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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Tory arguments about public sector pay are misguided and divisive

The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else.

Is Philip Hammond right? Are public sector workers better paid than workers in the private sector who hold equivalent qualifications? Yes, if we believe the Office for National Statistics and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Yet the calculations do not take into account the private sector’s bonuses (though most private sector workers never have bonuses) or the public sector’s considerably better pension rights. And if you try to take account of the burdens imposed by staffing cuts (probably greater in the public sector), you will get a headache.

The calculations are further complicated by the increasingly blurred lines between the sectors. The main point of privatisation and outsourcing, regardless of waffle about “efficiencies”, is to cut wages for ordinary workers while boosting them for the boss class. It would be surprising if this project hadn’t achieved some success, though train drivers, reportedly singled out by Hammond as “ludicrously overpaid”, are unambiguously in the private sector.

The Tories contrive such arguments to divide those who are justly aggrieved by low wages. Public v private, migrants v true-born Britons, women v men, graduates v non-graduates, train drivers v less skilled workers. The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else. Hammond cannot expect nurses and teachers to accept stagnant wages just because wages for office workers and delivery people have stagnated at a lower level.

First class

For years, everyone complained that young people didn’t bother to vote. Now, they are accused of voting too much. The Electoral Commission’s report on last month’s general election, while noting “lack of evidence of widespread abuse”, says it takes “very seriously” boasts by people on social media that they voted twice. Tory MPs and defeated candidates are also taking this seriously, with students the alleged culprits.

Electoral law allows people to register in two locations if they have two residences. Students, therefore, can register at their family home and their term-time abode. In local elections, they can vote in both locations, provided different councils are involved. In general elections, they can vote only once. It is all very confusing and, theoretically, wide open to abuse. But think of the practicalities. To influence results significantly, a voter needs to have residences in two marginal constituencies and to have time, energy, money and organisation to travel from one to the other in a day. Does that sound like any student you know?

Austerity blues

Several weeks ago, I drew attention to falling life expectancy in the US and France. Now the leading epidemiologist Michael Marmot finds that increases in British life expectancy – uninterrupted since the Second World War – are “pretty close to having ground to a halt” since 2010. Marmot says it is “entirely possible” that austerity has played a role. He offers no analysis of which sections of the population are most affected but you need only read the Times’s death notices to know that top people rarely die before their nineties. I hope Labour will use this open goal.

Sex degrees of separation

Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor, may have other things on his mind, however. To the excitement of the tabloid press, he was recently photographed embracing a young blonde lawyer not his wife. Hacks unearthed the woman’s “links” to Julian Assange, whom she once represented (no impropriety alleged), and to her close friend Amal Clooney (ditto), the human rights lawyer married to George Clooney.

In London, where the political, media, arts and legal establishments are closely entwined, it is always possible to find such “links”. When I edited the Independent on Sunday, I entertained my boss David Montgomery, the Mirror Group’s chief executive, by drawing circles of relationships between leading upmarket media figures. These showed that, if you started with A, who had slept with B, who had slept with C, and so on, you could usually get back to A in about six steps. Montgomery was so thrilled that he summoned the editors of Mirror Group tabloids to admire this product of a broadsheet editor’s intellect.

Mail pattern weirdness

The Daily Mail is outraged that the new Doctor Who will be female. Male heroes, it screams, are “disappearing from the box”. Its TV critic complains that, “in almost every new British drama, men are relegated to sidekick status or else cast as moral weaklings”. Doctor Who has been ruined by lesbianism and “transgender politics”. BBC executives are “wrecking their own Saturday night mainstay to demonstrate how right-on they are”.

I worry about the Mail. Since Theresa May’s disastrous election performance – the Mail backed her more emphatically than it backed even Margaret Thatcher – it has become increasingly deranged. A few weeks ago, it blamed her failure to woo voters on the influence of “headmasters”. Paul Dacre, the editor, celebrates 25 years in the chair this year. Is it time for the proprietor, Lord Rothermere, to suggest that Dacre retires to his 17,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands where there is excellent shooting and deerstalking to be had?

Over the top

The England cricket coach Trevor Bayliss said earlier this year: “This is an entertainment business. If you are not entertaining, people don’t turn up.” Indeed. Under him, the team has developed the habit of losing a Test match by a large margin immediately after winning one. It has just done it once more against South Africa at Trent Bridge in Nottingham. And nobody can deny that, with two matches to play, a Test series squared at 1-1 promises more entertainment and more spectators than would a series in which England led 2-0. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder