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Open your eyes, Dave

In his haste to embrace the new pro-western government of Pakistan, the British Foreign Secretary ha

Dear David,

I hope this letter finds you well. Do you mind if I call you David? "Mr Miliband" sounds so formal, given your affectionate relationship with my country. It was such a lovely surprise to have you over. It warmed our hearts, really it did. I especially enjoyed your faith in our new government (you know, the one headed by two former ex-cons?). The CIA and Nato have both praised Pakistan's new regime for its enthusiastic assistance in the war on terror, and now you've chimed in. I find it's always nice to have supportive friends when you're at war with your own citizens.

But back to you, esteemed Foreign Secretary (maybe I could just call you Dave?). You welcomed the "reforming zeal" of Pakistan's present government, adding that under Asif Zardari's stewardship Pakistan has been turned into an outward-looking force. Flogging an extremely dead horse, you went on to say that Britain was keen fully to support Pakistan's "democratic" government. The quotation marks are mine, not yours, clearly. Let's talk about some of that reforming zeal you were so impressed by.

In a push to inaugurate as many chums as possible into high-powered federal posts, the Zardari government last month named Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani as the education minister. Does the name ring a bell, Dave? It should. In 2007, the former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry - you remember him surely? - ordered Bijarani's arrest for a small matter.

The small matter was this: to settle a feud between two families, Bijarani, then a Pakistan Peoples Party national assembly member, sat at the head of a local jirga and ordered that five girls be handed over to the family of a murdered man as compensation. The five girls were Aamna, aged five, Bashiran and Meerzadi, both aged two, Shehzadi, six, and Noor Bano, three. But thanks to the reformist zeal of our new and, might I add democratic, government, the former chief justice's condemnation of Bijarani's barbarism is null and void. The criminal is cleansed and blessed with a promotion allowing him to preside over a substantial federal ministry. What happened to the five girls - to Bashiran and Meerzadi and the others? Who cares? Their country is an outward-looking force.

Throughout your time in Pakistan, and I hate to be a pain about this, Dave, you used the phrase "civilian government" ad nauseam. "Pakistan's civilian government must stop the drones"; "I welcome the reforming zeal of the civilian government"; "Britain supports the civilian government of Pakistan". But what you seem to be forgetting is that civilian governments can be authoritarian, too. Case in point: because of a most inconvenient deluge of criticism aimed at the civilian government, the civilian government has introduced the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance.

Threatening text messagers and satirical emailers through the Federal Investigation Authority was not enough; now parliament is going to get serious. Under the ordinance, anyone found guilty of "cyber terrorism" and who thereby "causes death of any person" will face the death penalty. The only problem is, again, a small one - that no one is clear as to what exactly constitutes cyber terrorism. The definitions put forth by the civilian government are ludicrous. They do not follow internationally recognised standards. The ordinance includes many more ambiguities, for crimes such as "spoofing" and "spamming", for instance, that will be punished with imprisonment.

Does this article count as an electronic crime? It might. According to the decree, I've just spoofed by making suggestions of an obscene nature - that criminals shouldn't run countries. I could, therefore, be found guilty under section 13, which prohibits cyber stalking. Yes, I know they aren't related. I didn't stalk anyone. It's just that kind of law. If I forward this article to my mailing list, I could be charged with "spamming". Anything is possible under the reformist zeal of our new civilian government.

A few days ago, the senate standing committee on the interior admitted the presence of "countless hidden torture cells" across the country. What exactly has changed since the civilians took power from the generals? Nothing. Torture remains unabated. The press is more muzzled, and the economy is prostrate, at the mercy of the International Monetary Fund's lending conditions.

By next July, according to the stipulations of the IMF, subsidies for electricity, gas and petroleum products will be eliminated. Agricultural subsidies will most likely be cut, and by 2015 the ratio of tax to GDP will increase from less than 10 to more than 15 per cent. The poor will have to pay for Pakistan's corrupt governance, Dave. The poor, already burdened by extreme food inflation and power and water shortages, will bear the brunt of our civilian government's "reformist zeal".

Covering both Afghanistan and Pakistan on one trip in two days, and now having the issues in India to respond to, is a hell of a lot of work. You must be dreadfully exhausted by all your recent politicking. I know we are. I trust you had a safe flight home. We'll miss you.

Best wishes,

Fatima

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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