of Coburg to butter up their English cousin. 

In 1937, now an ex-king himself, Edward visited Hitler at Berchtesgaden. He had been taken on a tour of the new Germany’s developments. He saw and travelled on the autobahn
network and apparently even met some of the forced labour being reformed in concentration camps. The Duke of Windsor wasn’t alone in taking the political equivalent of a guided tour. Another ex-insider now in the political wilderness, Lloyd George, had a similar experience and uttered the same sort of compliments on the Nazis’ ability  to put people back to work. But most of all, men like the Duke of Windsor and Lloyd George came away convinced that the Hitler, who knew trench warfare first hand, was as anxious to avoid a re-run of the horrors of war as they were. Probably each hoped that Britain would recognise that they still had great services to offer, particularly when compared with the pedestrian establishment in power in London by then.

Effectively exiled from Britain, the Duke of Windsor was prey to the world of snobs and spivs hoping to cash in on his celebrity and loneliness, but he was also the target of German agents of influence like Hesse anxious to use him as a potential ally inside Britain as appeasement gave way to a resolve to defy Hitler by early 1939. Even after the war broke out, Edward met Hesse in Lisbon in 1940. He was there to sound out the ex-King on what would happen if Britain surrendered. 
This was foolish behaviour even if Hesse was a close relative. Even though there is no evidence Edward committed treason, doubts about what he might have let slip to his German cousins lingered as the Allies brought the war to a victorious close. He was known to have expressed strongly anti-Communist views, let slip a few anti-Jewish slurs and so on after his abdication. In 1945 the royal family sent a trusted courtier to Germany to retrieve correspondence from the Hesse family archive. Ironically, it was the Soviet spy, Anthony Blunt, who was a wartime MI5 officer, who was sent on this delicate mission.

The royal household wanted to protect the secrets of the ex-King as fiercely as the Crown Jewels. But whatever Blunt found was no secret from the Kremlin during the Cold War. If there was dynamite in the Hesse papers, surely Blunt’s Soviet masters would have ignited it in an anti-Western propaganda campaign at the height of the Cold War.

In any case, the ex-king’s naïve and irresponsible behaviour was in stark contrast with his brother’s. Whatever the self-centred faults of the Duke of Windsor, George VI and the Queen Mother rose to the challenge of the Blitz magnificently. By rallying the nation they completed the process of creating a genuinely British royal family. The German dynasty which inherited Britain in 1714 finally became thoroughly British. Unlike previous queens, the wife of the future George VI, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons, wasn’t a foreign princess. The future Queen Mother was apparently more closely related to Macbeth than any German princeling! Marrying subjects for the royal family is now so normal that it would be a surprise if a future King or Queen married “out”.  

It was Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha which had given the royal family an awkward long-winded German surname. In fact,  Albert himself was a model liberal reformer who used his influence behind the scenes, for instance, to oppose any blimpish support by Whitehall for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. But with the outbreak of war against cousin Kaiser’s Germany in 1914 put George V on the spot. The adoption of Windsor as the official name of the dynasty in 1917 was part of distancing itself from the legacy of Queen Victoria’s litter of foreign reigning and now deposed grandchildren – and certainly from the ill-omened and executed cousin Nicky of Russia, murdered along with his wife Alexandra of Hesse and their children by Lenin’s Communists.

It was George V’s very wooden public persona which made him such a suitable figurehead for a modern democracy with the Labour Party increasingly challenging for power. He pioneered  many of the public relations activities which royals still engage in. Their frequent lack of natural vim when meeting the public ironically fits their role very well: they are royal celebrities but by birth rather than as natural entertainers or skilled sportsmen. Fitting in to their role rather than dominating it requires a dedicated ordinariness in modern democracy. Edward VIII was not willing to subject himself to the demands of the new royal role.

It was one of Winston Churchill’s glaring inconsistencies in the 1930s that he chose to champion keeping Edward VIII on the throne in December, 1936, even though the King was a potential political liability in the looming atmosphere of political crisis abroad. Churchill’s decried political appeasers of Hitler but romanticised the royal one. Churchill’s anachronistic view that hereditary right trumped other considerations when it came to who was Britain’s head of state ignored the role of his great ancestor, the founder of the Churchill dynasty, in pushing James II out because he was politically and religiously unacceptable in 1688 and helping the Hanoverians in in 1714 because the Stuarts with a better claim to the throne by birth couldn’t satisfy the political elite here that they would stick to the newly-entrenched system of Parliamentary government.

