Friday, 30 August 2013

Blair and Brown must share in Cameron's Syria humiliation

Last night’s vote in the House of Commons against military action in Syria will be remembered for some time and not just because of the humiliation suffered by David Cameron’s Government. I watched and listened to the live debate at various stages throughout the day and noticed how all the commentators expected the Government to get its motion passed easily. The vote came as a complete surprise to them and the implications for David Cameron’s leadership are profound.

His decision to recall Parliament backfired spectacularly. MP's roundly refused to support his call for military action against the Syrian regime primarily because his case was one of the weakest ever presented by a Prime Minster. His overblown claim that this latest atrocity in Damascus on 21st August was unprecedented was his fundamental undoing.

His case for UK military action was predicated on the view that in unleashing these chemical weapons Asad had ‘crossed a red line’ as US President Obama had put it and had gone too far. Cameron insisted the use of chemical weapons was ‘unprecedented’ and the international community had to act. This callous disregard for human life could not go unpunished Cameron insisted. And yet this claim, central to Cameron’s entire case, was exposed time and again. Throughout the eight hour Parliamentary debate it was made clear that chemical weapons had in fact been used on 14 previous occasions in this civil war and yet none had elicited the UK military attack now being proposed. Moreover several MP’s made clear that many other regimes around the world had unleashed chemical weapons without triggering the military response Cameron was now suggesting. Saddam Hussein, for example, infamously used chemical weapons to gas 3,000 Kurdish civilians in Helabja during the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980’s and 1990’s. He used them again on a further 70 occasions against the Iranians. This was all covered up of course because he was acting as the West’s proxy at the time. The Israeli Government also used white phosphorous bombs against the Palestinians in Gaza more recently but there was no Cameron outrage shown then. And the Shinto fundamentalist sect used Sarin nerve gas to murder commuters on the Tokyo underground. So Cameron’s claim that the use of such horrific weapons was ‘unprecedented’ was completely undermined again and again.

So too was his ‘proof’ that the August 21st bombing of a Damascus suburb was ordered by Asad. The Syrians had perhaps predictably denied it as had the Russians, but more importantly the UN weapons inspectors had so far not reached Cameron’s conclusion either. And the ‘evidence’ he provided from his ‘Joint Intelligence Committee’ was considered so weak that even he was forced to admit it was no ‘smoking gun’. No guarantees could be given he confessed to show that the Syrian Government had ordered this attack. And yet here he was demanding MP’s sanction a military attack based on such assurances.  

It was a poor case that unravelled still further as the debate ensued. Not only was he not able to assure MP’s Asad had used chemical weapons or persuade them the intelligence evidence was trustworthy,  in truth the entire debate was overshadowed by the spectre of Iraq and Libya. Cameron was to pay a heavy price for the conduct of British Prime Ministers in previous similar circumstances. Tony Blair had lied to Parliament over previous and manufactured a ‘dodgy dossier’ of so called ‘intelligence evidence’ to make his case for a military invasion of Iraq. And Cameron himself had clearly understood that the bombing of Benghasi was to be a prelude to ‘regime change’ in Libya, something he knew Parliament and the ‘International Community’ would never sanction. MP’s were clearly now in no mood for more lies and further ‘mission creep’.

Since it was plain the Russians would veto any UN efforts to endorse military action against Syria this made UN support unlikely. And with the on going civil war in Syria involving 26 different factions including Al Qaeda and Hezbollah it made a nonsense of Cameron’s suggestion that Britain could launch missiles and conduct a clean, clear and limited military strike without the risk of becoming embroiled in an even greater conflict.   

For 30 Tory rebels and 9 Lib Dems in particular the prospect of Britain being dragged into a Syrian civil war was unthinkable and the likelihood of a larger regional conflict even less appealing.

Looking at Cameron’s position today we find a Prime Minister in severe difficulty. He is accused of recalling Parliament unnecessarily and with a case for military action so weak and unpersuasive it begs the question did he really think he could get it through Parliament at all? If so, and the evidence suggests that he did, it raises profound questions about his political judgement.

But above all this episode reveals the profound scars the Iraq war has left behind in British political life and how little faith the public has in the sincerity of Prime Ministers and the trustworthiness of ‘military intelligence’ in matters of war.


Saturday, 24 August 2013


[This article was originally published in the Scottish Socialist Voice.]   
Those who look at the opinion polls and conclude little has changed in the Independence debate over the past year overlook a great deal. They forget ‘Yes Scotland’ set itself two initial objectives; to get everyone talking about Independence and to build ‘the biggest grassroots campaign Scotland has ever seen’. It would be foolish to deny substantial progress has been made on both fronts. The entire country is now talking about Independence in a way it wasn’t this time last year and the grassroots campaign made up of thousands of SNP, SSP, Green Party and activists of no particular affiliation deserve a great deal of the credit for that.

Whilst it is true the ‘No’ side has maintained its lead detailed research evidence shows a sizeable number of voters have still not made up their minds, and we will return to them in a moment. But it is significant that 46% of voters feel they are well enough informed about the issues and 47% of these intend to vote ‘Yes’ with 48% for ‘No’. Moreover momentum counts for a great deal in these type of campaigns and as Blair Jenkins of ‘Yes Scotland’ succinctly puts it this research also shows that ‘The direction of travel is unquestionably towards Yes’.

Notwithstanding the complacency of the ‘No’ side who apparently think the result is already in the bag, ‘Yes Scotland’ retains every chance of winning. Indeed there are several sub-strata of the population already showing a majority for Independence, parents with young families, the social media community and under 25’s to name but three.

