The country with no politics finds its voice

From inside Libya

A fortnight ago, Tripoli was calm and quiet. The sunny main square, scene of the recent uprisings, is where couples would go for romantic walks. The women, in colourful sequinned hijabs, would sit on heart-shaped love seats surrounded by fake flowers. There is not much else to do in this tiny city centre, which has only a few cafés. Alcohol is banned and the streets are deserted at night. Friends would joke that Libya was the most boring place on earth.

For the past six months, I have lived with a family in Tripoli. While they talked openly about their lives, hopes and dreams, politics was never discussed. Together we celebrated Eid ul-Adha - the Islamic festival of sacrifice - by killing a goat and cooking it. The air on our balcony filled with the scent of burning charcoal and you could hear the murmur of a television from inside.

“This precious and great creature that lives among us," a choir on television sang. "We hope he will always be our leader." Images appeared of Muammar al-Gaddafi, riding a horse, black cape billowing behind him. When I asked the daughter to translate, she pretended not to understand. "We're not interested in politics," I was told.

Oil workers and rich Libyans I met at parties - drinking illegal alcohol, watched by ever-present spies - would scoff at the idea of a Libyan revolt. This month, those same people sit trapped inside their flats, listening to the hammer of gunfire outside. Their doors are locked tight and they are living off food and water hastily bought from shops now boarded up. They cannot use the phone and there is no internet access. They know that Gaddafi's African mercenaries have attacked demonstrators in the main square and surrounding streets, shooting civilians. Saif al-Islam, educated at the London School of Economics and previously portrayed as a western liberaliser, threatens to make Libya "worse than Iraq".

And yet, amazingly, people who always rejected politics continue to demonstrate. One young, handsome Libyan I know has gone out to protest despite huge rows in his family.

When the revolts started in Tunisia and Egypt, one sensed change in the air. People I know started to watch al-Jazeera. My friend Fatima told me about how she had been watching events in Egypt with her friends, crying tears of happiness. “If there are protests, I will join them," she whispered, gripping her coffee cup tightly; her words nearly made me drop mine. "You know what would happen to me if anyone had heard me say that," she added. She knew that although the image presented to the world was one of a unified and stable Libya, it was never this. Opposition had long existed in the country. It is significant that the recent riots started in the east and unsurprising that an army officer from there reclaimed the city of Benghazi for its people.

The Libyan nationalist leader Omar Mukhtar fought his final battles against the Italians in the valleys of the green mountains near Benghazi, in 1931. Ever since, the people of the east have opposed power in Tripoli. Because of this defiance, Benghazi, though the main city of the east, is practically a wasteland, largely ignored and neglected by the central government.

Colonel of truth

Even within the Gaddafi family there are divisions over control of the media and the different provinces. Besides this infighting, there is the pressure on the Gaddafis from the Libyan Islamic resistance. Libya has been praised in the west as a model of how to eliminate or contain Islamist terrorism.

In truth, the militant Muslim groups merely went underground; in Tripoli, you would often hear of battles in the desert between Islamists and government forces. The outside world has been complicit in the myth of Libyan normality. From being a pariah state, Libya became a valued partner of the west, one with oil wealth and a willingness to tackle illegal immigration into southern Europe from Africa.

The country's human rights record is appalling. The UN's High Commission for Refugees was recently banned from Libya; asylum-seekers and refugees have few rights if any. "Libya has no qualms about arresting and torturing foreign nationals," an embassy official told me. Even when rumours spread of foreigners disappearing, a media silence prevails. None of this has stopped Libya from sitting as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

A myth is told about Libya; that it has cleaned up its act, liberalised and become an acceptable ally. The events of the past week remind us that under Gaddafi, it has always been one of the most murderous regimes in the world and its people have always been silently desperate to escape it. Now, that anger and frustration has been released. Everyone who used to think that he or she understood Libya or could predict what would happen there has been left speechless.

The author, whose name has been changed at her request, lives and works in Tripoli

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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