‘They will be treated as traitors’.

August 14, 2007

BBC Radio Five journalist Chris Vallance recently spoke to ‘Mohammed’, an Iraqi former interpreter for the US Marines. I am on the programme briefly, but the key points are made by Mohammed. Listen, please, to what he says, and listen also to the voice in which he says it.

If you haven’t done so already, you should research your MP here, and then write to them, if necessary using these talking points. Every letter to an MP so far has generated an inquiry to the Ministries concerned: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and above all the Home Office.

This is not solely about the 91 translators currently employed by the UK forces in Basra. Even they have not yet been guaranteed their safety despite the increase in media attention- but there are many more Iraqis facing the same threat of a horrible death for their work for British personnel. The Government must grant Asylum rights to any Iraqi who is seriously at risk of being murdered for having worked for this country.

A majority of MPs voted for this war, including such people as Hugh Bayley. They do not now have the right to announce that the price for the war will be paid in the lives of Iraqi workers, left to the death squads because a Labour Government was frightened of losing a few votes on the ‘immigration issue’.

Giving these people asylum is not our only responsibility to Iraqis. But it is the most urgent because these people are being targeted for murder, because of us, right now.

We can’t turn them away: Friday update

August 10, 2007

All new arrivals, sent here by the kindness of Neil ‘The Loony Whom Other Loonies Shun’ Clark, and looking for advice on writing to MPs about Asylum rights for Iraqi employees of the British Army: please go here first.

And now for those of you who have already written to their MPs, we have a number of things.

First, a very important point for all participating bloggers. Dsquared points out: ‘I think the phrase “Iraqi translators” is a bit dangerous, as it allows Des Browne to chew down the number of visas to the 90 people actually employed as interpreters).’

He’s right. This is a danger: not a danger that we’ll lose a point in a comments thread flamewar, but that the Government will get away with conceding Asylum rights to translators only, even if there are other employees or ex-employees (often with poorer command of English) equally at risk from the death squads. 

This is a blog campaign so it’s been completely non-hierarchical, as it should be. But I’ve consciously been avoiding the ‘Iraqi *interpreters*’ slogan, and have been using ’employees’ or ‘refugees’ or similar terms.  

Can everyone involved in the campaign please do likewise: this is not a campaign for ‘translators’, it’s a campaign for Iraqis whose work for the British puts them at risk of murder. ‘Employees’ will do fine. I know ‘The Times’ is talking almost exclusively about translators, but we can do far better than that. Thank you very much.

The most important campaign post of the last week was by Justin McKeating, who has been keeping score of MPs’ replies. Very many thanks to Justin, to whom a lot is owed, especially by me. I wouldn’t have responded the way he did to an email from someone I’d last heard of hurling abuse my way.

The most alarming post was by Tim Ireland. It’s a campaign video, its humour so black that it might have  disconcerted Jonathan Swift. Tim has also provided a button for easy downloading to other blogs and websites: easy, that is, if you’re not a technically ignorant cretin who can’t manage childishly simple business of copying and pasting a little HTML, which explains why there’s no button in this page.

The letters are getting results- MPs are referring the matter to the three Ministries concerned, the Home Office, the FCO and Defence. There’s been only one really poor piece of Government apologetics, from Hugh Bayly (Labour, City of York) – and Peter Sanderson’s letter back to him is a model of courteous but determined disagreement.

If you haven’t done so, write a letter. This was quite probably a policy of which neither the new Prime Minsister nor the new Home Secretary was really aware. The more light is shone upon it, the more they are going to recoil, disgusted, from its actual and potential consequences.

On the campaign itself: people are starting to take notice, and that brings its own problems. But let’s have a little perspective here.  What the hell are our problems to that of the average citizen of Basra, let alone one targeted for torture and assassination?

True, we might not like the sight of this or that politician, of whichever party, vocalising on our Nation’s sacred honour. We might not like The Times, which has run article after article on this matter. We might not like some of the bloggers who have written on this subject- many of whom, incidentally, have the best of reasons to dislike me. So what?

This isn’t about us. It’s about men and women hiding with their families in Basra, praying that the death squads don’t find them. We have to welcome anything that makes it harder for the Government to allow these people to be murdered.

There are two clear dangers for the translators now. One is that a decision on flying them here gets delayed by inter-departmental wrangling between the Home Office, desperate to keep the brown-skinned hordes away, and the MoD, whose civilian heads must be increasingly aware of the fury of the field commanders in Basra who are unwillingly following their orders to abandon men and women whom they know to be at risk.

The other danger is that the Government takes a Blairite line: when reality sucks, manage the perception. They might- they just might- decide to admit only a few dozen of the staff who have worked with British forces, concentrating on those who have been or might be in contact with the British media. This would be strategically foolish and morally disgusting.

Asylum rights must be given on the basis of need, to all those whose work for this country makes them likely targets of the murder gangs. Cases can and must be assessed rapidly- the best people to do so would be Army officers with experience of Iraq, liaising closely with MI5 officers to allay Home Office fears of jihadist penetration.

The Government may want to try a news management strategy, but this news won’t be managed.  The interpreters and other workers for UK forces have British friends: principally soldiers and foreign correspondents. They’ll know if the Basra death squads aren’t deprived of all their targets- and so, in short order, will we.

If a few high-profile cases are flown out of Iraq while others are left to the tender mercies of the Sadrists, Brown and Jacqui Smith will not be forgiven. This isn’t Brown’s policy, it isn’t Smith’s. It was implemented by Home Secretary John Reid under the Premiership of Tony Blair. Brown and Smith have a chance to show that they are better than Blair and Reid. If they know that they are under public scrutiny, they will be better placed to ignore the voices arguing, Alistair Campbell-like, for a strategy that manages the news at the expense of a few nameless Iraqis.

Write to your MP: this campaign hasn’t worked yet, and if it fails people are going to die needlessly and horribly.

Lunatic fringe update: What a piece of luck: the fruitcake’s fruitcake writes his fruitiest ever article attacking us! All we need now is the principled opposition of Nick Griffin.

Seriously, if the word can be used to anyone who has just attempted to read an effusion by Neil Clark: can everyone and anyone commenting on the CiF piece please include a link to a blogpost with the talking points for a letter to MPs? Link to any blog that does so, but CiF really did the dirty on us when they posted Dsquared’s article at 7pm on a Saturday. Now that we’ve got a high-profile article, thanks to dear Mr Clark, we’ve got to use it.

We can’t turn them away: responses from MPs

August 5, 2007

Skip the first paragraph if you already know about the campaign- otherwise read on. The British Government is currently denying entry to the UK to Iraqis  whose lives are threatened for having worked for British diplomats or soldiers. Some have already been murdered: many others have fled their homes and are trying to survive as refugees in Syria or Jordan, where they are turned away from British embassies. A number of bloggers, including myself, regard this as unacceptable. As a first step, we’d like our readers to write to their MPs, perhaps using the talking points laid out here. Some of the articles detailing what is happening to these Iraqis are here,  here, here, and here.

