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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.