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.

BBC screenshot
Show Hide image

Theresa May dodges difficult questions about social care and NHS in Andrew Neil interview

Prime Minister was on message but on the back foot.

Theresa May was interviewed for 30 minutes by Andrew Neil on BBC One this evening, and she managed to say next to nothing. Whether you see that as skilful politics or shameless dishonesty, there was very little that came out of this interview. Here’s the little we did learn:

The Prime Minister is assuming victory - even if she says otherwise

Although the Conservative party’s campaign has been based on trying to convince voters that there is a chance Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister (to spook them into voting for May, and against a Corbyn-led coalition – a very unlikely scenario in reality), Theresa May revealed just how strongly her party is assuming victory. For example, when pressed on her plans for funding social care (means-testing the winter fuel allowance, and taxing the elderly on their assets), she could only answer that her government would hold a consultation to iron out the details. No matter how hard she tries to push the message that Corbyn is en route to No 10, if her policies are not policies at all but ideas to be fleshed out once she returns to power, this remains just rhetoric. As Neil asked about the consultations: “Wouldn’t you have done that before you came out with the policy?”

The Tories won’t lower themselves to costing their manifesto

It has always been the case that Labour has to work much harder than the Tories to prove its economic credibility, which is why in the Ed Miliband days it was decided that all policy proposals had to add up. But never have the Tories been so shameless in taking advantage of that political fact. For all the stick its received for being idealistic, Corbyn’s manifesto is more costed than the Tory effort, which May herself admitted during this interview is a set of “principles” rather than policies: “What we set out in our manifesto was a series of principles.” Where is the money going to come from for £8bn extra for the NHS? “Changing the way money is used”, “The strong and growing economy”, and “a variety of sources”, of course! At least Labour could patch together something about corporation tax and cracking down on tax avoidance if asked the same question.

Playing politics

Neil went in hard on May’s u-turn on her plan to fund social care – asking repeatedly why the Tories are now planning on bringing in a cap on how much the elderly have to pay, when originally there was no cap. All May could offer on this was that Corbyn was “playing politics” with the policy, and “scaremongering” about it. This deflection was flawed in a number of ways. First, it provided no explanation of what the policy will now be (what will the cap be? When will we know?), second, if Corbyn has been “scaremongering” it means he must have influenced the policy change, which May denies, and third, all it highlights is that May is herself “playing politics”.

Brexit is always the answer

As May cannot answer a single question about the specifics of policies or spending, Brexit is the perfect topic for her. It is a subject defined by its uncertainty and lack of detail, therefore something she can get on board with. She answered almost every question on every subject broached by Neil by asking who voters want around the Brexit negotiating table after the election – her or Corbyn.

Why are the polls closing? “...I’ve set out my vision for that strength in negotiations and that stronger plan. And the choice is who’s going to be doing those negotiations, me or Jeremy Corbyn.”

Are your policies uncosted? “...I think it is important that the country has certainty over the next five years, has the strong and stable leadership I think it needs, as I’ve just explained, particularly for those Brexit negotiations.”

Where is the extra NHS funding going to come from? “...Crucial to that, is getting the Brexit negotiations right, and that’s why this is so important. That’s why who is sitting around that negotiating table, 11 days after the election it’s going to start…”

Will National Insurance go up? “...Fundamental to that of course is getting the Brexit deal right and getting those negotiations right and having both a strong hand in those negotiations but also the strength of leadership in those negotiations…”

Will you break the immigration target promise for a third time? “...The question that people face is who do they trust to take this country though the Brexit negotiations..?”

But the soundbites must be working

A few seconds in to the interview, May had already used the phrase “strong and stable” and “my team”. While political insiders will groan and mock the repetitive use of such banal phrases, and emphasis on Brexit negotiations, we must remember the “long-term economic plan” slogan of 2015’s Tories. It worked, and clearly behind the scenes, the masterminds of the Conservative campaign believe these soundbites must be working. Theresa May is miles ahead of Jeremy Corbyn on the “who you trust to be Prime Minister” metric, which is why the Tories repeating how “strong and stable” their government would be, and running such a presidential campaign (“my team”, and May versus Corbyn) must be working.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496