Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Talk in Brighton: what shapes British foreign policy

I'm giving a talk in Brighton on Thursday 22nd April on the topic of "what shapes British foreign policy?" Essentially, I'll be elaborating on the argument I made in this Guardian article a few months ago, getting into some greater detail and giving more historical background.

The talk will be held at Brighthelm, North Road, Brighton. 7.30pm - 9pm organised by Watching The Warmakers. It'll be about half me talking and half open discussion/Q&A.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Interview with Ha-Joon Chang, and other good stuff from New Left Project

My interview with Ha-Joon Chang, one of the world's leading development economists, is published today at New Left Project.

Chang is currently a Reader in the Political Economy of Development at the University of Cambridge, he has served as a consultant to the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Investment Bank as well as to Oxfam and various United Nations agencies. He is the author of a number of critically acclaimed books, including ‘Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective’, and ‘Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism’.

In our in-depth interview, Chang discussed the damaging effect of neo-liberal economics on the world’s poorer countries, and Britain’s dubious record on international development.

You can read the whole interview here.

New Left Project has been going for a couple of months now, and I'm really pleased with the amount and quality of material we've produced so far. To pick a small selection of the very best, we've had:

  • the first review of Norman Finkelstein's new book, "This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion", and a review of Natasha Walter's "Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism", by Nina Power;
  • interviews with Mark Curtis on British foreign policy and radical Islam, with philosopher Peter Singer on ethics and the left, and with Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune on contemporary feminism; and
  • articles from Priya Gopal on the marketisation of higher education under New Labour, and from Jamie Stern-Weiner examining the humanitarian catastrophes in Haiti and Gaza.
I think we're making good progress in becoming a significant on-line resource for the global (particularly the UK) left for analysis and discussion of contemporary issues. So pay us a visit, and follow us on Twitter if you can.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

British Foreign Policy and Critical Scholarship: The Legacy of Adam Smith

I'm speaking next week at the International Studies Association Annual Convention in New Orleans, on BISA's British foreign policy panel. The paper I'm presenting is entitled "British Foreign Policy and Critical Scholarship: The Legacy of Adam Smith".

Here's the intro:

"The purpose of this paper is to argue that critical studies of British foreign policy can be situated within the mainstream of our intellectual heritage, and therefore deserve an important place within scholarly activity today. I will begin by setting out how the critical-left interpretation of political economy may be applied to current British foreign policy. Noting the apparent influence of centres of socio-economic power over policymaking, and the evident public opposition to significant elements of current policy, I suggest that British foreign policy presents a fruitful area of research for scholars concerned that governments in liberal democracies may be disproportionately influenced by certain interests at the expense of the general interest or the popular will. I will then look back to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, noting that challenging and critiquing power was a major element of this defining movement within our intellectual tradition. In particular, I will examine the work of Adam Smith and his critique of Britain’s foreign and economic policies in the eighteenth century, as set out in his famous work, “The Wealth of Nations”. Smith’s theoretical treatise on economics went hand-in-hand with a political critique of the way in which influential vested interests had been able to distort public policy to suit their own ends, a critique rooted in an explicit sense of injustice. I will argue that Smith’s focus on the question of just outcomes and his analytical emphasis on the role of power, influence and sectional interests in politics, are elements of his work that critical scholars of today’s British foreign policy can draw upon. I will conclude with a few brief remarks on how such a research agenda might be taken forward."

You can read the whole paper here.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

New Left Project launches

I'm pleased to say the New Left Project, a site that I and a few others have been working on for some time, launched today.

The New Left Project will provide analysis, commentary, discussion and debate for anyone concerned about climate change, inequality, Western foreign policy and a host of other issues.

In our first set of original pieces, Jamie Stern-Weiner examines how the crises in Haiti and Gaza reflect the politics of humanitarianism, I chat with Noam Chomsky about nuclear proliferation, climate change, Haiti and the financial crisis, a new article of mine takes on the myths surrounding debate on the British economy, and author and activist Paul Street talks in depth to our very own Alex Doherty about the state of US politics one year on from the inauguration of Barack Obama.

As well as a steady stream of original content, NLP will provide cross-posting from leading blogs on the UK left, as well as links to the best political comment and analysis from around the world.

Please check out the new site, bookmark us, tell your friends, and let us have any feedback. Submissions of original material are always welcome.


Also this week, check out my mini-manifesto for a progressive British foreign policy at Left Foot Forward.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Whose Foreign Policy Is It?

My article, "Whose Foreign Policy Is It?", was published on The Guardian's website yesterday.

The article talks about the "democratic deficit" whereby the fundamentals of British foreign policy are consistently at odds with the wishes of the public. It discusses the way in which policymaking is disproportionately subject to pressures from vested interests, and describes some of the ways in which that influence is exerted.

Here's an excerpt:

"While few people would expect every government policy to precisely reflect majority public opinion, it is hard to see what is democratic about a British foreign policy whose very fundamentals – agreed by both Labour and the Conservatives – are consistently opposed by voters.

In February 2003, more than 90% of Britons opposed Tony Blair's government joining the invasion of Iraq in the absence of a second UN resolution. As we know, the invasion went ahead the following month without such a resolution being passed. Three years later, 63% thought Blair had tied Britain too closely to the Bush White House. In the same poll, 61% opposed the assault on Lebanon that Israel was undertaking at that time – an assault that was nevertheless effectively supported by Britain."

You can read the whole article here.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen: our Munich

World War II analogies flow far too freely in political debate, but there's an appropriate one that we can use today as we witness an international conference ending in epic sell-out, with a future cost to be paid by millions of innocents. For Copenhagen, read Munich, with the developing world getting every bit as thorough a screwing from Obama's White House as the Czechs got from Neville Chamberlain.