All of you can read this paragraph, though you’re not likely to enjoy doing so. Piling on the horrors is this article about the fate of an interpreter working for American troops.  Here’s an extract: ‘Living in Baghdad she got one warning note, ignored it, and was gunned down and left for dead by masked men in the alley beside her house just two days later. That was in the Spring of 2004. But May would not die.Whisked to a hospital where her identity as an American translator was revealed, she was declared dead back in her neighborhood for the safety of her family, while in reality she went into hiding.’

And here’s what eventually happened to her, something similar to what has happened to interpreters working for this country: ‘Motherhood is a strong pull though. May would leave the Green Zone fairly often, alone in her car, to go see her children for a few precious hours… While driving through the city to see her kids, May was intercepted and kidnapped by Ansar Al Sunna. Their standard tools are the AK-47, rape, and the power drill (with which they torture their captives, drilling holes through body parts until finishing them off with a drill-bit to the head). The day before the e-mail, the police found the husk of my friend’s body in downtown Baghdad. Ansar Al Sunna had taken full credit.’

Whether you are pro-war or anti-war, the occupation of Iraq was undertaken following a vote by our elected representatives. If people are being murdered for ‘working for the British’, then ‘the British’ must give them refuge.

Physically we are well able to deny these people safety- it is the simplest task to turn them away from our Embassies in Jordan and Syria. Morally, we can only do this if we wish to place ourselves beneath contempt.

Facing up to our specific duties with regards to these people does not excuse us from our wider duties to the Iraqi civilians- or British soldiers- affected by this war. But these current or former employees of Her Majesty’s Government are the people whose lives are now most endangered by our actions in Iraq. Of all our responsibilities, this is the one that must be most urgently fulfilled.

If our Government- if we – can wash our hands of these people then we can, and will, wash our hands of anyone. This must  be remembered by anyone refusing to support this campaign on the grounds that it ‘ignores the other Iraqis’. If you haven’t written to your MP, please do so. And please also take a few seconds to sign the Downing Street e-petition here.

Responses from MPs

Given that I’ll be out of the country for work reasons until the middle of August, I can’t yet share my MP’s reply. Rosie Bell, however, who also took part in the campaign, has done so, and has posted a very heartening reply from John Barrett, Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, which I reproduce below with Rosie’s permission.

Can I please ask all other people who have written to their MPs to either publish their replies on their blogs (and, if possible, let me know) or to email the texts to me, at danhardie.blog@gmail.com? If you want to redact any part of the text (your name, for example) go ahead. Even if you don’t want me to publish the letter, it would be helpful if I could have an idea of what your MP said to you.

There are two reasons for this. We will need, first of all, to see which MPs are sympathetic to this cause. If Government policy has not changed by the time Parliament  returns from the Summer recess, we will need to think about a face-to-face lobbying effort. Secondly, it is possible that MPs may be briefed by their front benches to send with stonewalling replies; some may even attempt to justify the policy. We need to identify these arguments so that they can be knocked down as speedily as possible. Thanks again to all the bloggers and blog-readers who have already taken part in this, and thanks to all those who will do so now.

John Barrett, MP, writing in reply to Rosie Bell:

‘Thank you for your email regarding your concerns about the current situation in Iraq. I voted against the initial invasion for a variety of reasons, however not even those of us who opposed the war could have foreseen just how disastrous the outcome of the invasion would be.

While Saddam Hussein was a fearful tyrant who brutally oppressed his own people, it is difficult to argue that the lives of Iraqi’s have improved for the better since his removal from power.

The plight of translators and other Iraqi’s who are working with British or coalition forces is a very serious issue that I am glad you raised. The job of an Iraqi interpreter has been described as the most dangerous job in world, and with good reason. As you mentioned, those who work as interpreters, translators or administrators for the British and American governments are often at the top of the insurgence hit lists. Once they’re identity has been revealed, it is often impossible for them to remain in Iraq and they are forced to join the approximately 2m Iraqi refugees who have been forced to flee to elsewhere in the Middle East. I believe strongly that we owe a duty of protection to those people who have risked a great deal to help our own efforts in Iraq, and to help rebuild their country.

You may have seen reports last Friday that the Danish government admitted to having secretly airlifted about 200 translators and other Iraqi employees of its troops out of Iraq under an asylum agreement offered to interpreters and aides who worked for Danish troops. As you mentioned US ambassador in Iraq has also called for all Iraqis working in support of the U.S. government to be offered refugee status. I believe the US, UK, EU and other states that have the capacity should provide resettlement programs for the refugees who are most vulnerable and at greatest risk.

The UK government announced on Friday that it was committed to looking after its troops’ Iraqi aides, estimated to number about 700, but reiterated that asylum applications would be considered on an individual basis. Often delays in visa applications are due to UK authorities needed to establish the authenticity of personal details from the applicant.

However, when individuals have been employed by and are working for the UK government, this information should be readily available and the application ought to be speedily processed. I have today written to the Foreign Secretary pressing him for assurances that we will meet our moral obligation to those interpreters and other staff who have done so much to help our own efforts to rebuild Iraq. I will send you his reply when I receive it.

I hope that this deals with the issues you hoped to raise – if you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thanks again for raising this underreported issue.

Best wishes,

John Barrett MP’

We can’t turn them away

July 22, 2007

Since British troops occupied Southern Iraq in the spring of 2003, thousands of Iraqi citizens have worked for the British Army, the Coalition Provisional Authority (South) and for contractors serving UK forces. There is now considerable evidence that their lives, and the lives of their families, are at risk: some former workers for the British have been murdered, and many others have fled to neighbouring countries or gone into hiding in Basra. The British Government, for whom they were ultimately working, has not offered them the right of asylum in the UK. This is morally unacceptable. 

The most detailed recent report, by Jonathan Miller of Channel Four news, notes the murder of 17 translators in one single incident in Basra. It cites the cases of hundreds of others who have fled to a refugee existence in nearby Middle Eastern countries or are in hiding in Iraq.  The British Government response has come from the Home Office, which has suggested that Iraqis put at risk by their work for British troops ‘register with the UN refugee agency’. Other reports provide supporting detail: Iraqis are being  targeted for murder because they have worked for British forces. 

Marie Colvin’s report for the Times of April 8 speaks of desperate former workers for the British Army being turned away from the British embassy in Syria by staff who had orders not to admit any Iraqis. These brave men and women have testimonials written by British officers stating that they are at risk from jihadi violence: and yet we are still refusing to admit them to the United Kingdom.

If you feel that this is unacceptable and that Britain should prevent Iraqis from being murdered for the ‘crime’ of working for British troops, could you please write to your MP and ask him or her to press the Government for action. Updated following good advice: The best course of action is to look up your MP, if you don’t know who she or he is, on this site, and then write and post them a letter. Second best, due to MPs’ technophobia, is to use the admirably-intentioned website ‘Write to Them’ ( http://www.writetothem.com/ ).

Please be courteous when writing to your MP. It would be a good idea to read the reports above, and cite relevant facts. We would suggest that your letter could contain the following points:

  • It is morally unacceptable that Britain should abandon people who are at risk because they worked for British soldiers and diplomats.
  • This country will be shamed if any more Iraqis are murdered for the ‘crime’ of having supported UK forces.
  • Iraqis who worked for British forces should not be told to leave Iraq and throw themselves on the mercy of United Nations relief agencies in Arab countries: these agencies are already being overwhelmed by the outflow of Iraqi refugees, and Iraqi refugees who have worked for British diplomats or troops may well be targeted by local jihadists.
  • There is plentiful evidence that armed groups in Iraq kill the families of those they consider ‘enemies’: for this reason we must extend the right of asylum to the families of those who worked for us.
  • It is entirely practical for this country’s troops in Iraq, and its embassies in neighbouring countries, to take in Iraqis who have worked for us and fly them to the UK. Indeed, there is already considerable anger among British servicemen that Iraqis are being abandoned in this way.
  • This country is large enough and rich enough to accommodate several thousand Iraqi refugees. Denmark has already given asylum to all 200 Iraqis who worked for its smaller occupying force.
  • It does not matter what your MP’s views (or what your views) are on the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. People who risked their lives for this country’s soldiers are now being abandoned by the British Government. Their lives can and must be saved by their being granted the right of asylum in this country.
  • This policy should be implemented regardless of whether British soldiers stay in Iraq or are soon withdrawn. But it must be introduced soon: applications for asylum cannot be processed in a lengthy fashion, as the security situation in Basra is deteriorating rapidly, and delay is likely to lead to further killings of Iraqis who worked for British troops.

If you really do find letter writing daunting, I’d suggest you copy and paste the letter below and adapt it somewhat. But you are strongly advised that the best thing to do is to compose your own letter:

Dear (MP’s name)

As your constituent, I am writing to discover your views on the treatment of Iraqi citizens who are working or have worked for the British Army, for the contractors supporting it, and for the Coalition Provisional Authority in the South of Iraq. In particular, I would like to know if you support the right of these people to indefinite asylum in the United Kingdom. I strongly suggest that they do indeed have this right. They have, by definition, put their lives at risk by the support they have given to British soldiers who were sent to war by a vote of the House of Commons.   

Whether you- or I- supported  or opposed  the invasion and occupation of Iraq is  immaterial. The risk run by Iraqis working for British troops is even greater than that run by the soldiers themselves. British soldiers are now suffering very high casualties in Iraq, and are continuing to serve bravely- but their local staff are obliged to live among neighbours who will, in many cases, be sympathetic to or even belong to the armed groups fighting the British army. We owe these people a clear moral debt. We cannot allow them to be murdered for the ‘crime’ of helping our service men and women.

The most effective way of helping these brave Iraqis is to offer them indefinite right to remain in the United Kingdom. There is plentiful evidence that armed groups in Iraq make a practice of murdering not only their ‘enemies’ but their families too: and for this reason we must extend the right of asylum to the families of those who have worked with us. This policy should be enacted immediately whether our forces stay in Iraq or are soon withdrawn. Applications for asylum cannot be ‘processed’ in a lengthy fashion: the situation in Basra is deteriorating, the ability of British soldiers to protect those that work for them is seriously compromised and any delay is likely to lead to the murder of Iraqis who have worked for the British military. I would appreciate your views on this matter.Yours sincerely

‘Nineteen. Twenty in a few months.’

June 28, 2007

One Friday afternoon this February, I boarded a train to Waterloo from Ash Vale, in Surrey. The country around that route is mainly scrubby and sandy, but the winter sunlight was particularly clear and I enjoyed the view from the windows. At the next stop, Brookwood, a young man got on. He was carrying two heavily packed bags, one a green patrol sack, and was rather obviously a soldier going home on weekend leave.  The carriage was quite crowded and nobody moved their bags for him. They would have been equally inert for any heavily laden youth, I think, not just a serviceman.

I said ‘Some room here, mate’, shifting my luggage, and he gratefully dumped his bags and sat down opposite me.  Wondering if he’d want to talk, I asked him what unit he was in: the Royal Anglians, a line infantry battalion with a tough reputation. He had thick, tattooed forearms, a direct look and blonde hair. I asked him how long he’d been in. ‘Nearly five years. Joined when I was fifteen- I was a Junior Soldier.’ He clearly did want to chat. Are you twenty, then, I asked- he looked terribly young, despite his strong build. ‘Nineteen. Twenty in a few months.’ 

So was he an NCO now, with his experience? I expected him to say he was at least a lance-jack, and was surprised how vehement his answer was: ‘No, couldn’t do that, mate, couldn’t do it.  I mean, having to look out for blokes, and get things right for them, and carry the can, know I’d got things wrong, if they got blown up, if they got shot. Couldn’t do that, can do that for myself but can’t do that for other blokes, the responsibility of getting it right for them.’ He spoke with considerable energy. Once he’d used a phrase it would recur in his speech, a shifting pattern of tics.

Had he ‘done a Telic’ then, I asked. The British Army’s codename for its Iraq operations is ‘Telic’. ‘I have, mate. And in two fucking months I’m off to Afghanistan.’Where was he off to? ‘Helmand, mate. Dunno where exactly. Helmand.’ Soldiers normally call the country ‘Afghan’, or refer to it by its codename, ‘Herrick’. I said I’d heard the Grenadier Guards were down to go to Afghan.

‘Right fuck-up that’s been, mate. The Guards knew they was off on this tour a year ago. Then after 3 Para come back they decide one battalion can’t do the job on its own, they’ve got to send two out together. Two months ago we was told. I’m telling you mate, a real fuck-up.’ He started to stuff more swearwords into his sentences and there was  a little coughing and shifting amongst the other passengers.

So were the Anglians training hard? ‘Fucking hard, mate. It’s gonna be tough out there.’ He was angry about the fucking REMFs attached to the battalion who couldn’t keep up on the runs and the tabs. ‘At the fucking back, mate. First four fucking miles and they’re chinstrapped. How they gonna keep up in fucking Afghan?’

I said I knew a guy who’d been out with 3 Para in Helmand. ‘The Paras are great fucking blokes, mate’- none of the normal regimental rivalry, which surprised me. ‘My theory is the Paras gone out there and fucking had the Taliban, ‘cos they’re shock troops. Hit them fucking hard which they weren’t expecting. Then the Marines have gone out there and gone out after them in the fucking mountains, chased them. And now we’re gonna go out and do this hearts and minds stuff but they won’t fuck with us ‘cos the Paras have fucking shocked them and they don’t want any more of that.’ At the time it struck me as a pretty half-baked theory and only now can I see that he was hoping for a quiet tour.

He talked about people, civilians, in Britain. ‘They don’t understand, mate, don’t fucking understand. You don’t see people who’s fucking shooting at you, it’s not like the fucking movies. People in this country… They don’t understand, mate, people here don’t understand’- and that started to recur in all he said now.

I asked if he was married. ‘Gonna be. Gonna be. Done Telic, gonna do this tour, and I’m out. Six years in the Army and I’m out.‘ This said with even more intensity. I was relieved for him. ‘Going home to my girlfriend now. We’re gonna get married when I get back from Herrick, gonna have kids and all.’

