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The executioner's sword

Despite executing an average of two or three prisoners each week, Saudi Arabia’s grotesque love affa

It was around this time last year that Britain’s red carpet was rolled out for the high-pomp state visit of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s monarch and head of government.

The visit was characterised by the inevitable splendour of these occasions - royals meeting royals, lavish banquets, gold-encrusted carriages, bafflingly complex dining arrangements, and a good deal of controversy. Especially about arms deals and human rights.

Gordon Brown and government ministers kept to tight lines about “shared values” and “fighting terrorism”, but the two-day visit saw a welter of criticism from some backbench politicians, from human rights organisations and from commentators of various stripes.

Amnesty, for one, didn’t “oppose” the visit, but sought to talk about human rights in relation to a country that refuses to even allow Amnesty researchers to go to visit to meet Saudi people face to face.

Others added their voices and King Abdullah and his officials were reportedly “shocked” that they had been so much criticised during their time here.

But should they have been shocked? And were the Saudis actually listening to any of what their critics were saying?

It’s healthy and necessary for world leaders to listen to their critics. Rather than recoiling from these views - were we guilty of some unpardonable lèse majesté breach of etiquette? - Riyadh’s royals really ought to start listening to what people are actually complaining about.

It’s pretty simple. The Saudi authorities display an almost complete disregard for even the most basic human rights. Peaceful critics of the government are often subjected to prolonged detention without charge or trial. There are widespread allegations of the use of horrible torture against detainees. Floggings are imposed by the courts (11 Nigerian men were recently sentenced to 1,000 lashes each). Violence and discrimination against women is common, and migrant workers frequently labour under second-class status and suffer physical abuse from their employers.

Many of these gross abuses are piled one on top of another when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s implementation of capital punishment.

Here’s a typical scenario. A Pakistani migrant worker is accused of a murder or of being a drug dealer. Police arrive, the accused is taken to police cells. They are subjected to relentless questioning, denied sleep or food, kept in solitary confinement and tortured if they refuse to “confess” to their crime.

Fearing for their lives, scared and exhausted, the detainee signs a “confession” in Arabic that they can’t read or understood. They cling to a hope that they can sort out the mess when they can get a lawyer or come to trial.

They never get to sort it out. They’re taken before a court without a lawyer and the judge pronounces them guilty entirely on the basis of their false confession. Even then they may be in the dark. Without even the assistance of an interpreter, they probably won’t know what the outcome actually is. What is the sentence? Is there an appeal? A few months later they go to their deaths with no mercy from the Saudi system and no help from their home country, itself a “death penalty state” and one reliant on remittances from oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

In April 2005, for example, six young Somali men were publicly beheaded one morning after being taken out of their prisons where they had been serving what they thought were five-year sentences (plus flogging) for robbery. In fact, unbeknownst to them or their families, they had also been sentenced to death and the men only discovered the fact they were to be killed on the very morning of their executions.

In the last two years alone, according to Amnesty records (incomplete because Saudi Arabia refrains from publishing capital punishment statistics), at least 253 people have been executed. Of these, at least 127 were foreign nationals from poor and developing countries in Asia and Africa, notably Pakistan. Some 125 of them were poor Saudi Arabians (it’s been impossible to even identify the nationality of the remainder); the richer, better-connected Saudis, meanwhile, tend to barter “blood money” pay-offs to victims’ families and escape execution altogether.

Bucking the international trend toward abolition or reduced usage of the death penalty, and behind only China and Iran in terms of raw numbers, Saudi Arabia is executing more and more prisoners, including many for non-lethal crimes. A Turkish man living in Jeddah, for example, a barber called Sabri Bogday, is facing execution after being convicted (without a lawyer or interpreter) on “apostasy” charges for supposedly insulting Islam. Last November an Egyptian, Mustafa Ibrahim, was executed in Riyadh following what the Saudi Ministry of the Interior described as his conviction for “sorcery” and “witchcraft”.

Despite executing two or three prisoners every single week on average, Saudi Arabia’s grotesque love affair with the executioner’s sword is raising barely a murmur of protest from the international community, including our own government.

As William Sampson, one of the “Saudi Brits” who was himself sentenced to death in Riyadh in 2001 recently told Amnesty, what really appalled him in his own case was the almost “mute observance” of the UK government at what was happening in Saudi Arabia.

And still it goes on. Apparently when it comes to the Saudi royals we are keen to roll out the welcome carpet and blow the ceremonial trumpets of state, but altogether less keen to break the code of silence around Saudi Arabia’s diabolical human rights record.

Read Amnesty International’s new report on executions in Saudi Arabia

Kate Allen is UK director of Amnesty International

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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 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.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis