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21 February 2010

Home thoughts from abroad

Liberty and stability are so familiar to us that we forget the dangers the political process entails

By Sholto Byrnes

For those who have grown tired and disillusioned with British politics — and I think there are many of us — news from home can seem of Lilliputian insignificance when we are abroad. James Purnell’s announcement that he will not seek re-election is one such instance.

Viewed from a distance of several thousand miles, the story that an overhyped Blairite will not be present in the next parliament to trouble with us with his agonised justifications of why the New Labour project was right in principle — even though the abandonment of principle was the raison d’être of that perversion of a party that once dared called itself socialist — counts for as little as the shock confession some months ago that the newish Speaker’s wife had a racy past. These are items that will not trouble the chancelleries of Europe, still less those in what were once the outposts of empires.

However, there are times when one is reminded what British politics does have in its favour, even if it gets buried beneath mountains of trivia on most days.

For, in the past few days, I have met one political leader who has been accused of stamping on every liberty we in Britain hold dear, and another politician who endured two years in jail merely for founding a party deemed unacceptable by his country’s then rulers.

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On Thursday I spent nearly an hour in Kuala Lumpur talking to Dr Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia from 1981-2003, who told me, with some irritation, that his name cannot be mentioned by western journalists without alluding to the highly controversial imprisonment, for which he was held responsible, of his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of sodomy and corruption.

The following night, in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, I dined with Budiman Sujatmiko, whose challenge to the Suharto regime led to his sharing a cell in the late 1990s with Xanana Gusmão, the East Timorese freedom fighter.

Dr Mahathir talked with total equanimity of detaining people without charge under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (a legacy, incidentally, of British rule), while Budiman expressed no bitterness at his jailing. I know others in the region who have suffered the loss of their liberty — including one friend who was detained for five years, two of which were spent in solitary confinement — who accept that this is a part of their political process. And they do so with what comes across as incomprehensible stoicism.

It is when confronted with experiences like these that our ability to become so concerned with matters of such little real import assumes a different significance. No politician in Britain fears the knock on the door late at night, or worries that an unguarded remark may lead ultimately to state-sanctioned acts of physical violence. We are free, instead, to concentrate on minor differences — such as those between a Labour Party that cynically chose to accept the legacy of Margaret Thatcher as the price necessary to win over swing voters, and a Conservative Party that mostly treasured the epoch-changing actions of the Iron Lady’s administrations.

Because these are the only divisions we can express with any force today through our parliamentary democracy, we give great weight to them. We forget, because they are so familiar, the tremendous achievements of liberty and stability that we have enjoyed for so long — and it is as a consequence of those achievements that we can afford for our politics to be so inconsequential.

It is good occasionally to be reminded of that. It is good, too, to be reminded that the petty practice of politics is not what is ultimately important. That distinction belongs to the rights to vote and to speak freely — rights which, it is easy to discern, those who have only recently won them regard as precious.

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