What are you going to do then, I asked? I thought to myself that if he’d been a Junior Soldier  from a technical unit he’d have transferable skills when he became a civilian, but as an infantryman since the age of fifteen he’d have none.  And he’d clearly thought about that: ‘Gonna go back to Iraq, mate. Work Close Protection for one of the security companies.’

I said, cautiously, that I knew some people who’d done that and it didn’t sound like a good deal to me. ‘I’ve got a plan, mate. Work three months in Iraq doing Close Protection: earn what, thirty thousand. Come home to my wife, take three months, go out there another three months, another thirty thousand, then I can get myself sorted.’ He didn’t seem to know what he’d do with this money if and when he got it.

I said, again cautiously, that I didn’t think he’d get 30K for three months work, as he hadn’t been in special forces, whose veterans get the high rates in the security industry. ‘What did your guys say about it?’ I only knew a couple of blokes, I said, but I’d heard people got hacked around, worked from morning to night, didn’t get the protection or the backup or the medical support they’d been sold on. The guys who own the companies were rip-off merchants, some of them. I didn’t say what I wanted desperately to say: You are nineteen and you are about to be sent into a warzone for the second time in your life. Don’t put yourself into war again, don’t do it a third, fourth, fifth time. Don’t wreck yourself. Don’t get yourself killed or come back a mental case. Don’t brutalise yourself further. He looked terribly young, even trusting.

He heard me out on the owners of the security companies,  and frowned: ‘You always get fucked around mate, don’t you?’ I was hoping I’d sown doubts on the subject of mercenary work. ‘Like the Army. They tell you you’re gonna get this, you’re gonna get that. They fuck you around. Whatever you do, you get fucked around.’

I was older and he seemed grateful every time I agreed with him, and answered my questions in great detail. It was shaming to see the politeness he showed me, when I thought of what he had seen and done, and what he was about to see and do, all of it beyond my experience.

We both got off at Waterloo. He shifted one bag onto a broad shoulder, grabbed the other in his left hand and stuck his right hand out towards me. ‘It’s been good speaking to you, mate. Really good speaking to you, and good luck’. Good luck, I said.  He’s in Helmand now, unless he’s been shipped back home on one of the casevac flights.

Southern Iraq: are US troops moving into the ‘British’ zone?

June 20, 2007

This story has been ignored, from what I can see, by every single British newspaper and TV news programme, but if true it is highly significant. Buried away towards the end of a story in yesterday’s New York Times, we learn that American soldiers have been fighting in towns deep in the nominally ‘British-controlled’ part of Southern Iraq.

The relevant passages are (bold added where appropriate):

‘In what appeared to be a separate operation deep in the south near the Iranian border, a ferocious battle between American troops and Shiite militants left at least 20 people dead and wounded scores more, Iraqi and American officials said.

‘The clashes, in Amara and Majjar al-Kabir, a pair of mostly Shiite towns just north of Basra, started early Monday. They were sparked by raids on what American officials described as a secret network involved in transporting “lethal aid” from Iran to Iraq, particularly deadly roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or E.F.P.’s.

‘Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, an American military spokesman in Iraq, said American troops have intensified their focus on finding and dismantling places where those weapons are built, like the towns raided Monday, because the weapons were especially hard to stop at the border. “It’s hard to catch because they are shipped as components, not completed weapons,” he said.

‘According to officials aligned with the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr in Basra, the fighting involved members of Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The battle appeared to be the largest clash with Mr. Sadr’s loosely affiliated gunmen since the start of the new American security plan in February.

‘In addition to the 20 dead, six suspects were wounded and one was detained, officials said. A hospital official said that at least 60 people were wounded. ‘

These towns weren’t on any ‘border’ between American and British forces, so we’re not looking at a case of hot pursuit. The two towns mentioned had a significant British military presence until recently. Amara had a British infantry battalion stationed in the town until 25 August 2006,  and the UK occupation is described in some detail in Rory Stewart’s excellent memoir ‘Occupational Hazards’. Majar al-Kabir is where six British Military Policemen were killed in June 2003, and it too was frequently patrolled by UK forces. Basra, as the NYT notes, is only a few miles from both towns, and – as it doesn’t note- contains several thousand British troops. So why did US troops raid Amara and Majar? 

We can discount the possibility that the NYT invented the story:  a named US Army spokesman is on the record saying that US troops have been fighting in both towns.  It is possible that this was a raid mounted by a joint team of British and US forces, and that the US Colonel forgot, or ‘forgot’, to mention the Brits. But if this was truly an entirely American raid, there are several possibilities, all highly disturbing.

Did the US ask the British to raid targets in the South and get a refusal? Did they then ask for, and get, British military approval for a raid by US forces? Did they simply go ahead and tell the British forces that they would be carrying out the raid? If the British refused to carry out the raid themselves, was this because there were insufficient British troops in the area to do so? Or because they thought that the raid was unnecessary, or would provoke the local civilian population?

If this was simply a raid carried out by a joint force of British and American special forces, then it is another piece of evidence that the war in the South is increasing in intensity, and that what appears to be Gordon Brown’s favoured strategy (remain as an occupier in Southern Iraq, whilst drawing down the number of troops deployed, as a sop to British public opinion) is unworkable: you can’t get away with PR stunts in war, not if the enemy doesn’t want you to.

The other possibilities are even worse: all of them imply that the US military have become impatient with the British conduct of operations in Southern Iraq, and that they have taken matters into their own hands.

 UPDATE: One question I should have asked but didn’t:  is the formal responsibility for military backup to Iraqi government forces in Amara and Majar the preserve of the British after the withdrawal? Or is it in a sort of legal no-man’s land, meaning that there is nothing formally preventing the Americans from moving forces in?  This is the kind of question that seems like legal petifoggery but is actually vital to understanding how armies operate. If the Americans feel that they can’t move into towns near the biggest British base without sparking a major political row, they won’t. If they don’t feel that- and if they think that British troops have been insufficiently aggressive in dealing with insurgents, as a lot of US officers do think- then they will.

The Law Lords and Baha Mousa

June 13, 2007

The Law Lords have ruled that the killing of Baha Mousa in the custody of British troops is indeed covered by the Human Rights Act and that there must be an independent inquiry. Whilst this was the best ruling that they could have made,  it is hardly good news. The Government- and it is the Government, not the hated ‘military’, that must take decisions of this kind- has been dragged to the point it should have reached when Mousa was killed over four years ago.

If a foreign detainee dies in the custody of British troops, we need a full and clear inquiry as soon as possible, and criminal charges must be pressed wherever the evidence merits it. With the death of Mousa, we had a Court Martial four years after the event, which found that one Junior Non-Commissioned Officer (a Corporal, who would normally be in charge of eight soldiers and paid about fourteen or fifteen grand) had kicked, but not killed Mousa, and that no-one else in uniform was to blame for anything at all. This stinks. 

