/ 21 July 2005

Britain ‘insults its people’

I am writing from London on the day that Muslim leaders meet Prime Minister Tony Blair in Downing Street to discuss a response to the London blasts. I wish them well — I still await a satisfactory response to a letter I sent last year enquiring about the number of Iraqi civilians killed by coalition forces since the invasion of Iraq in April 2003. So, if I cannot reach Mr Blair in London, I shall try you, his staunch ally and representative in my home country, South Africa.

You have much on which to be congratulated. Two things stand out: your historical appointment as the first black member of the British Cabinet in 1992 and, more recently, your political appointment to the office of British High Commissioner to South Africa — “political appointment” because you were appointed by Blair in a move that dismayed senior British diplomats. It is customary for the Foreign Office to appoint experienced and professional career diplomats to such positions. When you first became an MP in the London constituency of Brent South in 1987, you famously declared: “Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto.” It must be fulfilling to have such a prophetic wish so handsomely rewarded.

Yet, at the time of your appointment, a former head of the British diplomatic service Lord Wright of Richmond wrote in The Guardian of June 17 that he “would be extremely concerned if appointments of this sort were to become the thin edge of a potentially serious wedge”. He said it would be dangerous for Britain to follow the example of the United States, where political appointments to senior foreign service posts is routine and where, as in the case of the invasion of Iraq, “the professional diplomats are deliberately excluded from the consultation and planning process”. In Iraq, the disastrous consequences of their exclusion and the war itself are playing themselves out everyday — a Sunni/Shia civil war in all but name.

Lord Wright also said he hoped that appointments like yours would “continue to be regarded as the exception. At a time when [the United Kingdom is] about to assume the presidency of both the European Union and the G8, the need for experienced, professional and objective advice from our diplomatic missions and from the Foreign Office at home has never been greater.”

I do not wish to call into question your professionalism or experience. It is your objectivity as a firm supporter of Blair, your judgement and the consequences of your decisions as MP and Cabinet minister that I wish to interrogate — which brings me to a third reason for congratulating you: the war in Iraq and the “war on terror”, both of which you supported ardently as your voting record demonstrates:

  • The prevention of terrorism Bill (third reading) — February 28 2005. MPs voted on an amendment to make all control orders at the discretion of a judge. You voted against the amendment and the motion was defeated.
  • Amendment to government Iraq motion — March 18 2003: MPs voted on an anti-war amendment. You voted against the amendment and the motion was defeated.
  • Anti-war amendment in the Iraq debate — February 26 2003: MPs voted on an amendment tabled by MPs Chris Smith and Douglas Hogg in which they argued that the case for military action was not yet proven. You voted against the amendment. As things turned out, Smith and Hogg were right. The amendment that could have prevented if not the war itself, then Britain’s participation in it, was not carried.
  • Home Office anti-terrorism legislation — November 21 2001: MPs voted on a particularly detestable Bill giving the government the right to detain foreign terrorists without trial. You supported the Bill and in so doing voted in favour of the same kind of legislation that blighted apartheid South Africa for decades. “Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto.” I think we should let Soweto decide.
  • International action against terrorism — November 1 2001: rebel MPs voted against the government’s backing for US-led air strikes on Afghanistan. You voted in support of the strikes. The motion was lost.

And so the “war on terror” rolled on, and you voted for it. It is lamentable, High Commissioner, that when these crucial decisions were taken you were not inclined to what you are now — diplomacy.

At 10.05am on the day London was attacked, I was one of many commuters evacuated from the number 23 bus as it approached Edgeware Road station, my neighbourhood and the site of one of the bombings. Where were you when London was thick with smoke and the air was torn apart by sirens?

The smoke has drifted now, but the sirens remain. I would urge South Africans to consider how piercing sirens, smouldering resentment and benign political consensus became part of the landscape of Britain. A stifling, wretched atmosphere now chokes open debate. Politicians recite the mantra that terrorism is “an evil ideology” and pledge to “stand shoulder to shoulder to protect our values and way of life”.

On July 18 the leaders of Britain’s three main parties announced that they had “reached consensus” on sweeping new anti-terror legislation that could be implemented within six months. Where was the rigorous parliamentary debate? How wise is rushed, consensual legislation? Those outspoken critics, who warned that military action in Iraq would make London more vulnerable to attack, are muted. And despite a timely report published on July 18 by the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the Economic and Social Research Council revealing the UK to be more at threat since “riding pillion” with the US into war, any suggestion that the responsibility for the attacks on London be laid squarely where it belongs, with 10 Downing Street, is shut down by the government.

The bombers struck London, but blows to those most admirable of British values, open debate and profane dissent, are being levelled daily by your government. A poll published by The Guardian on July 19 shows that two-thirds of Britons believe there is a link between the Iraq war and the London bombings. About 75% of those polled think there will be more attacks in the UK. Your government insulted its Parliament and its people by presenting them with false evidence for war with Iraq. Denying the links between that war and the attacks on London insults them again as they lie maimed and slaughtered on the streets of their capital city.

But however deft the prime minister and his nimble New Labour acolytes are at wriggling from the truth, they must concede that the first ever suicide bombings in the UK took place during Blair’s leadership; that the first ever suicide bombings in the EU took place during Britain’s presidency. It is your responsibility, High Commissioner, to explain to the people of Soweto and South Africa how these shattering events came to be and what your part in them was. I hope you will do so truthfully.

Ishtiyaq Shukri won the first European Union Literary Award for his novel The Silent Minaret