MacShane, Georgia, Iraq and me

The former minister takes issue with a column of mine.

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Denis MacShane, the Labour MP for Rotherham and former Foreign Office minister under Tony Blair. He is an unrelenting and articulate critic of Cameron's Conservatives and a passionate, opinionated and interesting politician.

Like me, he has criticised the BBC over the BNP, attacked David Cameron's alliance with Michal Kaminski, and helped expose the "cult of Cable". But it would be absurd to pretend that he and I agree about foreign affairs. MacShane, for example, is an outspoken defender of Israel and a signatory to the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society.

The former minister has had a letter published in this week's New Statesman, having a go at yours truly. Our published letters are not available online, so I have reproduced it below:

The usually super-savvy Mehdi Hasan is wrong on Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 (Dissident Voice, 25 January). If 20,000 men cross the frontiers of a sovereign state, while an air force bombs civilians and a fleet sails to bombard the enemy coast, most of us think that's an invasion.

Hasan writes about the "the traditional Tory school of scepticism in international affairs". That gave us appeasement of apartheid, support for Pinochet, a knighthood for Mugabe and a blind eye as 8,000 European Muslim were killed one by one at Srebrenica. I thought the NS was against tyranny and dictators and Tory appeasement of both?

"Usually super-savvy"? Denis, flattery will get you everywhere . . .

Let's respond to his two main points in turn:

1) In my column, I mocked David Cameron for rushing to Tbilisi, in 2008, "to declare his support for embattled Georgia, which, he wrongly claimed, had been 'illegally invaded' by Russia". MacShane disputes this, blaming the conflict on Russian forces crossing "the frontiers" of Georgia.

But the EU's Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia supports my view. Here are the conclusions of their September 2009 report, via the BBC:

"The shelling of Tskhinvali [the South Ossetian capital] by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia," the report says.

It adds later: "There is the question of whether [this] use of force . . . was justifiable under international law. It was not."

It also says Georgia's claim that there had been a large-scale Russian military incursion into South Ossetia before the outbreak of war could not be "sufficiently substantiated", though it said there was evidence of a lower-level military build-up.

And here's the BBC's Tim Whewell, who investigated the outbreak of hostilities for Newsnight in November 2008:

Its [Georgia's] attack on 7 August on the breakaway region of South Ossetia triggered a Russian invasion, which in turn sparked the biggest crisis in east-west relations since the cold war.

The United States, Britain and other western governments offered Georgia strong diplomatic support, accusing Russia -- South Ossetia's ally -- of aggression and massive overreaction.

But now mounting evidence is casting doubt on Georgia's account of the origins and course of the war. It suggests that Georgia played a bigger role than it admits in provoking the conflict, and that it may have violated the rules of war in the first days of the fighting.

Oh, and here's Colin Powell, a Republican and former US secretary of state, speaking on CNN shortly after the war began in 2008:

POWELL: And I think it was foolhardy on the part of President Saakashvili and the Georgian government to kick over this can, to light a match in a roomful of gas fumes.

SESNO: So you're saying the Georgians provoked this?

POWELL: They did. I mean, there [were] a lot of reasons to have provocations in the area, but the match that started the conflagration was from the Georgian side.

Care to respond, Denis?

2) MacShane then turns to my preference for "traditional Tory . . . scepticism in international affairs" over the discredited, belligerent neoconservatism promoted by Michael Gove, George Osborne and others on the current Conservative front bench. He refers to Tory support for Augusto Pinochet -- conveniently omitting to mention Jack Straw's decision to send Pinochet home to Chile in 2000.

He also mentions a knighthood for Mugabe, again conveniently omitting to mention that it took Labour 11 years to strip him of that knighthood --and that, too, under pressure from the Tories.

MacShane is right to condemn the Hurd-Rifkind appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic in the mid-1990s, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of European Muslims. But he fails to mention Labour's own miserable record on war and peace: the illegal invasion of Iraq, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis.

I oppose "tyranny and dictators" as much as the next man -- unless the next man is the Saudi-loving, Mubarak-supporting George W Bush. I just don't advocate illegal wars of aggression, which kill thousands of civilians, as a means of getting rid of either.

 

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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.