Other aspects of the case probably  stink as badly.  It’s hard to comment in detail, since the dopey British media have not covered the case with any real journalistic assiduity:- op-ed writers on the Guardian and Independent have bleated Mousa’s name as a justification for their own belief that all British soldiers are murderers, whilst the Mail and Telegraph have wound themselves up into a fury over the supposed martyrdom of the most senior officer acquitted by the Court Martial, but we haven’t had any detailed reporting of the trial itself in the newspapers.

But a few facts have seeped out. There has been a disturbing BBC ‘Panorama’ documentary, which seems to confirm my initial instincts. I felt when I first read about the case that a junior NCO could only have killed Mousa if his death had been the result of a beating of an hour or so before he was ‘processed’ as a detainee. The longer he was held, the more officers and Senior NCOs would be involved in controlling his detention and the harder it would be for one junior rank to gain access to the prisoner.  That does not necessarily implicate the Battalion CO of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, Col. Jorge Mendonca, but it does mean that serious questions have to be asked of him and of a whole series of officers below him in the chain of command. ‘Panorama’ made a number of serious allegations against one particular Lieutenant commanding a rifle platoon. I would like to know the roles played by that man’s Company Commander, Company Second-in-Command and Company Sergeant Major, as well as the Battalion Intelligence Officer, and the Brigade Intelligence staff who were apparently present at the time.

One of the arguments offered in defence by the lawyers of Colonel Jorge Mendonca was that a highly questionable policy of ‘softening’ detainees was put in place, against his objections, by higher (un-named) authority. This policy, Mendonca’s defence seems to have argued, was not expected to kill detainees, but some soldiers, having been allowed to beat detainees, ‘went too far’ following the killing of a popular officer, and killed Mousa. Now this is a credible, internally consistent story; one can imagine how it would happen. We need to find out if it actually did happen: either Mendonca is lying when he says it did or the MoD is lying when it says it did not.

If such a policy was in place, who authorised it? If someone in a position of authority ordered British soldiers to maltreat captives, that would be  very serious; and if the civilian politicians in charge of the uniformed military connived at such a policy, for example by not insisting on the highest standards in detainee treatment, that would be more serious still. There has been surprisingly little follow-up on the ‘Independent’s recent allegations that a British Army lawyer, Colonel Nicholas Mercer, quarrelled with the (civilian) Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, over the standards required for the treatment of Iraqi civilians. According to the Independent, which has backed its story with a number of leaked emails, Colonel Mercer argued that Iraqi detainees be treated according to the Human Rights Act, whereas Goldsmith, backed by a number of senior civilian lawyers at the MoD and FCO, argued for what was described as a ‘more pragmatic’ policy. Pragmatic, practical: we need to be very afraid when we hear these terms being applied to interrogations.  

Essentially, the Law Lords’ judgement confirms Mercer’s belief that Iraqi civilians detained by British troops are covered by the Human Rights Act, which has rather more stringent protections than those offered to detained combatants by the Geneva Conventions. (The Law Lords also ruled that another Iraqis who were not detained by British troops but were shot by them or otherwise came into contact with them during the course of patrols were not to be treated according the HRA’s provisions.  Essentially, the Lords accepted that hostile or neutral civilians encountering the British Army on foreign soil were ‘extraterritorial’ but that civilians detained on British bases were subject to all the protections of the law. This opens up another set of questions, about how the Army ought to, and how it does, treat civilians and combatants encountered outside its bases, which we will have to deal with elsewhere.)

If this did happen, it would not be the first time that the military showed a greater attachment to the rule of law than their political masters: in 1972, Ted Heath and his Attorney General instructed the then head of the Army, Field Marshall Sir Michael Carver, that his men could shoot IRA suspects on sight even if they were unarmed, only to have Carver refuse to issue the order on the grounds that it would be unlawful. 

But who knows? Perhaps the senior military really did originate a policy of brutality, with the political leadership blissfully unaware: the Secretary of State for Defence in 2003 was Geoff Hoon, who revealed to Lord Justice Hutton that he had rather a gift for not knowing the policy of his own Department.  Or perhaps this really was a case of the lower ranks, abetted by one or two junior or middle-ranking officers, running amok in the wake of British casualties. We do need to know: which is why one’s heart does not exactly leap at the news that the Law Lords have stated that there must be an independent judicial enquiry.

  My prediction is that this inquiry, like previous ones, will do a fine job at apportioning blame among the lower ranks and see no faults committed by their seniors. This is not entirely bad- several soldiers kicked Mousa to death or connived at his beating, and I would like to see them all serve jail terms, not just one scapegoated thug as at present. But I would also like to learn if there was a deliberate policy of brutality against detainees, and if so who instituted it. Here one can expect the usual veil of ambiguous phrases drawn over the higher ranks. Will lawyers criticise lawyers, when they can find that all wrongdoing was the fault of  some 18-year old soldier from Manchester?

 More generally, what system should be in place to investigate deaths in British custody? We need to realise, first of all, that Mousa’s is – so far as I can determine- the only reported suspicious death in the custody of British troops in over four years of the occupation of Southern Iraq. Given the deaths of dozens of British troops in Southern Iraq in the same period, this is no mean achievement. Any system investigating military actions should probably have soldiers as all or at least some of its investigators: any investigative team consisting entirely of civilian police officers or lawyers would have very great difficulties in understanding the language and procedures of soldiers, whether they were guilty or innocent of any crimes. A Court Martial is the system that soldiers expect to be tried under.  There might be a case for creating a new agency, not the Royal Military Police, to investigate allegations against soldiers. There might be a case for trying cases in civilian Criminal courts, not Court Martials. But we should scrap the investigative role of the RMP, or the judicial role of Courts Martial, only if it could be proved that these institutions themselves, and not their present funding or managerial regimes, or meddling by higher authority, were to blame for the contemptible errors in the Mousa case.

(Parenthetically, the Attorney General managed to get one 22-year old soldier committed for trial at the Old Bailey for the alleged murder of an Iraqi civilian, only for the Judge to throw the case out with contemptuous remarks about the weakness of the case. Why do I link to the Telegraph as a news source for this story? Because the Guardian and the Independent seem not to have found it particularly newsworthy, for unfathomable reasons; the Indy’s in-house right-wing op-ed columnist gave the case a mention but it won’t be figuring too prominently in the writings of Deborah Orr or Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. UPDATE 14th June: Quite untrue with regard to the Guardian, as I should have been more careful to check; apparently true regarding the Independent. My apologies to the news editors of the Guardian, should they read this. The Guardian’s op-ed writers seem not to have let the Kevin Williams trial fiasco upset their cherished world-views, on the other hand.)

Again, we need an Inquiry to tell us why it took over four years to bring charges in what must have been a rather simple case: there were, or should have been, clear records of who was on duty when and who had, or controlled, access to Mousa in the hours that he was killed.  Was there genuine incompetence or the willed variety? Again, any such investigation is going to mean criticism of the higher ranks of the Civil Service, probably the command ranks of the Army, and quite possibly of the Cabinet Ministers set over them, so one shouldn’t hold out especially high hopes of this ‘Independent Judicial Inquiry’ achieving great things.

