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Are we taking the wrong side?

Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley, on why we should remember Biafra when considering the South Ossetia conflict

Published on August 27th 2008.

Are we taking the wrong side?

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, has been uncharacteristically belligerent recently, attacking our own Prime Minister and Russia’s. His stance against Putin is as misguided as his challenge to Gordon Brown is to be welcomed and encouraged. As one of the most cerebral Foreign Secretaries of recent years, my advice to him is to take a good look at the history of 1968. He should concentrate on and learn from two unsuccessful campaigns; Biafra’s fight for independence and Roy Jenkins' machinations to replace Harold Wilson.

Nobody in their right mind could think that it was sensible to risk a nuclear war with Russia in support of Georgian imperialism.

Biafra struggled to become independent from Nigeria when the Vietnam War was at its most intensive. It lasted from 1967 to 1970 and was, at the time, as important to the British Left as Vietnam was to progressives in the USA.

Most of the Labour Party and the unaligned Left supported Biafra as they took the view that the United Nations Charter gave the right to smaller nations to secede from the larger ones.

We were as appalled by the brutal suppression and starvation of the Biafrans by the Nigerian government, led by General Gowon, as we were by the bombing by American B52s of Hanoi and later, Cambodia.

The Wilson government’s refusal to stop supplying arms to Nigeria, whilst news bulletins showed pictures of starving Biafran children embittered the debate.

It is difficult to explain why Biafra has disappeared from the political lexicon while the shadow of Vietnam still dominates any discussion of foreign affairs involving military intervention by the USA.

There has not been a foreign military adventure undertaken by America and its allies which has not been seen in the critical context of the Vietnam War.

The question always asked and which has to be answered is 'Is this another Vietnam?'

How strange, then, that when small countries are striving for independence from large countries, nobody asks 'Is this another Biafra?'’

In fact, if the memory and lessons of Biafra had lingered as long as the memories of Vietnam, then David Miliband may have felt it necessary to give a more nuanced response to the incipient war in the Caucasus.

Or more hopefully if the Foreign Secretary had understood the UN Charter and the right to secession and self determination, he would have agreed with Putin and not followed the line of the American neo-cons who have neither learnt the lessons of Iraq or Vietnam.

The demand by Ossetia and Abkhazia for independence should be supported and it is the reckless Georgian President, Saakashvili, who the Foreign Secretary should be telling to get back in his box, rather than attacking Putin.

This makes principled and practical sense.

Nobody in their right mind could think that it was sensible to risk a nuclear war with Russia in support of Georgian imperialism.

When Roy Jenkins became Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Labour government was nearly as unpopular as Gordon Brown’s.

The young and radical were angry about Vietnam and Biafra, and Labour’s traditional supporters were worried about the economy and disillusioned by the devaluation of the pound.

Roy Jenkins became the most successful Chancellor since the war, restoring Labour’s standing in the opinion polls and boosting his own chance of becoming Prime Minister.

It could have been expected from this base that the ambitious Jenkins, with considerable support in the parliamentary Labour Party, would have launched a bid for the premiership.

This never happened.

His biographer, David Marquand, explained that Jenkins did not become Prime Minister because he was 'too ambitious, not insufficiently ambitious, that was why he never acted against Wilson, he never thought it was the right moment; he always thought it was too risky.'

The lessons for Miliband are almost too obvious to be stated. Seize the time!

Miliband should not make Jenkins' mistake of being paralysed by the fear of failure.

A challenge to Gordon Brown’s leadership would give the Labour Party the space for the policy debate it is desperate for. It should lead to the jettisoning of bad ‘American client state’ foreign policy and the promotion of successful policies like the minimum wage.

So great is the current unpopularity and confusion about policy that excellent initiatives get lumped in with the bad and are lost to the public mind.

A leadership challenge would be an opportunity to determine taxation policy rather than reacting to every other initiative put forward by George Osborne.

Are the Labour Party in favour of redistribution or not?

Most importantly, it would re-establish Labour’s identity so that the party members can say in a sentence or two what the party stands for.

Without this challenge the future looks bleak.

Miliband has a duty to the Labour Party and he should remember, if he doesn’t challenge, he can’t win and he can’t win if he doesn’t change.

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5 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

ADAugust 27th 2008.

"Reckless Georgian president" - The only reckless thing here is the frightening simplistic view taken about the conflict in Georgia. Mr Stringer might benefit from looking a little further back in history to the German occupation of the czech sudetenland and reconsider his view.

ADAugust 27th 2008.

Alex and Matty; it may have been rather stupid for saakashvili to respond to russian provocation but do you not think it a little convenient that half the russian army was on hand to invade? this was a russian designed war they have been serching for a way to triger the conflict for some time. Saakashvili was silly to be provoked but what was he to do allow rebels within his countries recognised national borders to continue to attack georgian soliders and police? Clearly that is not an option either.Russia claims to be protecting russian citizens in georgias south ossetian reigion. Germany in 1938 claimed to be protecting german citizens in the sudetenland - the compasison is there for all to see.

AlexAugust 27th 2008.

To compare Sudetenland to the Georgian crisis is laughable. And an insult to those from the Sudetenland. For a start, who started the conflict? It was Georgia-if provoking a nuclear power isn't reckless, then I don't know what is.

mattyAugust 27th 2008.

I'm with Alex and the author on this one. It's hard to comprehend what Saakashvili thought he would achieve with this exercise. Russia is a massive power, and just like any other such power, the reaction to an attack is always to hit back harder. Recent history has shown that Russia is not afraid to flex its muscles when provoked, and in Putin they have a tough PM who cares little for the opinions of the west. Also, the comparison to Sudetenland is pretty irrelevent.

AndrewAugust 27th 2008.

Alex & Matty, AD is right the Russia had been seeking the opportunity to do this and Saakashvilli (Didn't he play up front for City once?) was silly to allow himself to be provoked. The point is the Russians invaded a sovereign country to protect Russians, where does it end, Russian troops going into Ukraine and partitioning it to protect the ethnic Russians there, any of the Baltic states being invaded (again) to protect the ethnic Russians there? The last three countries are in the EU and NATO. Russia must know it cannot do this and get away with it or, as Hitler, Milosovich etc showed otherwise they will do it again and again in more and more unacceptable ways, killing more and more people. No-one is suggesting going to war with them, they are keen to be in the WTO and OECD, tell them not a chance in hell as they behave like this, suspend them from the G8 and treat them like a naughty little bully as that's how they've been behaving. That's where Stringer is wrong in thinking there is nothing that can be done and the option is war or no war.

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