What Hollande Means for Britain

This article appeared in the Guardian.
François Hollande as French president could suit Britain

29 February 2012

François Hollande comes to London today to energise the 100,000 plus French voters who prefer British capitalism to French statism and whose votes may prove decisive in what is expected to be a narrow outcome in the French presidential election in May.
I was in the Place de la Bastille in May 1981 when François Mitterrand was elected. It was seen as a major win for the European left reeling from the impact of the Reagan-Thatcher worldview of liberal market economics, anti-Sovietism and a deep distrust of the state, which had been running affairs since the war.
Alas, poor Labour. Mitterrand's victory ushered in a further three Conservative wins and an even longer period of power for the German centre-right. The rampantly eurosceptic Labour party had no idea of how to relate to Mitterrand's European project and spent its wilderness decade tilting at European or market windmills instead of supporting the aspirations of middle England.
Ed Miliband is a child of that era and will avoid the mistakes that kept Labour in opposition. He will lunch with Hollande today, mediated by an interpreter as none of the occupants or contenders for top power in Britain or France speak each other's language.
But the bigger question is whether it is in Britain's interests to see a further five years for President Nicolas Sarkozy or whether, as in 1981, the election of a socialist French president may make greater strategic sense for the UK. David Cameron has come out as a full-hearted supporter for Sarkozy's re-election. But the last presidential candidate the prime minister endorsed was Poland's nationalist, clericalist politician, Lech Kaczynski, who failed miserably in his efforts to succeed his brother, killed in a plane crash near Katyn.
Mitterrand supported Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands at a time when Washington was temporising and seeking to broker a deal with the antisemitic, thuggish junta in Argentina. He worked with her on the Single European Act and produced the immortal description that the British prime minister had "the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula".
Hollande has been criticised in the City for saying "the financial world is my enemy". Yet it is Cameron who has denied bankers their bonuses, clawed back tax from Barclays, and stripped Fred Goodwin of his knighthood in the manner of the poor Captain Dreyfus having his epaulettes ripped off when the French establishment wanted to make an example of someone they felt had let the show down. Hollande is proposing a 45% tax rate on those earning €150,000. This is lower than the 50% rate George Osborne applies on similar incomes.
More important, Hollande is not Merkozy. The fusion of Berlin and Paris into a Euro juggernaut of austerity, anti-growth, job-killing 1930s-style economics should worry even the biggest debt and deficit hawks in the government. Angela Merkel is clearly in the EU's driving seat with Sarkozy fiddling with the satnav. The famous quip that the choice is always between a European Germany or a Germanised Europe has never been more appropriate. The French economy and public finances are now weaker than Britain in May 2010. As president, Hollande would not cure that but he would change the direction of travel for Europe, and Britain will not face a monolithic German-France project. As in 1981, a socialist president of France may be good for Britain. Whether he would be good for Labour is another matter. 

Update on the situation in Bahrain

This article was published in The Independent-Blogs
Bahrain: One year on
14 February 2012
I am used to endless lies and criticism from the BNP and its favourite blogster, as well as Islamist ideologues who hate my work on anti-semitism and the off-shore press obsessed about Europe. But this is the first time that a government, Bahrain, has sent a 17 page letter to the British Government telling William Hague to shut me up.
In a 17-page open letter to British Foreign Secretary William Hague,  Bahrain Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa accuses me making several “demonstrably misconceived” statements about the political situation in Bahrain without visiting the country. It is true I have not been to Bahrain recently but I don’t need to go to Syria or Iran or North Korea to know there are serious human rights issues in those countries..
The latest news from Bahrain remains ever more worrying. There are regular pro-democracy demonstrations which are severely repressed by the police. In a new tactic, the police are raiding individual homes and throwing tear gas canisters inside. Amnesty reports that as many as 30 people may have been killed as they choked to death in confined spaces.
Last month 24-year-old Yousif al-Mawaly was arrested, tortured and then dumped in the sea. Photographs of his body seen by the BBC appear to show abrasions and bruises consistent with beating. Human Rights Watch report that Bahraini riot police beat a prominent human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, as he was leaving a peaceful protest last month. Rajab said that the police attacked him using their fists and batons at about 8:30 pm, as he was walking toward his car:
“I noticed a number of riot police behind me. They were all in uniform. They started beating me and I fell on the ground. I told them that I was Nabeel Rajab, hoping that they would stop, but they kept beating and kicking me.”
The Interior Ministry stated on its Twitter account that riot police had found Rajab “lying on the ground” and transported him to the Salmaniya Medical Complex for treatment.

