The Queen and her despotic friends

Why is the king of Bahrain coming to the royal wedding?

Last month, in my column in the magazine, I wrote:

Have you been invited to Kate's and Wills's wedding at Westminster Abbey on 29 April? No? I didn't think so. Nor have I.

But Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa has. He happens to be the king of Bahrain, where thousands of people have been peacefully protesting against his unelected royal regime since 14 February. His Majesty's response? On 16 February, shortly before dawn, he ordered his security forces to storm Pearl Square in the heart of Bahrain's capital, Manama, where the protesters -- emulating those who had gathered in Cairo's Liberation Square -- were camping out. The police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the king's sleeping subjects, killing at least four, including a two-year-old girl, and injuring hundreds of others. The next day, they switched to live ammunition.

Nonetheless, the king of Bahrain has received his gilded invitation from Buckingham Palace, embossed with the Queen's EIIR royal cypher.

As far as I'm aware, the Bahraini monarch's invite still stands -- even though his country's security forces have spent the past couple of days firing live ammunition and tear gas at pro-democracy protesters in the heart of the capital, Manama, as well as denying the wounded access to hospitals and health centres. At least five people have been killed and hundreds have been injured. In the early hours of this morning, Bahraini security forces -- aided by their Saudi army allies, who arrived in the kingdom on Monday -- arrested and detained six opposition activists and political leaders after breaking into their homes, "brandishing automatic weaponry". The crackdown continues.

Yesterday, Graham Smith, head of the anti-monarchy campaign group Republic, wrote a letter to Kate Middleton and Prince William, calling on them to remove the King of Bahrain and other "vile men" from their wedding invitation list:

I am sure you were as appalled and disgusted as I was at the news that the king of Bahrain has crushed a peaceful pro-democracy rally with tanks and live ammunition, killing a number of protesters. So I have no doubt that you must have serious misgivings about the inclusion of the king on the invitation list for your wedding on 29 April.

You will be aware that there are millions of people around the world who suffer oppression and tyranny on a daily basis. Many of these people look to countries such as Britain for inspiration and support in their struggle for freedom and democracy. As such, surely we have a duty to support the oppressed and the democrats over the despots and oppressors. Clearly, then, it would send an appalling message to the world were any dictators of the Middle East -- royal or otherwise -- seen enjoying the hospitality of your family and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars and politicians at your wedding.

I cannot imagine it would reflect well on you, your family or the monarchy were those vile men to remain on your guest list. More importantly, it would seriously damage the reputation and image of Britain and would do harm to the wider cause of democracy and freedom. I am therefore asking you to ensure that the invitation to the king of Bahrain and to any other Middle Eastern despot be withdrawn immediately.

Will the royal couple respond? If not to Republic (why would they?) then perhaps to a friendly reporter (ITN's Tom Bradby, say)? They risk having their much-awaited, much-discussed wedding being overshadowed by the inevitable protests against their VIP guests from the Middle East -- the kings of Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the rest. What is Wills's and Kate's defence? How does the Queen justify her invitation to an unelected tyrant with fresh blood on his hands?

Meanwhile, the British and American governments -- which have supplied the Bahraini autocracy with tear gas, small arms ammunition, stun grenades and smoke canisters -- continue to look the other way and instead agitate for military action against Libya.

But as Seumas Milne writes in his column in today's Guardian:

Considering that both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, home to the United States fifth fleet, depend on American support, the crushing of the Bahraini democracy movement or the underground Saudi opposition should be a good deal easier for the west to fix than the Libyan maelstrom.

But neither the US nor its intervention-hungry allies show the slightest sign of using their leverage to help the people of either country decide their own future. Instead, as Bahrain's security forces tear-gassed and terrorised protesters, the White House merely repeated the mealy-mouthed call it made in the first weeks of the Egyptian revolution for "restraint on all sides".

Perhaps the fact that Bahrain is home to the US navy's fifth fleet, while the Shia protesters on the streets of Manama have the support of Iran, has something to do with the west's glaring double-standards with regard to Libya and Bahrain. Or am I being cynical?

 

 

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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.