Put soldiers in the midst of a foreign, partly hostile populace and you will need systems to prevent them killing detainees, and systems to properly investigate such killings if they do occur. This is not merely true but obvious. But, looking upon our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one begins to despair when one sees the ability of this country’s leaders to ignore even the most basic precepts of good sense. 

Mousa and Mendonca

June 1, 2007

 Baha Mousa, a Basra hotel receptionist suspected of storing insurgent arms, was arrested by British troops in September 2003 and died in their custody. A mere 41 months later, a Court Martial of various soldiers was held, including the Commanding Officer of the Battalion which seized Mousa, Colonel Jorge Mendonca. Having since been told that he a) would not and b) would face possible internal, non-criminal disciplinary action, Mendonca has now decided to quit the Army, to the fury of the Telegraph and the Mail.

 1) We don’t know how Baha Mousa was killed and we need to.

We know that Baha Mousa died as the result of being kicked and punched whilst being held in custody by the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.

What we don’t know, because contradictory evidence was brought at the court martial of the soldiers accused of killing Mousa, is whether he was beaten to death as a result of a deliberate policy of maltreating detainees – and if so who agreed on such a policy- or if he was killed spontaneously  by aggressive NCOs and Private soldiers, angered by the recent killing of their comrades by ‘insurgents’ – and if so who the Officers were who could and should have made it their business to know of, and prevent, such maltreatment.

It is entirely possible that the killing of Baha Mousa combined both explanations: if soldiers have been told that a certain amount of maltreatment of detainees is ‘policy’, then all it takes is one or two sadists as the dominant personalities in one infantry section, or one or two men angered by the recent killing of one of their mates, for that ‘certain amount’ of maltreatment to become a matter of kicking a man to death.

This is why the rules against torture have to be as strict as possible and as strictly enforced as possible. Soldiers in Iraq are young men in an entirely foreign environment living in justifiable fear for their lives. Limits on what they can do to civilians and guerrilla suspects are not just there to protect the civilians: they are there to protect the soldiers too.

The British Army has, to its credit, followed this policy with regard to when soldiers may open fire in Iraq and what kind of weaponry they may use. It is right that British troops do not call in artillery or air strikes on crowded Iraqi towns; it is right that British troops are prohibited from firing at anyone they cannot say is directly threatening life; it is right that British troops have no American-style ‘force protection doctrine’ which privileges the lives of troops above civilians. These things are right even if British troops lose their lives as a result; they are right even if the more moronic of their British fellow-citizens are ignorant of the dangers and sacrifices that British soldiers are making. The Army  must follow the same principle with regard to detainees.

 At the original Court Martial, the Prosecution said that the Army had done so. Mendonca’s defence said that he had specifically queried the rough treatment of detainees and been told that some maltreatment was official policy. Someone is lying and we need to know who.

2) The use of ‘war crimes’ legislation was mere window-dressing.

One NCO, Corporal Donald Payne, admitted beating Mousa, though not causing his death, and was convicted under a War Crimes statute. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that his punishment would have been lighter or his conviction less likely had he been charged, as he could easily have been, under the existing British Criminal or Military Laws governing assault and homicide.  There is no reason, therefore, to believe that any deterrent effect was achieved by dragging War Crimes legislation into this squalid affair. Payne committed a crime and deserved to go to jail. But the demand for a War Crimes prosecution that is said to have emanated from the Lord Chancellor’s Department shows, yet again, the genius that this government has for focusing on the inessentials, particularly in matters of life and death.

Of course a British soldier who helps kick a detainee to death should be imprisoned. But the screeching lawyers so obsessed with charging him under their shiny new statute failed utterly, and grotesquely, to investigate the death of Mousa in a full or a timely manner.

3) The length of time taken to investigate and prosecute British soldiers is a disgrace, which hurts all involved in such cases.

It took nearly four years to prosecute the case of a man killed in detention, despite the fact that the soldiers who detained him were known to the investigating authorities, thanks to the Army’s strict record-keeping, and easily accessible for interrogation. This was not, surely, an especially complex case.

Even less complex was the case of the seven paratroopers accused of beating an Iraqi to death, which took over two years to bring to trial and collapsed humiliatingly when six prosecution witnesses admitted lying in their statements, and suddenly discovered that they could not, strangely, remember where they had buried the body of their ‘murdered’ relative. Also un-complex was the case of the tank crewman who fired a machine-gun man assaulting a comrade with a rock, whose shots killed both men: it took over three years to tell him that he would not be facing a trial for murder or manslaughter.

In all three of these cases, British soldiers have been kept waiting for years to find out if they would go to court on homicide charges; and in the Mousa case, at least, this exquisite cruelty was extended to the Iraqi relatives of a man who really had been killed unjustifiably by British soldiers. It is a disgrace that this is happening.

4) The likeliest cause of such delay is the massive underfunding of the Armed Forces in general and the Army in particular.

I would agree with anyone who says that lives may be lost if the Army cannot properly investigate and prosecute crimes allegedly committed by its soldiers, and that, to this end, the military police should be properly funded or replaced. Anyone who says that this must be the Army’s sole or main priority is a fool. Lives are being lost by the despatch of soldiers to Afghanistan with cheap Pakistani-manufactured machinegun ammunition; lives – and many of them will be civilian lives- are likely to be lost by the absurd game of sending out tiny numbers of British soldiers to the Taliban heartlands of Helmand, to be ‘cheaply’ backed up by air and artillery support.

Anyone who has been anywhere near the bases of the British military over the last few years knows the truth: everything is being stripped to the bare bones so that the Government can fight two wars whilst buying a lot of shiny and dubiously useful new weapons systems. The underfunding of military justice is a disgrace, but is of a piece with every single corner of defence policy not linked to big spending on the products of arms manufacturers located in sensitive constituencies.

5) The prosecution of Col. Jorge Mendonca is puzzling, and possibly- but not necessarily- the disgrace it has been painted.

The Mail and Telegraph have alleged in the plainest terms that Mendonca was only prosecuted after criticism of an earlier trial in which private soldiers and Junior NCOs, but not Officers, were tried for the beating and humiliation of Iraqi looters. An officer was to be charged, and Mendonca, say the rightwing press, fit the bill. Maybe, maybe not. It is a little odd, to say the least, that the Commanding Officer of a Battalion was charged and not the officers, and WOs and Senior NCOs, whose had direct responsibility for the men accused of beating Baha Mousa. Were Donald Payne and his cohorts taken from the Intelligence Section, in which case the responsible officer should be the Battalion’s Intelligence Officer, a Captain? From the Headquarters Company, which would have been led by  a Major assisted by  a Company Sergeant Major? Again, we need to know.

If it was indeed the case that the Attorney General- a man who made a deeply dishonest change of mind over the legality of an attack on Iraq at a key moment in 2003- simply ordered the scapegoating of Colonel Mendonca, that would be a serious abuse of power. It would still, though, be less serious than the killing of Mousa, a matter which the ‘Mail’ and ‘Telegraph’ seem rather eager to forget.

