Baroness Warsi, Bahrain and the falsehood of British democracy

The Queen has invited the King of Bahrain to her Jubilee - but criticising her would be "mean", the

As Bahrain descends into its “three days of rage” leading up to Sunday's Grand Prix, at once barring journalists and repelling Formula One drivers, we have to wonder what pro-democracy protesters would make of a preened politician refusing to denounce their oppressor on prime-time TV.

Conservative Party Chairman Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, whose hair is so shiny it reflects off every camera pointing at her, told BBC Question Time viewers last night that it would be “mean” to condemn the Queen for entertaining the King of Bahrain at a Diamond Jubilee luncheon. 
 
Woops! Poor Liz. We clearly should never have said anything about the matter, despite, you know, living in a democracy and all. Like Bahraini king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa authorising his army to detain nearly 3000 pro-democracy protesters and kill more than 50, perhaps our head of state should be able to do exactly what she likes without criticism. Does the Queen even know of the plight of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the former president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights who has been on hunger strike for 73 days now? He was sentenced to life imprisonment in June for plotting a coup against the ruling elite; the sentence was imposed under emergency laws specifically targeting activists who demonstrated in the uprisings of February and March last year.
 
Bahrain, like Syria, is still very much in the middle of its Arab Spring, more than a year after uprisings began. At first ignored by mainstream media and politicians who preferred to entertain the ethics surrounding a NATO mission in Libya, it is perhaps not far-fetched to suggest that were it not for the Formula One Grand Prix, this small island in the Persian Gulf wouldn't have received half the international media coverage it has. There seems no need to question why this might be: the coalition government, for all its disgust at Russia's arms deals with Syria, authorised the sale of £2.2m of arms to Bahrain in the summer.
 
Civil unrest in Bahrain is still being swept under the carpet. Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone earlier this month refused to withdraw the Grand Prix from the country, despite doing so last year. Former leader of the Metropolitan Police's Special Inquiry Squad, John “Yates of the Yard” Yates, was appointed by Al Khalifa to help out his security services (from one moral scandal to another, some might say). As though writing a holiday postcard home, he commented that Bahrain was “a delightful place”. And while the Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa was embarrassed into pulling out of an invitation to last year's ubiquitous royal wedding, Bahraini and British royalty will finally reconcile at a Windsor Castle jubilee lunch next month. 
 
The whole charade smacks of everything that is wrong with an unelected head of state. We can nod alongside William Hague's disapproval of the use of live ammunition on Bahraini activists, even protest against the exchange of arms approved by the same man's own government. But God forbid we should be "mean" enough to criticise the Queen when all she wants to do is celebrate 60 years of unelected rule with her dictator friends. 
 
Baroness Warsi might have caused outrage last night - but she also revealed a critical truth about Britain. Question the powers that be, and you get shot down. It might not be torture and teargas, but it's certainly not democratic. 
Bahraini Shiite Muslims protesting against the Grand Prix. Photo: Getty Images
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser