Harriet Harman at a Hacked Off event in 2013. She has recently come under fire for her PIE connections
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Containing Putin, Paul Dacre’s revenge on Labour, and parenting advice from Boris

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

If you want to understand why Ukraine matters to Vladimir Putin, take a look at a map. The historic heart of Russia has a long land frontier, with plains stretching east, south and west, and few natural defences except the brutality of its winters. Since the Mongols overran Russia from the east in the 13th century and Europeans then helped themselves to its territories from the west, its rulers have feared encirclement and land invasion. In recent years, the US has brought 12 of the Soviet Union’s former central European allies into Nato. Rightly or wrongly, Russians fear that Nato will eventually include Georgia and Ukraine, with which the US already has a “strategic partnership” or “security relationship”.

Putin is the unpleasant head of an unpleasant regime and the Russians’ preference for strong and aggressive leaders (think Ivan the Terrible) is another result of their insecure history. Yet how would we feel if, in a decade or so, an independent Scotland formed a “security relationship” with Russia? How did the US respond in the 1960s to Cuba’s alliance with Moscow?

Recently, on CNN, the former Princeton University professor of Russian studies Stephen Cohen said: “We are witnessing . . . the making possibly of the worst history of our lifetime.” He recalled that the late US diplomat George Kennan, an architect of the cold war “containment” policy, had warned in the 1990s that the expansion of Nato was a fateful mistake. It would, Kennan had said, lead to a new cold war, with the border this time not in Berlin but much further east.


Alpha Mail

I doubt the exposure of Harriet Harman’s “links” in the 1970s with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) will do her any long-term damage other than reminding us that she has a patrician distaste for admitting intellectual error or moral shortcoming to a mass audience.

Regardless of one’s views about Harman’s culpability, one is bound, however reluctantly, to admire once more the Daily Mail and its editor, Paul Dacre. The PIE and its so-called links with lefties and civil libertarians is a story that surfaces, on average, every other year. Dacre presumably revived it in revenge for Labour forcing a limited, grudging retraction of allegations that Ed Miliband’s late father hated Britain.

The Mail first splashed the PIE story across its front page on 19 February. Everyone ignored it. Many editors might think that their news sense was temporarily malfunctioning. Not Dacre. In the following seven days, the Mail splashed on “Labour links to child sex group” three more times, shouting ever louder.

Eventually, the media chatterers could talk of little else. Even the Guardian ran PIE “exposures”. Dacre, paranoid and chippy, may be the Putin of Fleet Street but he demonstrates repeatedly that newspapers are far from dead.


Bringing up baby

Always ready to turn a good case into a bad one, Boris Johnson, writing in his Daily Telegraph column, compared Harman’s blindness to the dangers of the PIE to the current “tolerance” of Islamic radicalisation. Only “political correctness”, he argued, prevents the authorities taking into care children who are taught “crazy stuff” and “habituated” by their parents to “this utterly bleak and nihilistic view of the world”.

I, too, would prefer children not to be brought up as Islamist radicals. I would also prefer them not to be raised as Tories, prepared to throw poor people out of their home for having too many bedrooms; as Ukip supporters, uncomfortable with hearing any language other than English; or as Blairites, believing crazy stuff about invading countries with governments we don’t like. No wonder the Telegraph website doesn’t show any readers’ comments on Johnson’s column.


Sacred and profane

One problem for those who want a non-religious send-off when they die is that churches own most of the best venues. This may explain why a recent memorial service for a non-believer – attended mainly by left-leaning agnostics and atheists, some very militant indeed – was held in a Nonconformist chapel.

The result was a curious truce between the devout and the secular. The resident vicar began with a sort of apology for his presence in, as it were, his own home and hoped we wouldn’t mind a few hymns. I can best describe the singing as less than lusty but there was nothing hushed about the deceased’s friends and colleagues as they spoke in celebration of her life: a fellow mourner counted four uses of the F-word, two of the C-word and one Jesus in the blasphemous sense. In each case, the vicar laughed ostentatiously.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.