Author Archives: John McHugo

Idlib – time for some Liberal guilt

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Why do we forget about Syria so easily? The answer is probably that, most of the time, it does not matter to us. After all, Lloyd-George (a Liberal prime minister) shamefully agreed to the Anglo-French partition of the former Ottoman provinces into mandates in April 1920 and handed Syria over to France – even though this was not what most Syrians wanted.  Since then, it hasn’t been our problem, has it?

After the Arab Spring reached Damascus in March 2011, the West assumed Bashar al Assad would soon be gone, and let Syrians think we would support them if they managed to throw him out. No formal promises were made – just hints – but Syrians looked to the West and some may have been encouraged to join those rising in rebellion as a result.

I remember how our party conference voted against military intervention after the chemicals weapon attack in August 2013. From talking to people who voted down the motion, “we’ll only risk making things worse” seemed to be the general view, despite the passionate urgings of our leadership. As someone who loves Syria and has some knowledge of the country, I wondered why we were worried about a few hundred deaths from chemicals. Well over a hundred thousand had already been slaughtered by the country’s army. The answer, of course, was that chemical weapons might one day be used against us – so we didn’t want Bashar al Assad to have them. But it was relatively OK for him to bomb his own people.

Then, of course, came the flow of refugees to Europe. Germany provided moral leadership, but would the UK and most of the rest of Europe step up? Not on your Nelly!

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The response to Trump’s peace plan should be – recognise Palestine now

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As we leave the EU, we need to show that we are not Trump’s poodle. Britain must therefore publicly be seen to reject the wholesale attack on the rule of international law that is unfortunately an important element in Trump’s so-called “deal of the century”, his plan for peace between Israel and Palestine.

Although the “deal” contains positive elements, such as aspects of its vision for cooperation in economic development, nothing can hide the fact that it contains a diktat to be imposed on the Palestinians that deprives them of their right of self-determination (whilst brazenly maintaining that the contrary is true), as well as the territorial integrity of the Palestinian land that Israel occupied in 1967.

The “deal” has understandably already been described as creating “disconnected Bantustans” rather than a Palestinian State. If it is successfully implemented in the form in which it is published, it is likely to mean the end of the two State solution and become the focal point for a struggle for equal rights for Arab and Jew between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. It also has the regrettable appearance of trying “to buy” the Palestinians so as to induce them not to insist on their rights. That is creating anger far beyond Palestine.

The plan claims to recognise the realities on the ground. This assertion must be called out.

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Rees-Mogg, Grenfell and Catholic social teaching

The Brexit of the Johnsons and Rees-Moggs of this world will free Britain from “the manacles” of the EU. This will enable Brexit to be used to slash and burn all those pesky regulations designed to protect workers’ rights. Johnson has now left them to be discussed in the non-binding political declaration, no longer preserved by the legally binding withdrawal agreement. Rees-Mogg concurs. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg is visible as a devout Catholic, sometimes ostentatiously so. But the social teaching of his church is set squarely against this Brexit vision, since it is often regulations inspired in part by Catholic social teaching that constitute those “manacles” of the EU. 

Modern Catholic Social Teaching evolved as a Christian response to industrial poverty in the late nineteenth century. Its principles chime impeccably with liberalism. Workers have the right to solidarity with each other (collective bargaining, trade unions), whilst private property is to be respected and entrepreneurship encouraged because it creates wealth. A collaboration between capital and labour that is fair and comprehensive is essential. The State also needs to be involved. As Pope St. John Paul II put it in Centesimus Annus in 1991: “the marketplace needs to be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.” 

He also taught that the State, “has…the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of .”    

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Kurds, Turks, Syria and hypocrisy

I’ll begin by making two things clear. The first is that Trump’s sudden decision to pull US troops out of eastern Syria is self-evidently irresponsible and very foolish. The other is that Turkey’s invasion will cause yet further civilian suffering and I suspect it will ultimately solve nothing. But now I’ve made these two admissions, I want to share some uncomfortable thoughts about the way this new conflict taking place within the borders of Syria is being perceived.

