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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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.