Fabian Hamilton MP Newsletter September 2014
Leeds North East Constituency
September 2014 Newsletter
It is some time since I can recall a period quite like the turbulent one that we have been experiencing recently and I know that events taking place around the world are causing anxiety to many of my friends and constituents. So many people ask me my views on the current situation or just simply want to talk about their concerns that I thought I would try and set out one or two of my own perspectives.
The referendum in Scotland: On Thursday 18th September voters in Scotland stepped back from the brink and voted, decisively, to remain as an integral part of the United Kingdom. Along with millions of citizens across the whole of the UK, I breathed a sigh of relief. For me it was inconceivable that the Scottish Nationalists should want to break up our union that has stood the test of time and helped build one of the most equitable, fair, just and prosperous countries in the developed world.
I viewed the 'Yes' campaign as one that tried to sell a dream - a fantasy of a country that could insulate itself from threats to world security and be able to fund an unlimited and bountiful welfare state from the revenues of inexhaustible North Sea oil. When challenged with the facts by experts - opposition politicians, business leaders and others - the Salmond propaganda machine would respond saying that they were being 'bullied' by the English establishment. They even believed that an independent Scottish economy could be managed in Pounds Sterling over which they would exert no policy control. I am grateful to all the Scots who voted 'No' and allowed sanity to prevail.
However, now comes the reckoning: all the parties at Westminster have promised yet more devolved powers and responsibilities to the Edinburgh parliament but this must have implications for England. No longer should we in England be trusted less than our friends in Scotland and Wales to take some responsibilities for our own country. If more power is to be devolved to Scotland, then something similar is needed for England. Do we set up an English parliament? Do we establish regional governments? (Yorkshire - all of it - is about the size of Scotland!) Do we say that Westminster is the 'English' parliament and just count the votes from the English MPs when matters relating to English issues are debated?
I do not sense a desire for a 'French' solution - setting up additional tiers of government with more politicians, more civil servants and more regulations. I believe we need to redress the balance through a wholesale devolution of power from Whitehall and Westminster to our large local government authorities and to bring more purpose and commitment into local policy making and responsibility. In Victorian times, the large city authorities like Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester, Bristol and others led the way in development, reform and improvement for the people that they served. Successive central governments ever since have throttled local government's powers by constant centralisation of power to London. We need to begin the regeneration of responsibilities of local government and put decision making closer to the people affected. If we do that, then true devolution can be achieved.
Refugees at the gates of Calais: It is a most disturbing sight: scores, if not hundreds, of young, mostly male, migrants from many countries in Africa and the Middle East are persuaded that their hopes for a life, a job and a future can be secured by gaining entry to the UK rather than seeking asylum in some of the countries that have travelled through in order to get to Calais. With numbers swelling and group rivalries growing we are seeing increasingly desperate attempts to break into cars and lorries and even a futile gesture to storm a ferry in the port. Behind this human misery and desperation, people traffickers coin in the money from some of most vulnerable men and women in the world.
I am often asked by constituents, "Why do they want to come to the UK?" Part of the reason is undoubtedly due to the fact that we are a peaceful, law abiding, just society that is well governed and not riddled with corruption. The UK must seem like a paradise to those from countries where there is no effective policing, no social security, no jobs, gross inequality, racial discrimination, violence and rampant corruption. Another reason is that communities from these countries are already established and successful in the UK and that that our language is familiar. A very depressing aspect, surely, is that many of the asylum seekers in Calais are the bright, often well-educated, motivated and ambitious people that their own countries so desperately need if they are ever to become peaceful and well governed. Sadly there are situations that are even more distressing: the trail of dead bodies left in the wake of shipwrecks form the organised ferrying of migrants from the North African shores towards Lampadusa island in Italy. The sending of children on their own across a border, such as to the USA, by parents who think it might give them a chance of a better life.
There is no country in the developed world that would freely open its frontiers to anyone who wanted to come in and I am not suggesting that we should do so. Yet there is a fundamental moral question - to whom does the Earth belong? Does a piece of land belong to the strong person who can put up a wall and defend it from all-comers or should all the land be shared by all who live on our planet? There is no postcard big enough for the answers! If the Port of Calais were to give free passage to migrants, I suspect hundreds of thousands of people would try to come to the UK and there would be dire social consequences. We have to ensure that people in countries worldwide know that they will not be able to enter, will not be able to work and will not get state support if they get in illegally. We also have to mobilise the best aid we can to help those countries the refugees come from to succeed with stable governance and growing economies. That is why I remain so committed to generous UK overseas aid. It's not simply a question of charity, but is also in our best interests to help solve the problems of extreme migration. Meanwhile we should also help out in Calais so migrants do not starve and are encouraged to seek asylum throughout Europe.
Islamic State IS: We are all appalled at the gruesome murder of UK aid worker David Haines and the threat to the second Briton, Alan Henning who is held by Islamic State Militants. Like all of my fellow MPs across the political parties as well as millions of UK citizens I desperately wish that there was a clear way forward to end this menace to world peace that has erupted, yet again, in the Middle East.
We have faced other similar brutality and terrorism in our recent history and reacted with force, yet the outcomes have not been as we might have predicted:
- The expulsion of the Taliban-backed rule in Afghanistan has not had a clean outcome. Thousands of British, American and other countries' soldiers and civilians have died there. The present government in Afghanistan may not have the strength to resist a resurgent Taliban when all troops finally leave the country.
- The toppling of the mass murderer Saddam Hussain in Iraq has not led to a stable society where there is a universal wish to see good governance and representative democracy. And one branch of Islam has sought to dominate the other - the Shia majority has seriously discriminated against the formerly powerfulSunni minority leading to support for Jihadi groups like Islamic State.
- Action to support groups fighting Gadafi in Libya led to his downfall but left a country at the mercy of competing factions and warlords.
- Help to those opposing the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has led indirectly to the conditions that has allowed the emergence of Islamic State fighters keen to demonstrate that barbarity, intolerance and suppression are alive and well in the 21st century.
Putting our troops 'on the ground' has not worked in the past. Yet doing nothing abandons millions of people to genocide, suppression, religious intolerance and terror as well as threatening UK citizens and our own country's security. With government moves to secure an international and regional consensus to support groups such as the Kurds fighting Islamic State, and following the vote at Westminster, we will now see UK action by the RAF supplementing that already being undertaken by the USA. The fact that we currently have no aircraft carrier must be now viewed as one of the coalition government's key irresponsible decisions.
Is 'action at a distance' more or less likely to secure security and peace? In the case of IS, I believe we have to recognise evil and fight it. We should use the best technology of missiles and bombs to strike the IS fighters, stop their sources of finance, snatch key leaders and bring them to International justice and support consensus-driven democratic and representative government, particularly in Iraq.
We do have a local problem with the temptation felt by a few young men and women from the Muslim communities in the UK who feel called to fight for what they feel is a 'holy war'. In my view, Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a 'State' and many of my Muslim friends agree that there is nothing Islamic about the barbarity and horror of what this group is doing to anyone they perceive to be a threat to them. I really hope that the Mosque elders, Imams and community leaders will loudly and repeatedly condemn IS barbarity and doctrine as evil and to ask Muslim families to seek urgent help from the police if they feel that any family member seems attracted to support this grotesque band of terrorists. As for those who leave the UK to fight, they must understand that they will face justice in the country they have left, especially if they have incited violence against the UK and and that they will be held responsible at an international level for any war crimes. I do not advocate revoking nationality but all legal measures possible should be taken to prevent British citizens travelling to the Middle East to join IS and the other extreme Jihadi Groups there.
War in the Ukraine: Grappling with the politics of the Ukraine seems on a par with trying to understand the divisions that erupted with the break up of Yugoslavia and the ethnic conflicts and barbarity that erupted in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia at that time Even when there were United Nations forces on the ground that did not prevent the massacre of Bosnians in Srebrenica.
The east of Ukraine is home to millions of people who are ethnic Russians and who feel their affinity is to what they see as their mother country. When Ukraine was part of the USSR there was no issue for them and even pride in that fact that the former President Kruschev was himself a Ukrainian. However, those living in Kiev and to the west of the country do not have the same cultural ties to Russia - part of Western Ukraine was originally in Poland. Historically, from within the population of the Western Ukraine were found those with fascist sympathies, and given the number of Russians massacred by Nazis in the Second World War there is inherent distrust between the ethnic Russians in the East and those Ukrainians living nearer to Europe. Government in the Ukraine since the break up of the USSR has been riddled with corruption and political upheaval. Into this situation we have the interference of the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin to support armed militias that have caused the secession of the Crimea and most probably led to the criminal destruction of the Malaysian Airlines plane with the loss of hundreds of lives.
In consequence we now have a situation where other countries that were formerly parts of the USSR and with populations that include ethnic Russians, such as the Baltic States and Poland, are now very nervous. The UK and the USA, the principal members of NATO, are not going to go to war to defend the Ukraine. There is not even a full consensus over the economic sanctions that are being applied to Russia. Much of Europe depends on Russian gas to keep warm in winter, none more so that Ukraine whose gas supplies are threatened. Ceasefires between the Kiev government and Russian-backed separatist forces in East Ukraine come and go. This is a frightening political mess and shows a complete lack of responsible statesmanship, particularly by Russia.
It is tempting for us in the UK to ignore the issue but whenever the flames of nationalism are fanned, that is often when conflict begins. If ever there was a need for a reminder of the real purpose of the European Union, that of securing peace in Europe, it is now. Europe, with the UK taking a prominent role, should be at the forefront of trying to bring the factions and interests of all parties together. Ukraine is a country with a tremendous economic potential. Geographically and culturally it will always be close to Russia but that does not preclude close links to Europe as well. Cultural identities can be protected and nurtured as we have shown in the UK. In the short term, Europe must help prevent the Ukrainian government from failing politically or financially. We desperately need a secure state not least one able to look after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site, and protect us all.
The UKIP fly trap: When I was young I was sometimes fascinated by the Venus Fly Trap. This is a plant that seduces insects with an attractive scent and lures them to land on a leaf that closes on them and leads to their doom. I view UKIP similarly. It is a party that promises anything to entice the unwary. No immigrants, no obligations towards Europe, lower taxes, less government, better health care, better social security - you name it and UKIP or one its maverick senior members will have promised it. If it were so easy to pander to the fears of the extreme right wing Tories and at the same meet the aspirations of the most passionate socialists, then we would have had a consensus government in power for the last fifty years.
To those of you who are attracted by the bonhomie of Nigel Farage with his pint of beer in hand, I say beware. The fundamental philosophy of UKIP is on their web site. UKIP believes in promoting self-reliance and personal freedom from state interference. We believe the state in Britain has become too large, too expensive and too dominant over civil society.
Put in simple terms this means - every man (or woman) for himself. Our state defends the country, keeps the law, looks after its citizens, ensures fairness and equality, cares for those who need looking after and prevents exploitation and injustice. Roll back the size of the state and these pillars of our civilised society will start to crumble.
We can smile wryly at David Cameron's discomfort in losing MPs to UKIP during the Conservative Party Conference and agonise over the possible impact of Farage on the prowl in Labour heartlands such as Doncaster. By their policies shall ye know them. UKIP seeks to destroy our shared concept of the role of the state in the UK by seducing people with promises linked to their political fears. Please do not be persuaded by smooth words and be ready to confront the UKIP propaganda wherever it surfaces.
Cycling to Paris: On 25th July I set off from North Leeds to raise money for a local nursing home. This was my fifth annual charity bike ride - previously I have cycled to Amsterdam for St Gemma's Hospice, Berlin for Heart Research and Leeds Islamic Centre, and last year I cycled to our twin city of Dortmund for St George's Crypt.
I planned the journey carefully, as I have done every year that I have undertaken these charity rides. The first day's aim was to get from Leeds to a small village just outside Gainsborough in Lincolnshire - a total of 62 miles. It was a hot day and because the so-called 'National Cycle Routes' were not really national, fit for cycling or even routes at all, I ended up cycling a total of 74 miles and arriving exhausted and dehydrated. After that, however, and with the help of my wife Rosy in the support vehicle, it got a little easier.
On day two I went via Newark, in Nottinghamshire to a village outside Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. Day 3 took me from there to Bedford, and Day 4 to London for a well-deserved rest for a couple of nights.
After setting off from the Palace of Westminster, five days after the initial start from Leeds, I spent the last night in England in the lovely Sussex Downs just north of Lewes. From there to the port of Newhaven and a four hour sailing to the sleepy seaside town of Dieppe.
The French have created a stunning metalled cycle highway along an abandoned railway through Normandy which they call the Avenue Verte, so progress towards my first night's stop in France was rapid and safe. From Saumont-la-Poterie to St Leu D'Esserent near the lovely Chateau of Chantilly, just outside Paris, involved 62 miles of lovely French countryside. I finally arrived in the Paris suburban town of Drancy nine days after leaving Donisthorpe.
Drancy has some significance for me because that's where the Nazis imprisoned the Parisian Jews from June 1942 until the end of 1944 before deporting them to the concentration camps. My Great-Grandmother - Reina Sevilla - was one of the victims and was despatched from Drancy to Auschwitz Birkenau in July 1942 where she was murdered. Arriving at the Shoah Memorial in the rather down-at heel town was a fitting end to my 430 mile journey by bike. It was a Sunday and I was delighted to be greeted by Drancy's two Deputy Mayors. I was told that this is where Jews and Muslims in the town come together to commemorate those who were murdered by the Nazis.
After some refreshments, we walked to La Muette, the housing project which became a prison camp for Jews. It's still there, having been largely refurbished after the war by the then Communist Mayor and local authority. One of the flats in the complex is now a museum of the events of 1942-44 and, on that Sunday afternoon, I met André Berkover, a survivor of Auschwitz who was taken there in July 1944 at the age of just 14. Because he lied about his age, he survived, and his story - told in clear French - was absolutely extraordinary, one of the most amazing tales of survival of the Holocaust I have ever heard from a truly clever and brave man, now 85 years old. It made the whole eight day journey from Leeds by bicycle completely worthwhile.
Newsletters: Many Labour members and friends ask to receive my newsletters. This letter has been sent to you as a Labour Party member in Leeds North East or because you have asked to receive it. If you do not wish to receive future newsletters, please send an email to the effect to email@example.com
With my best wishes.
Labour MP for Leeds North East.