What is Genocide 2nd editionThe Second Edition of my What is Genocide? has just been published by Polity Press. Fully revised, it includes a new chapter with an extended critical assessment of Lemkin, development of the argument on ‘structure’ and genocide, and improved presentation for teaching purposes. 20% discount and examination copies are available via this link: What is Genocide 2nd edn flier.

My interpretation of the British General Election of 2015 just published on openDemocracy: much of the post-election discussion is in denial about what happened.

The report of the Cabinet Office enquiry into the memorandum about Nicola Sturgeon’s conversation with the French Ambassador has exposed the role of the former Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, in leaking its contents. However it also vindicated the accuracy of the memorandum and the integrity of the Scotland Office civil servant who wrote it, thus bringing back into the public arena the remarkable claim that the SNP leader preferred David Cameron to Ed Miliband as Prime Minister.

The publication of the memorandum shows that its author was surprised by Sturgeon’s reported view and suggested that something might have been ‘lost in translation’. A moment’s thought will show that this explanation is highly implausible. A simple statement like that ascribed to Sturgeon would hardly have been difficult to understand, and the French Republic does not appoint as its Ambassador to the United Kingdom, or even Consul-General, an official who lacks a good knowledge of English.

Yet the Cabinet Office report eagerly buys this generous interpretation. It isn’t hard to spot the cover-up, yet the press has been slow to challenge Sturgeon or to try to bring her interlocutor, the Ambassador, into the limelight. As calls for Carmichael to resign mount, Sturgeon is remarkably let off the hook.

The SNP and the Tories

Why this matters is that, if Carmichael’s denial of responsibility for the leak saved his seat, Sturgeon’s denial of her alleged pro-Cameron remarks helped shape the General Election, not just in Scotland but in the UK as a whole. The SNP and its allies had built ‘Yes’ to 45 per cent of the vote in the 2014 referendum largely by campaigning never to have a Tory government imposed on Scotland again. In the election, Sturgeon pushed the SNP to 50 per cent and destroyed Scottish Labour by posing as the most determined anti-Tory leader, taunting Ed Miliband with her calls on him to ‘join’ the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens in ousting them.

There was always a striking symmetry between the SNP’s campaign to defeat Labour in Scotland and the Tory campaign against Labour in England and Wales. There was, of course, no direct understanding between the parties, but Rupert Murdoch’s cynical deployment of the Scottish Sun for an SNP vote, while its English counterpart backed the Tories, perfectly reflected their alignment.

What no one fully understood, perhaps, were the opportunities that the SNP’s advance would create for the Tory campaign. Many progressive voters and commentators believed that the arithmetical combination of Labour seats in England and Wales and SNP seats in Scotland would secure a Labour government with some kind of SNP support. This was the explicit basis of the SNP’s pitch to Labour-inclined Scottish voters, and the illusion to which Miliband also clung in his hopes for a minority government, even as he recognised that Labour’s likely SNP dependence was Cameron’s most potent claim.

Lynton Crosby and the TV debates

Yet the relationship between Labour and SNP seats was never a simple arithmetical one. Labour’s potential losses in Scotland inevitably undermined its credibility in the UK as a whole. If anyone came close to grasping the full significance of this, it was surely Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ chief strategist. By exploiting Labour’s potential dependence on the SNP, he was finally able to achieve indirectly what he was unable to do directly, to create a palpable fear of Labour government.

Crosby’s main path to this achievement was the astute management of the only points at which the media election came alive, namely the TV debates. The Tories’ insistence on a very wide spread of party leaders in the debates did not only neutralise a possible Cameron-Miliband confrontation, as Labour feared. It also set up an image of a cacophony of voices, in which Miliband was linked to the radical trio of SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. In the second debate, especially, Miliband allowed himself to appear with only these three leaders and Nigel Farage – Cameron having prime-ministerially absented not only himself, but also Clegg. Labour presumably agreed to this in order to maximise Miliband’s exposure, but it helped voters to visualise his tetchy relationship with a dynamic Sturgeon.

It was a highly unusual course for the broadcasters to include the nationalist parties in UK-wide debates. Since they stand candidates only in their own nations, the SNP and Plaid have been traditionally included only in Scottish and Welsh, not UK, debates, as have the Northern Ireland parties in Northern Irish debates. The nationalists’ inclusion in UK-wide debates obviously represented an ad hoc modification of the rules around debates, rather than a new principled inclusivity, since the Northern Irish parties were still excluded.

However this departure was the Tories’ price for agreeing to Cameron’s participation in a single debate, and it served them well, giving the SNP and Plaid an extra prominence which Sturgeon (especially) used very effectively. The Greens’ alliance with the nationalists, symbolised by the three-woman hugs at the end of the first debate, further enhanced their standing. This seemed to many a benign pan-British flowering of anti-austerity politics. But the momentum it generated further enhanced the SNP at Labour’s expense, making it much more likely that the Tories would be the largest party even if Labour made large gains in England and Wales.

The appeal to English fear and insecurity

The Tories’ even greater achievement was to cash in on this in England, by suggesting a sinister aspect to Sturgeon’s apparently engaging personality. The material, of course, was there in the SNP’s success in the referendum, and Sturgeon’s refusal, despite saying that the election was not ‘about’ independence, to rule out pressing for a further referendum after the Holyrood election in 2016. This enabled the Tories, with huge support from the Mail, Telegraph and Sun, to suggest that Miliband would be hostage to dark forces. The considerable achievement here was to turn Scots – for the first time in hundreds of years – into a threatening element for a segment of the English electorate. A huge amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that this was the one Tory message that was really played back – ‘I’m worried about that woman’ – by voters on the doorstep.

The idea that Labour lost the election because it appealed, economically, to too narrow a section of voters, has nothing to say about this remarkable development. This key Tory success had almost nothing to do with interests and everything to do with an intangible fear and insecurity on the part of English voters who simply do not understand Scottish politics and the (to them) sudden rise of the demand for independence over the last two or three years. The Tory warnings had unmistakable echoes of Benjamin Netanyahu’s notorious warning that ‘the Arabs are coming’ which won him a similar surprise victory, but was all the more astonishing since the Scots – unlike Arabs for Israeli Jews – have never been an enemy of the English in modern times.

Multi-party dynamics and Labour’s failure

The Tory appeal to fear seems to have played particularly well to Southern English voters. In all the attention to the SNP’s near-clean sweep in Scotland (95% of seats for 50% of votes), the similar Tory success in South-West England (over 90% for 46%) has been overlooked. Here the Tories used the SNP scare to shepherd even more one-time Liberal Democrats into the Tory fold.

The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, had already indicated that he preferred a new coalition with the Tories, thus saving his own seat (as Tories followed Daily Mail advice to vote tactically for him) while removing any last vestige of a reason for anti-Tories to support the Lib Dems tactically in southern marginals. The Lib Dems were thus squeezed from both sides, enabling Cameron (who repeatedly visited the South West during the campaign) to scoop up all of their seats in the region. At the same time, the Scottish scare probably helped the Tories retrieve some of the support they had lost to UKIP, which may have been a significant factor in minimising the expected Tory losses across England.

Labour’s defeat, therefore, was the result of far more than their own failings. The collapse of the Lib Dems contributed almost as much as the rise of the SNP to their downfall. During most of the campaign, it was widely agreed that Labour (which means, given the presidential character of the national battle, Ed Miliband), was doing surprisingly well. The Tories’ two well-rehearsed attack lines, the economy and Miliband’s personal weakness, failed to shift the polls. Labour remained stubbornly in the race: its attack on inequality (especially over Non-Doms) resonated widely, and Miliband even began to become a positive for the party in some quarters.

Labour had to overcome a Tory lead of 36:29 from 2010. Given the traumatic nature of that defeat and the benefits of incumbency for Cameron, it was actually a good outcome for Labour to be level-pegging in the final stages of the campaign, especially with the SNP, UKIP and the Greens all taking votes from it on a significant scale. We need to recall that the party had already declined from a 43% vote share in 1997’s landslide to only 35% in Blair’s final 2005 victory, without these additional competitors. To be almost back to that share of the vote would have been creditable, given the circumstances. Even the actual result saw Labour’s vote share rise slightly more than the Tories’ did.

It is true that, in the last week of the election, a rather different TV trap ensnared Miliband. The BBC’s Question Time saw Cameron waving Liam Byrne’s notorious note about ‘no money left’, and two well-primed audience members reinforcing its symbolism with sharp questions to Miliband. Miliband’s weakness here, unlike his SNP framing, reflected his and Labour’s inability over five years to nail the Tory-Lib Dem canard about responsibility for the crisis, and the party’s failure to pin the blame for austerity on deliberate Conservative policy.

Thus the two apparently decisive flaws of Labour’s campaign – its potential SNP dependence and economic record – were both about perceptions and feelings rather than about appeals to interests, let alone policies. Both conveyed the impression of Miliband’s weakness that the Tories had attempted to pin on him from the start.

Polls and lessons

The strange thing about most autopsies on the election is how little they have reflected on the dynamics of the campaign. It is almost as though those six weeks didn’t happen – Labour’s defeat resulted, we are widely told, from its failure to appeal to a broad enough constituency and especially to ‘aspirational’ voters. Few mention the complex multi-party dynamics (although everyone commented on these during the campaign), let alone the Conservatives’ skilful exploitation of these.

There is clearly much we do not yet understand about exactly how things tipped unexpectedly towards the Tories. We have yet to see a full detailed analysis from the exit poll which accurately predicted the surprise outcome: this may throw more light on the discrepancy with the earlier polls. We don’t know how far the results reflected a last-minute swing from the 34:34 tie suggested by the last fortnight’s polling to the 37:30 (Conservative: Labour) actual outcome, and how far the polls had misrepresented opinion throughout the campaign.

Yet surely any discussion of the way forward for the British left from this historic defeat should reflect on the experiences of the campaign and the way in which its multi-party dynamics contributed to Labour’s result. It is clear that the Scottish referendum campaign and the rise of the SNP have not only turned Scottish politics upside down, but have fundamentally affected British politics as a whole. English-British nationalism in both its explicit UKIP and opportunist Conservative forms has taken centre-stage: it will dominate in the EU referendum, which will define UK politics for the next year.

As Labour’s aspiring leaders shift back to the centre ground after the modest leftward move under Miliband, none of them appear to have much to say about the dramatic new challenges which sank the party on May 7th. They seem to wish to forget the recent campaign, rather than to learn its lessons. None of them appear to offer a narrative which will enable Labour to fare better in the radically new kind of electoral theatre which has developed in Britain.

Today, April 24th 2015, is being commemorated as the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, in which over a million Armenians from what is now Eastern Turkey died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, directed by the leaders of the Turkish nationalist party. Since modern Turkey continues to deny the 1915 genocide – in the triple sense of denying the scale and character of the violence, the state’s responsibility and above all the applicability of the word ‘genocide’ – much commentary will, in addition to commemorating the victims, repeat the necessity of ‘recognising’ this, one of the largest genocides of the often-genocidal twentieth century.

I want to suggest a different line. I think that the worst thing about the situation today is the fact that, in the very region in which so many Armenians died a hundred years ago, local Armenians are among those dying as result of the genocidal civil war in modern Syria. It was into the deserts of modern Syria and Iraq that Ottoman forces drove the Armenians – mainly the old, women and children, since most younger men had already been killed – to face robbery, rape and death through starvation and thirst.

Across these deserts today the armies of the Syrian and Iraqi governments as well as militias which include a self-proclaimed new Caliphate (would-be successor to the Ottoman empire overthrown after the 1915 genocide), are engaged in a ferocious new war. Many of the forces involved, not just ISIS, are committing genocidal atrocities. More people have died, or been made homeless, as a result of the targeted violence of the Syrian regime than of the Islamist killers.

The Armenian Genocide occurred before the era of ‘humanitarian’ intervention, although in the pleas of the Armenian victims to the Western empires we can see precedents for the desparate cries of help of Christians, Yezidis and others threatened in Iraq and Syria today. Some see the current US intervention against Islamic State as an advance on yesterday’s indifference, but since it comes at the price of accepting Bashar al Assad’s atrocities, I find it difficult to join them.

After 1915, most of the surviving Ottoman Armenians made their way eventually to Western Europe and the United States. It is a striking comment on our lack of progress that when today’s fleeing Syrian refugees try to make it to Europe, they face not only official barriers but perilous sea-crossings after which, should the boats carrying them capsize, Europe has even tried to evade the elementary duty of rescue.

The new denial of the scope of genocide and suffering in 2015, and of the responsibilities which arise from it, is even more shocking than the old Turkish denial of the meaning of 1915

¿Qué es el Genocidio?

Posted: March 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

The Spanish translation of my What is Genocide? is now out from Prometeo Libros, Buenos Aires. Many thanks to Victoria Cacares Mauri, the translator, and to Daniel Feierstein, editor of the Colección Estudios sobre Genocidio, in which the book appears.

¿Qué es el Genocidio? is based on the original English text published in 2007. I have now completed a Second Edition, to be published by Polity later this year. I haven’t changed my answer to the question, but the new edition addresses the expanded literature, especially on Raphael Lemkin, the inventor of the idea of genocide, which has appeared in the last decade, as well as improving the presentation of the argument.

My surprising local angle on Britain’s 2015 General Election. At the last election, in 2010, I was in Brighton, and my comment on the battle between Caroline Lucas’ Greens and Labour was much-read. This time I’m in East Devon, where local campaigns against property development and hospital closures, and for local democracy, are having an impact which I analyse in this piece which has just appeared on openDemocracy.

It is the unlikeliest place to look for evidence of Europe’s new political turbulence. Forecasters agree that in South West England, the main issue in the May 7 General Election is between the two Coalition parties. Will the Liberal Democrats manage to cling on to their seats or will David Cameron’s Tories take them, offsetting Labour gains elsewhere in England and Wales – which combined with the SNP’s capture of Labour seats in Scotland will allow Cameron to remain in Downing Street?

Certainly, the insurgent soft-racist party, UKIP, will advance a little here, but it is nowhere near to capturing seats as it may elsewhere. Likewise the ‘Green surge’ may conceivably work in regional capital Bristol, but there is no sign that rural constituencies will see strong Green advances. With the Lib Dems the fall guys of the UK’s first coalition since the Second World War, sitting Tory MPs must be feeling complacent about their own returns to Westminster, even if the national outcome remains on a knife-edge.

This will undoubtedly have been the case in the East Devon constituency, where the academic site electionforecast.co.uk projects national trends to give the Conservatives 40 per cent, Labour 16, the LibDems and UKIP 15 each and the Greens 7. However the site willingly acknowledges that local constituency-level knowledge is not included in its model, and Lord Ashcroft’s programme of constituency polling has also not reached here.

It is therefore understandable that national media have so far overlooked a very English local insurgency which has produced a serious independent candidate,Claire Wright, who aims to oust Tory foreign office minister, Hugo Swire.

Independent MPs are rarely elected in UK general elections, but the rare exceptions are often in safe Tory seats where (as here) both Labour and the Lib Dems are weak. In recent times, Martin Bell (a BBC reporter) toppled ‘sleazy’ Tory Neil Hamilton (now a leading UKIP figure) in Tatton in 1997, although when Bell stood down in 2001, the seat reverted to the Tories’ George Osborne. Consultant Richard Taylor captured Wyre Forest in 2001 on the back of a strong campaign to save Kidderminster’s hospital, holding it until 2010.

Could East Devon be 2015’s case? Wright is not a celebrity capitalising on a national scandal, as Bell was, nor does she have a single decision like Kidderminster’s hospital closure to rally opposition to local Tory dominance (although local hospital closures are important issues, and Wright is part of a campaign against cuts in the Ottery St. Mary hospital). It might therefore be thought that her chances are slim. Yet she is building on very broad opposition to the ruling Tories on East Devon District Council (EDDC), widely perceived as a one-party state where developers rule – if not a hotbed of corruption (Tory Graham Brown was forced to resign in 2013 in a ‘councillors for hire’ scandal).

Wright has a broad local base. A youthful district and County councillor, she came to prominence in a mass movement which brought 4,000 people onto the streets of the district capital and seaside resort of Sidmouth (population 14,000) in 2012, in protest against a development on open green space proposed by the EDDC. Already there was a scent of wider anger with a one-party regime on the council (the Tories have ruled for 35 of the last 39 Years). ‘Without the ventilation of change, the council has, some feel, begun to smell’, wrote the editor of Country Life at the time.

Unlike most such protests which quickly fade, Save Our Sidmouth spawned a movement, the East Devon Alliance (EDA), which is now challenging for power on the council. EDA is aiming to contest at least 45 of the 58 council seats and end Tory rule. The election takes place on the same day as the general election and the Lib Dems have no chance of gaining control, while Labour and the Greens will be lucky to gain any seats at all.

Syriza or Podemos, EDA is not. Yet this local movement of mainly middle-aged, middle-class southern English is one of many local resistances to the Tory-led Coalition’s National Planning Policy Framework, widely seen as a property developers’ charter, who are nationally united in the Community Voice on Planning (COVOP).

Like the London tenants fighting the sale of their estates to developers, EDA contests the increasing bias of the British state towards property developers, local and international. The difference between EDA and other anti-developer resistance is that EDA, including several sitting independent councillors, is now challenging for district power. With implicit backing from the local press, EDA threatens a major upset in this quiet backwater.

Without EDA’s challenge to the local council, Wright’s independent campaign might seem quixotic. Yet simultaneous local and national elections, with synergies between the campaigns, give her a chance. Bookies now have herahead of the Lib Dems and Labour, and a respectable second place is clearly possible. Wright’s challenge is to persuade Lib Dem, Labour and Green voters who will vote EDA in the local elections to also support her – while at the same time trying to eat away at the Tory vote.

In what has been called Britain’s most unpredictable election – as I write, electionforecast projects a mere one-seat Labour plurality over the Tories (283-282 in a parliament where 326 seats are needed for a majority) – clearly every seat counts. Experts expect wide variations between constituency outcomes, and East Devon is another to watch. They would also do well to take on board the significance of the local elections: in East Devon on May 8, the most likely change is an end to decades of Tory council rule.

I published this letter in the Guardian on 27 January 2015 (scroll down for my letter):

‘The proposals of a European Council on Toleration and Reconciliation report for a Europe-wide ban on genocide denial, as part of a swathe of new legal measures (Jewish groups want EU ban on intolerance, 26 January), are highly problematic. First, it is proposed to ban denial of the Holocaust, but not of other historic cases such as the Armenian genocide or the Palestinian Nakba – although Nakba denial (legally enforced in Israel) is as likely to contribute to antisemitism (a major concern of the report) as is Holocaust denial.

Second, it is proposed to outlaw denial only of any “other act of genocide the existence of which has been determined by an international criminal court or tribunal”. This sounds reasonable, but international courts try individuals, only adjudicating history incidentally; most recent genocide, like historic genocide, has not been tried internationally; and these courts’ operations are highly politically constrained.

The proposed bans will only lead to arbitrary and contested prosecutions which increase polarisation, not reconciliation. It is better to combat genocide denial through argument and evidence.
Martin Shaw
Author, What is Genocide?

To expand, there are at least five separate issues here:

1. Banning ideas, however reactionary, as such – rather than when they threaten violence or discrimination – breaches freedom of speech.

2. The report doesn’t say what is to be banned – ‘literal’ denial (of the facts) or ‘interpretative’ denial (whether the events constitute a genocide). My reference to the Nakba illustrates the contentiousness of the latter issue, and the line where legitimate debate and denial gets blurred. I do not think it is possible to legally define this line: it is a matter for historians.

3. Naming the Holocaust as a genocide that can’t be denied, while requiring all other genocides to pass a legal test before their denial counts for the purposes of banning, is inconsistent and protects the memory of the Holocaust while not protecting that of many other historic and contemporary episodes.

3 In any case, there is no international legal framework for recognising genocides and the corpus of international legal decisions is decidedly not robust enough to provide an impartial framework. Many cases cannot be brought before international courts for political reasons, and courts are subject to political pressures in operations, leading them to inconsistent decisions which even involve genocide denial as in the case of the International Court of Justice decision on Bosnia.

4 In the contemporary European context, to legally ban Holocaust denial while not protecting the memory of other genocides such as the Nakba, which matter particularly to Muslim and Arab minorities, can easily be construed as a partisan intervention, and enforcement could easily contribute to polarisation. The incarceration of Holocaust-denying ‘historian’ David Irving in Austria did little good, and the indictment of Muslim Holocaust-deniers in France, say, could actively cause harm.

5 The report is considerably motivated by the desire to stem (indeed ban) anti-semitism. However we know that contemporary European anti-semitism, while rooted in jihadist ideology as well as historic legacies, is hugely stimulated by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, as the big spike following last summer’s Israeli atrocities in Gaza showed. Israel has instrumentalised the Holocaust while simultaneously banning commemoration of the Nakba. Netanyahu is now shamelessly instrumentalising the recent genocidal mini-massacre of Jews in Paris. I argue that to weaken anti-semitism, rather than reinforcing these Israeli narratives by banning Holocaust denial, it is necessary to seek a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and to challenge Israeli ideology. Recognition of the Nakba could be a powerful step in that direction. The European Council on Toleration and Reconciliation would have done better to focus on.this alternative agenda.

In 2000 I published a book, Theory of the Global State: Globality as Unfinished Revolution which revised the terms of the debate about the state, arguing that the dominant state form in today’s world is a ‘Western state conglomerate’ led by the USA but combining many ‘nation-states’ and international organisations. Together with the ‘global layer’ of international institutions which the West largely dominates, I saw this as an incipient ‘global state’, although I emphasised that this was a highly contradictory development.

In 2003, Alex Wendt, a well-known IR theorist, published an article arguing that a ‘world state’ was inevitable. Now the Garfield Institute at Hiram University has set up a new website, worldstatedebate.com which includes a new paper by Wendt and my new article ‘Global State Formation in the 21st Century’, which discusses Wendt’s ideas and updates my argument.