Monthly Archives: March 2013

A LINE IN THE SAND

If you’re going to have a line in the sand there’s no better place to draw it than in the desert, and no desert comes bigger than the Sahara. North Africa has emerged as one of the most interesting regions in the world following the arab spring and the transition to democracy for former arab dictatorships.

The transition to democracy has not been without its problems and issues. Tensions between islamists and secularists has characterised much of the transition debate whilst violence is always waiting in the shadows to assert itself if the democratisation process fails.

This weekend I was in Tunis as a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy speaking at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy’s Democratic Transitions in the Arab World conference (apologies for that particular mouthful).

We had the Tunisian Prime Minister speaking as well as Rached Ghannouchi, President of the ruling Nahdha Party. The ever inspirational Tariq Ramadan gave one of the keynote addresses and there were contributions from academics and politicians from round the world.

Tunisia is the line in the sand because it presents the best example of a positive way forward in democratic transition. It  is a line that must be held as the rest of the region stutters and stalls in democratic renewal.

It was in Tunisia that the arab spring started, a little spark that quickly became an inferno engulfing dictatorships all over North Africa and the middle east.

Tunisia’s revolution was also peaceful and most of the infrastructure of state was left in tact. If transition is going to succeed it is going to succeed in Tunisia.

Elsewhere in the region things don’t look so great. There is political stalemate in Egypt and Libya is inheriting the legacy of it’s violent revolution with retributions and a failure to disarm.

In Syria the situation is approaching intolerable with the west almost disabled in its response. Elsewhere in the region there are uneasy stand offs between unhappy populations and their unelected rulers.

And all of this is new. We haven’t actually seen arab democracies emerge before in modern times. Western models of democracies, whilst helpful as an example are only examples. These nations are going to have to do it for themselves and be creative in establishing their democracies. Culturally things are entirely different. Islam runs through every aspect of civic life and there is a growing demand that islam becomes a feature of how these nations are governed.

It is no surprise therefore that provisional assemblies are dominated by islamic parties. Most of these aspirant democracies want their Governments informed by islam and that is exactly what they should get.

Look at the example of Tunisia again. Tunisia is perhaps the most “westernised” of arab states, but even here the moderate islamist Nahdha emerged as the largest party. Nahdha governs with support of two secular parties and this “troika” is responsible for overseeing the writing of the new constitution.

Arab dictators governed as secularists, ever mindful of due respect to islam. When freed from their clutches it is no surprise that arab populations had their own view of what they wanted when those dictators were gone.

We in the west are going to have to support and work with these new arab islamist Governments because they are going to be a feature of the world community. We must get over this ridiculous view that all islamist governments are somehow authoritarian and linked to unsavoury extremism. I am absolutely certain that we will see the arab spring nations emerge as both democratic and islamic.

Provisional islamic Governments must also recognise in return that there is a secular tradition that will remain a feature of their nation and their political tradition. Securing a place and respect for both traditions is the absolute key to successful democratic transition.

Democracy is the engine and lubricant of all of this and we must always support and respect the choice of our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

If we can offer the right support these new nations can and will play a constructive part in the world community.

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IRAQ – 10 YEARS AFTER THE VOTE FOR WAR

It was the 18th of March in 2003. Exactly 10 years ago, and it was probably the most important vote that I had ever participated in my time as an MP. It was the vote that committed the UK to war in Iraq and was passed by 412 to 129. Some Labour members rebelled but the Government got its way when the vast majority of Conservative members supported it. I voted against the war, believing the case to be totally unconvincing, fanciful and bordering on nonsensical

This was Tony Blair’s war. He was the driving force behind the UK case. He did everything he could to commit our troops including the now famous “dodgy dossier”. We were told that the evidence of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction was compelling. We were told that those weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes. We were told that there was collusion with Al Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein was working towards an atomic bomb.

There were of course no weapons of mass destruction – far less any that could be deployed within 45 minutes, there was no collusion with Al Qaeda and there was no evidence of any uranium project. In short, the basis of going to war was based on a massive lie and fallacy.

Worse than that there was no legal case. There was no UN mandate for military action and the Government’s own legal advice was not what could be described as convincing.

And the Scottish people didn’t want it. 100,000 marched through the streets of Glasgow in opposition and 1 million took to the streets of London. World wide it is reckoned that the protests to the war in Iraq were the largest ever witnessed. But yet invasion and war went ahead.

And for what? Well, ten years after the invasion of Iraq, there are over 100,000 dead, a region destabilised, a country divided along sectarian lines and international diplomacy discredited like never before. And that’s before counting the millions of displaced people, and the  hundreds of millions of pounds that this war cost us.

Iraq, by any standard has been an absolute disaster and this illegal war has been one of the most regrettable and damaging foreign policy adventures ever undertaken in our name.

I never want another night like the 18th of March 2003. I never want my nation involved in such reckless action ever again. That’s why one of the most compelling reasons for Scottish independence is that we will never again have a UK Government take us into an illegal war that we want nothing whatsoever to do with.