David Green is Chief Executive Officer of Civitas.
The former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, now a UK trade adviser, has warned the Government not to allow Chinese companies to buy British manufacturers that are vital to our national life.
He is surely right, but China buying our companies is not the biggest threat to our national security. It is money flowing in the opposite direction from UK companies to China. A recent analysis by the Department for International Trade shows that the stock of foreign direct investment (FDI) from China into the UK was £3.2 billion in 2019. The total stock of FDI by British companies in China was £10.7 billion.
When a company dominated by the Chinese Communist Party takes over one of our high-tech firms, we lose the technological lead, and the expertise falls into the hands of organisations that might be committing human rights violations against their own people, or who have links to the Chinese military.
The same is true when our companies build factories in China. The expertise changes hands, and companies fall under the influence of the Communist Party. There is no such thing as a genuinely private company in an authoritarian dictatorship. Managers must do as they are told.
Many Americans are now concerned about the flow of funds from America into China. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) estimated that in December 2020 total American investment in China exceeded $1 trillion, mainly in the previous six years. The vast majority was portfolio investment, defined as amounting to less than a 10 per cent stake in the voting shares of the recipient company. These funds may not provide a controlling interest, but they help Chinese companies to out-compete Western rivals and to support the Chinese military build-up.
The total stock of US FDI (involving more than 10 per cent of the voting shares) was $198 billion in 2019 (including Hong Kong). Accurate figures for portfolio investment are not produced, but the US Treasury put it at $163 billion in 2017.
That figure, however, ignores the flow of funds through offshore tax havens, notably the Cayman Islands. In 2017, AEI estimated total portfolio investment at $745 billion, including investment in the numerous Chinese entities registered in the Cayman Islands. Investment via the Caymans surged after the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
At present, US Treasury figures treat funds flowing to the Caymans as investments there, when it serves merely as a conduit. AEI has called for full transparency, so that the final destination of funds is known. We should do the same, not least because the Cayman Islands is a British Overseas Territory.
There is a tendency to see the relationship with China through the prism of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but Russia was not closely integrated with Western economies. It was rare for Western firms to invest in Russia and, forced back onto its own meagre economic and cultural resources, communism was unable to withstand Western competition.
Since joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001, China has become deeply integrated and has found a way of getting Western companies to fund their own ultimate destruction. A big chunk of China’s growing GDP has been the result of Western investment. The Cold War made the struggle for freedom and democracy against authoritarian dictatorship seem like a battle between economic systems. We can now see that we are in a moral struggle for human freedoms, civil rights and the ability to transfer political power without bloodshed.
Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy.
Reading the article by Harry Phibbs about his youthful exploits smuggling leaflets into the then communist Soviet Union, I admit it, I too was a smuggler. In my case a smuggler of books into the then communist Czechoslovakia through an informal network in which my contact was Alex Tomsky [see here and here] who was a senior figure in the charity, Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, particularly, back then, in the then Eastern Bloc. Tomsky was known by Margaret Thatcher and lent her a book every month for three years.
I made the run to Prague three times (1988-1989), each time accompanied by a different friend, two of whom I cannot name, but the third trip was with David Paton, now Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University.
The deal was simple. A benefactor (not the charity itself) would pay the flight and hotel cost for a budget weekend break in Prague. As book-runners, we would place our own things in the hand luggage, but the main suitcase was filled with books. Our task was to take that suitcase through customs checks and then deliver it to an address we were given.
We were assured that there was not much chance of us being caught, books not being as detectable as, say, drugs or explosives; and that if we were caught the outcome would likely be an interview with the authorities, a night in the cells, then deportation. It seemed a great prospect for an adventure, with little downside. But, for those to whom we were delivering the books the risks were much greater. Their interrogation would no doubt be much more robust and intense, and the subsequent spell in prison, indefinite.
The books were a variety. Bible tracts to political pamphlets; George Orwell classics to Ivan Klima and first editions of Czech writers whose manuscripts had been smuggled out of the country on trips by other smugglers. The recipients were yearning for this content to feed their craving for news and for new ideas, for hope that the situation might change.
One elderly recipient actually burst into tears with joy and relief that we had made the delivery – then a sobering dark cloud descended on a young Chris Whitehouse. As the books that we’d smuggled were unpacked, I realised with a shock that one of those pamphlets was one of which I had been the author, on the subject of abortion law reform. That somebody would be willing to risk a long prison sentence, in God knows what conditions, for something that I had written and published with no thought of its value, was a truly humbling moment.
We met a wide range of subversives, from Catholic priests to punk underground bands, from intellectuals to the publishers of samizdat leaflets; and we got an early liking for real Budwar and Pilsner Urquell beers long before they were widely available in the West, even meeting for drinks with the team who were working closely with Vaclav Havel who went on to be President of the country with the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia following the “velvet revolution” in 1989.
The only downside for this trip was that at that time, wheels on suitcases were not that common, and I’m sure my arms stretched a little carrying that full case of books through customs trying to make it seem so much lighter than it was.
But this was not my first experience of communism and the excitement of visiting the Eastern Bloc. My first visit was to communist Poland in 1981 as a guest of the “official” trades union movement in that country. To be fair, they treated us well, with time in both Warsaw and Lodz, followed by a trip to Gdansk where we were allowed to meet the local Solidarity leader, soon to be President, Lech Walesa. We hadn’t expected this, and had come unprepared, so we took a collection in Western currency (then worth in cash much more than the official rate) to contribute to the movement’s funds. Our guides were shocked, but there wasn’t much they could do about it.
Martial law was declared in Poland that same year, but communism fell in November 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down on 9th November. I had also visited the Wall, in 1981, whilst on a trip to East Germany with the British East German Friendship Society that offered a week-long tour to foster relations between the two peoples for just £100. I wasn’t, needless to say, a supporter of the communist government of that country, but at that price, who could decline? Every town we visited had a prominent display of opposition to the deployment of cruise missiles by the United States of America.
Crossing the East German border on a train at midnight, whilst it was being searched by guards with Alsatian dogs was an experience I’ll never forget.
On all those visits, the strongest emotions were of excitement on my part, but of fear and resentment amongst the people. We weren’t to know it at the time, but those were the dying years of the Soviet Bloc. The people we met weren’t without hope, not anywhere we went, but they were definitely without expectation.
At the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, we will risk the following. Hitler believed his persecution of the Jewish people was right – morally justified. That he believed he was doing good does nothing to make the Holocaust less evil. Ditto Stalin and the Kulaks, Mao and the Rightists.
Now imagine a vaccine producer – to take a topical example – who is driven entirely by greed. His motive does nothing to lessen his product’s effectiveness. It doesn’t lop even a single life off the list of those saved.
By the way, it’s unlikely that he would be driven entirely by anything. Most of us aren’t. We’re powered by a mass of motives, the mix of which we can’t identify: greed, altruism, fear, compassion, anger, lust, shame, love – and perhaps, above all, by the elemental urge to “keep going”, as the sergeant yells at the shell-shocked First World War soldier in Ted Hughes’ radio play The Wound.
To be clear: greed isn’t good in itself, but its by-products can be. Generosity, by contrast, is good in itself, but it’s by-products may not be. What good comes of generously giving the addict money for the fix that will kill him?
Whatever you may say about Boris Johnson, he never fails to give us all something new to talk about – in this case, his half-remark about those vaccine firms yesterday, quickly made and just as quickly withdrawn. As he sometimes does, he was offending the spirit of the age.
Which crowns virtue signalling as the ultimate virtue. What matters isn’t what you do, but what you say – the signal you send. It shows that you have the right motive, and everything else follows. Except, as we’ve seen, that it doesn’t.
If you want societies that seek to impose virtue by force, leave the rest of us to muddled old Britain, and try Jim Jones’ Jonestown, with its murders and mass suicides, or Mao, Stalin, Hitler – and so on. Compared to the lot of them, a greedy capitalist is a study of morality.
Saturday’s Daily Telegraph magazine included a fascinating account by Kirsty Buchanan of the “Moscow mules”. It documented how a Russian émigré based in Lewisham, George Miller-Kurakin, recruited young Conservative activists to undertake clandestine missions across the Iron Curtain in order to smuggle in materials to assist those operating in opposition to the Communist regime.
Several of those whose exploits were recounted in the piece subsequently went on to fame and fortune, some holding important positions in public life. I was also mentioned.
We read for, instance, of the contribution of the man who is now the Minister of State at the Department of Education:
“Letter-posting was also an important part of the couriers’ work: providing dissidents with facts to help counter Soviet propaganda. Nick Gibb was a young graduate of 21 in 1982 when he was sent to Leningrad, now St Petersburg, to deliver up to 100 letters, which were strapped to the inside of his legs under ‘horrible baggy black cord trousers’ and tucked into his boots in order to evade Soviet customs.
“Posing as an ordinary tourist on a £200 Thomson’s package tour, the future minister checked into the Leningrad Hotel and spent the next few days walking the city streets posting letters into the blue boxes for domestic mail, a handful at a time so as not to attract attention.
“‘I had to learn the rudiments of the Russian alphabet so I could follow street signs,’ he recalls. ‘It was my first foreign trip alone. I remember standing on the banks of the River Neva watching these great ice blocks flowing down river and thinking, “This time yesterday, I was in my flat in London and now here I am.” It was exhilarating and, yes, it was fun.’
“Like many of the recruits, Gibb had been trained by a German ‘handler’, known only to the young activists as Alex. They would meet in a café near Victoria Station and meticulously go over the details needed to evade detection. The grandson of a Russian émigré, Alex is now 75 and lives in Frankfurt. He still works for the NTS publishing house Possev, which printed many of the works smuggled out by couriers and which the KGB once tried, unsuccessfully, to bomb.”
His younger brother Sir Robbie, subsequently the Number 10 director of communications, was also recruited. Along with his then girlfriend, now Lady Gibb.
Most of those who went over were involved in the Federation of Conservative Students. My own mission took place when in 1982 when I was a 16-year-old schoolboy [see photo above].
It was organised by Miller-Kurakin and Julian Lewis – now the Conservative MP for New Forest East MP and the chairman of the powerful Commons Intelligence and Security Committee.
It was unusual in that, rather than it being imperative for me to evade capture, Miller-Kurakin and Lewis were most anxious that I should be arrested by the KGB. I achieved this, ahead of schedule – though my collaborator Peter Caddick-Adams did not, despite ostentatiously handing out leaflets on the Moscow underground.
The point was to generate publicity in the West to undermine the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – which had been holding mass demonstrations and gained the support of the Labour Party for a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
The content of the leaflets – concerning ending the arms race – was printed in English and Russian. They were written by Lewis, but despite his hawkish views there was nothing specifically pro-NATO or anti-Soviet in them. They were simply peace leaflets – support for multilateral disarmament. What was the Soviet response when the message was put forward to their own people?
I was arrested by the KGB at Moscow Airport. This was after I had been caught attempting to smuggle in leaflets “down my socks”. Actually, they were surgical stockings. The bulge of the leaflets was not obvious as I was wearing unfashionable flared jeans.
However, when I was taken off to be body-searched the game was up. For whatever reason, the Soviet authorities were on the look out for me. The plan which was thwarted had been for me to go to the GUM department store and to be detained after spraying the leaflets down from the balcony.
Then I was placed in a bedroom in an army barracks; I was held for just over 24 hours before being deported. I was given nothing to eat or drink. There would be various interrogators coming and going asking me who had sent me and who else was in my group. I recited some comments I had rehearsed about wishing to see someone from the British Embassy and quoting some sections of the Soviet Constitution and the Helsinki Final Act about freedom of expression.
At one stage, I was told I would be put on a flight home in half an hour, but hours later that had not happened. Eventually, I was sent home after being told that I was “banned for life” from returning and that I was “a registered enemy of the Soviet Union”.
I later read in Brian Crozier’s memoirs that the CIA provided the funds. Crozier was a magnificent “cold war warrior” involved in an array of initiatives – open and clandestine – to defeat communism. On my return. home the media coverage was considerable.
The most frequent question was whether my parents knew about it – they did and had been astonishingly sanguine, regarding it as my decision. I was particularly pleased to do an interview for the BBC Russian Service – which I felt rather made up for the failure to reach any Russian members of public.
Various people over the years have said how “brave” we were. Perhaps there was an element of youthful bravado. Certainly there was plenty of fun and excitment.
But the overwhelmingly probability for us was that even if arrested we would be rapidly deported to resume our lives of safety in the west. Far greater courage was shown by those citizens of the Soviet Union who worked to resist the totalitarian system they were living under.
There were parallel operations, of course. Sir Roger Scruton’s work with dissidents – especially in what is now the Czech Republic – is well documented. Sir Roger, a great pessimist, told me that he never expected to see the fall of Communism in those countries during his life time, despite devoting a considerable proportion of his energy to working towards such an outcome.
Such pessimism was understandable. During the era of “detente” (or appeasement as some of us considered it) the Soviet Empire expanded. Many western commentators – with faux sophistication – cynically advanced the theory of moral equivalents. Only during the Reagan/Thatcher era did we really recover our self belief.