6) We need to get out of Iraq. Out, out, out.

There has not been an atrocious British rule in Southern Iraq: we have evidence of no massacres, no mass roundups, no bombings or shellings of densely inhabited areas. The stupider newspaper columnists, and their more credulous readers, will think that all British soldiers are all murderous thugs regardless of the evidence (and at least some of them will come clamouring for ‘military intervention’ by these same irredeemable butchers the next time there is a crisis like Sierra Leone in 2000 or Rwanda in 1994). That is irrelevant.

But many things are more pressing. We cannot fight any war on the cheap, and yet the Government is trying to fight two wars on the never-never. Yes, it is mere conventional wisdom that fighting in Iraq left us unable to fight and rebuild Afghanistan: and conventional wisdom is right.  Britain has escaped the worst of the Iraqi conflict, partly by the tact and discipline of its military- and we can and should say this even in the context of a crime like Mousa’s death- and partly because British forces were located far from the ethnic shatterzones or the concentrations of Sunni rebels.

Now things are changing. The Shi’ites of the South are competing for local power, and they will not stop at non-violent means. The Iranians are, we should admit, the dominant power across most of Southern Mesopotamia, and they are unlikely tolerate the continuing incoherent mix of threats and negotiation from the lame-duck Bush Administration. Nobody knows if it is possible to bring Sadr into an understanding with a stronger Iraqi government, should one improbably emerge. The situation in Southern Iraq is probably now as stable as it will ever get. If British troops are pulled out of Iraq now, they will go with less of their own blood spilled, and less Iraqi blood shed, than will be the case if we stay.

There are things worth fighting and killing for, but giving the Bush Administration time to search for a clue is not one of them. A sensible policy is sometimes the most radical policy: a sensible Brown policy on Iraq would be withdrawal in a maximum of six months. And we are unlikely to see that, since there are simply too many threats that the Bushites will make. 

Brown will not want to see the ‘Aid and Trade for Africa’ agenda wrecked, and Bush is easily vengeful enough and irresponsible enough to threaten that. We will continue to have troops in Iraq, in smaller numbers, with the new Prime Minister hoping that you can be a little bit of a military occupier the same way that you can be a little bit pregnant. We will continue to have insufficient numbers of troops in Afghanistan, while airpower and artillery strikes keep bases secure and kill civilians, and while British ministers vapour about ‘reconstruction’ and ‘allied contributions’.

We are heading for more British military deaths, more Iraqi and Afghan civilian deaths, a certain defeat in Iraq and a probable- and even more serious- defeat in Afghanistan. We are heading into these things with our eyes closed and our mouths open: look out for the first Brown speech about how he refuses to do ‘the easy thing rather than the right thing’ in Iraq.

The killing of Baha Mousa was a squalid and brutal affair, and the failure of all subsequent inquiries invite nothing but contempt.  But wars bring far worse  things than the death of one detainee. Leaving British troops in an ever more unstable war zone, attached to an ally flailing desperately for survival, is to invite more deaths, all squalid and all brutal and all, most importantly,  futile.

‘A Fistful of Euros’ awards

May 23, 2007

UPDATE: The polls are now closed: thanks to all those who voted for me. ‘A Fistful of Euros’ is well worth reading, as are a great many of the blogs nominated in its competition.

‘A Fistful of Euros’ is an excellent group blog on European politics, which is currently hosting the ‘Third Annual Satin Pajama Awards’ for the best blogs in Europe. I’ve been nominated for the ‘Best Writing’ and ‘Best New Blog’ awards.

If you’ve come here from the AFOE link, you’re no doubt worried about getting lost in the huge quantity of posts.  I’d recommend taking a look at this post first- it’s not a bad piece of reportage, as is  this .   Although it risks becoming a fight with another blogger, this post is a reasonable piece of analysis; this post, this one and this are all examples of polemic. Clearly I started out as a calm, open-minded reporter looking for new stories and ended up as a frothing polemicist, screaming abuse at targets he could vaguely remember reading about in the morning paper: not an unusual trajectory for a writer, but it’s quite impressive that I managed to pack it into a few weeks.

I can’t yet say who I’ll be voting for, as I have to admit I’ve only read a small fraction of the nominated blogs. I’ll read as many as I can and update this post with any recommendations.

Ethnic tension and the BNP

May 18, 2007

Daniel ‘Dsquared’ Davies has written an article on what he calls, in Brechtian fashion, ‘The Resistible rise’   of the British National Party, which is witty, intelligent, and much better than his rather shallow original piece on the subject. He also does rather a poor job of explaining what I said on the subject, but that’s okay: so did I. And Dsquared doesn’t rebut my main point at all, though he makes a vague two-fingered gesture at it in his comments thread.

Self-important though this clearly is, it’s time to revisit my earlier post; to rewrite the parts that were unclear and to restate the parts that weren’t. Doing this will hopefully clear the ground for some less self-obsessed posts on the subjects of ethnic tension in England and some awful possible parallels with the recent history of another part of the United Kingdom.

 1) A little humility would be in order from a couple of white, London-based Oxford graduates writing about ethnic tensions in the English Midlands and Northwest

 I don’t like the way I wrote my original post. And I don’t like the way Dan Davies wrote either of his two posts.

 Both of us sound like God Almighty advising the mortals on the mysteries of life, rather than a couple of bright Oxford graduates with interesting but necessarily- given the general lack of knowledge of events ‘on the ground’ in BNP-voting areas, and also given the rather specific ignorance of Messrs Hardie and Davies- somewhat speculative ideas on local politics in places where we don’t live. 

What is missing from both our posts is any sense that it might be a good idea to look for other data, or that the phenomena we’re describing might have multiple causes instead of being due entirely to our favoured explanations.

2) The BNP won’t win many elections or hold many seats, and that isn’t the damn point.

Any confusion on this point is my fault entirely. I had stated perfectly clearly in the post: ‘There will not be a BNP-ruled Britain… the party will never win a Parliamentary seat…’- to which I should add that I’d be amazed if they ever have a majority on a single Borough council, let alone any bigger Local Authority. Then I slapped on the snappy title ‘The Very Real Rise of the BNP’, which does conjure pictures of the BNP winning lots of council or even Westminster seats.

 Chris Dillow, who linked to the post, called it ‘Why the BNP do matter’. That, or ”Why the BNP might be a threat’, or the present title, would have been less punchy but more accurate. The old title was misleading because it implied that the BNP was rising to power by electoral means (which the post said it wasn’t) and also objectionable because of the unshakeable certainty it displayed- which my post, alas, entirely shared.

(Scepticism patch: yes, I might well be wrong that the BNP will never win a council or get an MP elected. But that needs a longer post, and I’m speeding through this point because Dsquared and I agreed on it.)

 3) Elected members of local government have few or no powers to affect peoples’ lives: this is also not the damn point.

Again, clearly stated in my original post: ‘the BNPers can’t or won’t run anything’, with the possible exception of local low-cost council housing, stocks of which are now very small. (Even here they will run up against Race Relations legislation and the permanent local government officers who really run most of the show, to say nothing of the Treasury who provide most of the financing, so even a BNP majority council, should there ever be one, will have a very circumscribed opportunity to favour ‘whites’ in allocating housing.)