While Turkey’s invasion has hit the headlines, the regime bombing of Idlib and attacks on the ground receive almost no attention by comparison, …

Posted in Europe / International and Op-eds | Tagged and | 13 Comments

Brexit is unpatriotic and shameful

The other day I got talking to two Leavers on the train. They were a married couple well past retirement age. They told me that they belonged to a small group that celebrated St George’s Day and Trafalgar Day, and said that they would be doing this “as long as we are allowed to”. What I took away from that slightly paranoid remark was that they felt their identity was under threat from unpatriotic liberals. They were lovely people who had worked hard all their lives, and whom I instinctively respected.  As we parted, I told them my father fought against Hitler and the experience made him a lifelong pro-European.  I hope this gave them food for thought.

After thinking about this encounter, I decided to beat the patriotic drum on LDV.  And yes – why don’t we have a Lib Dem fundraising event on Trafalgar Day (21 October),  or Waterloo Day (18 June)?

For hundreds of years, Britain has taken the lead in standing up to tyrants in pursuit of world domination. Trafalgar may have been a specifically British victory, but Waterloo and Blenheim were not. At Blenheim, Marlborough commanded Austrians and Dutch as well as British, while Wellington’s army included Dutch, Belgians and Germans. But for the arrival at Waterloo of another German army under Bluecher, Napoleon would probably have carried the day. Moreover, even if Trafalgar was a battle we won by ourselves, it was part of a lengthy conflict we could not have won alone.

We could never have been victorious in World War One against the domineering Kaiser without our French allies, who suffered far more than we did. Even when we stood alone in World War Two, many Europeans from the continent fought beside us. Think of the heroic Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain and the ferocious resistance of the Free French at Bir Hakim – but for which Rommel might have ended up reaching Cairo while Germany simultaneously took Malta. And those are just two examples.

So yes, we should be proud of our heritage but acknowledge that Britain can never win alone – and never has done. Where does that leave us today? By turning our backs on our European partners and kicking them in the teeth we are behaving in a very un-British and unpatriotic  way. We are kow-towing to Trump and haven’t even left the EU! It is in continuing the legacy of Marlborough and Wellington that this country’s future should lie. We are more effective standing up to Putin, Iranian mullahs, Bashar al-Assad in Syria and other tyrannical forces all over the world if we can do it jointly with our European partners (Think of the Iran nuclear deal that Trump has sabotaged). 

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The patriotic voice of Remain

One of the major difficulties for those the Remain side of the Brexit debate has been how to appeal to the patriotism of many Leave voters who instinctively feel that it is the Brexiters who stand up for Britain. In order to combat this perception, I have drafted the following pro-forma to send to MPs. In this I try to put an argument against Brexit in which patriotism is at the centre of the stage. 

If you like it, and your MP is not already committed to us remaining in the EU, please feel free

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Why Syria needs a strong Europe

The Syrians arriving in Europe are chiefly fleeing barrel bombs dropped by their own government, although the thuggery of the militias and warlords who now control much of their country provides another strong impetus. The most notorious of these is Da’ish (better known as ISIS), which has managed to instil fear into us in the West. Dai’sh’s destruction of Palmyra has also affected us directly because Palmyra is part of our own heritage, as well as that of Syria and the Arab world. Almost simultaneously, a photo of a drowned boy, who looked like a doll discarded at the seaside at the end of the family holiday, has finally aroused our compassion for the quarter of a million Syrian dead, and the ten million or more who have been displaced.

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Opinion: Nick Clegg’s remarks inch the UK towards recognition of Palestine

It is now over a week since Nick Clegg held his joint press conference with President Abbas of Palestine in which he referred to Israeli settlement construction as “vandalism”. Before his comments fade out of the news altogether, it is worth thinking through the implications of what he said – and thanking him for his courage in making them. Could they have come from the mouth of a Conservative minister?

By calling the settlement building “an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise on which negotiations have taken place for years and years and years”, Nick hit two important nails …

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