Guest Column: We Will Not Be Silenced
We Will Not Be Silenced
MPs Must Be Free To Speak Out Against This Absurd And Potentially Disastrous War
Saturday October 20, 2001
[Reprinted by permission of the author.]
In exile in Switzerland, shortly before the Russian revolution, Lenin opined that "there are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen". We are, it seems, living through such weeks. It is hard to remember a time when political instability, civil strife and the roar of bombs and missiles have so scarred the international landscape. Governments like Norway's fall, others like Australia's cut and run for a khaki election. General Musharraf, Pakistan's self-appointed military strongman, admits he's forcing through a policy rejected by 83% of his compatriots.
General Sharon's Israeli government, riven between hawks and superhawks, now appears to have embarked on a doomsday option, possibly including the assassination of Arafat, following the slaying of the world's least attractive "tourism" minister.
The "soft centered" European governments are beginning to squirm and the Labour benches in the British parliament are turning queasy at the slaughter of the world's poorest by the world's richest. Coalition comrades, India and Pakistan, are shelling each other across the line of control in Kashmir. Aid agencies are in "emotional" revolt and, like Mary Robinson, are having to be ordered back into their box by Clare Short. Muslim streets are burning from Gaza to Jakarta. In the House of Commons, former defence ministers, Labour rightwingers like Gwyneth Dunwoody and MPs with large Muslim electorates have swollen the ranks of the usual suspects - those like me, who have opposed all the wars of the new imperialism.
Internationally, the coalition is shakier still. The Arab League, echoing Nato leaders, has declared that any attack on an Arab country will be regarded as an attack against all of them. The Saudis, having denied the US use of their bases and declined a visit by Tony Blair, are now questioning the basis of the whole campaign - even openly doubting the involvement of Bin Laden in the crimes of September 11.
Meanwhile, the phone-in lines to Arab television stations are jammed with opponents of the war and blood-chilling threats of mayhem in revenge. Bush and Blair may not be "at war with Islam", but "Islam" is now at war with them and we will be lucky if that is not soon visible on the streets of northern English cities.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the reaction to the "Middle East fit for heroes" the Anglo-Americans are promising. The Arabs simply don't believe it. Perfidious Albion, after all, has a track record. The Palestinian tragedy was authored here in the building in which I write. During the Great War, while Lawrence of Arabia rallied the tribal hordes to support our jihad on the Turks - with the promise of Arab independence - over in Downing Street Mr Sykes and Monsieur Picot were carving up the area into British and French colonies. And in 1991, Britain and America offered the Arabs a new deal, with Israel forced to implement international legality, if they backed the fight against Iraq. Promises made and broken with a handshake.
Seldom can a western war drum have sounded more hollow. Seldom can the prattle of ministers - Labour ministers, many of whom I can still see sporting their CND badges as they shuttled around looking for safe seats in the 70s and 80s - about command and control centres, air defences and radar capabilities have seemed so obscenely stupid. The Afghans have none. The airport at Kabul is no more than a collection of shacks, whose telephones couldn't even make outgoing calls. And the statement, delivered by our defence secretary with all the gravitas of Captain Mainwaring, that we had achieved "air-superiority" over Afghanistan - over a Flintstones-style air force which couldn't even leave the ground - will live forever as one of those stories you really couldn't make up.
So what are the "allies" bombing? The four UN mine-clearing staff, the shepherds and their families in the village of Khorum, the Red Cross compound in Kabul, the residents of Kandahar, the trucks full of terrified refugees. More of these human and public relations disasters will conspire to "bury" the government's message. An already restless audience here, never mind among the 1.3bn Muslims nursing their wrath, will not sit through this unequal fight with equanimity. And without a change of policy, the winter snows will soon begin to tilt this disaster into an international catastrophe.
Well, what should we do, ask the remaining subalterns of the war party's thin red line. As the Irishman famously replied: "If I wanted to get to Cork, I wouldn't have started from here." The government was repeatedly warned of the grisly consequences of its tango with Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. I accused it on the eve of the fall of Kabul of having opened the gates to the barbarians and of the long dark night which would follow. Many of us have since described the rising tide of radical Islam, buoyed by our double standards towards Palestine and Iraq, and our buttressing of stooge kings, generals and 99%-of-the-vote presidents of the Muslim world - now laughably lined up behind "operation enduring freedom".
But even for those who have brought us to this terrifying cusp in world events, there were alternatives. The squeeze could have been kept up on the Taliban - three weeks is not a long time to secure extradition on a capital offence, especially without providing evidence to the country concerned. The judicious waving of carrots to tribal chiefs could well have achieved the betrayal of Bin Laden. And if military action was seen as unavoidable, the target should have been the Arab legions in the mountains, not the poor ragged Afghans they've colonised, who never invited them in - we did - and have no way of making them leave. This and a Lockerbie-type trial, in a neutral country and including Muslim jurists, would have been one way to show how "civilised" we were. Instead we've answered savagery with savagery.
On the home front, there are disturbing signs of the Downing Street general staff losing their nerve. Careless talk circulates about members of parliament being carpeted, media appearances vetted, ultimatums issued. This would be the ultimate surrender to democracy's enemies. Throughout the second world war, Aneurin Bevan subjected the line of the Churchill coalition government to excoriating criticism and withering examination - as Churchill himself had done with Chamberlain. Both would have scorned the idea of their actions being licensed by whips, as if we were circus dogs whose duty was to perform tricks for the ringmaster. I too have now been summoned to see the chief whip. Next week, over tea and biscuits at 11 Downing Street, I will have to courteously explain to my old friend Hilary Armstrong that I, for one, will not be gagged. This bombing has to stop - and the war is too important to be left to ministers and generals in conclave.