UPDATE Welcome Guido readers.
This (below) was written before the Smolensk disaster. My considered thoughts on Lech Kaczynski and what his death means for Poland will follow.
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Always a pleasure to penetrate deep into Guardian territory and plant a different flag.
As here today, where I take up Denis MacShane’s arguments in a way familiar to readers here.
The problem with any such pieces is that below the waterline of what is finally published are sizeable house-style and other editing issues.
Thus I was offered some 650 words, which by convention include quotes from the original article.
In the end my piece today as published was 552 words, of which 142 were quotes from Denis’s piece.
The shortening of my own thoughts to some 400 words gives it extra polemical bite, of sorts. But it also lays me wide open to people who use the ensuing Comments crossly to pick up some or other undernuanced thought, and accuse me (rightly) of ignoring all sorts of clever points which I indeed might have wanted to consider with more space.
Take this example:
… the Labour government knows very well that gay rights or antisemitism in Poland and elsewhere in central Europe are non-issues
Shock! That inane elitist Crawford needs to be gay in Poland to understand the reality there!
NB I don’t think that Poland and other central European countries are some sort of heavenly places for gays and/or Jews.
What my piece attempts to convey is that across the European Union there is a general principled agreement that within all EU countries the operating policies and practices for gay rights and anti-semitism are by modern European standards (and indeed any possible historical or international standard) Reasonable.
Which is why EU members do not gang up on each other to complain about human rights unless something supposedly remarkable happens (eg the brief rise to prominence of Haidar in Austria, which led to various ‘sanctions’ against Austria by other EU members and thus a lot of procedural unhappiness).
When the Kaczynskis formed a coalition government in 2005/2006 with the lumpen nationalist Polish Families party and the lumpen socialists Self-Defence party, the monthly gathering of EU Ambassadors in Warsaw (hosted as it happens by the Austrian, if I recall) saw a ridiculous discussion. Should EU Ambassadors start to send back to capitals regular round-ups analysing the ‘growing human rights problem in Poland’?
I said that this was a bad idea:
- news that we were doing it would leak to the Polish media, making us all look ridiculous
- some other countries whose representatives were sitted round the table seemed to be having more problems with anti-semitism than Poland; Jews were moving back to Poland, whereas they were moving out from some EU member states
- most importantly, a few years back EU capitals had been fretting over the rise of the ‘populist Right’ in Poland, as the parties concerned talked about erecting road-blocks and trying to make Poland ungovernable. They also stormily had opposed Poland’s very EU membership.
- Now their representatives were to be locked in to EU processes and represent Poland politely at EU meetings. Wasn’t this a sign that EU policy was not failing but working, calming down extremist passions, policies and rhetoric? An historic victory for ‘Europe’?
This terse but rather brilliant intervention swayed the meeting in favour of the best possible outcome for any meeting of EU Ambassadors: doing nothing.
Which in fact exemplifies what diplomacy is all about. Stepping back from the immediate headlines in and about a country, and looking accurately at deeper trends.
In this case I (unlike some EU colleagues) had done my homework, talking to the Kaczynskis themselves and getting close to various key Polish analysts sympathetic to their aims.
it was pretty clear that the Kaczynski twins wanted to bring these two marginal populist parties into government in good part to suck them dry of voters and then throw away the husks for longer-term ambitions of making Polish politics more stable and honest. Plus they had some sort of personal grudges against other Solidarity-era personalities and wanted to poke them defiantly in the eye. Beyond that and a peevish pedantic constitutionalist-patriotic style, they offered not too much new, one way or the other.
And that’s what happened. PiS achieved a major simplification of the Polish electoral scene, to some degree at their own expense. Their policy successes were as modest as their policy failures: nothing much ventured, nothing much gained or lost. Their over-elaborate political machinations ended in 2007 with new elections – and a strong win by the much more mainstream European centre right party Citizens Platform. Poland is now having an excellent run of form.
Yet back in 2005 their election had been greeted with consternation in many quarters, as if some new menacing Dark Age was abruptly descending like the crow in Alice in Wonderland.
See eg this classicly confused article in Le Monde diplomatique, the Polish journalist wobbling all over the place in trying to present a new scary Polish radicalism in action without, er, actually finding any evidence for it.
Prompted by this sort of thing a distinguished British historian who should have known better wasted the time of No 10 by writing long, silly letters warning that the fanatical Kaczynskis were going to suppress Polish democracy.
My job as Ambassador was to try to peer through the awesome smoke and noise thrown up by Poland’s political feuding to see what mattered, and what did not. I advised No 10 that the Kaczynski twins could be helpful allies on many EU issues but needed careful diplomacy.
Tony Blair got the message. And these relationships really did play an important role in helping get the 2005 EU Budget agreed and the Lisbon Treaty signed – on terms the Labour Party thought favourable for the UK and for themselves.
In short, all a bit too subtle for a Guardian CiF 500 words piece.
My main beef with Denis MacShane is that he knows all this as well as I do. Yet he writes like Denis MacSpart in a transparently inconsequential attempt to froth up political indignation about nothing much.
If he and Labour really want to take the EU seriously and bring European issues into the election, they should stop facile anti-Cameron jibes about gay rights in central Europe and instead focus like adults on real life.
Such as the fact that the crisis in the Eurozone caused by accumulated stupidity (mainly not ours) is moving from bad to Very Bad.
But that would involve thinking and taking responsibility. And as we can see for ourselves on so many fronts, that is not what Old/New Labour are all about.