As well as the statistics from the headline poll, which are scrutinised intensely by both sides, there is also the regularly asked question ‘How will you vote if the Tories look like winning the 2015 Westminster general election?’ In January this debut poll revealed a 60:40 ‘Yes’ lead over ‘No’. In other words it revealed a complete turnaround from the headline figures. So we know the prospect of another Tory Government not only disgusts a large majority of Scots the prospect could have a significant bearing on the Referendum. Most researchers agree that if the Tories look like staying in office at Westminster that will help the ‘Yes’ campaign. Equally if Ed Miliband’s dismal streak ended voters might be more inclined to vote ‘No’. It is ironic that the future of this particular ‘Union movement’ now rests not with the Tories or Lib Dems but with Miliband’s ‘anti-union’ New Labour. The latest Westminster polls predict a dead heat with Labour and the Tories both on 36% of the vote. Another poll gave Labour a narrow lead but one insufficient to win an outright majority.

Clearly the Scottish Independence Referendum does not take place in a vacuum and will be heavily influenced by such ‘outside events’. And the standard of living of the Scottish working class is another important factor likely to have a large bearing on the result. Many people in Scotland are experiencing a drastic decline in their standard of living as incomes are held back just as their bills continue to increase. We in the Yes campaign clearly must convince people that Independence can provide relief from the worst recession in 80 years. Persuading ‘undecided’ voters clearly remains crucial to a successful ‘Yes’ vote next year.

Having emphasised the democratic right to determine our own future the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign moved on this last year to highlight how Scotland’s prevalent social democratic values of fairness and justice are repeatedly thwarted by Westminster Governments we did not elect who introduced the poll tax and the ‘bedroom taxes’ against our wishes. More recently the campaign emphasised the economic prosperity Scotland could enjoy and ‘Yes Scotland’ intends next to stress the ‘passion’ we have for our cause and our determination to win what is expected to be a very tight contest indeed.

This then is the backdrop to the Independence debate that supporters across Scotland will sense as we all converge on Edinburgh on 21st September for the ‘one year to go’ march and rally. I am delighted to again speak on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Party. Calton Hill has proud memories for us because it was there where SSP members and many others gathered in 2005 – as the Queen officially opened the new Holyrood Parliament building down the road - to declare for a modern democratic republic for Scotland. We will all do so again on September 21st as part of our vision of an Independent socialist Scotland.

Thursday, 8 August 2013


   Back at the BMC Club for an incredible 8th straight year the
Edinburgh People’s Festival comedy night








[Westfield Street, next to Sainsbury’s]

Friday 9th August at 7.30pm

Tickets £2.50   Available on the door on the night]



Sunday, 4 August 2013

The 2013 Edinburgh Peoples Festival Hamish Henderson Memorial Lecture

This years Hamish Henderson Memorial lecture marks his lifelong friendship with Nelson Mandela.
Delivered jointly by Larry Flanagan, EIS General Secretary and Eberhardt 'Paddy' Bort of 'The Carrying Steam'- with music from Stuart McHardy - the event takes place on Wednesday 7th August at 7pm in Word Power bookshop in West Nicholson Street, Edinburgh. FREE

One of the founders of the Edinburgh Peoples Festival Hamish Henderson was also a very important figure in the post war arts scene in Scotland. He died in 2002.
Our memorial lecture has been delivered in past years by his biographer Timothy Neat, his colleague at the School of Scottish Studies Dr Fred Freeman, the poet Tessa Ransford and the former Independent MSP Campbell Martin. This year we are delighted to welcome EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan and Eberhardt ‘Paddy’ Bort to tell us about the special relationship Hamish Henderson enjoyed with Nelson Mandela over many years. Stuart McHardy has kindly agreed to add the music. 
Born in Blairgowrie in 1919 in the aftermath of WW1 to a single parent mother Hamish Henderson was orphaned in early childhood and brought up by relatives in England. A bright boy he won a scholarship  to Dulwich College, London and then to Oxford University. After graduating in English and Modern Languages he enlisted in the British Army. He saw active service during WW2 at El Alamein in North Africa – of which he wrote the beautiful poems ‘Ellegy’s for the Dead in Cyrenaica’ - and in Italy. There he met up with Italian Partisans and was hugely impressed both by their anti-Nazi resistance and their Gramscian socialism. He later translated Gramsci’s work into English for the first time.
Returning to Scotland after the war he was instrumental in establishing the folk music revival. His work in the Edinburgh People’s Festival saw him collaborate with figures such as Ewan McColl, Joan Littlewood, Norman and Janey Buchan and Joe Corrie. A great advocate of traditional music and Scots culture he wrote many songs and poems including the ‘Ballad of John Maclean’ about the Red Clydeside leader and the anthem ‘Freedom Come all Ye’. He also helped establish the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University and famously advised an up and coming young folk singer named Billy Connolly to concentrate on his comedy. Hamish was also a socialist activist who refused an OBE ‘for his services to folk music’ because he was a devout republican. He was an internationalist who championed the civil & human rights of the black majority in South Africa long before it was popular to do so and wrote the song ‘The Men of Rivonia’ which he dedicated to ANC leader Nelson Mandela jailed for confronting Apartheid. The song became an official ANC anthem. Mandela & Hamish began corresponding in the 1960’s and Hamish was prominent in the anti-apartheid struggle here in Scotland. He was famously arrested, in his 70’s, for running on to the pitch at Murrayfield to disrupt a Scotland vs Springboks rugby match but received little sympathy from the ‘rugger-buggers’ in the crowd who boo’ed him and he spent the night in jail.
When Mandela, finally released from prison after 27 years, visited Glasgow in the 1990’s to accept the freedom of the city he specifically asked that Hamish lead the official delegation in welcome. Tonight’s lecture allows us to remember Hamish, to reflect on his relationship with Mandela and celebrate their fervent internationalism.