The Bahraini government has refused to allow independent human rights observers from entering the kingdom, on the first anniversary of the Bahrain uprising on 14 February a year ago. The ruling Khalifeh family are trying to kid the international community that they are willing to move on human rights. They attach great store to the Bassiouni Commission which reported in November  on the widespread killing and torture after the democracy uprising that began a year ago. The 500 page report itself is valuable but few if any of its recommendations have been implemented. Some low-rank police officers have been suspended – including five Pakistani and two Yemeni police officers. But the men at the top of the royal family who authorized the brutal crackdown or even senior officers who oversaw torture and killings are still in place.

The Bahraini government are now hiring human rights lawyers or former police officers including Commander John Yates, who had to leave Scotland Yard in disgrace, to come to Bahrain and assure the world that all is well. But women doctors and nurses are still on trial after they were arrested in their hospitals treating the wounded last year. Dr Fatima Haji, for example, was charged with, acts of terrorism, stealing blood from hospital and harming the public by spreading false news. She was sentenced to five years in prison on these turmped up charges worthy of Stalin’s doctors plot trials.  The Bassiouni Commission called for the release of all political prisoners – democracy protesters who simply tweeted or attended meetings but took no part in violence. Again the Khlaifeh regime rejects this key recommendation and refuses to negotiate with the opposition to create a balanced human rights commission that can investigate and punish those responsible for last year’s and end the continuing violent repression of human rights.

The Khalifeh elites try and paint the dark hand of Iran behind the protests and it is true that there is now an ugly Sunni-Shia split with a turn to violence, including throwing petrol bombs at the police, by the extreme end of the opposition. But the Khalifehs have brought this upon themselves by their own refusal to allow the educated Bahraini citizens to move towards a more democratic system. Local mayors say they do even have the power to build a footpath. Despite lip service to increasing democracy and a fortune spent on overseas PR companies or buying in prominent westerners to say things are not all that bad Bahrain remains the privately-owned torture-permitting polity of a royal family and its retainers who cannot live with modernity.

Foreign policy realists point out that compared to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is freer and more liberal. The West in the shape of the US and the UK has major military interests there. Just as Russia will not criticise Syria which buys arms from Russia and allows the Russian Navy a warm water point, the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, so ready to denounce repression in Libya (not today’s repression of course but that of Gaddafi) or Syria is utterly silent on Bahrain beyond the minimal tight-lipped expression of support for the so-called reform and dialogue efforts of the torturers and killers. Diplomats in other EU countries have noticed this double-standard in UK foreign policy and are commenting on it openly.

It is clear that the Grand Prix cannot and should not take place there while the stench of tear gas and the cries of those tortured hangs over Bahrain. The politics are a disaster with both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran looking down their own lenses at tiny Bahrain. But that cannot excuse continued torture, tear-gas killing and holding political prisoners in jail. In the 1970s, similar arguments were made by realists about the military juntas of South America with their penchant for torture and dropping opponents out of helicopters into the sea. In the 1980s, the Conservatives supported apartheid South Africa as a force for stability. The left often found excuses for communist regimes despite their human rights abuses.

Arab nations are now joining world history. As their populations became urbanised, educated and open to the world the absurd medieval rule of a handful of monarchs and princes, or kleptocratic dictators like Mubarak, Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, or Ben Ali became unbearable. What comes next may be very ugly especially as the Mullahs and the Military forge alliances to create a Pakistanisation of politics. There has always been huge amounts of money to be made especially in London for the agents who serve these states. But things are on the move and writing letters to the Foreign Secretary complaining about an MP who raises these issues is a waste of ink.

Bahrain has a short period to see if the ruling dynastic group can find a way to some constitutional settlement with opponents who reject violence.  That is what British officials, human rights lawyers and other should be arguing for. But it may be too late.