The science says that a 50% cut in emissions will give us a chance of avoiding a 2 degree rise in global temperatures. A temperature rise above 2 degrees will tip the world's eco-system over the edge, leading to disasters of Biblical proportions - famines, floods and resource wars worldwide. Even 2 degrees will result in disaster for many of the poorest countries, hence their insistence at Copenhagen on a deal that limits the rise to 1 degree or 1.5 degrees. That's a target often described as 'ambitious', which is accurate. For millions in the developing world, staying alive does indeed count as 'ambitious', given the balance of power between them and the wealthy.

So, a 50% cut to avert catastrophe. The US offer? 6 per cent.

Yes, six.

In the end, emissions cuts were not specified in the interim deal that came out of Copenhagen. Nor is there a commitment to provide adequate finance to help the poorest countries deal with the effects of climate change, and nor is there any real sign that legal obligations will be placed on countries to cut their emissions.

The major battle in the conference was over Kyoto. The Kyoto accord is the existing global deal on combating climate change. It placed legal obligations on signatory countries to cut their carbon emissions, and crucially it recognised the historic role of the rich nations in causing the problem. This is the key issue. The effects of climate change are being felt overwhelmingly by the poorest countries, but were caused overwhelmingly by the rich ones. This balance of responsibility and costs - the Kyoto principle - needs to be recognised in the new deal. Obama rejects this. He says developing countries should be "getting out of that mindset, and moving towards the position where everybody recognises that we all need to move together". Say what you like about the man, he gives great platitude.

Pressure was put on the most vulnerable countries, who spent the conference insisting they will not "die quietly", to basically do just that. To accept no legal commitment from the nations that caused climate change to carry out even the minimal cuts they have pledged. To accept nothing like the proper financial compensation owed by the West for its vandalism of other people's environments.

Charities and NGOs were not impressed by the final outcome (which Western leaders are now trying to spin as "historic"). Senior climate change advocacy officer at Christian Aid, Nelson Muffuh said: "Already 300,000 people die each year because of the impact of climate change, most of them in the developing world. The lack of ambition shown by rich countries in Copenhagen means that number will grow."

Kate Horner from Friends of the Earth said: "This is the United Nations and the nations here are not united on this secret back-room declaration. The US has lied to the world when they called it a deal and they lied to over a hundred countries when they said would listen to their needs. This toothless declaration, being spun by the US as an historic success, reflects contempt for the multi-lateral process and we expect more from our Nobel prize winning President."

Tim Jones, climate policy officer at the World Development Movement said: "This summit has been in complete disarray from start to finish, culminating in a shameful and monumental failure that has condemned millions of people around the world to untold suffering."

Hope and change? Nope, just climate change, and all the horrors to follow. That's what the Obama White House offered the world at Copenhagen, and as things stand, that's how this President will go down in history.

Now people inclined to make excuses for Obama will tell you that its all very difficult for him domestically. Lots of resistance at home from a sceptical public, so its hard for him to commit to anything more than he was able to offer. And indeed, this excuse is made for leaders worldwide. Well, its a myth. Here are the facts.

* 70 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide see climate change as a serious problem.
* 53 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide say "dealing with climate change should be a priority even if it causes slower growth and some loss of jobs".
* 82 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide accept that their own countries have a responsibility to deal with climate change.
* 58 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide believe their countries are not doing enough to deal with climate change.
* 82 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide believe their country should sign a deal limiting their carbon emissions at Copenhagen
* 73 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide say if a deal is not reached their country should cut emissions anyway
* 62 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide would be willing to pay more for energy and other products to deal with climate change
* 54 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide support giving assistance to poor nations to help them deal with climate change

The same is true in Britain. See this article. The Mail leaps on the fact that people are confused about the state of the science, as you'd expect. That's the headline. But then you get down to the inconvenient truths.

* 79 per cent see climate change as a serious concern
* 57 per cent support new air travel taxes to cut carbon emissions
* 68 per cent said much higher taxes should be imposed on gas-guzzling vehicles
* 87 per cent supported new building regulations to require high standards of insulation and use of renewable energy, even if it increases the cost of homes.

A myth is being put about that serious action against climate change is politically impossible. But what 'politically impossible' apparently means is not that the public don't support it. Its that elites don't support it, particularly the vested interests in the coal and oil lobbies who were wandering freely round the conference centre in Copenhagen even as respected environmentalist leaders were being ushered out of the building by security for no apparent reason.

In the farce Copenhagen descended into, much was left unresolved, so at least one further global conference will have to be called to firm up the new deal. We've now seen how bad this can get. The only thing that will change the equation is popular activism on an unprecedented scale. The public opinion I cited above needs to be turned into a political force that governments cannot ignore. I didn't use the Munich analogy lightly. Compare the political agreement to what the science says, and the stakes in terms of human suffering are very much on that scale.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

The limits and context of New Labour's left turn

Today's editorial in The Guardian takes up an interesting theme: the long-term changes in the political economy of Britain and how the apparent move towards "industrial activism", made recently by New Labour, may fit into broader economic trends.

The rise of socialist and social democratic politics, driven by the organisation of mass labour rooted in manufacturing and other blue collar industries, probably reached its peak at around the mid-point of the last century, winning in the process some vital gains in terms of the political enfranchisement and economic welfare of the general population. Subsequent years saw the demographic make up of the country change, with manufacturing industry declining sharply as a mass employer, the move of many working class people into white collar work, an increase in home-ownership and the general break-up of the social base that had driven the Labour Party in particular and the political challenge to the vested interests of the economic elites more generally. The end of this historic socialist/social democratic coalition saw the establishment of a new Thatcherite consensus, first by Thatcher herself, then later on by New Labour.

However, recent months have seen something of a change in tone from the Labour government, including a willingness to intervene in support of the industrial sector and to (vocally at least) challenge the banking industry. We have also seen Gordon Brown directly challenge the regressive taxation policies of the Conservative Party and link those to the privileged background of its leading figures. Obviously Labour has to tack left at least slightly in order to rally support ahead of next year's general election. Its traditional base can no longer be relied upon to turn out and vote after 12 years of neo-Thatcherism from Brown and Blair, not to mention Blair's politically disastrous alliance with George W Bush. So trying to shore up that constituency makes sense. But is there also something deeper at work here?

The long-term social changes and trends described above that undermined traditional Labourism, though not entirely within the control of policymakers, were at the same time, not entirely due to forces of nature. The political economy is a system created by human beings and driven by human choices.

Similarly today, with it having become obvious that the British economy is fundamentally unbalanced and over-reliant on the "socially useless" activity of the financial sector, it is right that politicians should make the conscious choice to change this balance away from "financial engineering" towards "real engineering". This is especially true when climate change demands that we radically and swiftly alter the technological base, a situation that offers huge opportunities in research, development and production to the nation states and companies smart enough to take them. More national reliance on capital investment and less on capricious financial flows would also - potentially at least - render the democratic state better able to hold its own against the demands of elite international economic interests.

So it turns out, after 11 years of New Labour being "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", that you don't have to accept post-Thatcherite neo-liberalism as though it were written into the laws of physics. You can, in fact, make choices.

The costs of the centre-left's intellectual and moral timidity in the face of the status quo post-Thatcher can be measured in the damage done to the economy by the collapse of those orthodoxies in the autumn of 2008. Labour appears, very slowly indeed, to be coming round to an understanding (an understanding that is at least partially right) of what this might mean politically. It would be a shame if it lost the opportunity to develop this line of thinking more fully, given the unpleasant alternative facing us at the ballot box next spring.

Labour's current politics, irrespective of the recent mild drift away from Thatcherism, still require a serious overhaul or wholesale replacement. That's a long-term task for Britain's progressive majority, requiring dedication and commitment. In the short term, we should be aware of the changing political weather in the aftermath of the banking crisis and work to ensure that the obvious lessons are learnt about the sustainability of neo-liberal economics. In those circumstances, a Labour victory is plainly preferable to a Tory victory in the election next spring. But given New Labour's dismal record in entrenching Thatcherism during its first 11 years in power, and the extremely limited nature of its political conversion post-credit crunch, an anti-Tory vote next spring should be one very small part of a far greater effort to move the long-term trends of the British economy in a more progressive direction.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Venezuela: Inside the Revolution

My review of the documentary film "Inside the Revolution", a look at recent political trends in Venezuela, is published by The Samosa.

An exerpt:

"What is the nature of the political change that has been taking shape in Venezuela since the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998? This has become one of the central questions in world politics over the past decade. Why? Because events in that South American country have direct relevance to the key global trends of the moment: the waning power of the United States, the fading credibility of the neo-liberal economic model, and the slow replacement of the zombified ‘Washington Consensus’.

Inside the Revolution, a film by the documentary-maker Pablo Navarrete, is a serious, insightful and thought-provoking review of Venezuelan politics over recent years. With a particular focus on the perspectives of the poorest and an admirable willingness to let them tell their own story, Navarrete analyses the roots of the transformation taking place in Venezuela, the obstacles it faces, and the prospects for the future."

You can read the whole piece here, and go here for more information on screenings of Inside the Revolution.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Democrat's Diary on Twitter

I'm now on Twitter, posting daily on domestic and international politics, mostly with links to interesting articles and reports. You can follow me here.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Demanding a New British Foreign Policy

My article, "We Must Demand a New Foreign Policy", was published on The Guardian's website earlier this week.
The article set out to do three things:
First, to point out that at the next election the political system will not be offering us any alternative government that presents the clean break in UK foreign policy that the public desires, following the Blair-Bush years.
Second, to try and describe some of the main features of what a progressive transformation in Britain's relations with the rest of the world might look like.
Third, to encourage the public to get involved in activism that challenges current UK policy and aims to change it for the better.
You can read the article here.
Many comments were made by readers (I believe it was one of the top five most commented-upon pieces in the 24 hours it was prominent on the site, and the editors were kind enough to nominate it 'Thread of the Day'). Some of the input was good, some less so, as is always the way in these forums. One comment I thought particularly valuable was this from Paul Lambert in which he cites polling evidence backing up my point about the democratic deficit on foreign policy.
It was good to get the opportunity to publish in the Guardian and get some of these ideas out to a much wider audience than I get here (no offence to either of you, my faithful and valued readers). Hopefully this will be the shape of things to come.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

What we can do about global warming


10:10 looks like a great new collective, popular initiative to do something serious about global warming. Its already getting a huge amount of support and has the potential to have a real impact.

The idea is to for individuals and organisations to sign up and pledge to make a 10% cut in their carbon emissions during 2010. That in turn will send a powerful message to politicians to take the global action that's necessary to avert a long term climate disaster, when they meet in Copenhagen this December.

Cutting 10% in one year is an achievable target for most of us, and is in line with what scientists say we need to achieve immediately. The 10:10 campaign provide you with lots of information about how to cut your own carbon footprint by 10%, so it couldn't be easier.

To find out more and sign up go to the campaign website here. To read coverage of the campaign from the Guardian go here.

I've signed up today. Please do the same.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Gaza Freedom March


I've heard of few activist projects more inspiring and worthwhile than the Gaza Freedom March; a coming non-violent attempt to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza strip and relieve the appalling humanitarian situation there. Israel has deliberately created a scene of abject misery and destitution for the innocent civilians of Gaza in recent times, while cynically trying to present itself as a civilised democratic nation seeking only to defend itself against ruthless extremists. But make no mistake, this is as clear a situation of oppressor and oppressed as Apartheid South Africa twenty years ago. And now, as then, something needs to be done.

We can help by participating in the march itself or by assisting in the equally crucial task of publicising the effort. There's plenty more information on the official website here, on Youtube and on Facebook. Here's Noam Chomksy giving his usual informed and perceptive analysis of the issue, and here's a rather more modest effort from me: one of my blog posts from during the Israeli assault of January this year which hopefully conveys some sense of the sheer cruelty with which Israel continues to treat the Palestinians, with the connivance of its allies in London and Washington.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Boycotting the Israeli occupation


Here's a report from The Real News Network on the boycott campaign against Israel's illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, and here's an article by Naomi Klein on the same subject.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

James Bond and the corporate view of human nature

Someone on a discussion forum I contribute to asked how the commercial entertainment industry serves or subverts corporate power. This (with a couple of subsequent tweaks) was my answer.


The mass entertainment industry rarely offers much in the way of political subversion (though bits and pieces do get smuggled through, if you look closely), but it can provide us with insights into how the corporate world sees the views and values of ordinary people. Here's an example.

The last James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, involved MI6 agent Bond and a CIA counterpart rebelling against their respective spy agencies to counter a coup against the Bolivian government. The coup was aimed at the eventual privatisation of that country's water resources. This is closely related to real life events, as the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole points out in an excellent piece here. The current left-wing administration in Bolivia is the latest in a long line of progressive South American governments to have been covertly undermined and plotted against by local business and military elites, often with the connivance of Washington. Its a story being played out right now in Honduras. The QoS scriptwriter is obviously familiar with recent South American politics, including the Cochabamba protests against water privatisation in Bolivia, which are alluded to in the plot.

Now James Bond, for all his ostensible devil-may-care individualism is probably the least subversive of all movie characters. So why choose a cause celebre of the international left for his latest mission, and play it in such an eyebrow-raisingly sympathetic way?

The Bond film franchise is a major one, geared to making big bucks on the basis of judging its audience correctly. I would suggest that plenty of people in the entertainment industry understand that there is an awareness amongst the general public - and, more importantly, a disapproval of the fact - that western governments, corporations and intelligence agencies engage in this sort of behaviour in places like Latin America. (Quantum of Solace is far from the only film/tv show in which the state, the CIA etc are the bad guys. Even our own Dr Who and Torchwood have occasional elements of that). The producers of the Bond film calculated that a plot which played to these views would find favour with audiences and make money at the box office.

Film producers take such assessments of the mood of the masses seriously, because getting those calculations right is how they make themselves rich. Active support for the likes of Evo Morales may be in short supply in the West, but the plot selection of the Bond producers suggests that those who make their fortunes understanding the moods of mass audiences know that there is a widespread passive sympathy for causes of this kind: people are aware that right wing US governments try to overthrow or subvert progressive third world governments; and they don‘t like it.

If this assessment of the public mood is correct, then that's very encouraging news for people on the left. It suggests that if we go out there and make the case against US imperialism to the average apolitical person on the street, we may well find a surprisingly receptive audience.

You can take a similar, broader message from advertising. Very rarely does an advert simply tell you the features of the product and the price. Instead, elaborate attempts are made to associate the product in your mind with things like freedom, happiness, fulfilment, love/sex etc etc. The material product itself isn't something we're that interested in, so the advertisers have to hitch it on to something we really value. I don't care particularly which broadband/telephone package I use, but if I'm encouraged to associate BT's product with a happy home and love life then its understood that this will appeal to me far more than the material item itself. Thus are natural human needs and energies diverted down the dead end of consumerism.

Corporate bosses - when in the realms of political debate - never miss a chance to tell us that human beings are driven by greed and self-interest, requiring ever greater rewards to motivate us. See the recent justifications for the return of massive bonuses for the incompetant leaders of the discredited banking industry. But the real corporate assessment of human nature is revealed in the way that profit-making institutions try and sell their products to us. Those communications give us good reason to believe that corporations understand human beings to value freedom, love, empathy for our fellow people and other loftier concerns above shallow material enrichment.

Mass entertainment and other corporate forms of communication may not be subversive in and of themselves, but they can unwittingly provide glimpses into how our own natures contradict, and are capable of subverting, the values of the corporate system.

