Sir Nicholas Winton at the ceremony in Czechoslovakia
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Leader: Lessons of the Kindertransport

On 28 October, the day Britain ­announced it would not support search-and-rescue ­missions aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, Sir Nicholas Winton, who is 105, was honoured at a ceremony in Prague.

When a senior minister speaks of our towns and cities being “swamped” by immigrants you know two things: that the government is rattled and that an ill wind is blowing through the land. Nations turn inwards when people feel unhappy and insecure. The outsider, welcomed in good times, is perceived as a threat, an agent of change, even of chaos.

The remark made by Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, has since been withdrawn. Apparently, he did not mean what he said. Mr Fallon is not a bad man but he has the buffoonish manner of a small-town alderman who doubles up as captain of the local golf club. And he is meant to be one of David Cameron’s more sensible and reliable lieutenants.

What is clear is that our politics is becoming ever more fragmented, with no one party able to command the kind of support that would guarantee a strong majority government in next May’s general election. This fragmentation is testament to the collapsing authority of the political class and to the havoc being wrought by the forces of globalisation: the free flow of capital and people, open markets, the dominance of a deracinated plutocracy, instantaneous digital communication. Ed Miliband used to say, in the depths of the Great Recession, that the latest crisis of capitalism had provided a “social-democratic moment”. It had created the space in which to build a new society and political economy and he would lead that change.

That was then. Today, with Labour’s poll ratings so poor, Mr Miliband is fighting insurgencies on several fronts – against the Greens and the UK Independence Party in England, and the Scottish National Party and an assortment of leftist pro-independence groupings in Scotland. The age of two-party politics is over and that, at least, should be welcomed.

Mr Miliband is also reported to have instructed his MPs to address the issue of immigration and engage candidly with voters about their anxieties. But we would caution him and his party against making a right turn and of indulging the prejudices of Ukip and its supporters.

On Tuesday 28 October, the day that Britain ­announced that it would not support search-and-rescue ­missions aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, Sir Nicholas Winton (pictured), who is 105, was honoured at a ceremony in Prague. As a young man, Sir Nicholas had arranged for hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to escape Nazi terror and find safety with foster families in the UK. Some of those whose lives were saved and who travelled to Britain on the Kindertransport were at the Prague ceremony.

Today’s refugees, whether they are fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, the torment of life in Gaza or the poverty of the sub-Saharan African interior, want no less than what anyone would want for their families: security and stability. So forlorn are most of those seeking to make the perilous journey from North Africa to southern Europe that they are compelled to submit to the demands of nefarious traffickers and risk their lives on the high sea.

The challenges of immigration and the mass movement of peoples will not be solved by Britain seeking to leave the EU or by nations closing their borders to refugees from failed or crumbling states. Nor will the pledge by the EU to limit search-and-rescue missions deter the desperate. The people will come or attempt to come.

The world’s population is seven billion; it is forecast to reach 11 billion by 2100, by which time the pressures of overpopulation and resource scarcity will be even greater. In an interview with the NS in 2009, ­David Miliband, then foreign secretary, said: “Foreign policy is ­inseparable from domestic policy now.” The interconnectedness of the world today means that analysis was broadly ­correct – and, consequently, we must not retreat into fearful ­nationalism and protectionism, but engage with the world in and through multilateral organisations. And as politicians talk of immigrants “swamping” our island, we should heed the example of Nicholas Winton, a true and compassionate ­humanitarian. 

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage