The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben McIntyre

2E971371-2167-4B7D-AD62-DA061BC69D1ASub-titled, “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War” McIntyre’s account of the career of Oleg Gordievsky does make for fascinating reading. 

Gordievsky came from a KGB family – both his father and brother had been officers. But Gordievsky lost the faith. Disgust at the Soviet system, particularly the crushing of the Prague Spring, led to a momentous decision: in 1972, while posted in Copenhagen, he became a double-agent for MI6.

He described his choice as an act of dissidence, in the spirit of great Russian dissidents like Solzhenitsyn. But where Solzhenitsyn could protest through art Gordievsky could only protest with the information and secrets that were his stock in trade.

McIntyre credits Gordievsky with a number of decisive interventions in the Cold War. Most importantly, he argues that warnings from Gordievsky led to Nato changing military exercises that the Soviet leadership had come to believe were cover for an actual nuclear assault on the Warsaw Pact, thus averting the most dangerous moment in world history since the Cuban Missiles Crisis. Gordievsky also played a key role in the developing of good working relationships between Thatcher and Gorbachev, and the US decision to escalate military spending in the belief that this would eventually bankrupt the Soviet Union and lead to its collapse,

Eventually, in spite of MI6’s best efforts to guard Gordievsky’s identity, he was betrayed by a traitor in the CIA, recalled to Moscow and investigated by Soviet counter-intelligence. Convinced that his days were numbered if he did nothing he triggered an MI6 plan to exfiltrate him. The unfolding of this operation, led by future Liberal Democrat peer, Ray Asquith – called Roy Ascot in this book – at the time head of the MI6 station in Moscow, provides a gripping climax to this wholly satisfying account of Cold War combatants.

Oh – and Donald Trump is almost certainly a KGB agent since the 1980s.

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The Future of the SDLP

img_1542The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) of the North of Ireland has always been a coalition. There are folk in the SDLP who, if they were living in Dublin or Cork or Galway, would be in Fianna Fáil, or Fine Gael, or Labour. But, faced with an existential challenge around the issues of civil rights and peace, they coalesced into a movement that sought to advance the ideals of social and liberal democracy in the face of horrific violence and sectarianism. Such coalitions are significant in history: Both the African National Congress in South Africa, and Congress in India drew together similar diverse elements in the common cause of liberation.

For myself, if I was living in the south of Ireland I would be Labour. But that does not mean I have any less respect for comrades and compatriots from different political traditions who have, with empty hands, faced down the authoritarianism of both the Provos and the British Government to create a peace process out of the nothingness of thought and compassion. It is they, more than anyone, who have, on the streets of Belfast and Derry and Newry and every other town and village in between, brought about the peace process when so many others turned their faces away from the fratricidal bloodshed.

Many southern leaders have also made extraordinary contributions to this struggle for peace and civil rights in the North of Ireland. Sean Lemass, Justin Keating, Garret Fitzgerald, Peter Barry, Dick Spring, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Aherne, Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar, and Simon Coveney are amongst the most prominent of these leaders and I believe and hope they will be properly honoured by history.

But all of these apart, perhaps, from Sean Lemass, have been guided by the collective wisdom and experience of the SDLP. The SDLP, while consciously standing aside from the political disputes of the 26 counties, have forced the ideal of a new Ireland – one uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter within the framework of an united Europe – back onto the political agenda of the whole island even in the bloodiest and most sectarian moments of our recent history.

This remains a vital and unfulfilled ideal.

There may be a time in the future when the SDLP should break up into the different Irish traditions of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, or, preferably, contribute to a fundamental realignment of these elements into clearer conservative and progressive formations.

But today, with Brexit and the disfunction of the British state again threatening war in Ireland, is not the day for that reckoning.

The SDLP is a vital independent voice for social democracy in the islands of Ireland and Britain. It must remain so.

Brexit: just when you think things can’t get any worse, they can

Common sense does not always prevail. Situations and circumstances can take on their own momentum leading to disastrous outcomes.

Take the case of the First World War. Nobody in the chancelleries of the Great Powers wanted or foresaw war when news of Gavrilo Princip’s bloody action in Sarajevo was first heard. Very quickly however imperial bellicosity, diplomatic ineptitude,  and the demands that railway timetables imposed on the movement of German troops led to a conflagration that engulfed all of Europe.

For those who think such things couldn’t happen again it is worth looking at Bob Woodward’s exploration of the decision-making leading up to George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. This describes how an initial request for a contingency plan quickly ballooned, as part of the planning process, into troops and armour in the desert and with that a overwhelming pressure for invasion and war. The consequences of the resultant chaos is with us still.

“Events, dear boy, events” still, as they have always, drive decision makers to places they do not necessarily want to go. And, as certain as that, is that whenever there is a Big Red Button that should never be pushed there is always a Father Dougal there to push it no matter how catastrophic the consequences.

