Friday, May 11, 2007

(THE HERALD) Has Blair finally found his marbles?

Has Blair finally found his marbles?
By Peter Mavunga

IF last week’s report by Britain’s Sunday Express newspaper that said the British Prime Minister now accepts that President Mugabe and his Government have a right to attend the EU-Africa conference in Portugal is to be believed, then common sense has prevailed. Tony Blair’s relationship with Zimbabwe makes him the most un-British prime minister of all time.

British premiers have always believed, almost to a fault, in negotiation as the only viable means of resolving conflict and disputes, and resorted to other measures like sanctions or military force, only as a last resort.

When I was growing up in Rhodesia, I looked to Britain for a solution to the racial problems facing my country. While the Rhodesian racists continued to repress the Africans, I naively but firmly believed the British would come to our rescue.

More specifically, I always thought that the British, faced with Ian Smith’s intransigence, would one day use their military might to force change in Zimbabwe for the benefit of all. After all, they had the capacity to do so and Labour, as opposed to the Tories, was full of good people.

I was invariably disappointed when this did not happen and the Tories turned out to be marginally better people than Labour. Sir Harold Wilson, for instance, in ruling out the use of force when clearly Ian Smith was not going to listen to argument, became a huge disappointment. I was disappointed especially with Wilson’s insistence that the problems of Rhodesia would be resolved through negotiations when it was evident that was not working.

Over the years, I came to accept and respect that negotiations are the British way of resolving conflict. Negotiations were part of the trusty shield of British fair play where they never forget that there are always two sides to a story just as my journalism tutor used to remind me.

To my horror, the two sides to a story principle evaporated under Blair, suddenly it was the British Prime Minister and his government who knew best what was going on and what should happen in Zimbabwe.

Where Zimbabwe’s problems are concerned Blair favoured talking to the Tsvangirai faction of the MDC, and he never stopped reminding us, as if it gave him browning points, that "we work closely with the MDC to effect regime change in Zimbabwe".

In his view, the Government of Zimbabwe and in particular President Mugabe, was so reprehensible that they were not worth talking to. They had to be isolated and consigned to the dustbin of history.

That, in my view, is very unBritish. That is not fair play. That is not the British way of doing things based on understanding the issues through dialogue.

Another of Blair’s unBritish qualities is his government’s repudiation of anything that happened before they came to power in 1997. The British sense of history and tradition is legendary and it is not an exaggeration to say that the world had a lot to learn from them in this respect.

Yet, when in 1997/8 President Mugabe asked for funds from the British government to compensate white farmers for land to help in resettling landless Zimbabweans, Blair reacted as if he was coming from another planet.

"What funds?" he asked in disgusted disbelief.

His secretary of state for international development, Claire Short, made the government’s position abundantly clear.

"I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new Government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and as you know, we were colonised not colonisers."

This tells me that somehow when it came to policy formation on Zimbabwe, history became irrelevant under Blair. Or put in another way, all that the world already knew about British involvement in Zimbabwe did not happen.

Under the present Labour Government, Cecil John Rhodes’s British South Africa Company did not dispatch the Pioneer Column to Mashonaland. Whites had not established control there and Rhodes did not appoint Dr Leander Starr Jameson as "Administrator" there.

In 1893, white settlers did not invade Matabeleland neither did they defeat the Ndebele fighters and their monarch Lobengula according to this Labour Government. Under Blair, there was no massive expropriation of Ndebele lands and cattle by the white settlers.

The present Labour government would have us believe that Mashonaland and Matabeleland were not united in 1895 under the name of Rhodesia.

A year later, there was no Ndebele uprising in 1896 according to this British government. Whites in outlying districts were not murdered and this uprising did not spread to Mashonaland. The whites, however, did not crush the Ndebeles and then the Shonas according to Blair and his government.

In 1923, Britain did not terminate BSAC rule neither did it annexe Southern Rhodesia as a its colony, establishing a locally-elected white government. All this did not happen if Blair’s policy on Zimbabwe is to be believed.

What is more, in 1930 the Land Apportionment Act codifying the division of Southern Rhodesia into black and white areas did not happen and in 1953 the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland did not happen.

According to David Caute, a British journalist and historian: "No fewer than 125 000 Europeans arrived in Rhodesia between 1945 and 1951 while 53 000 quit. Less than one third of Rhodesia’s whites had been born there. But they lost no time in calling themselves "Rhodesians" and referring to "everything we have built up here (for which ‘your native’ was notoriously, congenitally, ungrateful." By implication Blair’s government wants us to believe this never happened.

And significantly, according to Blair’s reading of the situation, the period between 1955 and 1960 did not see an increase in nationalist agitation for better conditions and human rights in their country where they were being treated as less than human beings by white settlers.

Well, Blair and his government might delude themselves into believing that all this did not happen. Short’s infamous statement announcing that this British government’s clock on Zimbabwe began ticking from 1997 when they were elected is as ridiculous as it is unBritish. It is contrary to their sense of history and tradition for which they are renowned.

But that is not all, Blair’s conduct has been unBritish in a third policy area. Enter the "respect" agenda. Even in domestic policy I see Blair as a man who has done his best to make Britain better through a variety of initiatives.

One such initiative is the idea that people have to respect each other in what they do. In particular, he expects young people to respect their elders. Yes, the respect agenda is a Blairite initiative full of good intentions, no matter what his political opponents might say.

I find it difficult to square this with regime change in Zimbabwe, though. How can a man with such values fail to see how disrespectful his regime change agenda is in Zimbabwe? Is it right for the British government to pursue a policy of regime change in another country in any case?

This is the question I put to my friend, whom I will call Harris here, when I met him for lunch last week.

"No," he replied emphatically, but he went on to say he did not think regime change was the policy of the British government.

"But what about Peter Hain’s outburst a few weeks ago!" I retorted. I reminded him that Hain had written an article in the Independent newspaper in which he said he wanted President Mugabe "to go and to go now."

"That is one more thing that has gone wrong under New Labour," he replied.

"Traditionally, ministers are not allowed to speak outside their brief and as Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain should not have done that", he explained.

Harris, who is no admirer of President Mugabe, went on to complain however about the loss of what he described as good old quiet diplomacy! In this context, he wondered what advice the British Embassy staff in Harare were giving the Foreign Office in London?

I value Harris’s opinions a great deal. He is a former civil servant who rose to the level of under secretary in the British civil service and he should know a thing or two about how the British government should operate. He appeared to agree with my analysis that Blair and his ministers were being unBritish once again by advocating regime change.

Significantly, regime change is unBlairite given its apparent lack of respect for the right of another country to determine its own destiny. If Blair wanted his policies to reflect his own values, he should be respecting President Mugabe’s legitimate authority in Zimbabwe and using dialogue to resolve their differences in the best British tradition, rather than demonise him as they have done in the most disgraceful way lately.

Blair’s change of heart not to oppose having President Mugabe and his team attend the EU-Africa conference in Portugal is the only sensible thing he has to do and it is a policy that will stand him in good stead. He, but more significantly his successor, needs to start talking to the Government of Zimbabwe — the people who really matter in this issue.

As he leaves office shortly, Blair will know that his otherwise remarkable achievements as Labour leader were marred by the regime change adventure in Iraq where Britain and the US successfully deposed Saddam Hussein. Trouble is they now do not know what to do as the war in Iraq rumbles on. A top military man in Britain Sir Michael Rose said publicly that that war was lost and the authorities should now admit it.

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