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A Manifesto

Me and a few others are involved at the moment in putting together a new political website to take over where the late lamented UKWatch left off. Here's something I've drafted for the 'about' section of that website to explain what we're....well.....about.
'New Left Project' is a working title that we may or may not stick with. The site should come online in the autumn.
About the New Left Project
The New Left Project takes as its starting points:
  • First, a belief in the value and equality of human life;
  • Secondly, an endorsement of the fundamental rights that flow from this (as set out for example in the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights); and
  • Thirdly, the view that those rights are best honoured by cohesive, co-operative societies based primarily on collective and democratic social organisation and run on the principle of economic and ecological sustainability.
The New Left Project takes the view that the political economy of Britain is - in common with much of the rest of the world - characterised by the undue influence of various concentrations of socio-economic power. The disproportionate influence that these institutions, corporations and elite groups of individuals wield over how our societies are governed elevates the goals of power and profit over the principles of human equality and freedom. Wars, poverty, inequality, potentially catastrophic damage to the Earth's climate, and other unacceptable constraints and denials of human freedom, rights and welfare are largely caused by these fundamental imbalances in the distribution of political, social and economic power, both in individual societies and across the globe.
We are conscious of the fact that, to the extent that progress has been made over the course of history in addressing power imbalances and challenging injustice, these successes have been won by popular political action, rather than being handed down by the powerful as gifts. The end of the Atlantic slave trade, voting rights, women's suffrage and the defeat of Apartheid all came for the most part as the result of individuals organising together, campaigning and articulating the case for progressive change.
With this in mind, the New Left Project seeks - via this website - to contribute to and facilitate broad-based campaigning for progressive political change, in line with the values, beliefs and opinions set out above. We will engage with as wide a range of issues as our knowledge and resources will allow; from climate change, to economics, foreign affairs, and many others. Our focus will reflect the fact that we are UK-based, but also that we recognise and value the long-standing internationalist tradition in progressive politics.
We will produce original analysis and comment pieces. We will work to spread useful information and ideas by drawing attention to books, articles, video and events that we believe will inform and interest our readership. We will facilitate debate and conversation between people who broadly share our views and beliefs, with the aim of aiding the development and improvement of progressive politics. In all these activities our goal will be to achieve and maintain a high standard of productive, thought-provoking and informative discussion at all times.

In this way, the New Left Project hopes to make its own contribution to the efforts that are being made by millions of activists in countries across the world to challenge economic injustice, environmental damage, war, imperialism and human rights abuses.


Thursday, July 02, 2009

Israel defends itself against children's toys by arresting a Nobel Peace Prize Winner

The bravery of the Israeli armed forces reached new heights this week as a boat delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza - including medical supplies and children's toys - was captured and its passengers and crew - among them former Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, and 1977 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mairead Maguire - were arrested. They are still being detained in Israel.

The International Committee of the Red Cross earlier this week described the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza as people "trapped in despair" as a result of Israel's blockade. Obviously its vital for Israel's self-defence that Gazans don't get medical aid and their kids don't have toys.

More on the Free Gaza boat here.

Elsewhere, Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, has an excellent op-ed in the LA Times in which she cuts through some of the crap regarding the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" and locates the bottom line:

"The debate over Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories is often framed in terms of whether they should be “frozen” or allowed to grow “naturally.” But that is akin to asking whether a thief should be allowed merely to keep his ill-gotten gains or steal some more. It misses the most fundamental point: Under international law, all settlements on occupied territory are unlawful. And there is only one remedy: Israel should dismantle them, relocate the settlers within its recognized 1967 borders and compensate Palestinians for the losses the settlements have caused."

Read the whole article here.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gaza, Sri Lanka, and 'whataboutism'

Criticism of the well documented atrocities committed by Israel towards the Palestinians, most recently in Gaza early this year, is often greeted by a chorus of 'whataboutism' from the Israeli state's apologists. "You complain about Gaza, but what about Sri Lanka / what about Burma / what about ...." and so on.

'Whataboutism', as I understand it, was a propaganda tactic pioneered by the Soviet Union. You'd challenge a Kremlin official with the abuses carried out by the Red Army in Afghanistan, for example, and he'd pause for a moment, shuffle uncomfortably, and then say..."what about what the Americans are doing in Nicaragua?"

Its instructive that Israel, always keen to portray itself as a vibrant liberal democracy, uses the same propaganda tactics to divert attention from its abuses as one of the great dictatorial meat-grinders of the 20th century: the USSR.

When the alleged inconsistency of people talking less about Sri Lanka than they do about the assault on Gaza is raised, you get the strong sense that a form of consistency these people would be happy to see is us shutting up about both Israel and Sri Lanka, rather than talking about both. The main thing is that we shut up about Israel. The argument that Israel is the beleaguered peace-seeker, beset on all sides by demented brown savages, is one the Zionists are well on the way to losing in the Western world, and this is a huge inconvenience for them which they will try anything to get around. Hence, 'whataboutism'.

But how to answer this charge of inconsistency? Well, to begin with, it ought to be obvious that the main reason we need to focus on Israel-Palestine is because of our own responsibilities. Britain offers strong backing for Israeli atrocities, for example as I described here in the case of the Lebanon war of 2006. We're collectively responsible for what our government does whether we voted for it or not, campaigned against it or not, so by simple extention we bear a share of collective guilt for the plight of the Palestinians. That's the overriding reason for our involvement. We are not spectators. We are involved.

Another reason we need to campaign especially hard where Israel is concerned is that there's a massive amount of propaganda and disinformation to be dismantled around that issue before its even properly understood. Israel is served by a vast and well-funded PR operation in support of its crimes: PR that's both state-organised and freelance. So you can't just let that pass unchallenged.

A third reason Israel demands special focus is that its repression of the Palestinians fits in to a much broader picture. Western backing of Israel is a component part of our general, harmful influence over the Middle East through autocratic client/allied governments in the region. This (1) results in widespread and severe injustice and repression, and (2) consequentially feeds anger and resentment that can boil over into conflict which affects both the people of the region and us in the West. When you factor in things like the invasion of Iraq, the danger of an attack on Iran, and the continued threat of terrorist reactions to our aggression towards the Middle East in general and the plight of the Palestinians in particular, then the importance of Israel as a major part of that broader picture becomes clear. Challenging Israeli crimes should always come as part of a broader critique of the West's bloody, corrupt and extremely dangerous approach to the Middle East as a whole. Bottom line: the importance of Israel-Palestine is not limited to events within former mandate Palestine.

