Don’t be so down on Brown

Gordon's not a Gorgon
I am not surprised that Gordon Brown has got a boost in the polls after his Piers Morgan interview. I thought he did himself a lot of good.
I didn't agree with Conservative commentators who do their own "emoting". The Prime Minister appeared as natural as it is possible to be in such a situation. He parried the questions, was self-effacing and handled questions about his daughter's death with restraint. He used to be my opposite number as shadow chancellor. To me, he seemed much as he really is in private. I don't believe he could ever hit anyone. For goodness sake! Give the man a break.

Two lords a-lunching
Lunch at the Athenaeum Club with Hugh Thomas, an old friend, colleague in the Lords and author of the brilliant history of the Spanish civil war. Our common interest is an enthusiasm for Latin America. I don't normally drink at lunch, but Hugh ushers me towards the bar. "I always think the most depressing sentence in the English language is 'Shall we go straight in?'," he says. Hugh is completing volume III of a history of the Spanish empire that ends in the 16th century when Philip II decides not to invade China. Hugh adds "unfortunately". I think it might have been "fortunately" for China, as it might have ended up like Argentina, an economic basket case.

Hugh began his political life as a Labour supporter, resigned over Suez, became Margaret Thatcher's chairman of the Conservative Political Centre, resigned over Europe, became a Lib Dem and now has found his "spiritual home" on the cross benches. He describes his political stance as "Euro-Thatcherite", one shared only with Ferdy Mount somehow. We end up discussing the return of de Gaulle to politics in 1958. Hugh recalls being in the Place de la Concorde when a man rushed up to him with a microphone and breathlessly asked, "Que pensez vous de ces événements?" It was Robin Day.

Poet's corner
Off to the British Library for an evening of santoor Persian music and readings from Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Why is FitzGerald not more appreciated as a poet? He is, at least, a major minor poet, the equal of A E Housman or Thomas Gray. But he is thought of as a mere "translator". The poem is much more than that - FitzGerald merges quatrains and strings epigrams together into a golden chain, underlining the message that life is short, we learn nothing and wine is the consolation. The Rubaiyat may not be appreciated by the English, but it is by others. Once I visited FitzGerald's grave in a Suffolk churchyard. A notice thanked donors for financial support and listed locals and . . . "The Islamic Republic of Iran". Persians, like Russians, really appreciate poetry.

Casement's conviction
I have been asked by a charity to contribute my choice of "the greatest speech" for an anthology. David Cameron and George Osborne have made their choices, though I don't know what they are. Some people are bound to choose Churchill and Lincoln. I thought of Kennedy's inaugural: a spell-binding "call to arms", written by Ted Sorensen; or de Gaulle's speech in Westminster Hall, which showed he had a real understanding of England. I also remember a brilliant, brave speech by Brian Walden against capital punishment after the Birmingham pub bombings. Brian was a Birmingham MP. I have never heard the Commons so silent.

In the end, I surprised myself by choosing the speech by Roger Casement from the dock after his conviction for treason, for which he was
executed. He was prosecuted under an obscure statute passed in 1351, but the conviction depended on the position of a comma in the text, which gave rise to the claim that he was "hanged by a comma". I came across the speech a few years ago and was moved by the composure and honest, forceful assertion of Irish identity. I am a passionate unionist and I am quite certain, if I had been a juror on the case, I would have voted to convict Casement. That I am so moved by a speech that conflicts with my own views and prejudices testifies truly to the power of Casement's oratory.

Al-Qaeda to Al Capone
I have a dinner engagement at Olga Maitland's with Ajmal Khan Zazai, a tribal chief from Paktia Province in Afghanistan, just south of Tora Bora. He has apparently cleared the Taliban out of his valley. I imagine a stern, tall, heavily bearded, robed and turbaned figure. Chief Zazai turns out to be a small, dapper-suited, highly eloquent man who spends quite a lot of time in Dubai. He is deeply critical of the Karzai government. "We exchanged the Taliban for warlords, evil for evil," he says. "Imagine Al Capone as president." The basic mistake of the US, in this view, is to imagine Afghanistan as a centralised state, whereas it has always been fragmented - tribally, ethnically and geographically.

What is needed, Zazai argues, is an alliance between a more limited central government and local tribesmen, valley by valley, as happened under the Afghan monarchy. He gives the only rational explanation I have heard so far of the military operations in Marjah. "It is not against the Taliban, it's against the poppy growers." If so, it may make sense. Zazai's vision is rather compelling, but I remain deeply sceptical about the war in Af­ghan­istan. I doubt if the war is winnable. I doubt if the Tali­ban could control Afghanistan and, even if they did, I don't think they would make the mistake of inviting al-Qaeda to be based there again. As Rory Stewart has pointed out, al-Qaeda doesn't need Afghanistan. It can train in Yemen,Somalia, Pakistan, at outward-bound courses in Derbyshire or flying schools in Florida.

Norman Lamont was chancellor from 1990-93, and was made a life peer in 1998.
Read Roger Casement's speech at

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum