Blair’s new dawn and the early buds of May

I remember it all like yesterday. Our new born baby girl (now 20) was just over a month old. My parents-in-law were visiting – mother-in-law to support her daughter; father-in-law enroute from New Zealand where he had been for a few months with his eldest son. As a retired diplomat he too was interested in politics and so as usual, as the polls closed, we sat glued to the television watching the marathon broadcast of the election returns chaired by the magisterial David Dimblebey, aided by the grand inquisitor of the BBC Sir Robin Day.

Time for Change

As always on election night, there was also another race for the first constituency to declare its results. In elections since 1979, David Amess’s constituency of Basildon in Essex had gotten ahead of everyone to be first to announce. This was no meaningless race: it was a portent for how the night might unfold for the parties. Basildon held the record for being first to declare, and each time in recent years returned a Tory MP and the Conservatives romped home to victory.

On this occasion, May 1st, 1997, however, the Tyne and Wear constituency of Sunderland South was the quickest to count its ballot papers and declared Labour’s Chris Mullin winner, with a majority of 49 percent and an electoral swing of 10 percent. It was the start of a momentous evening. After 18 years of Tory rule and three unsuccessful party leaders, the prospect of a Labour comeback now seemed real. Unlike John Major’s surprise victory in 1992 over an over-exuberant Neil Kinnock, this time, with an English leader middle England could relate to, it was surely Labour’s turn.

One by one, the great and the good of the Tory party who had dominated British politics for much of my adult life were swept-up in an electoral tsunami. Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary; Tony Newton, Majority Leader in Parliament; Norman Lamont the former Chancellor; Michael Forsythe Secretary of State of Scotland; Ian Lang President of the Board of Trade; William Waldegrave, former Chief Secretary to The Treasury; Jonathan Aitken former cabinet minister and ex-convict; and, Edwina Curry, former Health Minister among others.

How the mighty fell

But even as they fell like dominoes, the extent of the defeat that would keep the Tories out of power for the next thirteen years was not fully understood. Until that is, the studios turned their attention to the North London constituency of Edmonton and Southgate. If the Tories were to lose, as was expected, one sure bet was that Michael Portillo, the MP of the constituency, would become leader of the Conservative Party. Despite the Tory electoral headwinds the then Secretary of Defence and  standard bearer of the Eurosceptic right was odds-on favourite to succeed John Major.

But as the David and Goliath of the 1997 elections walked up the stage for the returning officer’s declaration, Twigg’s somewhat suppressed, self-satisfied smile and Portillio’s forced cheerfulness suggested something ominous was in the air. And within minutes as the returning officer spoke, it was clear that the mightiest beast of all in the now bare Tory jungle had fallen. This was no ordinary defeat- it was a bloodbath!

The End of Thatcherism

The country was on the cusp of change from nearly two decades of Thatcherism – the embodiment of the evisceration of the state and much that mattered to Labour voters; from the NHS, public education, welfare, unemployment to even state ownership of vital services like utilities. Having abandoned Clause IV of the Labour Party’s constitution that committed the party to public ownership, Blair was going to be a different kind of Labour leader.

For a brief period I was enamoured by him when he gave his thumping speech at party conference in 1992 and implored us to mean what we say and say what we mean. I had followed him on the campaign trail, asked him questions and had him sign one of his books for me and so I was well aware of what he represented. Even so he would be different from the rapacious Tories and carry out the pledges he had committed himself to: enact the UK’s first minimum wage legislation; opt into the Social Chapter of the EU’s Maastricht treaty to protect workers’ rights; focus on education, education, educational as he had promised; devolve power from Westminster to Scotland and Wales; reform the House of Lords and rid it of hereditary peers; investigate the Police’s mishandling of the investigation into the killing of Stephen Lawrence; and many other progressive policies.

With the fall of Portillo, one finally understood the extent of the breach of the Tory Dam. History was unfolding right before our very eyes! And while I enjoyed the experience of watching the results on TV with my father-in-law, the desire to be part of it and to live to tell the tale one day was so irresistible I jumped into the car and drove the fastest I could, from Pinner to the Southbank, where the Labour leadership and supporters had gathered to celebrate this historic victory.

A new dawn has broken

Naturally the place was packed. Blair was rumoured to be travelling down by helicopter from his Sedgefield constituency to the Southbank and we waited with heightened anticipation. I dumped my car somewhere and rushed to the join the teeming crowds as we sang along to D.Ream’s “Things can only get better”. Outside, I spotted my former MP Harriet Harman, Peter Mandelson, Labour’s image and Communications guru and grandson of Herbert Morrison. Neil and Glenys Kinnock were singing along too. Ever the master of political sound bites, Blair’s opening words in his speech after he landed around 2am – “A new dawn has broken, has it not?”- captured the historic moment perfectly!

But standing outside was not enough for me. My mission was still incomplete until I was inside the Hall, where all the great Labourites were gathered but it was strictly by invitation only. I summoned all the charm I could to persuade the security guards to let me in but they would not budge. The comedian Eddie Izzard pitched up and I pretended to wave knowingly at him but he ignored me. After several minutes of milling around idly, a Land Rover pulled up with a noisy bunch. As soon as we found out the people in it included Stephen Twigg, the man who had just slain the Tory beast, the vehicle was assailed by hordes of supporters. We jumped around, sang till our voices were hoarse and carried the hero of 1997 election high on our shoulders. It was exactly the ecstatic moment of history I longed to savour.

When Twigg and his team made their way into the hall, I decided to tag along. I got away for a while until one of the security guards pulled me back and asked who I was. My response? “I am with the Stephen Twigg party”. Which constituency? the security guard asked. I thought to myself wrong question; I am in! Without much hesitation I uttered three words in response : “Edmonton and Southgate”. He looked up his sheet and despite his doubts let me in. The rest, as they say, is history

Damage and budding revenge in the air

After a night heedless revelling, I headed back home around 5am only to find David Mellor, Secretary of State for National Heritage and Consigliere of John Major had lost the super safe Tory seat of Putney. As expected the anti-corruption candidate and former war correspondent Martin Bell unseated Neil Hamilton from Tatton. Labour went from 271 to 418 seats in Parliament and the Tories crashed from 336 to a paltry 165. That, in any book, was a colossal thrashing.

Amidst all of the riotous debris on one side and the euphoria among Labour supporters, the 1997 election also ushered in a new MP for Maidenhead. Her name? Theresa May. Twenty years after that clean-out she is now Prime Minister poised to avenge the worst defeat her party had suffered in recent years. She may yet do to Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 what Blair did to
the Tories on the night when they were both victors.

(C) Ekow Nelson

Singapore, April 2017

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Will Theresa May’s Election Gamble Backfire?

Ekow  Nelson

Fresh on the heels of Turkey’s referendum, British Prime Minister Theresa May appears to have taken a leaf out of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy and has suddenly decided to go to the country for more legislative room to negotiate Brexit on her own terms, without much hindrance or opposition. But will this work? Or has she awakened a sleeping and demoralised ‘Remain Giant’ that had all but given up on the inevitability of so-called hard Brexit?

Up until recently, the Prime Minister argued strenuously that there was no need to legitimise her position, which she assumed without an explicit vote by the electorate after the resignation of David Cameron. But apparently, after a ponderous reflection over the long Easter weekend, she decided it was right after all to seek a mandate for her programme and her interpretation of Brexit.

She had insisted that “Brexit meant Brexit” without explaining exactly what the 52 percent of the electorate who voted to leave the European Union had in mind. She resisted calls to allow Parliament a vote on Article 50 until she was ordered to do so by the Supreme Court. She refused to issue a White Paper setting out her government’s strategy on Brexit but relented after much pressure. The prospect of using so-called Henry VIII powers to alter EU laws being repatriated back to the UK has alarmed many observers. More generally, her hardline stance on immigration (which she believes was the main message of the referendum), withdrawal from the Single Market and even the Customs Union, have made many people more nervous about the uncertain future that might emerge after Britain leaves the EU.

Despite losing a few legal challenges and temporary setbacks from the House of Lords, it was assumed no one could stand in her way. Until today. But her stated reason for calling an early general election, like Henry II, of wanting to be rid of troublesome opposition parties in Scotland and the mainland who are making life difficult, may well cause the electorate to deny her the freehand she seeks.

Because the truth is, despite appearances, 48 percent of those who voted in the last referendum wanted to remain in the European Union. Many of these ‘Remainers’, including a large proportion of younger voters had given up and were resigned to Britain’s exit. Now the Prime Minister has given them a second chance to pronounce on her Brexit negotiating posture. And it may be too tempting for those opposed to a hard Brexit not to use the opportunity to deny her precisely what she is demanding.