Juan Cole, history professor at the University of Michigan, today points out a fourth element that distinguishes the plight of the Palestinians from the plight of the Tamils:

"[Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin] Netanyahu said [after yesterday's meeting with Barack Obama that] he did not want to rule the Palestinians. That is an evasion. If he won't give them a state, then they remain citizens of no state and inevitably Israel "rules" them in the sense of making the important decisions about how they live their lives. The Likud Party doesn't want the Palestinians, just their land and resources. That demand is actually what makes the Palestinian issue different and more horrific than other ethnic-national problems in the world. Sri Lanka, which claims to have just defeated the Tamil Tigers, was fighting to keep the minority Tamils (who speak a Dravidian language and are typically Hindus) as citizens of Sri Lanka, which is dominated by Sinhalese-speaking Buddhists. (The conflict is also in part about the wealthier Tamils wanting more autonomy from the poorer Sinhalese, and about a Marxist guerrilla group ironically representing this minority bourgeois demand; i.e. it isn't just ethno-religious. ) As brutal as the Sri Lankan campaign was, it does not leave the Tamils at the end of the day without basic rights of citizenship in a state, which is the condition of the Palestinians- - who are therefore the most oppressed people in the world."

So there's many good reasons for prioritising the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our campaigning.
However, on the basis that we concern ourselves primarily with the things we're responsible for, you could argue that the British left should have engaged a bit more with what's been happening in Sri Lanka recently (I definitely include myself in this). Britain does after all help arm the Sri Lankan government.

This from Mark Curtis' report for Saferworld on UK arms exports:

"The Government has failed to effectively implement its own arms export criteria bypersistently permitting the export of arms when there is the risk that they may be used torepress human rights, for example to Colombia,Nepal,Russia and Sri Lanka"

"In 2006, open licences were granted to a variety of countries with poor human rightsrecords, such as Egypt, Indonesia,Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Turkey. Open licences toNigeria included armoured vehicles, and components for combat helicopters wereauthorised for export to Sri Lanka."

"In 2005 open licences for components for combat aircraft were issued to India, Pakistan,Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Turkey"

According to a recent article by Matt Foot:

"...between 2006 and 2008, £12 million worth of British arms were sold to Sri Lanka. This included components for military aircraft and machine guns"

Foot also describes Britain's historic role in the conflict, so his article's well worth reading.

The Saferworld report says that "the UK has licensed more than £110m of military equipment to Israel under Labour" (i.e. in the 9 years between 97 and 06 when the report was published). That's an average of £12m a year, twice as much as the yearly average sold to Sri Lanka in 06-08 but still, the amount sold to Sri Lanka is certainly not insignificant.

So while its clearly important for us to prioritise Israel-Palestine in our activism - and to recognise 'whataboutism' for the propaganda tactic that it is - I for my part at least think I could have said and done something more about Sri Lanka. And that's probably true of the broader left as well.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

A thought on activism

"If the civil rights movement is 'dead', and if it gave us nothing else, it gave us each other for ever," wrote a young Alice Walker in The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It? - her first published essay. "It gave some of us bread, some of us shelter, some of us knowledge and pride, all of us comfort ... It gave us history and men far greater than presidents. It gave us heroes, selfless men of courage and strength, for our little boys and girls to follow. It gave us hope for tomorrow. It called us to life."

For Rachel Corrie, who died 6 years ago today.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Prospects for peace in the Israeli Palestinian conflict

A few weeks after Israel's brutal assault on the population of Gaza, in which appalling war crimes were committed in defiance of worldwide horror and protest, the formation of a new Israeli government of the hard right now appears close to an inevitability. Meanwhile, a recent study shows that Israeli public opinion is becoming increasingly extreme in respect of the conflict with the Palestinians, being "characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering" (quoting Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz's summary of the study). In these unpromising conditions, where Israel appears to have no interest in world opinion, international law, or commonly accepted standards of human decency in its relations with the Palestinian people, what are the prospects for peace? How do we get from a position of Israeli intransigence, rejectionism and extremism to the destination of a viable and sustainable peace settlement?

The Greek historian Thucydides famously said that "The strong do what they please while the weak suffer what they must." That remains as much a truism of politics and international relations today as it did at the time of the Peloponnesian War, of which Thucydides was writing.

Israel is able to do what it pleases because - as a regional power -
it is backed to a truly extraordinary extent by the greatest power on earth: the United States. Israel has received vast amounts of direct aid and military backing from the US for the better part of 4 decades, it gets an automatic veto against any UNSC resolutions against it, courtesy of Washington, and the "honest broker" in its "peace process" with Israeli-approved Palestinians is none other than its US patron (and, indeed, lawyer)

Because it is underwritten by the greatest military power of all time, Israel has almost no restraint on its actions, Talk of military threats to Israel - to its existence , no less - are palpably ludicrous. It can invade who it likes, kill who it likes, repress the Palestinians to its heart's content,
steal their land, starve their children and massacre them with total impunity. Other states attempting to indulge in such behaviour would soon meet the limits of their power. But because Israel's military, diplomatic and economic power is only limited by that of America, it is able to thumb its nose at the world, and do as it pleases.

The only threat Israel faces as the result of its 60 years of colonial aggression has been terrorist atrocities from Palestinian militants enraged by the theft of their homeland. But since Israel continues to behave in a way that all sane persons understand is guaranteed to create terrorists, we must conclude that it, and its US benefactor, have decided that terrorism is a price worth paying for strategic domination of the Levant, and the broader Middle East.

The answer to the question of 'what is to be done?' is therefore reasonably clear. It is for the US to make its support for Israel conditional on Israel's compliance with international law. For that to happen, a popular, grassroots political campaign will have to take place in the US to pressure Washington to alter its line. Recall that in the 1980s the US and UK were very reluctant to remove their backing from apartheid South Africa, which was playing a similar strategic role on behalf of the US in its own region. To the extent that this support was withdrawn or diluted, and to the extent that this in turn helped to precipitate the end of apartheid, this occured largely as the result of a political campaign got up by ordinary people.

