Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kafka in the Gulf 6

This is vintage Bernard Levin. You could be watching the Australian federal parliament in action. Nothing has changed:

"George Orwell tells, in Homage to Catalonia, of the occasion when, on sniper-duty in the front line only a few score yards from the Fascist positions, he saw one of the enemy sprinting across some open ground while holding up his trousers with one hand. Orwell deduced that the man had been summoned to take a message that could wait even less than he could, and raised his rifle to fire. But he found he could not; the great, good disillusionment had set in. For, as he said, 'A man holding up his trousers is not a Fascist; he is just a man holding up his trousers.'

"I find myself in much the same position where Mr Edward Heath is concerned. A strictly objective observer might well conclude that the Conservative Chief Whip at the time of Suez could hardly fail to be a dastard, and he might go on to presume, not without some evidence, that the Lord Privy Seal who made two separate speeches in the same evening on a subject of which, as the speeches in question made abundantly clear, he knew nothing whatever, was a bit of an ass.

"Yet every time I raise my rifle and draw a bead on Mr Heath, something happens to show me he is as human as I am, and I let it fall. Here was I, appearing to give him stick for his deplorable showing in the case of the Bahraini prisoners, and just as I am on my way to do it, I discover that he buys his chocolates at Charbonnel and Walker, as I do, and leaves his Christmas shopping as late as I do, and we are brothers beneath the skin.

"In the event, the Cadi in me just gets the upper hand, and the bastinado is ordered, though with reluctance. Mr Heath's showing in the Bahraini prisoners debate was lamentable, after all, and like Cinna the poet, he will bear me a bang for that, I fear. And surely Orwell would have sympathised: for if ever a man was caught with his trousers down it was Mr Heath in the week before Christmas.

"To begin with, Mr Heath had to learn the hard way - as, in their time, did Mr Milligan and Mr Henry Hopkinson and even Mr Macmillan, that you must never, never, never, say never. On Monday, he ended a Question-Time exchange on the subject of the Bahraini prisoners with the memorable words, 'I shall have nothing further to say to the House before we rise for the Recess.' But the following day, his braces having burst asunder in the interim and his well-creased trousers having descended around his ankles, he had a total of something like eleven columns of Hansard to say to the House before they rose for the Recess, and was told in no uncertain fashion to behave himself, too - and even, to some extent, promised that he would.

"But I realise that it is most unlikely that anybody around here knows what I am talking about. I must therefore recapitulate the gist of a long, complex and deeply shameful story, the whole of which I told in the Spectator on July 1 last."

[I'm skipping Levin's "gist" from this post. Those who've persevered with the series this far will be in the know. The rest will just have to read the first 5 posts in the series. A word about Edward 'Ted' Heath (1916-2005), who went on to become Conservative PM (1970-74). The bugger had some real form when it came to ignoring British colonial crimes. In 1948, British troops in Malaysia massacred 24 villagers during the so-called Malayan Emergency in an incident known as the Batang Kali massacre. The matter was finally scheduled for investigation by the Wilson Labor government of the day in 1970. However, when Heath came to power later that year he halted the investigation. Relatives of the victims are currently in the British High Court seeking to overturn Heath's decision. (See Heath halted probe into Malay massacre, David Sanderson, The Times/The Australian, 10/5/12) And how's this from his Wikipedia entry: "In January 2006, it was announced that Heath had left 5 million pounds in his will, most of it to a charitable foundation to conserve his 18th century house, Arundells, opposite Salisbury Cathedral, as a museum to his career."]

"The Ruler has asked that the three prisoners be sent back from St. Helena to Bahrain. Now, displeasing though their imprisonment on St. Helena is to them, the prospect of being sent back to Bahrain must make St. Helena seem positively agreeable. For at any rate in St. Helena they can be sure of fair and proper treatment; in Bahrain they have no guarantee that they will be released at the end of their sentence, if indeed they have not been tortured or killed or both, long before.

"Yet Mr Heath was proposing to send them back to the Ruler's pleasure, and was planning to do so without consulting the House either, and if Mr John Stonehouse had not spotted what he was up to, and asked questions, and then moved the emergency adjournment of the House, he would have done it, too.

"Which brings us, as I knew it would, to Mr Heath's showing in the debate. It was deplorable, as I have said; he clearly knew nothing whatever about the case, and was merely relying on what his advisers had told him when the thing blew up in the House, and on what they managed to ferry to him from the Civil Servants' Box behind the Speaker's chair during the debate itself. But if Mr Heath will not work a little  harder, I will have to reprove him for it; he said, in his first speech of the evening: 'After the sentence, the Ruler made a request... that these three men should be detained somewhere outside Bahrain.' I am very sorry to have to tell this to Mr Heath, but that statement is false, and he had better start inquiring how it came to be put into his hand for reading out; the Ruler made this request before the sentence, and indeed before the 'court' which was to decide it was set up. Mr Heath went on to make it a good deal worse by saying, when questioned on this point: 'Yes - before the trial, and the wording shows that it was 'in the event of conviction' - that is why the request was made - Surely, it is in order to ask for facilities in the event of their being required.' Which is doubly false, first because it repeats the earlier statement, and second because the words he quoted do not occur in the Ruler's request in which there is no question of an 'if' or a conditional.

"I think, nice man though he is, that Mr Heath owes the House of Commons a withdrawal of these remarks, and an apology for making them without investigating what degree of veracity was to be found in them.

"But what do some of the other speakers owe the House - let alone the question of what they owe simple decency? There is a man called Kershaw, for instance, who said, among other things, some of which were even worse, that 'It was further said that this particular order cannot apply to these prisoners on the grounds, among others, that the arrangements for their reception at St Helena were made before the sentences were passed. That was surely an administrative convenience.' I suppose that there are people in the world - indeed, there is certainly one, called Kershaw - who believe that to arrange a man's sentence before his trial comes under the heading of nothing more than 'an administrative convenience,' but I am glad that I am not among their number. I am even more glad that I am not another fellow, this one called Mott-Radclyffe (who are these people who have been crawling into Parliament, and why have I not been kept informed?), who, when he was told about the Ruler's document arranging for the transportation of men who had not even been tried, let alone convicted, let alone sentenced, said, 'I doubt whether he said anything of the kind.' Why does Mott-Radclyffe doubt whether the Ruler said anything of the kind? There is nothing secret about most of the documents in this case: how dare he take decent wages for making speeches about subjects on which he has not bothered to get himself informed before making them?

"Indeed, the Tory Party on this occasion behaved disgracefully; the only Conservative to stand in support of the request for an emergency debate was Mr William Yates, to whom be honour. Most of the rest sat about, apparently neither knowing nor caring what was being done in Britain's name, and ready to march through the lobby, if the occasion had arisen, still neither knowing nor caring.

"As it happens, the occasion did not arise. Mr Heath, properly shaken, gave an undertaking that these prisoners would not be sent back to Bahrain before the end of the recess, that the House would be kept informed, when it resumed, of the situation, and that the Ruler of Bahrain would be further urged to exercise clemency in the case. Mr Heath, clearly, will bear watching; a man who can spout the kind of stuff he spouted without, apparently, bothering to check it, is clearly going to need a good deal of keeping in line. But meanwhile, the fact remains that in a British colony there have been since the end of 1956 three men who were convicted in a fake-trial by a fake-court set up by a fake-ruler (and put aboard their prison-ship, I may add - though this is another story - with a fake-warrant),  and whose conviction, sentence and place of imprisonment were decided before the trial began; and also that this has all been done with the active participation of the British Government. I think that when the House of Commons resumes next month it should have something more important to talk about than the Human Tissue Bill."

This post marks the end of Levin's The Prisoners of St. Helena: Part 2. The next post in this series will begin with his concluding article, The Ex-Prisoners of Saint Helena.

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