Commons Confidential: Fox flinches and Crow crows

Just why does Bob Crow give Ed Miliband's office the heebie-jeebies?

Call Me Dave’s northern pet, Eric Pickles, is forever lecturing cash-strapped councils on the importance of belt-tightening in his fatwa on local government. Yet Big Eric’s own girth appears to be expanding alarmingly. Near his office in the Commons is a lift. The elevator often takes three people or, at a squash, four. Recently, an MP told my snout, the thing stopped and the door opened. Inside, filling the lift, was the single, brooding figure of Pickles.

I discovered that Colonel Patrick Mercer is the keeper of a Gladstone axe. The Tory MP for Newark possesses a chopper swung by his illustrious predecessor before Gladstone quit his seat and the Conservatives for the Liberals and four stints in Downing Street. Mercer insists it is of sentimental rather than financial value. Apparently there are sufficient Gladstone axes in circulation to fell Sherwood Forest. Gladstone was an enthusiastic woodworker when he wasn’t saving fallen women. A world away from Cameron’s Angry Birds.

Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, is a Tory trooper capable of remaining cool under fire. A hack in a bar introduced himself to the neocon and then announced: “You touched my mother’s breasts.” In many a watering hole such an opening gambit would be the cue for a fight. I nearly dropped my pint, though I noticed Fox didn’t flinch. From the tenor of the ensuing conversation, I gathered that Dr Fox had been the woman’s GP, and the aforementioned event an NHS medical examination. Former patients and their extended families reminding Fox of his past profession is apparently an occupational hazard, hence the frozen face.

It’s an old local newspaper trick on a quiet news day, but Bernard Jenkin may well have winced when a survey by the Harwich and Manningtree Standard found only 6 per cent of constituents stopped on the street identified him as the Conservative MP for their corner of Essex. Boris Johnson may dream of a recognition level so low, now 99 per cent of Britain know he’s an untrustworthy, calculating blob of unlimited blond ambition after his leadership bicycle was punctured by Eddie Mair. Jenkin should console himself that anonymity is better than antipathy.

Ed Miliband informed the Durham miners he’ll speak at the 2014 gala after he was tickled by an enthusiastic reception in 2012. He was the first Labour leader to address the brass-bands-and-banners Big Meeting since Neil Kinnock in 1989. Miliband declined this year’s invitation, as he did in 2011, to avoid sharing a stage with the RMT’s trainstopper Bob Crow, whose outspokenness gives the leader’s office the heebie-jeebies. Your correspondent has no such qualms and shall speak alongside Mr Crowbar and Unite’s “Red Len” McCluskey on 13 July.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Just why does Bob Crow give Ed Miliband's office the heebie-jeebies? Photograph: Getty Images

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.