The role of the concerned public in other countries is peripheral, but not insignificant. Britain should certainly end all military sales to Israel immediately, as
Amnesty International has urged, not least since complicity in Israeli war crimes has its own legal implications. Further action, beyond that minimal level will help raise the issue, globally, of how to restrain the rogue state Israel, and thus help those calling for a sane Israel policy in the United States.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, at root, not very complicated. It is a conflict between a nation built on ethnic cleansing - Israel - and a people - the Palestinians - who were ethnically cleansed from their homes when that nation was built and who are still denied their right to self determination by their tormentors. The solution is for Israel to hand back the land it illegally occupied in 1967 so that two states for the two peoples can be established, with any adjustments to those 1967 borders being mutual, very minor, and certainly not denying the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem, the essential component part of any new Palestinian state.

Last autumn in the UN General Assembly the world's nations voted
164-7 in favour of a settlement based on this formula: i.e. on Israeli compliance with international law. In the rejectionist camp were Israel, the United States, Australia, and four South Pacific island nations. Iran was one of the 164 who voted in favour. The Arab states, including the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, have been pushing for a specific peace initiative on this formula for many years. Even Hamas, in May 2006, joined with the other Palestinian factions in signing up to a National Conciliation Document calling for a Palestinian state on the legal, 1967 borders, in accordance with the repeated statements of leading Hamas officials in recent years.

The likely basis for peace is therefore almost universally understood, and is available to be explored and built upon. Israeli rejectionism is underwritten and only made possible by US rejectionism. It is for the US public to try and change this, and for the rest of us to do what we can to help them.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Israel revealed

“The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”

Moshe Yaalon, Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, 2002



Below is a report from the UK’s Channel 4 news last week on just one of the many atrocities perpetrated by Israel’s armed forces in Gaza.

Metres from an Israeli military position, four starving children too weak to stand, sat in the ruins of a house amongst at least twelve decomposing corpses, some of them the children’s mothers. For four days the Israelis prevented Red Cross ambulances from rescuing the children. Eventually, ambulances were allowed into the neighbourhood, but the Israelis would not clear a path so that they could access the scene itself. Red Cross medics then had to resort to removing the children by donkey cart, whilst the Israeli soldiers looked on.

In what looks like an effort to provide a dictionary definition of chutzpah, Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev tells Channel 4’s reporter Alex Thompson, when questioned about this, that Israel “wants to work closely” with the Red Cross who, he generously concedes, play “an important role”.

Watch this video, in particular, for Regev’s smirking defence of Israel’s actions. Thompson is clearly stunned by what the Red Cross has told him, and demands of Regev “in the name of humanity, what is Israel doing?”. It is moments like this when the mask slips, and the reality of Israel’s contempt for Palestinian life is laid bare. Remember Regev’s performance here next time you see an Israeli military spokesperson on the TV news, or read an newspaper op-ed by one of Israel’s many apologists in the Western political class. These people will say anything. No atrocity is too gruesome for them to defend.



Since I’ve not posted for a week, lets just quickly remind ourselves of the basic facts regarding Israel’s attack on Gaza. Regular readers will excuse a bit of repetition from previous posts.

Israel claims that it is acting in self-defence, responding to rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. This is a flat-out lie.

There was a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas starting in mid June which Hamas maintained and Israel breached at the start of November, sparking the current round of violence. As Gareth Porter notes here, Hamas made moves to reinstate the ceasefire in mid-December, which were rejected by Israel.

“The interest of Hamas in a ceasefire agreement that would actually open the border crossings was acknowledged at a Dec. 21 Israeli cabinet meeting -- five days before the beginning of the Israeli military offensive -- by Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's internal security agency, Shin Bet. "Make no mistake, Hamas is interested in maintaining the truce," Diskin was quoted by Y-net News agency as saying.”

Porter also describes how Israel entered into the original ceasefire in bad faith, never intending to honour its conditions in respect of easing the siege of Gaza even though it knew that this would probably lead to further violence. Hamas, by contrast, worked hard to keep the ceasefire in effect, until Israel finally sabotaged it with the attacks of 4 November.

No Israelis were killed in the months leading up to the beginning of its all-out assault on Gaza, on 27 December 2008. In “response” to no deaths and a ceasefire, Israel launched a war of aggression in which it has, as of this morning, slaughtered (I use the word deliberately) 1038 Palestinians and wounded 4850. Of the dead, over 300 are children and 76 are women. Of the injured, 1,600 are children and 678 women. Many of the rest are ordinary police and municipal workers, not militants belonging to the armed wing of Hamas or any other group.

As a number of legal experts point out in this letter to The Sunday Times, and as George Bisharat, professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, writes here, Israel is not acting in a way that can be justified or legitimately described as self-defence. Israel is committing aggression, the gravest of all international crimes


As I noted in earlier posts on the assault on Gaza, Israel has mounted a huge propaganda effort – through its ministries and embassies, but also through ostensibly independent advocacy groups and bloggers - to win the battle for global public opinion and secure the support or acquiescence of the world’s governments while it carries out its attacks. But this is now unravelling, as it was bound to. The dissonance between the pious ‘what-would-you-do?’ refrains of Israel’s apologists and the bloody reality of its actions is simply too wide to bridge.