The opinion polls show she is 20 points ahead of the opposition Labour Party which has been ravaged by internecine conflicts since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.  His lacklustre parliamentary performance has not inspired much confidence among his base or the country. And Mrs. May is gambling that opposition disarray will strengthen her meagre majority and give her the mandate to go for the rupture that many of her hardcore backbench Brexiteers have craved for years.

Unlike many Labour MPs, Corbyn himself is not an EU enthusiast and is at best a reluctant Remainer. In that regard he is not too dissimilar to many of Labour’s core supporters outside the large metropolitan cities and in the industrial heartlands of the Northeast. So he leads a parliamentary party that wants to oppose Mrs. May but a rank-and-file membership whose sentiments are with her. How does he square that? It’s an impossible task. The best argument Corbyn could offer is moderation and to make the forthcoming election a referendum on Mrs. May’s hard Brexit.

The First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon whose call for a second referendum on Scottish independence did not garner as much support as she imagined, will also use this election to shore up her party’s position as a check on the extremism of the Prime Minister who could split the United Kingdom and cause irreparable damage to the Union.

If the Prime Minister’s pole position in the polls begins to slide, as it must, she could moderate her stance so as not to frighten off middle-of-the-road voters but would then incur the wrath of her hardline Brexiteer base and risk losing them to the more extreme UK Independence Party (UKIP) who have described Mrs May’s decision as a sign of weakness.

This election may not turn out as Mrs. May had intended. After all, the British electorate were finely divided on the issue of leaving the EU and it may be time for a redress. While immigration dominated the referendum campaign, the reality of leaving has suddenly dawned and with that, justifiable concerns about the consequences for trade, jobs, investment, and employment rights.

British voters may not wish to reverse the decision they made on June 23rd 2016; but they want a more cordial and amicable separation with visiting rights and the preservation of some mutual obligations. The unintended consequence of Mrs. May’s call for an early general election may be to reinforce the opposition to her hard Brexit stance, leave her without significantly more legislative room and force her to negotiate compromises she has thus far been unwilling to make.

Delhi, 18th April 2017

Posted in Brexit, Britian, EU, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Nicola Sturgeon, Politics, Theresa May, Tory Party, UK Elections, UKIP | 1 Comment

The end of the European Union as we know it

Ekow Nelson, April 2017

Last week British Prime Minister, Theresa May, triggered the long-awaited Article 50(2) to start the formal process of withdrawing the United Kingdom from the European Union.

After 44 years of at times tumultuous, often tense, relationship, the UK has decided to make its own way in the world once again. Britain’s quest for a role in the world after losing its once global empire, as former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, received a renewed boost. But what does the future hold for UK and the EU?

An Uncertain Future
Doom-saying ‘Remainers’ believe the result can only be catastrophic; euphoric ‘Brexitiers’ claim a new dawn has broken and sovereignty will be repatriated back to Westminster. Despite complaints about the loss of sovereignty, the EU was not an imposition on the UK by its European neighbours: it was the UK that barged in, even after its membership application was twice rebuffed by France’s General Charles De Gaulle in 1963 and 1967.

In hindsight, De Gaulle’s reasons for opposing Britain’s membership appear prescient. At a press conference in January 1963 he questioned Britain’s commitment to being inside a common tariff union and its genuine willingness “to renounce all Commonwealth preferences, to cease any pretence that her agriculture be privileged, and, more than that, to treat her engagements with other countries of the free trade area as null and void”.

Renewed interest in the World Trade Organisation, the Commonwealth and bilateral trade alternatives prove De Gaulle’s instincts were right. Geography and history made the UK a risky member of a closed EU in the long run, just as De Gaulle had predicted.

Fundamentals are unchanged
But questions as to whether Britain will survive outside the EU are rather moot. Of course it will; it did before accession and it will after Brexit. As a country of laws, systems and trade, it will continue to exist no matter what happens. However, what Brexitiers who are painting a picture of a gilded past and a rosy future ignore, is that the UK was a non-member before joining the EU and we all remember what it was like then. There was a reason the UK joined the EEC: the economy and access to the largest trading bloc and none of these have changed fundamentally.

Prior to accession, the British economy was characterised by high-wage inflation, industrial strife, low-productivity and output which earned it the sobriquet of the ‘sick-man of Europe’. While all European countries were rebuilding their economies after a catastrophic second world war, Britain’s recovery appeared sclerotic and over-burdened. Joining the EEC was seen as the only hope for economic revival especially as one after the other, Britain lost hold on its ex-colonies.