Nothing of those sort of machinations is likely to be revealed by any papers or videos from the 1930s. Opening the archives hardly seems likely to damage their standing with the public. Elizabeth II’s long life is a living thread uniting the nation’s history and it has been lived in the limelight. Remember even before her uncle abdicated as King Edward VIII in 1936, she was his heir because the future Duke of Windsor had no children – and never did.

In many ways it was the disappearance of Edward VIII into a sad twilight which paved the way for making the monarchy a truly British institution. From wartime in the 1940s through the end of empire and the birth of the welfare state, the royal family’s standing has prospered despite their courtiers’ obsession with keeping the people at arms’ length.

In recent years even tragedy in the royal family has been treated with more openness. Buckingham Palace learned from the death of Princess Diana and quickly reached out to the British people. The marriage of William and Katherine and the births of their children have strengthened its popularity. Traditionalists cluck about taking the brand down-market, but so far it has worked and dampened the fears for the monarchy’s future which were so evident in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death.

Unlike fly-by-night presidents, the Queen’s long life means that she straddles history and the present. The archives of her personal story are inextricably bound up with national history. Maybe there are fears of the monarch getting drawn into party politics. The recent fuss about Prince Charles’s letters to ministers over issues of his particular concern to him which was brought into the public domain by the Freedom of Information Act requiring their publication even though they were written to the last Labour government. Such recent interventions were inherently controversial and, in my view salutary, because the monarch should be cautious about treading into divisive areas where inherently significant groups of British people will disagree.

But opening up aspects of the Queen’s early years is not going to damage public respect for the monarchy now. It is admittedly awkward to mix the personal and the public, but a hereditary royal family embodies that uncomfortable chemistry. In the end the public role of the monarch takes priority as the Queen herself has suggested by making clear that her coronation oath was a lifelong commitment.
The grainy cine film from summer, 1933, comes from very early in that long life of service. It was a time of looming crisis which could have shattered British society and toppled more than the monarchy. Far from discrediting our Queen, the video from 1933 should reminds us of how many challenges this country has overcome over the last eight decades under the Windsors.

Having performed  her role as a constitutional monarch impeccably for longer than most can remember, opening the archives can only reinforce the Queen’s standing. What the horse-play in summer 1933 reveals is how lucky Britain was in those years of crisis that Elizabeth II’s parents, and not her uncle, were in Buckingham Palace during the Blitz. 

This is an edited version of an article by CRIOx Director, Mark Almond, from The Sun on Sunday (19th July, 2015).

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Greece, the Frontline of Putin's New Cold War

Oxford, 21st June, 2015

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Mail on Sunday)

With all eyes on Athens watching to see if Greece’s left-wing government blinks tomorrow in its stand-off with the EU over its debt mountain, let’s not lose sight of the bigger political picture.

 Greece’s cash crisis is a moment of opportunity for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As Athens’ EU partners weary of subsidising Greece, energy-rich Russia is eyeing the Balkans as a  strategic route to weakening the links between Europe and Russia. Putin is offering the region the carrot of a lucrative gas pipeline and other incentives to draw countries like Greece and Turkey away from the West.

Manoeuvring for position for any “Grexit” from the Euro is part Russia’s deepening rift with the West over everything from Ukraine to the Middle East. Greece has become one of  the exposed nerves in the New Cold War between Washington and Moscow. Remember Greece’s civil war in 1947 sparked the old Cold War as President Truman took one side and Stalin  the other. Today, Greece is at the heart of renewed East-West rivalry as well as the Eurocrisis.

On Friday,the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, dropped a meeting with the EU’s current President, Poland’s Donald Tusk,  to travel to Russia’s old imperial capital,  St. Petersburg, to meet President Putin instead.

There, in a highly symbolic tribute, Tsipras laid a wreath at the statue of Kapodistrias, the ethnic Greek who acted as Imperial Russia’s foreign minister and did much of the diplomatic spadework which would eventually bring about a pan-European intervention on the side of the Greeks during their war for independence after 1821. Another ethnic Greek, Ypsilantis, an officer in the Imperial Russian army actually ignited Greece’s War for Independence in 1821. He was the forerunner of today’s Russian “volunteers” in the Donbas. Tsipras was paying homage to the idea that Russia not the West has been Greece’s true patron. Putin himself emphasised Russia’s deep ties of culture and religion with neighbours like Ukraine and Balkan countries like Greece.

Of course, Britain has been at odds with Russian imperial ambitions in the region before.The Crimean War was fought to stop them. In 1878, jingoism got its first outing when  London’s music halls echoed to the sentiment “We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do”  before listing what the Russians wouldn’t be allowed to grab in the Balkans. But the current standoff between Moscow-backed rebels in the south-east of Ukraine and the US-supported government in Kiev is why relations between East and West are so tense now.

Ukraine seems to be a reversion to the kind of Cold War proxy conflict between the Kremlin and the West which was normal in the decades before 1989. Then each superpower engaged in a hardly covert struggle for influence backing their local allies from Africa via Vietnam to Afghanistan, and trying to undermine the other side’s allies.

But let’s not be seduced too easily by old Cold War stereotypes. Of course, Vladimir Putin’s much publicised early career in the KGB has been to give him a sinister glamour, at home as well as abroad, but he long abandoned any commitment to Communism.

The old Cold War was a clear rivalry between Communism and Capitalism. Capitalism won hands down – not least in Russia itself. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin  and his close circle of ex-KGB ministers, advisers and cronies have abandoned any allegiance to Marxist ideas. Their Russia is not a socialist state any more. If anything post-Communist Russia has had a more cut-throat capitalist economy than anything seen in the West since well before the First World War.

Putin is often misquoted - or at least incompletely quoted – as promoting nostalgia for the USSR and a desire to restore it when he said that Russian who did not regret the break up of the state and society into which they had been born lacked a heart, but he added – something usually overlooked - that anyone who wanted to recreate the Soviet
Union lacked a brain. His preferred historical models are to be found among people and  policies before the Bolshevik Revolution.

It is to pre-1914 Imperial Russia and its culture and traditions that Putin most often looks for symbols to bolster his politics today. So he has declared the last tsar's reforming prime minister, Stolypin, his political hero, not Stalin. Of course, he  savoured the anniversary of the Red Army’s victory over Hitler in 1945, still the biggest badge of pride for Russians from their tarnished Communist past, but he by the Soviet Communists. Strikingly, even his defence minister, a Russian Buddhist by has committed himself to the country’s Orthodox Christian heritage so despised origin, nonetheless made the sign of the cross in the Orthodox way on the spot where the renegade seminarian, Stalin, had celebrated Hitler's defeat. 

Imperial Russia’s Nicholas I prefigured Putin’s hostility to “People Power” revolutions, seeing the upheavals of his day – Poland in 1831 or Central Europe in 1848 – as the result of liberal machinations promoted from Paris and London as Putin sees Washington's hand behind the crisis in Ukraine.  Nicholas I made an exception in his support for Orthodox Christians in Greece rebelling against the Muslim Sultan.

For many Greeks and Russians being an Orthodox Christian is essential to their national identity. Putin’s emphasis on traditional values puts him at odds with the West, where  tolerance and individual rights are now sacrosanct. Putin’s government has put a lot of  effort into rallying cultural conservatives in the West to Russia’s side as the bastion of family values. Cynical propaganda it may be but it is very different Soviet Communism’s anti-Christian diatribes.

Putin emphasises Russia’s the thousand-year old ties with the Greek Orthodox  Church which brought Christianity first to Ukraine then Russia itself. In 1947, Greek Christians were anti-Communist and so anti-Moscow. Not any more.

As in the early nineteenth century, Graeco-Russian solidarity is based on religion which was very different from British sympathy for the Greeks then which was a liberal cause.

Britain’s most famous contribution to Greek independence was Lord Byron’s quixotic  sacrifice of his own life fighting to revive the glories of  ancient pagan Athens. Byron was no friend of Christianity, Orthodox or Anglican. Imperial Russia backed the Orthodox Christians who actually lived in modern Greece. Today Putin plays up his role as a born-again Orthodox Christian to Greeks, though let’s remember George Bush liked that in him too. (Another Western born-again Christian, Tony Blair made the pilgrimage to Putin in St. Petersburg on the same day as Tsipras but whether as acolyte or to spy out any weaknesses in the Russian government for his rival patrons in Kiev has yet to be revealed.)

But Putin backs up appeals to cultural solidarity with incentives in hard cash.

If Putin  dreams of a revived Orthodox Christian alliance reaching deep into Europe’s backyard in the Balkans, this is because he calculates that Greece is where Moscow could split the EU and NATO.

Russia’s vast energy resources are the tool to prize apart NATO states from America. Already, Russia has signed an agreement to build a gas pipeline to Turkey. On Friday, Tsipras added Greece’s signature to the project. Both Turkey and Greece are attracted by a gas pipeline supplying them with energy at a favourable price and giving them a share in the profits of transporting it further West, ultimately to energy-hungry Italy, the big prize at the heart of the West from Russia's point of view. No-one needs reminding that Greece could do with a few billion euros in transit fees, whether there is a Grexit or not.

Tsipras may calculate that he can use the Russian bogey to frighten Brussels into  continuing the bail-out, but if the Germans refuse to pay up, Russia can at least tide Athens over for a while it sorts out an orderly  return to the drachma.

Putin has not, however, got limitless resources to play with. Oil and gas prices are well below where the Kremlin needs them to have the tens of billions to throw around which would really buy friends and influence throughout the Balkans if the West plays tough.  
Brussels and Washington see the Russian-sponsored pipeline as a Trojan Horse. They have  already twisted Bulgaria’s arm not to participate in Putin’s project. Orthodox Bulgaria had had the reputation as the most pro-Russian country  in the region so its backing away from Putin’s embrace shows the limits of cultural traditions in the Balkans. In neighbouring Macedonia, street protests against the government where only quietened when the prime minister said his country would not join Russia's pipeline project without the consent of Brussels

But Greece has had a long history since 1945 as the most truculent member of both NATO and then the EU, so it could prove a tough nut for Western pressure to crack. Greece's obstinate refusal to acknowledge "Macedonia" as its neighbour's name and therefore the  country's candidacy to either the EU or NATO is just one symptom of Athens' ability to block its allies when it chooses to.

Today’s Russia does not have the resources of the West but nor is it the basket-case  which the Soviet Union had become by the 1980s. Putin is playing on the economic realities which make the New Cold War so different from the past. During the Cold War  alliance with Washington was the high road to prosperity for Western Europe. After 1948, America’s Marshall Plan helped lift post-war Europe out of misery. Communism’s inability to match the West’s economic boom from the 1950s sealed its unpopularity in Eastern  Europe and Soviet Russia itself. 

But today the White House is asking its European allies to make economic sacrifices to counter the Kremlin.  

For four decades, Western Europe had a free-ride on Washington’s coat-tails. Now  sanctions on Russia hit European businesses hard. Particularly in rural Greece and the ex-Communist states of the new EU members, losing agricultural sales to Russia has bee a  body-blow. But big German and Italian manufacturers have taken heavy hits too.

Putin plays up the argument that President Obama is setting the anti-Russian sanctions policy but the price is paid by austerity-hit Europeans. Gnawing away at European support for sanctions on Russia over Ukraine are the losses of valuable exports to their vast eastern neighbour. Greece is least able to afford such losses.

Putin is able to sit out the sanctions because ordinary Russians blame the West rather than him for growing hardship. That is a very different state of affairs than the cynical attitude towards the Kremlin in the last years of Communism.  He hopes to chip away at EU solidarity. Let’s face it, there are a lot of divisions inside the EU and not just over Russia. Newly-elected governments here in Britain and in Denmark want to cut back the rights of migrant workers flooding west from Poland and the Baltic States which see themselves as the frontline of the New Cold War.  In Warsaw, plans in London to change migrants’ rights to benefits are seen as a stab in the back of NATO’s eastern allies.

Greeks demand solidarity from NATO allies in cash. As that dries up, Greece could be the first domino to fall. Turkey could follow as its own political and economic crisis is pushing President Erdogan eastwards.

Nothing in history is every exactly a repetition of past patterns. The New Cold War has different dynamics from the one before 1989, but, by jingo, it seems that traditional British fears of Imperial Russia’s dream of dominating the region could have life in them yet.

Mark Almond is Director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford (CRIOx). 


Monday, 16 February 2015

UK supplies Saxon APCs to Ukraine which promptly sells them

There are times when even Jonathan Swift's sense of satire would be silenced by reality. After a lot of huffing and puffing by the "Arms for Ukraine Now!" neo-cons like General Sir Richard "Helmand" Dannatt over the weekend ridiculing Britain for only supplying Saxon Armoured Vehicles, a Kiev-based company is already offering them for sale! For the specifications: But remember it is a cash-only transaction (NO Western Union or ProCredit drafts) on the normal terms offered by Kameron, Klegg & Krony (Kyiv) Ltd.

Saxon AT105 4x4 тактическая полицейская машина

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