Today, the Israel military attacked the compound of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), with white phosphorus shells. White phosphorus is a particularly nasty chemical weapon that burns the flesh down to the bone, and which Israel had already been dropping on the crowded refugee camps of Gaza. UN officials expressed outrage at the attack, and poured scorn on Israel’s defence of its actions. In my view, it is near-impossible to portray this as an Israeli mistake, given that the compound is a well-known location in Gaza clearly marked with blue UN flags. John Ging, the head of UN operations in Gaza, told al-Jazeera television: "This is going to burn down the entire warehouse … thousands and thousands of tonnes of food, medical supplies and other emergency assistance is there." Elsewhere, reports emerge of the Israeli military shooting at fleeing civilians, including those waving white flags.

The word you’re looking for is ‘sadistic’.

Serious moves may now be made the United Nations to bring Israel before the international legal system. There is talk of referring its recent actions to the International Court of Justice, or even for ad-hoc tribunals to be set up, similar to those that dealt with the large-scale crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The Lancet, one of the world's best-known and most respected medical journals, has published an editorial strongly condemning Israeli for committing "large and indiscriminate human atrocities".

The European Union, is backing off from moves to strengthen its ties with Israel, with the patience and ingulgence of the European political class being tested to the limit by Israel’s barbarity. Even Israel's closest friends in Europe are horrified by its actions. This from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

“A few days ago, I met a European ambassador stationed in Israel. The man, a great friend of Israel, launched an emotional monologue and spoke from the bottom of his heart.

"Make no mistake," he said. "I understand why you embarked on the operation in Gaza, and many of my colleagues also understand and even support it, but a few days ago you started to cross red lines."

The ambassador continued, reiterating his support and his love for Israel. "We too would like to damage Hamas, we too would not sit by quietly if they were firing rockets at us," he said. "It was clear to us that innocent people would be hurt in any operation in Gaza, and we were prepared to accept that up to certain limit, but in the past few days it seems that your action is getting out of control, and the harm to civilians is tremendous."

The straw that broke the camel's back for that ambassador was the Red Cross report from Gaza that small children had been found wounded, near the corpses of their mothers, under the ruins of their homes, and other reports of civilians on the verge of dying in places ambulances could not reach because of the fighting.

"The international organizations in Gaza are talking about 200 dead children," he said. "I don't know how to explain these things to myself, never mind to my government," added the ambassador. "Your action is brutal and you don't realize how much damage this is causing you in the world. This is not only short term. It's damage for years. Is this the Israel you want to be?"

A similar message also came across in a conversation that President Shimon Peres had with the delegation of European foreign ministers who came to Jerusalem a week ago. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union Commissioner responsible for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, said to Peres: "You have the right to self-defense, but what is happening in Gaza is beyond all proportion. I am telling you, Mr. President, Israel's image in the world has been destroyed."” [my emphasis]

A degree of anger was even expressed in a parliamentary debate here in London. Britain is one of Israel’s strongest supporters (and its role in this conflict is something I intend to write more about presently). Israel is also alienating Turkey, possibly its closest ally in the region. And even the US media, famous for its incredible bias in favour of Israel, is discovering an at times strongly critical voice.

Note that these are friends of the Israeli government, not its enemies or even its critics. Presumably the aim of Israel’s PR campaign over Gaza was to extend or at least consolidate support. In the event, not only is opposition ignited worldwide but pre-existing support is evaporating, for the simple reason that its very hard to spin your way out of responsibility for mass murder.

The fact is that for a great many people, the bloodshed of the past three weeks will have gone a considerable distance towards clarifying matters where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned. It is now plain, were it not already, that the problem is not Hamas or Islamic Jihad, represhensible though those groups are. The problem is Israel: its government, its military, its political class, and its transnational supporting cast of propagandists. It is Israel that is responsible for the vast majority of death and destruction in the conflict. Israel that is the aggressor. Israel whose limitlessly cruel and flagrantly illegal occupation of Palestinian land creates the conditions in which terrorism is bound to flourish. The case for Israel, of a peaceful state that goes to war only in self-defence, is now shot to bits. It has no credibility, and neither do those who peddle it, not least since these people have spent the past three weeks treating us to the ugly sight and sound of their apologias for the slaughter of innocent people (large numbers of children included).

Condemnations of Hamas and attempts to divert the blame for the conflict onto the Palestinians will ring increasingly hollow as the public mind recalls the sight of dying children on the TV news, of attacks on aid facilities, of the indiscriminate bombardment of a million and a half people trapped in an open air prison. To those remaining few who could not see it, Israel has now revealed itself. The callous, racist mindset that conceives of these atrocities is the mindset that the Palestinians have been up against for over 60 years; something that may now be a little better understood. I suspect that the Israeli government has made a profound impression on world opinion since 27 December 2008, but perhaps not the one it was aiming for.


For more analysis, I could make no better recommendation than Professor Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; by far the most informed and insightful analyst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past several decades. Follow this link to hear him speaking about the current situation.


I’ll finish by reiterating a point I've made several times previously (so again, apologies to regular readers). You’re not obliged to simply watch these events unfold. There are practical, small things you can do which, when combined with the individual efforts of many others, add up to something significant. The first of those is donating money to the relief effort. This is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, and its entirely man-made. The world’s top aid agencies are trying to get food and medical supplies to the victims of Israel’s bombing, and you can rely on them to make best use of whatever amount you can afford to give. You can donate to Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, CAFOD, or any aid agency you prefer. Those NGOs are also good sources of information on the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The other thing you can do is protest. Israel is making every effort to win the PR war, and public protest can undermine that, thus increasing pressure on Israel to bring its murderous actions to an end.
Demonstrations large and small continue throughout the UK - there may well be one near you - and, if you’re not resident in Britain, I’m sure the anti-war groups in your country have their own campaigns in action.

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