Open Letter to the Foreign Secretary on Bahrain

This letter was published on the Dale&Co. website 

An Open Letter on Bahrain to Rt Hon William Hague MP

8 January 2012

Dear William,
Welcome back from Burma. The pictures of you there with Aung San Suu Kyi were heart-warming and it is good you went there in person to express British support for democratic change to liberate the Burmese people from their repressive regime. Today I am writing to ask that you give the same attention to the continuing repression of human rights in Bahrain that you give to Burma, Syria or Zimbabwe. Those responsible in Bahrain for the continuing repression, imprisonments, torture, and beatings up live in a culture of impunity because in part, the UK in all of its manifestations of state authority continues to soft-soap and turn a blind eye to the cruelties that take place under the ruling dynastic Khalifa elite family network. These people have been received at 10 Downing Street, continue to lavish presents on senior British representatives, including and seem to act as if they are under no pressure from Britain as HMG drops all the language and pressure on human rights you rightly apply and use when dealing with other unsavoury regimes.
I have just learnt today (Saturday 7th January) that the head of the Bahraini Commission on Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, has been severely beaten and arrested by police in Bahrain. This shows once again that the regime hardliners in Bahrain are refusing to back down and are now even attacking targets which everybody knows they have been told not to attack by the US State Department. Whether this arrest is attributable to officers on the ground who want to punish Mr Rajab, or whether it is an order from on high, I cannot tell from London. However, it is a very worrying sign at this point in the process of attempting to reconcile both sides in Bahrain to some kind of reform programme.

I appreciate that you have made statements in the House calling for reconciliation and dialogue and that Alistair Burt was only in Bahrain a few weeks ago. But it is clear the Bahraini regime are ignoring all  your calls for restraint and reform. Stronger words and action are now needed from you and it should be made clear to the Palace that it is very embarrassing for any representative of the head of state to receive gifts worth millions of pounds from men who are overseeing the repression of their own people.

It is now more than a  month since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) published its findings into the political unrest in Bahrain. The report, commissioned by the King of Bahrain, nevertheless recounted gross human rights violations by the regime, including excessive use of force against protesters and the torture of political prisoners.
Can I urge you at the start of 2010 to call on the Bahraini authorities to release political prisoners as a gesture of reconciliation and an essential first step towards dialogue and reform in Bahrain? Both UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and President Obama have called on the Bahraini authorities to release political prisoners. Now more than ever, the UK government has an opportunity to hold Bahrain to its promises of reform. Not doing so now would let the Al-Khalifa regime off the hook and indicate to our other allies in the region that human rights are a secondary concern within UK foreign policy.
The Bahraini government has a history and reputation for not living up to their promises. In 2002 the King unilaterally rewrote the new constitution in order to safeguard his grip on power after initially promising reform and political liberalisation of the autocratic system of government. Understandably, many in the Bahraini opposition and international human rights community are sceptical about current reform initiatives. It is therefore fundamental that the UK and US governments act in concert to show the Bahraini government that we are serious in our demands for good governance by our allies.
So far there has been no sign that the Bahraini regime intends to comply with the recommendations laid out in the BICI report. Three more protesters have died since the publication of the report, taking the total human cost of the uprising to around 50 lives. In the case of the arrested doctors, even more outrageous and unbelievable charges have been levelled against them, with AK47 machine guns being produced at their trial to support claims that they gave weapons to protesters. Of course, recommendations such as making the police and security forces representative of all religious communities, like in Northern Ireland, will take some time. But with Bahrain’s military and security forces seemingly controlled by hard-line elements, will the British Government be asking for assurances that Bahrain is serious about prosecuting those responsible for torture and ending the culture of impunity within the police and military?
The UK has great cultural and historic ties with the government of the Kingdom of Bahrain. We cannot afford to be timid to our allies while being belligerent towards our enemies. Human rights are universal, and should not be beholden to our special political or economic interests. It is in the Bahraini government’s economic interest to uphold human rights if they wish to hold the Formula 1 race and prevent capital flight from Bahrain. There has been an upsurge of political tension in the Gulf region in recent months and Bahrain is at the heart of it. Calming sectarian tension through effective reform in Bahrain could have positive knock-on effects throughout the region, especially in Iraq, where US and British intervention arguably exacerbated religious tension.
Delicate political situations such as this require a light hand, but if we do not take a stand in requiring allies to respect human rights, we risk damaging our own credibility as well as impeding the inevitable march of democratic values across the authoritarian world.
Yours sincerely,

Denis MacShane MP