Chagos and the Law Lords

Witnessing the evidence as the Lord Laws hear the case of the Chagos Islanders - forcibly removed fr

I meet Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugee Group in Mauritius, in the lobby of the House of Lords ahead of the hearing to determine whether the Chagossians will be allowed home.

"A big day," I say by way of a greeting. "Yes, a big day and a good day. Today is my mother's 80th birthday," he replies with a smile. His mother, Rita Issou, sits on a bench along with three other Chagossians a few yards away from where we are standing. She is smartly dressed but looks very frail. It’s understandable - and not just because of her age; she has experienced many sorrows in her long life including the loss of her husband and two sons (one to alcohol and the other to heroin) since the family was exiled to Mauritius from their island home of Peros Banhos in 1968.

Olivier tells me that in all 28 islanders have made the trip from Port Louis to London to witness how their fate will be decided in the highest court of the land. "I am very optimistic - justice will be done. We will return to Chagos very soon," he says confidently.

It has become obvious that there will not be enough space to accommodate all the visitors. A male clerk takes charge and announces that only the people at the front of the queue will be allowed in. This means that a lot of the UK-based Chagossians who have been holding a legal protest on the pavement opposite the House of Lords won't get a seat.

The Law Lords have arrived on time and at 11 o'clock around 70 of us file into the room. Before they enter the male clerk says that if anyone is going to leave the room to let him know whether they are coming back. If not the seat can be allocated to those who are waiting patiently outside in the corridor.

It's a highly ritualised setting. The five Law Lords -- Bingham, Hoffman, Roger, Carswell and Mance -- enter and we all stand up and bow. They sit in a semicircle at the front of the room. Facing them are the respective barristers -- Jonathan Crow QC and Kieron Beal acting for the appellant, British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, Anthony Bradley and Maya Lester acting for the respondent, Olivier Bancoult.

Behind them sit other members of the respective legal teams including Richard Gifford of London-based solicitors, Clifford Chance, who has worked tirelessly on this case since the late 1990s.

Jonathan Crow stands up and makes the case for the government invoking the Colonial Laws Validity Act 1865. He chooses not to defend what was done to the Chagos islanders by previous governments -- "the awfulness of what happened in the 60s and 70s" -- but instead focuses on the role and scope of orders in council issued under the royal prerogative -- "the highest level of political judgement" -- as they relate to the defence interests of the UK and US. He extends the argument and says that there would be an "unacceptable risk" to both countries if the islanders returned to the Chagos Archipelago and points out that in any case they have received generous compensation from the British government which amount to "substantial sums at today's prices".

After about 40 minutes some of the journalists from the news agencies have got enough of what they want for a story and leave the room. Their places are taken by some Chagossian women. Some of the Law Lords then start to make interventions. They ask questions or elaborate points of law. When one of the Law Lords says something Crow likes he nods his head a lot.

When Crow gets a difficult question he moves from side to side before giving his reply. And when he gets a really difficult question or one that he doesn't know the answer to as, for example, when he was asked when Mauritius became a republic he raises his left shoulder and goes into a bit of a crouch. But interestingly his voice remains clear at all times even when he is evidently flapping his wings to stay up in the legal air.

Crow’s courteousness even extends to his adversary, South African-born, Sir Sydney Kentridge, who was once a member of Nelson Mandela's defence team. From time to time, Sir Sydney makes an intervention to correct or challenge a point although it is difficult for those in the audience to hear what he says. "My learned friend is not one to jump up and intervene all the time and I thank him for that," says Crow as he turns and bows in the direction of Sir Sydney who is seated next to him. Jonathan Crow QC is a smooth operator.

At one o'clock the case is adjourned and it's time for lunch. I would have liked to have seen Sir Sydney in action but I think it's more important that some of the Chagossians gets a chance to see what's going on. After all, it's their lives that are the subject of legal debate and not mine. I inform the clerk that I won't be returning.

Over lunch in the House of Lords cafeteria I learn that Olivier Bancoult was meant to meet the one-time leader of the Conservative Party and now Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, but he sent his deputy, Keith Simpson, instead. And it wasn't that Hague didn't have time as he was spotted casually chatting to someone in the lobby of the House of Commons. No, this was a deliberate and tactical avoidance. Why? Not too difficult to figure out. Even members of Her Majesty's official opposition find the issue of the right of return of the Chagos islanders a difficult one to handle. No senior member of the Conservative party wants to jeopardise "the special relationship" and antagonise our American friends, after all.

Meanwhile the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, Ed Davey, puts out a statement. It reads: "The government must cease this endless waste of taxpayers’ money and do what is right by the Chagossians. This is what Robin Cook promised when he was foreign secretary.

"The spectacle of David Miliband’s lawyers invoking 19th century colonial laws to defend the indefensible is frankly sickening.

"This is not a legal matter; it is a matter of principle. The Chaggosians must be allowed to go home.
"Together with the scandal of secret US renditions from Diego Garcia, the abuse of these islands is a shameful stain on Britain’s global reputation."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times