A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre

Kim Philby

Kim Philby

A Spy Among Friends is a study of the overlapping careers of three spies from the 1930s to the 60s: the MI6/KGB double agent, Kim Philby; his friend and fellow MI6 officer, Nicholas Elliot, and James Jesus Angelton, the CIA officer who befriended of Philby during the Second World War.

It is an elegantly written narrative, generally compelling, filled with anecdote (not least on some of Pope John XXIII’s resistance activities), and at times chilling, particularly regarding Philby’s betrayals to the KGB, including of German anti-Nazi resistance and of agents that he was personally running. Almost without exception these people were liquidated.

The psychology that could enable a person to commit such casual bloodshed is examined through the frame of Philby’s friendships with, and (less lethal) betrayals of Elliot, Angelton and his wives, all of whom fell for his charm, but never knew the real man.

I found Elliot, Philby’s friend, defender, and ultimately his accuser, though charming, not much more sympathetic than Philby. While loyal to his country and service his complacent class-ridden arrogance was a central feature in his presumption that his close friend Philby must be above suspicion merely because of his class and upbringing. MacIntyre’s research and a brief afterword by John le Carre, who met Elliot on a number of occasions, suggests that, while not treacherous, Elliot’s role in the final unmasking of Philby may not have been quite as honourable as he always maintained.

Overall the book is an entertaining excursion into a slice of Cold War history and a reminder of the perils of unquestioningly accepting the crass arrogance and privilege of the ruling classes.

Good and Bad Practice in eliminating forced labour

Let me start first with a concept, and let me apologise if for some of this is, as we would say in Ireland, stating the bleeding obvious.

Empirical research by Anti-Slavery International and others shows that slavery emerges at the conjunction of three factors individual vulnerability, social exclusion and failure in rule of law.

In Europe those who end up in forced labour tend to be poor women and men who are generally subject to wider social prejudice because of their migratory status, ethnicity, sexuality or indeed because of their particular personal vulnerabilities in the case of substance dependant or mentally challenged individuals.

This reality strikes at the very principles of equality before the law and of rule of law itself in this community of nations.

Let me try to illustrate this with a case that we encountered recently: A group of Polish construction workers came to a police station in England to complain about not being paid and about their working conditions. They did not speak much English and were swiftly turned away as the police deemed this not to be their matter. Another group of Polish workers who worked for the same construction project complained to another police station and were met with the same response.

The workers then decided to ask their families back in Poland for the money to return home.

Upon their return home, they complained to the Polish authorities about their treatment in the UK and about the inaction of the UK authorities. The Polish authorities took the matter up with the UK embassy.

Eventually, following the complaints from the Polish authorities, the UK police investigated the case and ended up prosecuting the recruiter that trafficked the Polish workers in the UK for labour trafficking.

Now there are a number of important lessons from this case:

First this case illustrates the importance of governments acting on behalf of their migrant citizens. It was the intervention of the Polish government here that compelled the British authorities to action. I would argue that there is a universality to this lesson. The remittances of migrant workers across the world are vital for poverty reduction and human development in their home countries. The contribution that migrant workers are making to the countries of their birth indicts their home governments failures to fulfil their international responsibilities towards their citizens. Aside from the moral and legal responsibilities of governments towards their citizens their failure to do more to protect migrants is short-sighted economically as it could help them obtain decent work and hence higher remittances.

This is as true for Asia and Africa as it is for Europe. And, looking a bit beyond our own European borders it would be an important European initiative against trafficking and towards poverty reduction if we were to support financially and professionally the establishment of a more comprehensive system of labour attaches for those migrants who we are seeing most exploited in the countries where there is most exploitation.

Across the Gulf migrant workers speak with envy of their Filipino colleagues whose government attaches some importance to this sort of support for their migrant citizens. That government’s position and that of the migrant workers of other countries would be strengthened if more governments were to act in this way. Perhaps European support to such measures could stem somewhat the bloodshed of vulnerable workers unleashed by FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

The second key lesson from this case is that failure in rule of law often begins when those charged with upholding the law do not know what the law is and what their responsibilities under the law are. If the police in this case had bothered to pick up a phone to obtain a translator and to explore the accounts of the workers against the indicators of forced labour they would have found that they were being presented with an enormous opportunity to deal with something that is explicitly recognised as a major crime in British, let alone European, law.

In spite of the advances of national and European law on forced labour over the past few years there clearly is not yet a general police culture in the UK that appreciates adequately the nature of forced labour and trafficking in a way that they would for other crimes of violence. I suspect this is true for much of Europe and it is certainly true for most of the rest of the world. While there needs to be greater professional police and other criminal justice training to understand their diverse roles and responsibilities towards this crime there is still, particularly in this era of public spending cuts, a need for specialist units to support local efforts and to help lead and develop police and criminal justice policy and practice through example.

However, going back to what I said at the start of these remarks, on the centrality of social exclusion in the sustaining of forced labour in any society. It is wholly without credibility to presume that any police force is going to be immune from the prejudices of the wider society from which they are drawn and to whose elite they report. It is not fanciful to suggest that the police who encountered these Polish workers may have regarded them with some disdain and some may even have felt that their responsibilities towards foreigners in exploitative employment were lesser than those towards locally born citizens.

It is beholden upon leaders across Europe and the world to take active steps to eradicate these sort of prejudices, sanctioning public officials who disgrace their offices by pandering to their bigotries rather than upholding rule of law.This is a matter that goes right to the top: as Roger Plant mentioned earlier today the UK is currently making great claims that it is going to establish a world leading law against slavery. But the same department that is promulgating this law maintains a system for migrant domestic workers that facilitates their enslavement using identically the same principles as the Gulf’s Kafalah system that facilitates the enslavement of migrant workers there. The British Government has refuse all entreaties to change this because it is terrified of being seen as “soft of migrants”.

Chomsky argues that propaganda is to democracies as violence is to dictatorships: the means by which governments control their populations. But perhaps matters have evolved somewhat. Perhaps in parts of Europe the propaganda of parts of the agenda setting media is usurping the authority of elected officials and controlling their choices and actions. In the UK for example it appears that the enslavement of migrant domestic workers is more tolerable to the British Government than upsetting the Daily Mail newspaper.

To counter this I would not argue for restrictions on media freedom, but rather for the adoption of moral courage by political leaders: a key front in the struggle against trafficking in Europe must be the explicit rejection of the pernicious anti-migrant rhetoric which some powerful elites in the media and politics seek to perpetuate.

Slavery is a crime but its effective eradication requires more than a narrow criminal justice approach. It requires a rethinking of aid, trade and diplomacy as well as criminal justice. And within our own common European homeland it requires a repudiation of the causes, in particular anti-migrant bigotry, as well as its consequences.

With Malice toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Stephen B. Oates

Abraham_Lincoln_O-116_by_Gardner,_1865-cropFor many this was the definitive biography of Lincoln until Doris Kearns Goodwin’s magisterial Team of Rivals.

It is still a fine introduction to the life and times of America’s greatest president, though the comparative lack of attention on the Lincoln’s cabinet relationships leads to a much less rich discussion of his presidency than Kearns Goodwin so brilliantly achieved. In particular the warmth of the friendship with Seward is not fully explored and there is no discussion of the attempt on Seward’s life that parallelled the killing of Lincoln.

But there is still much to recommend this. It has a more detailed focus than Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln’s youth and career before his achievement of a national profile with his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that led him to the presidency. And it is written in an engaging and laconic style that echoes Lincoln’s own voice.

The Rule of Law, by Tom Bingham

IMG_0027Tom Bingham was one of the most distinguished British jurists of the last 50 years and this book provides a lucid explication of his conception of rule of law.

“Rule of Law” is a term that is frequently unthinkingly used in contemporary political discourse, and which in fact represents different things to different users: when some on the Nationalist Right of politics use if, for example, they actually mean unfettered “rule of parliament”; others mean simple unconstrained, majority rule. But of course it is neither of those things.

“Rule of law” is the idea that it is the law, properly administered by a professional judiciary, that governs a people, not the whims of any monarch or minister, and that no one is above the law. It’s an idea that is said to go back as far as Aristotle, who said “It is better for the law to rule than one of the citizens.” But the idea is at least a hundred years older. Sophocles dramatised  it in Oedipus the King, in which, as a result of his own investigation, the King finds himself responsible for the plague on Thebes and realises that he must be held accountable to his own judgement just as anyone else would be.

Bingham develops the idea of rule of law by setting out eight key principles: that the law should be accessible and intelligible; that it should depend on law and not discretion; that it should apply equally; that public officers should not exceed their legal powers; that it should protect fundamental human rights; that legal remedy should be affordable; that adjudicative processes should be fair; and that states should comply with international obligations.

daily-mailThe only failing I found was that Lord Bingham does not consider how the evolution of trans-national corporations challenges the comprehensiveness of the concept he outlines. How can they effectively be held legally accountable? Given the proliferation of these entities and the way in which the political economy of the world is globalising this is a critical omission. But I suppose one can’t have everything. Aside from this it is an exemplary piece of writing and it includes, for good measure, a brutal demolition of the legal case for the 2003 Iraq war.

Particularly as elements of the Right in the UK, including senior politicians and the press, are beginning an assault on the independence of the judiciary this is a vitally important book not just for lawyers but for all citizens.

Why Socrates died? Dispelling the myths, by Robin Waterfield



Why Socrates died? is an entertaining and convincing exploration of the military and political milieu of 5th century Athens and its implications for understanding the trial and execution of Socrates.

It benefits from being refreshingly clear sighted about Socrates, portraying him as a more ambiguous character than the unimpeachably innocent victim of Plato’s accounts.



Plato, it should be remembered, had as his ideal state, as portrayed in The Republic, something we would regard in the contemporary world as fascist. Even in his own day Plato’s Republic would have represented a regression from democratic Athens. Hence Plato was a Spartan sympathiser, and he had a family member amongst the Thirty Tyrants. Socrates, Plato’s teacher and ideal, was tainted by his association with this oligarchic and tyrannical Athenian faction, and so in the context of civil strife in Athens and more general war with Sparta, could have been regarded as a politically threatening figure.

Waterfield’s thesis is doubtless controversial but no less entertaining or informative for all that.

A Good German, by Giles MacDonogh

Adam von Trott on trial for his life after failure of 20 July plot

Adam von Trott on trial for his life after failure of 20 July plot

A Good German is Giles MacDonogh’s biography of Adam von Trott zu Solz, a key figure in the 1944 plot against Hitler, providing it with much of its foreign policy and diplomatic leadership while Stauffenberg organised the military aspects of the attempted coup.

Trott was well qualified for this role. He had been a Rhodes scholar to Oxford and as a result was well acquainted with leading British figures of the time including Stafford Cripps and Richard Crossman. He had also travelled extensively in the United States and China. But with only a few honourable exceptions, most of these contacts, some who had been friends, interpreted his decision to return to Germany with the rise of Nazism as a betrayal of democratic principles rather than the fundamental commitment to a democratic Germany that it was.

As Trott discovered during the war the Allies showed considerable distrust for his overtures. In part the distrust that the British had for this was because of a stunning German intelligence success early in the war, known as the Venlo incident, which resulted in the capture of a number of senior British intelligence officers who had been lured to a purported meeting with a Resistance group. But the origins of this distrust appear, in fact, deeper than the enormity of war. The first half of the book, which contains some of the chapters I found most difficult, deals in significant part with the relative alienness of British and German cultures in the 1930s which gave rise to diverse cultural and political misunderstandings between Trott and his British contemporaries. These misunderstandings contributed to the misinterpretation by many of Trott’s decision to return. Hence, in particular Crossman in British government during the war, denigrated his bona fides and undermined his attempts to establish contacts between the German Resistance and the Allies. This misinterpretation still echoes down the years with, for example, Tom Cruise’s Stauffenberg movie, Valkyrie, provoking an article in the Guardian by Justin Cartwright, which 60 years on raised the question that the German resisters may not have been the democratic allies that they are now generally accepted to be.

Claus von Stauffenberg

Claus von Stauffenberg

The issues that MacDonogh raises here are still relevant in our world at 21st Century war. Today even more alien cultures than the European powers of 1939 are finding themselves in confrontation and conflict. For there ever to be peace there must eventually be understanding, and an important starting point for such a process must be a realisation that the narratives of conflict, identity and responsibility may be wildly divergent.

Trott’s decision to work within for the undermining of Hitler was was not an unambiguous one. Trott, and many of his Resistance colleagues, questioned how their roles within the Nazi state may have contributed to advancing the ideology that they actually wished to destroy. One particularly interesting chapter highlighting this ambiguity deals with Trott’s foreign ministry responsibilities towards India and his relationship with Bose, the leader of the Axis aligned Indian National Army, and the Axis efforts to undermine one of his few true British friends, Stafford Cripps, efforts to come to a settlement in India during the war.

The final half of the book deals in considerable, sometimes dizzying, detail with the organisation of the 20 July coup. I found a parallel in the description of Trott’s efforts in this with that of Jean Moulin in the French Resistance at the same time as set out in Mathew Cobb’s book on the subject. Both expended considerable energy not just in removing the Nazis but thinking about what the post Nazi future would look like for their countries.

In spite of the knowledge of how things are going to turn out the final portions of this book are filled with dread. The courage of the 20 July conspirators is still an awe inspiring thing. This book shows the depth of their intellectual, administrative and philosophical efforts too. As such it is an important contribution to the literature of the Second World War.

Don’t mention the apartheid: Caste-discrimination and poverty in South Asia

Speech to 2014 Annual General Meeting of Dalit Solidarity Network

I started my professional career as a water engineer and spent years in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Angola focused on how water and sanitation interventions could help reduce poverty or mitigate the consequence of war.

There are millions of people alive today across the world because of the work of water and sanitation engineers and this work remains a vital, under-resourced and often under-appreciated strategy in long term poverty reduction and humanitarian response.


Badaun sisters’ rape-murders: ‘They could have been saved if police acted’, says family

But it’s not a panacea. And I was appalled last week to read an article on the BBC website, which presented seriously the idea that a new latrines programme in the Indian village of the two young girls found hanged in a tree in May, after they had gone to defecate in the open, was a sufficient response to their rape and murder.

The founder of the charity that put the new latrines into the village declared that “I believe no woman must lose her life just because she has to go out to defecate”, echoing Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day speech on 15 August when he vowed to end open defecation.

We are in the 21st Century and yet there is still no dignity for women as they have to go out in the open to defecate and they have to wait for darkness to fall,” he said. “Can you imagine the number of problems they have to face because of this?” he asked.

Open defecation was a problem in Angola, Ethiopia and Afghanistan when I worked there but while poor sanitation is a constraint particularly on girls education and renders millions of women vulnerable to all forms of sexual harassment and assault, it does not inevitably lead to an epidemic of rape and lynchings. Other factors are necessary for that to occur.

Anybody brought up with the Rockford Files knows that all crimes, particularly murders, have three fundamental elements: motive, means and opportunity. But starting with an article in the Guardian by the director of Wateraid shortly after these atrocities there has been a tendency amongst some leaders to substitute the motive for these rape-murders with the opportunity for them.

I would like to discuss why this has been happening because I feel it touches upon an important and troubling issue.

The American business theorist Chris Argyris identified the issue of “undiscussability” as a key factor in reducing the capacity of organizations and businesses to perform effectively. Organizations, he found, were unable to discuss risky or threatening issues especially if these issues question the underlying assumptions and policies of the organization.

That idea applies to states and communities as well as organizations. And so responses to the deaths of these two girls have avoided perhaps the most undiscussable issue in human history: that of the intrinsic violence of caste-based apartheid.

Arundhati Roy points out in The Doctor and the Saint that, “Poverty … is not just a question of having no money or no possessions, Poverty is about having no power”.  Caste-based apartheid maintains that exclusion from power of hundreds of millions of citizens in a way that is vitally important politically and economically for powerful elements of society’s elites.

It is increasingly clear for example that the maintenance of this social system provides competitive advantage to South Asia, particularly India, in the globalising political economy. Caste-based apartheid underpins the “camp coolie” and “Sumangali” systems allowing the powerful to enslave with impunity vulnerable workers, often young Dalit women and girls, and hence to derive considerable profits from their enslavement. Each of us in this room is also benefiting from that enslavement as it allows, amongst other things, the provision of cheap clothes to our high streets and so, each of us is probably clad in at least one garment that has been produced in some part through the labour of enslaved people.

Making the issue of caste-based apartheid undiscussable insulates it politically and allows the elite greater security in their feudal level of aristocratic privilege: how can something become a political issue if one cannot even give voice to the question?

So I suppose I should not be shocked that a response to the rape-murder of two young Dalits is a sanitation programme. It comes from the same philosophical tradition as a compulsory education law to address child labour or a rural employment guarantee scheme to respond to bonded adult labour.

Each of these programmes hopes to treat a serious symptom of poverty, and indeed they do hold potential to do so. But they scrupulously avoid mentioning the cause of the problems. That is because the cause of the problems is caste-based apartheid and the child labour and slavery that this facilitates and there are too many vested interests who benefit from that for it to be a politically safe topic of conversation.

The failure to engage with the undiscussable issue of caste in South Asian society is a failure in the most basic principles of good development practice. There has been over the past decade a growing discourse of development as a technocratic project. That is an idea that poverty reduction is principally about the transfer of things to people who do not have things. Bill Gates has been a particularly powerful advocate of this approach and we see it reflected in, for example, Fairtrade’s fixation on prices paid to producers as the holy grail of poverty alleviation, to the exclusion of almost all other development issues.

But effective democratic development is not primarily a technocratic, or even an economic, challenge. It is a political one. Democratic community development should be about empowerment of vulnerable and at risk people. Sometimes the constraints on empowerment are material things. But much more often they are social systems which aim to exclude certain people from inclusion in society and in poverty reduction measures, and if these are unaddressed by development processes then the development project itself is constructed on foundations of sand. Dr Ambedkar’s words in relation to just revolution also pertain to just development: “What is required is a profound and thorough conviction of the justice, necessity and importance of political and social rights”.

But the challenge of caste-based apartheid and its undiscussability shows something more profound. Development is also a philosophical project: it is about finding the cause of injustice and calling it by its true name. Without this the system retains its power to warp and undermine even the most well-meaning efforts towards justice.

When I was thinking about what I was going to say here Seamus Heaney’s words from his poem “Whatever you say, say nothing” kept coming back to me:

O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,

Of open minds as open as a trap,

The outside world does not well understand the South Asian codes for caste discrimination allowing the perpetrators greater leeway to continue with what they are doing guarded by silence, and by this incomprehension, from criticism by the international community. And the enforced silence around caste-based apartheid now extends as far as the UK with this British government’s pusillanimous acquiescence to Brahminist lobbying by refusing fundamental protections of British law to British citizens who happen to be Dalits.

And so the trap of caste-based apartheid that has ensnared millions of people across the world still grips, and its grip threatens fundamentally the democracy of those states that tolerate it, not least the world’s largest democracy.

Heaney went on to describe the explosive potential that injustice stoked in oppressed communities. That explosive potential must also exist in contemporary India and the rest of South Asia so long as the violence of caste-based apartheid is unaddressed. There remains time to prevent conflagration by acting with justice.  As Ambedkar pointed out “Law and order are the medicine of the body politic and when the body politic gets sick medicine must be administered“. Specifically  effective rule of law across South Asia must be extended by expansion of the judiciary, rooting out of corruption in the police, criminalisation of caste discrimination and making sure that laws like the Indian rural employment guarantee scheme and compulsory education act are fully and effectively implemented.

But time is running out. And if the rest of us remain silent on this issue of caste-based apartheid then we will also have to accept some measure of responsibility next time we hear of other crucified Dalits hanging from trees.

The Doctor and the Saint: Arundhati Roy’s introduction to B R Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste

Arundathi RoyArundhati Roy’s introduction to this new edition of BR Ambedkar’s classic work has not been without controversy. For one thing it has meant that this new edition has been rendered unaffordable to most Dalits (previously called “Untouchables”) across India. Gandhi had already called it overpriced at 8 rupees when it was first published. But then Roy doesn’t have too much good to say about Gandhi either, and her analysis of his life and politics is likely to upset many particularly those who have bought into his deification. Of course Gandhi was human and as flawed as the rest of us, and Roy’s focus with this essay is on an area where Gandhi’s record is least defensible: his attitude to caste.

Roy’s stature as one of India’s finest contemporary writers has meant that her introduction to the Annihilation of Caste has brought, Ambedkar, his disputes with Gandhi, and the still bleeding wound of caste-based apartheid in India to much wider attention across the world: I have even seen the great American actor John Cusack enthusing about this introduction on twitter!

Roy is a stunningly gifted writer and a justly furious citizen. Both these traits come together brilliantly in this essay, which combines an excoriating critique of caste-based apartheid in India with biographical sketches of Ambedkar and Gandhi and a careful discussion of the contention between the two men in the struggle for Indian independence and social justice.Ambedkar

Gandhi may have had much to recommend him as a giant of the 20th Century but he does not come out of this comparison well. Roy makes a compelling case that Gandhi maintained deeply racist attitudes towards Dalits and Africans all his life: once, for example, he compared the teaching of the Christian Gospel to Dalits as like preaching to a cow. Hence Gandhi consistently sided with vested Bramhinist interests in entrenching caste prejudice in the Indian independence movement and hence in the emergent state. One contemptible tactic that Congress used that demonstrated the prevailing racist attitudes towards “low” castes was to nominate “Untouchable” candidates to the 1930 provincial elections. They did this not to promote Dalit rights but to destroy the British-sponsored elections. They knew that the nomination of “Untouchable” candidates would make sure that no “respectable” Hindus would run as independent candidates for bodies polluted by the presence of “Untouchables”. When the constitutional arrangements for the new Indian state were under discussion Congress ensured that Dalits were substantially excluded from representation by refusing to allow a separate electorate for them as had been established for the less numerous Sikhs. Gandhi had even threatened to starve himself to death at one point to ensure that no separate “Untouchable” electorate was ever established.

The attitude to caste of India’s founding generation is not an issue of mere historical curiosity. Dalits and other low caste and minority groups in India are still routinely subject to enslavement, rape, torture and murder with de facto impunity. And the impunity for these contemporary injustices was written into the modern Indian state by the errors and prejudices of those who founded the state.

Roy does not let her evident admiration of Ambedkar prevent her from giving a clear sighted portrait of him: she notes that as Gandhi was startlingly unempathetic towards Dalit liberation and empowerment so too Ambedkar had a dreadful blindspot towards the treatment of the Adivasi community of India. Roy recognises that the rationalist spirit that Ambedkar espoused demands that he is not deified but treated as the brilliant but flawed human that he was.

The Doctor and the Saint is remarkable work of advocacy, a passionate effort by a person of conscience to force the issue of caste onto India’s, and the world’s, political agenda. Given the violence and misogyny in large parts of Indian society and the looming election to the premiership of Narendra Modi, a member of the ultra-right RSS of whom she is scathing, at the time of writing, it also marks Roy out as a startlingly brave woman and an exemplary citizen.

Annihilation of Caste is a book of historical importance. Roy’s introduction does it, the cause Ambedkar espoused, and by extension all humanity, proud.