I suspect that is where we are with Brexit now. Every – EVERY – credible report and study shows it will be a disaster. Logic alone suggests that cutting your country from its closest allies at the behest of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin is a poor idea. The consequence may be a relatively small disaster, as in the case of Theresa May’s vile, xenophobic deal. Or it may be a disaster comparable to a small war, as in the case of a “no-deal” Brexit. But whatever shape Brexit ultimately takes there will be one commonality – it will be a disaster.

There are assurances from parliamentarians that parliament will not countenance a “no-deal” situation. But to avoid such an outcome requires rational thought and moral courage. That is in spectacularly limited supply amongst the current membership of the House of Commons. From the sinister, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kate Hoey, to the cravenly self-serving, such as Boris Johnson and Theresa May, to the simply stupid, such as David Davis, Andrea Leadsom, Priti Patel, Steve Baker, Nadine Dories, to the Lexit fantasists like Jeremy Corbyn, there is a such a plethora of clowns and charlatans lining up to press that Big Red Button, that it is a brave person who will bet that sanity will triumph.

That so much of the media is still treating this gallery of eejits and gobshites as credible and serious-minded leaders foretells a future reckoning for the Fourth Estate. Truly this has not been their finest hour.

In the course of its long and blood-stained history England, aside from a few brief episodes, has managed to avoid the deprivations it has inflicted on so much of the rest of the world. This has led to a considerable sense of exceptionalism that still pertains: “What has happened to others cannot happen to us.” Why? “Because we’re English, that’s why.”

But the English are as human as the rest of us and cursed with the same flaws and fears that have driven disasters in so many other parts of the world. Having placed their trust in the array of shysters that now infests the Palace of Westminster, it may simply now be their turn, and Brexit their reckoning.

However it may be some small consolation for those who will suffer Brexit’s bitterest consequences that those who have led them to this juncture will not share in their suffering. Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Davis et al will remain ensconced in wealth and privilege no matter how deep the economic downturn, and those who can least afford to pay will bear the brunt. In the century since the lions were first led by the donkeys to the slaughter of the First World War the donkeys will finally be unequivocally in charge again. And God help us all when that happens.

 

Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India, by Shashi Tharoor

 

World’s Best Taoiseach

Summary: a scathing reminder that treating people with racism and brutality does not generally make a country many friends

A while ago I had a conversation with a South Asian friend about Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister. “It’s noticeable”, my friend said, “how Leo is being much tougher with the British than his predecessor. Do you know why that is?”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s because Leo is also Indian,” which indeed he is – his father is from Mumbai. “So when he talks about famine, he is not just thinking of the Irish Famine but also of the British manufactured famines though the history of the Raj, including the appalling one in East Bengal in 1943. When he talks about partition, he is not just thinking of Irish partition, but the much, much, much bloodier British engineered division of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan.”

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Refugees during the Partition of India

Whether or not Leo is thinking about these things as he tries to negotiate with an increasingly disfunctional British government unfettered by reality, Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and intellectual certainly is. He details all these atrocities, and more, in his book Inglorious Empire, based upon a celebrated speech to the Oxford Union that he gave in 2015, in which he exposed some of the fundamental truths of Empire that the British conspire so aggressively to forget.

At the time at which the British first began their invasion, India represented over one-quarter of the global economy, dwarfing the UK. Over the subsequent centuries Britain reversed this through systematic transfer of India’s wealth to Britain through an undisguised looting of the sub-continent (“loot” being an Indian word). Violent theft and punitive taxation were the order of the day. Britain also employed an aggressive policy of deindustrialisation, destroying the competition from, among others, India’s shipping, textile and metallurgy industries which, at the beginning of the 18th Century were the most advanced in the world.

Tharoor does acknowledge certain benefits of British colonialism: “tea, cricket, and the English language.” But otherwise his book is a forthright repudiation of the deceitful arguments of hard-Right ideologues such as Niall Fergusson who seeks to recast the brutal, racist project of colonialism as some sort of philanthropic endeavour.

This book must also be a warning to the fantasists of the Brexit movement whose warm fuzzy beliefs about the British Empire are unconstrained by facts or any imaginative understanding of what it meant to those subjugated by its depredations. In the years to come, as Britain becomes the sort of third-rate power that its exit from the European Union entails, ordinary Britons can only hope that, now the boot is on the other foot, India will act towards Britain in future trade and others dealings with a measure of justice that Britain never showed India.

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Bengal famine, 1943

Brexit, Trump and Vladimir Putin’s assault on European and US democracy: The Road to Unfreedom, by Timothy Snyder

img_1459Summary: A terrifying and convincing account of the assault of Russian fascists and their useful idiots upon Western democracy 

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, like Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, is a book that makes you fundamentally rethink your understanding of history. With The Road to Unfreedom Snyder makes us fundamentally rethink our understanding of the present.

The recent political success of far Right elements in the UK, Poland, Hungary and the US are not mere fluctuations in normal politics, Snyder argues. Nor are they solely a product of domestic political turmoil. They are also a consequence of a deliberate and aggressive foreign policy pursued by Vladimir Putin in order to undermine the systems of rule of law that underpin the democracies of the US and the European Union.

Synder argues that since 2010 Vladimir Putin has embraced a particularly Russian brand of fascism, with its pronounced homophobia, as a way in which to entrench in Russian society the kleptocracy over which he presides. Richard Evans, the distinguished British historian takes some issue with this, noting that Putin’s favorite thinker, Ivan Illyin, was a conservative ultra-nationalist rather than a fascist.  However the authoritarianism that Putin has established, like fascist regimes of the past, defines itself by its enemies, and for enemies Putin has chosen the European Union and the United States. Snyder notes that this is not because of anything that these have done, but rather because of what they are. The EU in particular stands as a telling contrast to the Russian Federation. Russia’s thieving oligarchs have made it the most unequal country on earth. On the other hand the EU has provided a better standard of living for its people within the frameworks of human rights and the rule of law, ideas anathema to Russian fascism.

Authoritarianism arrives, Synder notes, “not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.” Hence much of Putin’s assault has been in the realm of cyber-space: weaponising systems like Facebook to direct focused, usually fictional, racist, homophobic and anti-democratic propaganda to the users in a way that distorts their perceptions and bolsters their prejudices; or surreptitiously hacking vital information systems, such as those underpinning the US and Ukrainian electoral systems. These cyber-warfare processes are assisted by an array of corrupt “assets” and “useful idiots” who publicly advocate Russia’s desired outcomes even while Putin is attacking their own countries. These include former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Czech President Milos Zeman, former Polish Defence minister Antonio Macierewicz, Marin le Pen, the French Far Right leader, Nigel Farage, the disgusting former leader of the UKIP, Seumus Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s current communications and strategy director, and, of course, Donald Trump and many of his inner circle.

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Putin and his boy

The success of Russian disinformation can be seen in the pages of even the Guardian, which has published puff-pieces for Putin by supposedly Left-wing journalists such as Milne and John Pilger, whose opinions have been untroubled by actual reporting. It is enabled further by the refusal of British and US Republican political leaders to acknowledge the effectiveness of Putin’s undermining of their democracy.

Carol Cadwalladr’s investigations for the Guardian have turned up probable corrupt links between, in particular, the Brexit establishment and Russia. Robert Mueller‘ s investigation in the US hints at exposing further, perhaps treasonous, criminality. But, Synder notes, much of the information about Putin’s web of influence, and his destructive intent is publicly available. Putin has not made his embrace of fascism a secret, frequently citing Ilyin in his speeches, passing aggressive homophobic laws, trampling roughshod over rule of international law with this invasion of Ukraine, and his sneering attitude toward the corruption of the US election.

The invasion of Ukraine is something of a pivotal event in this book. The Russian processes of disinformation and cyber warfare that corrupted both the Brexit vote and the 2016 US elections, bringing the neo-fascist Trump to power in spite of the popular vote against him, may have come into sharp focus with Mueller’s and Cadwalladr’s investigations. But the warning signs were there to be seen with the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a warning that most of Europe and the US failed to heed.

That so much of this has been missed and mis-reported must arise from a lack of proper journalism commissioned by editors with sufficient international awareness to understand emergent trends and geo-politics, and conducted on the ground by investigative journalists fluent in the languages of the countries they are reporting on. Synder dedicates this book to reporters, and it is the investigative journalists of Russia, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere who have provided much of the raw material upon which Synder constructs this vital history of our times.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, by James Comey

934BEFDC-77C1-44A6-9EC2-6397DDDBEBF8Summary: a meditation on ethical leadership illustrated with war stories from Comey’s life as a prosecutor and his interactions with President Obama, and the moral and intellectual void that is Donald Trump. 

In the heyday of The Two Ronnies one regular, celebrated, segment involved Ronnie Corbett sitting in an armchair and telling a joke. This was never a straightforward affair. It involved Corbett taking every available digression and tangent upon the way before getting to the punchline, which he always landed neatly on at the end of the monologue.

Parts of James Comey’s book are a bit like that. There is a broad chronological structure to the book, particularly in the final chapters dealing with his time as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under President Obama, and Trump. But there is a strong thematic element to the earlier chapters, drawing on diverse parts of his life – from working in a grocery store, to his experiences with bullying, to the tragic death of his son – from which he draws what he believes are crucial aspects of ethical leadership.

It is the last chapters that will sell the book – and Comey does, rather satisfyingly, land a few punches on the bloated, bullying, pathetic Donald Trump, who Comey likens to some of the Mafia bosses he helped put in prison. But there is also a more serious purpose to the work – his meditation on ethical leadership – and it is this that may give the book a more enduring appeal long after Trump has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Comey writes on the second page of this book, “Doubt… is wisdom” and his discussion of some major ethical choices that he has had to deal with over his career in government go some way to illustrating this truth. These include various hard cases of obstruction of justice, confrontations with Dick Cheney over torture, and, of course how he dealt with the notorious case of Hilary Clinton’s emails, something that, when added to the systematic Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, probably cost Clinton the presidency.

Across the course of the book Comey shows how even with matters of enormous moment, perhaps particularly with them, leaders often have to act under pressure with limited information, and frequently their choices boil down to trying to discern the lesser of two evils. This reality will probably resonate with anyone who has ever led anything.

Comey notes that given the stress involved in leadership that humour and laughter are essential, not only for a release of tension but because they are indicative of self-awareness and humility. Hence he is rightly unsettled that Trump appears a completely humourless creature. For himself he makes a few wry remarks and self-depreciating jokes, but he is no Ronnie Corbett. However he is a lucid, and sometimes compelling writer, frequently highly insightful on the subject of ethical leadership, unfailingly gracious in his treatment of those he has worked with, and with some exceptionally interesting stories to tell.

Comey is a highly experienced prosecutor and he presents a strong case in defence of his choices in the course of 2016. Still, while he continues to believe the choices he made were the best he could have managed given the circumstances, he describes feeling sick at the thought that they may have contributed to the election of Trump.

Still, by way of compensation, he suggests that it was his release of a memo of a private meeting with Trump, in which Trump appears to have attempted to obstruct justice, that led to the appointment of a Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, his FBI predecessor, to investigate the allegations of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. So, while Comey may have played an unfortunate role in bringing Trump to the presidency, he may yet also have played a decisive role in removing him from it.

Not British Enough: the DUP and the (next) great betrayal

There is the story of Sam the stockbroker, who made so much money that he was able to buy himself a 100 foot yacht and have it moored in New York Harbour.

He then invited his parents to dinner on board the yacht and dressed specially in a captain’s uniform that he bought to go with the boat.

After dinner he said to his parents, “Well, I bet you never thought you would see this: your own son the captain of such a vessel.”

His mother smiled at him. “Son”, she said, “to me you are a captain. To your father you are a captain. But to a real captain, you’re not a captain.”

Junior

That story came back to me recently listening to Ian Paisley Junior ranting off again about Brexit, and what the British Government should do to put “Brussels” in their place. Junior, never the sharpest of spoons in the knife drawer, hasn’t realised yet that to his voters he and his may be British. To some of his political opponents in Ireland they may even be British. But to the real British, the ultras who are busily trying to craft their little Engländer Brexit, they are not British.

That will matter when the crunch-time comes between the British government and the EU. When it comes to the choice between a deal that will satisfy those, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, seeking Brexit to avoid EU tax regulations for themselves and their clients, those, like Micheal Gove, using Brexit as an executive power grab, and those, like Theresa May, slavering over the anti-migrant ethnic cleansing that they dream of after Brexit, the interests of embarrassing “Irish” types like the DUP are not going to count for much. Instead they will be ignominiously dumped just as every British vassal has been as soon as it becomes convenient or necessary to advance the interests of the “real” British.

The outcome of the negotiations between the EU and the UK over the Irish border is already settled. It was settled in December 2017 when the UK agreed in effect that the north of Ireland would remain, de facto, in the Single Market and Customs Union. Hence the border will be in the Irish Sea. This, the “back-stop option”, is something that the DUP will regard as the most abject and treasonous of betrayals. It does have a certain ironic, comic value however: it is the inevitable outcome of the DUP’s successful, if dubiously ethical, campaigning for the UK to leave the EU.

The current pantomime that the UK is indulging, repeatedly proposing to EU 27 the same fantastically unworkable ideas for dealing with the border, is not a serious negotiating effort. There is no expectation on the part of the British that these proposals will provide any basis for a mutually agreed solution let alone that they may be accepted unamended. Their purpose is merely as a subterfuge to attempt to delude the DUP into believing that the British government is still fighting their corner so that continued DUP support for the UK government will be maintained. Of course eventually denial of the intended “betrayal” becomes impossible and the Tories will have to either come clean or accept the economic devastation that a no-deal Brexit would bring.

The loyalty to the British Crown of the Unionist community in the North of Ireland is an incredible thing. Tens of thousands have displayed awesome courage in its service and bled for it over the centuries in every war and imperial adventure that the British have undertaken. But this loyalty has never been reciprocated by the British Establishment. The DUP are about to find that out as they are abandoned like the cheap stooges to power that they are.