Those of us referred to in Buchanan’s piece tended to be more optimistic. Miller-Kurakin convinced me that, while monolithic, the Soviet system would not be permanent. That could not be taken for granted. Though neither can the cause of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law – as the way Russia has regressed under Putin makes all too clear.
Miller-Kurakin sadly died in 2009 aged only 54 – I wrote an obituary about him which appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
Our efforts may have been individually modest. But while retaining a sense of humour is always useful, we needn’t be unduly self-deprecating. Small actions are cumulative – and the Soviet system eventually was brought down.
What do the 16-year-olds of today make of it all? Given the sanitised account of the Soviet Union they will have been taught in school, any of them reading Buchanan’s account may be a bit surprised. I hope, at least, it might convey an understanding that the Left does not have a monopoly of idealism. So often Conservatives are traduced as having base motives. To quote from The Prisoner, an iconic libertarian TV series with a considerable following among some of the “Moscow mules”:
Observer: “I have my duty to everyone. Have you no values, Number 6?”
Number 6: “Different values.”
Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative Life peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
What can one country practically do to halt crimes against humanity in another? The answer is far from obvious. At one end of the scale, it might decide that it has an absolute duty to intervene against genocide, and that the only choice is therefore to invade the offending state, with or without a coalition of allies, halt the killings or be defeated in the attempt. At the other, it might conclude that there is nothing much it can do beyond moving a condemnatory resolution at the United Nations, offering sanctuary to refugees and possibly withdrawing its ambassador.
Obviously, there is a huge spectrum between those two approaches. But there is surprisingly little discussion of what the optimum point on that spectrum is – the point at which exercising proportionate pressure is likeliest to result in a policy change in the other country. Perhaps inevitably in an age of performative anger, some commentators are more interested in signalling their horror at human rights abuses than in pondering the most effective way to tackle them.
The very first vote I cast in the House of Lords (electronically, under the current lockdown rules) was on this issue. An amendment moved by the crossbench peer, Lord Alton, would effectively have allowed British courts to determine whether any country trading with us was guilty of genocide and, if so, to trigger economic sanctions.
No one has ever accused Alton, a former Lib Dem MP, of performative anger. He is a decent and thoughtful man who manages – a rare thing in politics – to be moral without being moralistic. His amendment has attracted supporters from every party in both chambers – most of them, too, actuated by good and sincere motives. But, in the end, it seems to me that their proposed remedy is misplaced.
Ministers argue that issues of this kind ought not to be referred to courts. The question of whether another country is committing such atrocities within its borders as to constitute crimes against humanity should be one for our elected government. If, as would surely sometimes happen, our judges ruled that there was insufficient evidence to make a determination, the offending regime might seize on that judgment as vindication: “Britain has cleared us of genocide”.
All this is true, as far as it goes. We should be very careful about drawing judges into political questions – and drawing them into issues of foreign policy would be quite a step. But it seems to me that there is a more fundamental objection to the proposal. Put simply, trade sanctions are a terrible foreign policy tool. They are not so much useless as counterproductive, serving to hurt ordinary people in the other country as well as your own while propping up the regime of which you disapprove.
At the very least, trade sanctions – including the suspension of a free trade agreement, which we might consider the softest trade sanction – push people in the targeted state towards their leaders. One reason why Communism survived in Cuba when it fell in most of the world was that American sanctions had created a siege mentality. The embargo allowed Fidel Castro to tell his countrymen that their poverty was caused, not by Marxist economics, but by the yanqui blockade.
Vladimir Putin knows how to exploit the same phenomenon, triggering constant conflicts which are primarily intended, not to absorb bits of Georgia or Ukraine, but to foment confrontation with the West, so keeping Russians in a mood of defensive and angry patriotism – precisely the state of mind that makes them likeliest to rally to Putin.
More than this, though, economic sanctions create lucrative opportunities for elites within the countries at which they are aimed. In an open and competitive market, with low barriers to entry, prices fall – to general benefit. The more restricted or distorted a market becomes, the more opportunities are created for monopolists, especially those who are politically connected. States subject to sanctions – Iran, Russia, Venezuela – form a nexus, doing deals with each other which allow a few brokers to get very rich while doing nothing for the general population.
To see what I mean, think back to the oil-for-food regime that operated during the UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein. Notionally designed to allow food and humanitarian supplies into Iraq, it became a racket, allowing favoured Ba’athists and their allies in other countries to make a fortune.