As I said, ‘Local voting does count, even if local councillors don’t’. Why do I think that? Keep reading.

4) Signalling by a static population of racists is not really a problem…

Dsquared argues- in the comments to his second post- that if you have 20,000 racists in Blackburn who decide to tell you that they’re racist by voting BNP in largely meaningless local elections, the problem is not that they’ve declared their racism but that they were racist in the first place. Which is where I have to respond that he didn’t read, and hasn’t rebutted, the key point in my original post.

5) …Unless that signalling contributes to a process of ethnic (or ‘racial’) polarisation- and a growth in the racist population.

The key point from my original post: ‘what does a strong ‘white’ vote for the BNP do in a place like Bradford? It sends out a strong signal to Bradford Asians: lots of local whites hate you and you don’t know which ones, so best to treat them all with suspicion or even aggression.’  Further: ‘Voting is a signal even where it doesn’t really affect policy, and voting BNP is a massive signal of hatred towards your Asian neighbours. ‘

In conclusion: ‘the BNP are still a threat, because their presence is both a symptom of and a cause of increasing ethnic polarisation in a number of British regions.’

With all due humility, I’d like to say that that last sentence needs changing:  yes, the vote for an openly racist party is rather clearly ‘a symptom of’ a worrying degree of ethnic tension, but I can’t say whether it succeeds as ‘a cause of increasing ethnic polarisation’. 

 Firstly because I personally don’t know if ethnic polarisation is occurring in areas where the BNP are making a pitch for votes, or in areas where they aren’t. Secondly because I can’t (as yet) find evidence that anyone else really knows this or not. Thirdly because one can certainly imagine other ways of signalling ethnic hatred other than voting BNP, which may be more effective (or just as ineffective) a signal as a vote for Griffin’s shambling crew.

6)  We don’t know if ethnic polarisation is occurring.

 Specifically, my initial trawl of the data suggests that we don’t know very much about whether ethnic polarisation is occurring in the regions of Britain where the BNP gets some votes. More than that, there doesn’t seem to be much of a determined effort to collect such data. There are some worrying but rather ‘soft’ data points indicating that there has been ethnic polarisation in areas which the BNP have found fruitful: the Cantle Report on Bradford is a good place to start. There is some rather harder data arguing that there is considerable ethnic segregation among British schoolchildren: but this is only one working paper and might well, if we all look hard enough, contain considerable flaws, and we don’t know what bearing it has on specifically BNP-targeted areas. This paper argues in a more restrained fashion that internal migration is leading to increased ethnic concentration, but says that the phenomenon needs a lot more study. By contrast, the demographer Ludi Simpson has written a paper arguing that ‘self-segregation’ on ethnic lines is a ‘myth’, singling the Cantle report out for particular criticism. Writers decrying or praising current levels of immigration, or the hard-to-measure ‘integration’, quote whichever of these documents draws conclusions most amenable to them.

Although the links above only scratch the surface, there is a debate on ethnic polarisation and segregation among social scientists like Simpson and local government officers like Cantle. If polarisation is occurring, then the BNP are unlikely to be having a benign effect- but they may well be having only a small malign effect or possibly no effect at all. We don’t know.

7) Daniel Davies and I are worrying about different things

Dsquared argues that the rising vote for the BNP in General Elections, and their winning of (a very small number) of council seats is irrelevant because none of them puts the Party anywhere near the effective exercise of political power: I agree. He also says that the BNP’s electoral success is peaking and any peak is likely to be followed by rapid decline (the first point buttressed by this excellent post on The Gaping Silence) and I think this is very likely true. He finally points out that the BNP’s current membership and electorate probably consists disproportionately of weirdos and marginal individuals: having met a few of them, and also thinking about the social costs incurred at most levels of society by being an open fascist, I again think that this is almost certainly true.

So we agreed all along? No- and this is just stubborn misreading on Dsquared’s part. I’m not worried about these shambling apes taking over the government of the UK or even of any small town. It won’t happen.

 I’m worried about the possibility that they may not just be a signal of non-increasing white racism but a factor in increasing the number of Asians who fear that their white neighbours are racist- and hence opt to separate from the ‘white’ community

8.) Weirdos count in weird situations and small populations can generate big conflicts.

Why am I worried about the BNP- a small collection of marginal individuals believing crazy things about the Third Reich, who have just about managed to win fifty council seats, few of which they will retain?

Short answer: because I have read a great deal of Northern Irish history.  If you look at the towns in the English North and Midlands where large Asian and white working-class populations live near each other, there are just too many similiarities with the Northern Ireland of 1967, just before the most recent bout of ‘The Troubles’ got properly going.  

Northern Ireland had a population of 1.5 million in 1969: much of the Province was quiet then and remained so in the years to come. Ever been to South Belfast? A lovely place, if a little twee.  And yet this tiny population, many of whom never participated in violence in any way, and most of whom rejected extremist politics, generated a conflict which lasted three decades, and killed over three thousand people. A disproportionate amount of the violence came from the Falls and Shankill roads- both of which one can walk up and down in the span of a single afternoon.Is this alarmist? It could be. But consider this. In 1969 the leading racist demagogue in Northern Ireland- the Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley- was unable to win a seat in the local Stormont assembly, and struggled in council elections. The leading ‘loyalist’ terror group, the UVF, murdered three or four people in 1967-69; the IRA managed no killings until they defended the Catholic ghettos in the riots of ’69. Only sociopaths and weirdos attended the meetings of the UVF, or kindred groups like ‘Tara‘.

The IRA existed: as an ineffectual mixture of an Old Comrades Association and a semi-Marxist discussion group. There were areas of segregated housing, but many more streets were Catholic and Protestant families lived alongside each other. In parts of modern Britain- in Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire, in the West Midlands and the East End- the de facto segregation of ethnic communities is comparable and the death toll from terrorist violence, with 53 murdered in London under two years ago, is much higher.

 9) To summarise:

There may or may not be a process of ethnic polarisation in certain areas of modern Britain.  I think that there is pretty good prima facie evidence in three of the links above, but Ludi Simpson’s paper puts the opposite view with considerable force.

But if – if- there is racial polarisation, then we do need to worry about the BNP – and their Salafi  or Takfiri counterparts at work in the Asian communities. Of course there won’t be an elected fascist government or even an elected fascist council in this country. But when large communities live near by each other and find direct communication difficult, the hate-filled messages of weirdo minorities might help increase that polarisation, and turn polarisation into hostility. It has happened: only weirdos wanted violence in Northern Ireland in 1966 or 1967. Two years later, they had their wish, and then violence stopped being the preserve of the oddball fringe. If there is ethnic violence in the streets of your town you may not wish to participate but you cannot ignore it.  

This is what I am worried about: not the elections, but what election results may say to people living in a society which to some extent is dividing on communalist lines. We have seen something rather like this before, and it didn’t turn out well.