Beyond Kaminski

Have we forgotten the Latvians and the rest?

Has the Kaminski brouhaha distracted us from the bigger picture? The Tory blogosphere may want us to change the subject and move on, but the reality is that the cuddly Cameroonian Conservatives remain allied, in Brussels, with a bunch of whackjobs, loons and bigots. Will Straw has the details. Does David Cameron, for example, know that the Lijst Dedecker in Belgium includes an MP who has -- in a manner reminiscent of the BNP's Nick Griffin -- described Islam as a "cancer" and called for "global chemotherapy" against it? Does Cameron even care?

Perhaps most shameful of all are the Tories' new allies from Latvia, the For Fatherland and Freedom (LNNK) party, whose sole MEP, Robert Zile, sits in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, and even attended the Conservative party conference in Manchester.

The Tories have been keen to defend this controversial party, which honours Latvia's Waffen SS veterans each year with an annual parade in the capital city, Riga, on 16 March. The shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, and the party's chairman, Eric Pickles, have both condemned Labour and the Lib Dems for recycling "old Soviet smears" and "endorsing Soviet propaganda" against the Latvians. Hague and Pickles have claimed that the so-called Lettish Legion consisted of conscripts and that the parade is a mainstream and official event.

This, however, has been refuted and disproved by, among others, the journalist Peter Beaumont (the Observer's award-winning foreign affairs editor) and the Israeli historian Efraim Zuroff (from the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Centre). Up to a third of the Latvian SS region were volunteers -- and deeply implicated in the Second World War-era massacres of Riga's Jews. Moreover, the 16 March parade is not an officially sanctioned event and, says Beaumont, "When the head of Latvia's armed forces participated in the march, Latvia's parliament voted to have him removed from his position."

The Speccie's Rod Liddle -- not normally a man I agree with! -- summed up the situation early this month:

It is not the slightest use Eric Pickles insisting that Latvians who fought for the Waffen SS -- who were honoured by the party in question -- were merely patriots and that to argue otherwise is a Soviet slur, because it is simply not the case. Further, presentationally, the words "Waffen SS" have, historically, tended to have a negative impact upon the British voter. The man in the street associates the phrase -- perhaps wrongly -- with all manner of bother, all kinds of horribleness. Also, it is the sort of phrase which sits uncomfortably with the notion of "caring Conservatives", even caring Conservatives who are going to freeze the wages of everybody except bankers as soon as they take office. How did they allow themselves to get into this position, then? Either through stupidity or principle, one supposes. I am not sure which of the two is worse.

It is not David Miliband who owes the Tories -- or the Poles, or the Latvians -- an apology; it is Hague and Pickles who owe all of us an apology: for aiding and abetting in the rehabilitation of the Waffen SS while presenting false and inaccurate information in defence of their absurd and amoral position.

Note: Before the Tory trolls descend on this blog to feign outrage and disgust and point to Labour's dodgy allies in the European Parliament, let me remind them (again!) that Labour, unlike the Conservatives, did not go out seeking new allies and new groupings. Nor is the Party of European Socialists, to which Labour belongs -- unlike the European Conservatives and Reformists, to which the Tories belong -- dominated by bigots, weirdos and extremists on the far-right fringe of European politics. Is that clear?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.