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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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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.