If trade sanctions don’t work, what does? As I said at the start, that is not an easy question. But it surely makes sense to target sanctions at the guilty, something Western countries have become much more adept at doing over the past 20 years. Micro-sanctions vary in severity: travel bans, asset seizures, arrest warrants – possibly even, in extremis, Eichmann-style judicial kidnappings. As a general proposition, though, keyhole surgery must be more effective than hacking blindly with a cleaver.
I was struck, during that first House of Lords debate, by how many people still see trade in essentially mercantilist terms – as a favour to be bestowed rather than as a growth strategy. That fundamental misunderstanding distorted the coverage of the EU-UK trade talks. (“Why”, asked commentators “should the EU grant us access to their markets?” – as though doing so were an act of kindness.) But, more seriously, it distorts our approach to unfriendly regimes.
We often stumble into trade sanctions because of the most dangerous sequence in politics: “Something must be done; here’s something; let’s do it”. In fact, commercial restrictions take from the many to give to the few – and the tyrants know it.
Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
Chinese aggression hit the headlines after Beijing imposed punitive tariffs on Australian wine. But resisting Beijing’s exploitation of the international economy to build up its own power needs democracies to do far more than buy the odd bottle (or case) of Cab-Sauv.
On Tuesday, the China Research Group, led by Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien, released a hard hitting report, Defending Democracy in a New World, describing a toolkit of things democracies can do to limit China’s abuse of the international system (I was involved in drafting the report).
Quite rightly, the report emphasises the importance of engaging with China, and welcomes Chinese economic progress, which, since Deng Xiaoping began to open the Chinese economy in 1979, has brought huge gains in the standard of living of billions of Chinese people, and indirectly, to the rest of the world.
Yet that international economic system is based on fundamental principles that China has been systematically violating. Human rights abuses have intensified since Xi Jinping consolidated power, from the concentration camps into which Uighurs have been crammed, to the destruction of civil liberties and democratic rights in Hong Kong, and the totalitarian oppression to which all Chinese citizens are subjected. China is bullying its neighbours, even to the point of preventing Taiwan helping fight the Covid–19 pandemic through the World Health Organisation, and has been rearming to back that intimidation with force.
Defending Democracy’s most important contribution however, is that it identifies the core source of Chinese Communist Party power and presents a set of practical measures democracies can take to blunt this expansionism. Today’s China is capable of reaching into the open economies of the West and pressing the undoubted economic achievements of Chinese industry and technology into the service of the Chinese state.
When globalisation brought barriers between states down, it did so on the implicit assumption that in market economies, the purpose of business was to make money – not serve the home states of the companies’ owners.
This created a world where it’s possible for all of us who can afford it, no matter where we are from, to own parts of foreign companies by buying shares in them, and have that ownership protected by the foreign country’s legal system. Instead of competing politically-like nineteenth century powers, we invest in each others’ economies and reap the benefits of companies competing with each other across a massive international market.
This ideal, however, is based on governments’ understanding that their job isn’t to promote “our own” companies at the expense of “theirs”, but to create an economic environment where a market economy could meet people’s needs and create jobs. Notwithstanding occasional outbursts of protectionism like France’s declaring dairy producer Danone a “strategic” industry, or outright state capture in some of the smaller ex-Communist European states, this ideal has mostly been upheld in the advanced economies of the world.
Xi Jinping’s China has seen that it is possible to apply the subversion of open Western economies, pioneered by the KGB, at industrial scale. When Western countries began to open up to each other after World War II, we did so on the condition that foreign trade and investment would not be used as a crude tool of political influence.
Perhaps seduced by the size of the Chinese market, and deceiving ourselves into thinking that as the Chinese grew richer, their political system would automatically grow democratic, we neglected to apply the same condition to Beijing. China is now going further, and using its power not only to enrich itself at the expense of a naive international economic and political system, but to start shaping the system’s rules in its own favour, and against liberal democracy.
This report is the start of a line of thinking that democracies, including of course the incoming Biden administration, need to join forces to impose costs on China for as long as its abuse of the international system continues. It contains some powerful measures that we can take to limit proposes some powerful measures that can be used to limit the extent of Beijing’s exploitation of our openness to further entrench its totalitarian rule.
As well as innovative specific measures to support the people of Hong Kong, and British National Overseas passport holders, to which the UK has a special responsibility, the report develops policies that can be applied by other democracies.
These include the systematic extension of Magnitsky Act-style sanctions to individuals responsible for human rights violations in China, including those in leadership positions.
Another key proposal is a “know your supplier” obligation to hold companies responsible for goods they sell that have been produced in supply chains where slave labour has been used. Companies that fail to adequately investigate their own supply chains could be fined, and their directors be subject to personal liability and asset forfeiture if it is found that their wealth resulted from forced labour.
Chinese state-owned enterprises could be excluded from national-security sensitive infrastructure projects. Indeed, given the control the Chinese government exerts over even non-state owned enterprises such as Huawei, through its own national security legislation, the report could perhaps have gone further here, though considerable work is needed to make such restrictions compatible with WTO rules.
China’s participation in the open global economy has been good for China, and good for the rest of us, but it has become clear that China is actively undermining the separation of politics and business upon which economic openness depends. Until Beijing changes its behaviour, democracies need to work together to ensure that China can no longer use its economic power to to bend the international system out of shape.
Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis
Andrew Adonis has chosen a magnificent subject. Ernest Bevin was recognised by everyone he met in the 30 years before his death in 1951 as a tremendous figure, a man of power who invigorated any transaction in which he took part, “a working-class John Bull”, as Winston Churchill put it, who did not allow anyone, Stalin included, to push him around.
From 1945-51 Bevin served as one of the great Foreign Secretaries. The brilliant young men who worked for him at the Foreign Office respected and adored him.
This book carries a photograph, which one could wish had been reproduced larger, of the last of his private secretaries, Roddy Barclay – tall, thin, alert, languid, deferential, wearing an elegant double-breasted suit, a grave demeanour and a moustache, “a clever man who chose not to seem clever” as his obituarist in The Independent put it – holding a paper for the Foreign Secretary and indicating on it some matter of importance.
Bevin is sitting at an ornate desk, a massive figure, head on one side, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, pen held, as Adonis points out, like a chisel, giving the paper his undivided attention and probably about to deliver a brutally funny retort.
In Adonis’s best chapter, entitled “Ernie”, we get Bevin at the height of his powers, with Barclay and Nico Henderson preserving some of the best things they heard him say:
“If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan ‘orses will jump out.”
Or of a speech by Nye Bevan:
“It sounded as if he’d swallowed a dictionary. ‘E used a lot of words but ‘e didn’t know what they all meant.”
One of the reasons why Bevin has faded from the public mind is that his name is so similar to Bevan, who eclipsed all others to carry off the glory of founding the National Health Service.
Unless one is an expert, one has to make an effort to remember which Labour politician is which, and although Bevin was a big figure for a longer period, and had greater achievements to his name, none of those achievements is so easy to explain or to approve of as the NHS.
He was born into rural poverty in Winsford, a remote village in Somerset where another Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was to spend part of his childhood.
Bevin’s mother, Mercy, whose photograph he kept all his life on his desk, was single, and died when he was eight. He left school at the age of 11 and became a farm labourer, which he called “a form of slavery”. His favourite poem was “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
At the age of 13, Bevin managed to join two of his older brothers in Bristol, where he became a drayman, a Baptist preacher, a socialist and a trade union organiser, and before the First World War made common cause between the Bristol carters and dockers.
He was an organiser and negotiator of genius and in 1922 founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which he built into the biggest union in the world, all the time fighting off attempts by Communists to take control.
This was his school of politics. He saw that Churchill’s decision to go back on the gold standard in 1925 had “pushed us over the cliff” and was a disaster for wages, which would have to be cut if British industries were to survive.
Hence the General Strike of 1926, precipitated by proposed cuts in miners’ wages. It is good to be reminded of the remark by Lord Birkenhead, who as F.E.Smith had won a name as one of the most brilliant Conservatives of that or any other generation:
“It would be possible to say without exaggeration of the miners’ leaders that they were the stupidest men in England if we had not had frequent occasion to meet the owners.”
Adonis calls F.E.Smith “the Boris Johnson-esque Tory extrovert of the day”. One sees what he means, but the description isn’t quite right. Smith was harsher than Johnson, and had a more cutting wit.
If Bevin had been able to take charge of the union side of the talks with the Government, the General Strike might have been averted. He was not dominant enough at the start of the crisis to do that, but had emerged by the end of it as a “leader of leaders”.
Men of imagination and intellect – David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes – recognised Bevin as a kindred spirit, more Keynesian than Keynes, someone who saw without needing to work out the theory that one answer to mass unemployment must be to leave the gold standard, while another must be to institute programmes of public works.
Men devoid of imagination – Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative leader, and Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour leader – formed a coalition to uphold economic orthodoxy and keep Lloyd George, who championed Keynes’s ideas, out of power.
In 1935, Bevin was instrumental in getting rid of George Lansbury, described by Adonis as “a 1930s Jeremy Corbyn”, from the Labour leadership. “Bevin hammered Lansbury to death,” as their Labour colleague Hugh Dalton put it. When reproached for brutality, Bevin said,
“Lansbury had been going about dressed in saint’s clothes for years waiting for martyrdom: I set fire to the faggots.”
Bevin supported Clement Attlee as the new leader, and in the years to come upheld him through numerous attempts by Labour colleagues to overthrow him.
In 1940, when Labour joined Churchill’s wartime coalition, Bevin came in as Minister of Labour and a member of the War Cabinet, and with characteristic dynamism set about mobilising the work force.
In 1945, as the new Foreign Secretary, Bevin was plunged at Attlee’s side into hard bargaining with Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, and saw at once – much quicker than the Americans – that here was a Communist who was trying to take control of Western Europe, and must be resisted.
There was no false modesty about Bevin. He knew what he could do. He worked incredibly hard, without showing off about it, and “used alcohol like a car uses petrol”. On the plane back from Potsdam, he told Nico Henderson:
“You see, I’ve had a good deal of experience with foreigners. Before the last war I had to do a good deal of negotiation with ships’ captains of all nationalities. These people, Stalin and Truman, are just the same as all Russians and Americans; and dealing with them over foreign affairs is just the same as trying to come to a settlement about unloading a ship. Oh yes, I can handle them.”
Adonis keeps saying, in a somewhat repetitive way, how crucial Bevin was in resisting Stalin’s attempts to neutralise or take over the whole of occupied Germany.
This is not really why we are interested in Bevin. He is a fascinating political personality. We want to read about Churchill whether or not it can be proved he stopped Hitler, and about Bevin whether or not it can be proved he stopped Stalin.
In each case, the more stridently one advances the claim, the more insecure one is liable to sound.
It is true that the creation of what became West Germany was a triumph of British statecraft for which Bevin deserves credit.
Every so often, when I was a correspondent in Berlin in the 1990s, I was reminded of this, but found it hard to dramatise events which had happened 50 years before.
And after all, the success of West Germany had an awful lot to do with the Germans.
Bevin did not get pious about the postwar settlement. He said of the Germans to General Brian Robertson, Governor of the British zone: “I tries ‘ard, Brian, but I ‘ates them.”
This book is dedicated to Roy Jenkins, “friend, mentor, inspiration”. Unfortunately, the disciple was in too much of a rush to maintain the high standards of eloquence and wit set by his master.
There are sentences in Adonis’s book which are too clumsy ever to have been written, let alone allowed to pass into print, by Jenkins.
But there is also a love of anecdote, and an understanding of the way it can illuminate history, which are worthy of Jenkins.
This book can be recommended to anyone interested in Bevin who lacks the time or will to read Alan Bullock’s three-volume biography, on which Adonis acknowledges his reliance.
Another reason why Bevin has faded from public view is that it is impossible to say who his successors were. The unions became a source of trouble more than of statesmen. Alan Johnson is the last major figure to have come up through one.
The mighty T & G merged in 2007 with Amicus and was renamed Unite the Union, led by Len McCluskey. What a falling off. Adonis concludes of Bevin,
“He was lionised in his day as the first of a new breed of ‘common man’ who would manage the British state in a new democratic era. But Bevin wasn’t the first of a kind: he was the first and last.”
Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch. He works full-time at the international human rights organisation CSW, which specializes in freedom of religion or belief for all, and also serves as the Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission. He is also on the advisory board of the new Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).
It seems to me we are on the brink of war. Not a war between nations or peoples, and not a war that necessarily involves military hardware – yet. But a new Cold War, between values. A war between freedom and authoritarianism, between human rights and repression, between the international rules-based system and a winner-takes-all profiteering perspective. And the frontline in this new war is Hong Kong.
A month ago, the Chinese Communist Party regime shocked the world by announcing that it would impose on Hong Kong a national security law that would destroy Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, flagrantly flout an international treaty – the Sino-British Joint Declaration – and decimate Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” under “one country, two systems”.
Democracies scrambled to respond, and their response – to their credit – has not been lacking in vigour. The United States announced that Beijing’s decision rendered their special treatment of Hong Kong as a special autonomous region redundant, since Beijing was so blatantly disregarding Hong Kong’s autonomy. The United Kingdom followed suit by pledging expanded protection for Hong Kong’s British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders, if the security law is imposed, on the basis that China has violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Now the European Parliament has passed a resolution calling for a case to be brought at the International Court of Justice against China for violation of the Joint Declaration, targeted sanctions, a UN Special Envoy or Special Rapporteur and a lifeboat policy to offer sanctuary for brave Hong Kong frontline activists who are not BNOs and who may be in grave danger under Beijing’s new security law. It is a resolution that mandates an immediate action plan.
Now Beijing has revealed some of the details of its dreaded new law. And it is appalling. While a full draft is not yet released let alone approved, Chinese State media has let it be known that those convicted of “moderate” violations of the security law in Hong Kong – whatever “moderate” means – may be jailed for three years, and those convicted of “serious” crimes could face five or ten years, or more, in jail. The law suggests that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive – currently Carrie Lam, who has proved herself to be a totally subservient puppet of Beijing – can choose the judges in such cases, and that Beijing will oversee the process. In other words, judicial independence is dead and buried if this goes through and the rule of law becomes a historical fact rather than a present reassurance.
So all the theorizing, positioning and leveraging become no longer a matter of conjecture and now a matter of immediate action. Will the world’s democracies step up?
In plain English, we need everyone – absolutely everyone – who believes in freedom, human rights, democracy, the rule of law – to be all hands on deck. But not in a scattergun, isolated or egotistical way. No. It’s time to unite, coordinate and fight back. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that we are, in relation to Xi Jinping’s regime in mid-2020, how we were in regard to Adolf Hitler’s regime in the late-1930s, or in response to the Soviet Union at various stages of the Cold War. We either dismiss the dangers as Stanley Baldwin did, or we try to appease as Neville Chamberlain did, or we stand true to our values and stand up for freedom – as Winston Churchill did and as Ronald Reagan, in his Berlin Wall speech, the anniversary of which was last week, did. And I know what side I am on.
For that reason, we need to unleash a full volley of reactions. Yesterday I sat with my nephews playing the card game Uno Extreme, where you press a button and a mass of cards comes if you’re unable to cast a card. The current crisis is much more complex but the principle applies. We must marshal all our cards – and ensure we don’t play the wrong one.
That means Britain leading, because Britain has a responsibility to Hong Kong – moral and legal. The Prime Minister should be commended for his op-ed in the South China Morning Post pledging protections for BNOs, and the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary should be saluted for their historic signals of intent to stand by Hong Kong. But much, much more is needed.
Britain must lead the world in establishing an international contact group to coordinate a global response. “Britain must lead” is indeed the refrain from many, and I agree – but Britain can’t do it alone. A precedent is set by the statements in past weeks by British, Australian, Canadian and US foreign ministers together. And by Japan leading the G7 statement. We need more of this. Why not build on this into an international contact group, as at least seven former foreign secretaries have suggested?
That international contact group should coordinate a lifeboat scheme to provide sanctuary for Hong Kongers who aren’t BNOs who need to escape. Helping Hong Kongers to safety is a moral responsibility – but it should also be remembered that Hong Kongers would bring wealth and entrepreneurialism, and so would be a boost to any economy rather than a burden. But a lifeboat is a last resort, not a first response. So the international contact group should coordinate international diplomatic efforts combined with targeted sanctions that will hit individuals in the Chinese and Hong Kong administrations hard.
And while many may argue that the United Nations lacks teeth, a global effort is needed to secure the establishment of a UN Special Envoy or Special Rapporteur on Hong Kong, to monitor the human rights situation and mediate a solution – as the last Governor Lord Patten, the head of the International Bar Association’s human rights centre Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, the chairs of foreign affairs committees in the parliaments of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and former UN officials themselves, including the former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar who is also a former Chair of the UN Committee on the rights of the child, Yanghee Lee, among others, recommend.
The wheels of diplomacy turn slowly and often lack teeth. The impact of individual countries’ actions is limited. But when the world pulls together and acts as one, it can speed up the process and enhance the impact. If the free world values freedom, then it must wake up to the imminent dangers exhibited in Hong Kong – but likely to spread further if allowed to pass unchallenged. This may not be the darkest hour, as things may get darker still. But that the hour to act has come is not in doubt. For as Churchill famously said, “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth”. It’s carpe diem time – for Hong Kong, and for freedom.