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I wanted to believe in Jeremy Corbyn. But I can't believe in Seumas Milne

The Labour leader's appointment of Seumas Milne is a disaster, argues Oliver Bullough. 

I wish Jeremy Corbyn well, I really do. I sincerely hope he shunts important issues – renationalisation, fairness, tax justice – onto the political mainline where they belong. I was even thinking of getting involved with his revitalised Labour Party. But then he appointed Seumas Milne to direct the party’s strategy and communications.

Milne is by all accounts lovely. As comment editor from 2001 until 2007, he oversaw a comment section that was vibrant to a fault. It’s not him, or his newspaper that’s the problem (full disclosure: I write for the Guardian from time to time myself, and am a paid-up “supporter”); it’s what he thinks.

I specialise in the ex-USSR, where I lived for six years. I’ve written two books about Russia, as well as articles and radio documentaries. I’ve travelled to all but four of the countries of the old Warsaw Pact. I know it pretty well, in short. And yet, when I read what Milne writes about it, I slip into a parallel universe.

Take Ukraine. Ukrainians overthrew President Viktor Yanukovich last year, after snipers killed dozens of protesters. When they broke into his palace, they found treasures upon treasures – icons, carved ivory, Picasso ceramics, ancient books – piled up in the garage. He’d had nowhere to put them.

It was pure people power: the street reclaiming democracy from a thuggish kleptocrat. There was plenty for the leftist Milne to cheer here, right? Wrong. And then Ukraine’s larger neighbour took advantage of the revolutionary government’s weakness to annex its southern province. That’s something for Milne to disapprove of, right? Wrong again.

“The crisis in Ukraine is a product of the disastrous Versailles-style break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s,” he told his readers on March 5. “The US and its allies have since relentlessly expanded NATO up to Russia's borders… it is hardly surprising that Russia has acted to stop the more strategically sensitive and neuralgic Ukraine falling decisively into the western camp.”

 “Putin’s absorption of Crimea and support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine is clearly defensive,” he wrote, a couple of months later.

Now, you can quibble with the facts. The destruction of the USSR was not some Versailles-style treaty imposed from outside. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus did it themselves, despite opposition from Washington. You can point out that NATO (thanks to Norway) had had a border with Russia for four decades by the early 1990s. And you can suggest that annexing part of a neighbouring country is not a “defensive” step by any conceivable definition.

But really, that’s not important. What’s important is something that’s missing altogether -- the recognition that this wasn’t anything to do with NATO or Vladimir Putin at all. This was an uprising by Ukrainians keen to improve their lives. If Milne wanted to criticise the West, there was plenty of material: Yanukovich’s palace, the one with a Picasso vase in the garage, was owned via a UK shell company, for starters. But Milne appears to have had no interest in the hopes, aspirations or dreams of individual Ukrainians, or in actual instances of Westerners enabling Yanukovich’s beastliness. This, you see, was all about us, and all about NATO.

Eastern Europeans think their countries voted as democracies to join NATO, as is their sovereign right, but that doesn’t wash with Seumas. He thinks this is an aggressive expansion, seemingly against the wishes of the countries involved. “NATO’s hawks have got the bit between their teeth.”

For Milne, geopolitics is more important than people. Whatever crisis strikes the world, the West’s to blame. Why did a group of psychopaths attack a magazine and a supermarket in Paris? “Without the war waged by western powers, including France, to bring to heel and reoccupy the Arab and Muslim world, last week’s attacks clearly couldn’t have taken place”.

Why did Anders Breivik slaughter 77 people? “What is most striking is how closely he mirrors the ideas and fixations of transatlantic conservatives.”

Why did two maniacs in London decapitate an off-duty soldier? “They are the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others.”

Milne’s geopolitics spared us having to read how the children of Beslan or the theatregoers of Moscow only had themselves to blame, but office workers in New York had no such luck. “Recognition of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing their own lives in the process - or why the United States is hated with such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the developing world - seems almost entirely absent.”

And this rampant victim blaming is not an approach confined to current affairs. His geopolitical preferences extend into history too, where he fiercely opposes any suggestion that Stalin’s Soviet Union was as bad as Hitler’s Germany. He has been caricatured as a Stalinist as a result, something that appears to irritate some of his once-and-future Guardian colleagues (he is on leave from the paper). I got into a Twitter debate with Zoe Williams yesterday, in which she pointed out: “he's written reams about the crimes of Stalin”.

He has indeed, but he has written about them in the manner of a Brit acknowledging the Amritsar massacre, before pointing out how much worse off India would be without trains. A particularly telling Milne moment came in 2006, when the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly voted to condemn “the massive human rights violations committed by totalitarian communist regimes”. In the article he wrote in response, Milne admitted the USSR executed 799,455 people, then moved on.

“For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality,” he insisted.

Now, you can quibble with the facts. Focussing only on the USSR’s executions ignores the millions it starved to death in Ukraine, or in the mass deportations from the Caucasus and Crimea, the way it used rape as a weapon, or that fact it invaded without provocation half a dozen countries. You can also question those “huge advances” considering the fact that life expectancy in the USSR peaked in 1962, then declined steadily as chronic alcoholism took hold. But more important for me was the fact that this sentence reminded me of something I’d read before.

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell conjured up a “comfortable English professor” who wants to defend totalitarianism, but can’t bring himself to admit killing people gets results. “While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore… the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement,” Orwell’s fictional professor writes.

Almost exactly 60 years had passed between Orwell’s essay and Milne’s humbug but, in the world of supposed leftists who think politics is more important than people, not much appears to have changed.

I wanted to believe in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, I really did. But, with the elevation of this man, that chance has gone.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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