It was 7pm on the first Thursday of November, and darkness had fallen on Westminster. Politicians and journalists were filing out of parliament, and the last officials in Whitehall were turning off the lights in their offices, pulling on their coats and stepping out into the night. “It’s much colder tonight,” one civil servant shivered to another, as they stood outside the Cabinet Office and said goodbye.
But one person in Whitehall was not going home. Just further up that grand street at the heart of British democracy, under the arches of King Charles Street, there he was in the darkness: Richard Ratcliffe, beginning his 12th night on hunger strike outsidethe Foreign Office.
There was a crowd around him. Under the glow of fairy lights and candles, he sat on a fold-out chair, in multiple bobble hats and a huge coat. People were queuing to speak to him, waiting to hug him, squeeze his hand, and say they are thinking of him. A little girl ran around amid the commotion: Gabriella, seven, who hasn’t seen her mother in years. “You don’t smell yet, Richard,” one friend joked. But they are, they admitted, worried about him.
Richard Ratcliffe, 46, is an accountant from West Hampstead, starving himself on the steps of the Foreign Office to plea for the UK government to secure the release of his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, from Iranian prison. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian aid worker, was taking Gabriella to visit her Iranian parents when she was arrested in Tehran and found guilty of spying charges, which she has always denied, in 2016. She has recently lost an appeal against a second prison sentence and now, having been under house arrest in Iran for the duration of the pandemic, is in a “high state of anxiety”, knowing that “the phone call’s coming any day to go back to prison”, Ratcliffe told me. “And now her husband has embarked on camping on the streets on hunger strike. Good reasons to worry, as any sane wife would, about her husband’s hare-brained scheme.”
There is something visceral about sitting with a man who is starving himself. I returned the following afternoon to interview him, on day 13 of his hunger strike. He was feeling “OK”, then. He stopped feeling hungry on day three, but he was colder, weaker, more tired, his voice almost a whisper. “Walking’s fine, but walking up stairs, interestingly, it feels a bit more like running. Today was the first day when I thought, ‘actually, I’m a little bit out of breath’, when I walked to the toilet and back,” a few hundred metres away.
“Mentally, I still feel quite lucid”, he said, but warned me: “if you ask me a complicated question, the cogs take a while to whirr over”. He has had sudden, intense thoughts about “scrambled egg on toast with salt and pepper on it”, something he wouldn’t even usually eat. He finds it tricky when Gabriella eats a packet of crisps in front of him, in the evenings when she joins him after school. His eyes are tired, but he is full of warmth and humour. There is so much goodwill for him, from people visiting from all over the country, that “it’s quite a nourishing experience. Yeah, a lot of kindness.”
We have barely begun when a woman approaches him (“you’re the husband, aren’t you?”) and bursts into tears. He has these moments of emotional intensity multiple times per hour – four times during our interview – which is a challenge as his hunger strike draws on. “Psychologically, you sort of do gradually withdraw into yourself… I find I get clumsier at that, I get less able to deal with all the different social dynamics.”
Ratcliffe’s presence on the streets of Whitehall is an uncomfortable reminder of one of the embarrassments of Boris Johnson’s recent political career. The continued detention of Ratcliffe’s wife is a failure often attributed to the Prime Minister personally, after he remarked in 2017, while foreign secretary, that she had been in Iran “teaching people journalism”. He then indicated his intention to repay the historic £450m debt owed to the Iranian government by the UK from a botched arms deal before the Iranian Revolution, which is widely viewed as the main obstacle to her release.
Ratcliffe felt, in 2017, that Johnson “was sincere… he realised it was about the debt. The newspapers were briefed, the Iranians were told, the Iranians then put out a notice saying the money’s going to come out in a couple of days. Then it didn’t.” The consequences “for making that promise and setting that price and then not keeping it” went beyond the continued detention of Nazanin: more British-Iranian dual nationals were taken hostage. “The Iranian government, let’s be honest, it’s a nasty government, but they like to be respected, and you can’t mess them around on something like that. I don’t think there’s ever been any accountability for that recklessness.”
The UK and Iranian governments have never formally recognised the link between the historic debt and the detention of British dual nationals, but Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyers have. The international arbitration court at the Hague ruled in 2009 that the UK needs to repay the debt, but it is prevented from doing so by international sanctions against Iran. “It may well be that it was more complicated than he thought when he made the promise,” Ratcliffe told me. “But the Iranians don’t care what he meant. They care what he said. The fact is, Nazanin and others are not coming home until his words are kept. I just do think it’s remarkable that you can walk away from the consequences of your mess. There’s a real accountability gap at the heart of British politics.”
Ratcliffe had a meeting with the new Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, last week, as he began hunger striking. He was blunt, telling her: “If you don’t pay it, they’ll keep holding her and they’ll torture her.” But “it’s essentially a wider point than just ‘pay the debt’… Nazanin is not the last taken, there have been others taken after her. You need to deal with Iran’s hostage-taking, you need to acknowledge she’s a hostage, you need to punish the perpetrators, and you need to include in international agreements that they promise to stop doing it.” A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We are doing all we can to help Nazanin get home to her young daughter and family and we will continue to press Iran on this point.”
There was bunting behind Ratcliffe, designed by schoolchildren. One read: “Love is a superpower and you are a hero, Richard”. He was rather English in response: “It’s not a Mills & Boon story,” he said, amused and embarrassed. “But I do think it’s important that she knows, always, that I’m there for her.” From day one, he says, his job was to ensure “that she knew she wasn’t alone”.
This was particularly important to him because, in the early days of her detention in solitary confinement, “the regime told Nazanin, ‘he’s run off with another woman, we’ve got photographs’.” It is “standard interrogation tactics to try and divide the family up”. “We obviously said ‘for better or worse’ once. I don’t think we quite realised how much ‘worse’ we’d have to go through.”
His other priority is making sure Gabriella knows “that she’s the centre of our family, which as a child, you do need to know”. He tries to do “the fun, normal things” with his daughter: she and her friends dressed up as cats for Halloween and sent pictures to Nazanin. “She’s resilient, she’s happy, and likes to show Mummy the fun stuff she’s doing.”
“We were an ordinary family. You can narrate our story as a love story. It’s not a perfect love story: we used to have plenty of fights about who’d take the bins out and all the rest of it, the way all couples do. It’s such a strange situation we’re in, you only know what you need to do when you’re in the middle of it. It feels important for me to keep battling.”
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks