Here’s to happy endings

As the old trope goes, I have been completely vindicated; you have been cleared; he has been whitewashed . . . I think that sums up the points of view on Muir Russell's Climategate report that came out on 7 July.

A difference of opinion on a similarly titanic subject was taking place between the Israeli ambassador to Britain and the judge George Bathurst-Norman. Bathurst-Norman said in court, as he presided over the trial of five activists charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage at an arms factory, that "hell on earth would not be an understatement" to describe the life of Gazans during Operation Cast Lead, in which hundreds
of civilians died under Israeli bombardment.

The ambassador begged to differ, saying that the case showed it was "not a great era of the British justice system". An interesting conclusion to reach, given that he was not present for any of the trial.I was, though, and it was fascinating. Someone described it as being "like one of those Hollywood films". Even the judge agreed, telling the jury at the end that he hoped they had been interested by a case which was quite out of the ordinary.

For four weeks, the jury had listened to the defence argue that the arms factory that was attacked, EDO MBM, was manufacturing arms in Brighton and breaching UK guidelines by shipping equipment to factories in the US which were then exporting them to Israel.

The jury heard about events in Israel and Palestine; they heard from the defendants about what they had done and why. After hearing all this, they decided that, yes, the defendants had really believed that by doing what they did - by breaking into the EDO factory and smashing it up - they would be helping to prevent greater crimes: the breaching of arms export regulations and the deaths of Palestinian civilians.

And boom, writers such as Melanie Phillips leapt on the case as a shining example of judicial anti-Semitism in a way that must have been bewildering to the jury. The Palestine issue was important, but I'm pretty sure they acquitted the activists also because they were not particularly convinced by the testimony of EDO MBM's managing director, Paul Hills, who was a rubbish witness. He denied that the firm had supplied components to Israel; yet I heard him say in court that it might very well appear to an observer that it is manufacturing arms parts that are being used in Israel.

And if EDO MBM were ever proven to be evading UK licence requirements, Paul Hills could face up to ten years in prison (last year, five people convicted of similar offences were all given two years and upwards). The campaign in Brighton has been trying to get an investigation going for years, but the police have refused. This was the central part of the case, but to read some of the reports on the internet, you would never have known it.

In other words, the effort seems pretty hopeless. These two things - Climategate and the EDO trial - will eventually appear as just small paragraphs or footnotes in two of the biggest stories of our age.

I'd like to imagine that both those bigger stories will have happy endings, with everyone turning off their lights and Israelis and Palestinians holding hands. But we can't even agree on how to write the footnotes.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.