What is at stake?
Although Britain’s economy has prospered since accession, it would be a stretch, even inaccurate, to attribute all of it to membership of the EU. Structural reforms by Mrs. Thatcher and successive governments, the discovery of North Sea Oil and gobalisation have had greater impact. Still, membership of the EU contributed to greater prosperity for all and economic regeneration in the poor and ignored old industrial towns in the North of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Farmers and the landed-gentry have done well out of large subsidies and consumers have benefited from lower tariffs and an abundance of supply. Free movement of capital and labour signed into law by Mrs. Thatcher as part of the Single European Act shored up the financial services sector which accounts for one-fifth of the British economy and underscored the City of London as a preeminent global financial center.

Much of this is now at risk with Brexit and the fear of a possible return to the Britain of the 1960s and early 1970s. If the promises of new trade pacts with other countries are real, attractive alternatives, why did Britain not take advantage of them prior to 1973?
The greater fallout from Brexit, however, may well be the collapse of the European Union as we know it. Not, as commentators argue, because of the rise and possible triumph of right-wing populist parties in the elections in France and Germany, but under the EU’s own weight of burden.

The future of the EU
De Gaulle foreshadowed this in his 1963 press conference when he argued that the entry of Great Britain [and other states] an expanded Common Market of “11 and then 13 and then perhaps 18 would no longer resemble … the one which the Six built”. The EU has 28 members now and the departure of one of its largest net contributors to the organisation’s annual budget will have a destabilising financial impact.

To thwart the Franco-Germany axis from hurtling toward ever-closer political union favoured by both former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand, British politicians successfully persuaded the EU to admit former Eastern Europeans States after the fall of the Berlin Wall. After years under communism it was no surprise that many former Eastern European countries climbed unto the raft the EU offered and haven’t looked back since.

The reality though is all the former Eastern European countries plus Spain, Portugal and Greece are net recipients of the EU budget and it is open to question how long the net contributors will continue subsiding them. While the original Six got together to foster trade and mutual development, it does not require much imagination to fathom that the attraction of many of the EU’s recent members was the inward investment and subsidies dangled before them. With Brexit and the loss of the EU’s third largest net contributor, the burden will fall on fewer countries and that is not sustainable. If net recipients are forced to make greater contributions, many will no longer find the trade-off between the EU’s burdensome regulations and economic benefits attractive or as reason to bear and grin continued membership. The EU may well shrink to a club of ten.

Delhi, April 2017

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Attacks are déjà vu for Londoners

March 2017

This week my home city came under assault from a man wielding a knife and car, a few days after a former commander of the Provisional Irish Republican Army(IRA), Martin McGuiness, who did much more to damage London and our political institutions, passed.

Unlike cities such as Paris, Orlando and Boston that have been the target of recent terrorist attacks, the last few years, perhaps decade, have been relatively tranquil in London. And I guess the reason why the city remained calm and stoical – despite the efforts of the 24-hour news media to whip up mass hysteria – in the face of the attacks this week is precisely because we lived with such incidents for years.

Attacks on the mother of Parliaments

The British Parliament has been the target of terrorist attacks since Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators in the Gun Powder plot attempted to blow up the House of Lords in November 1605. In fact many people forget that before Islamic terrorists, Irish Republican terrorism, led by such people as the late Martin McGuiness, and supported and financed by many well-healed and powerful Irish-Americans on the East Coast, blighted the lives of many in the UK. More than that they killed, maimed and injured several thousands, with muted condemnation and deafening silence from occupants of the Oval Office.

The IRA attacked Westminster pretty routinely during the so-called ‘troubles’. In 1979 they planted a bomb in the vehicle of then Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Airey Neave, who was blown apart within minutes of driving out of the House of Commons car park. Twelve years later they tried to take out the entire British cabinet, firing three mortar rounds from an abandoned vehicle outside Downing Street while cabinet sat under Prime Minister John Major’s leadership in 1991.

London has seen deadlier attacks

The IRA did not limit their mayhem to Westimnster however. Earlier in 1975 they exploded a bomb in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel Park Lane, killing two people and injuring 63. A ring of steel’ was erected around the financial district of London (commonly known as The City) after the IRA detonated a bomb near Bishopsgate in 1993. One person was killed, forty were severely injured, but the damage to property was much more extensive, stretching from the Natwest Tower, then the tallest skyscraper in the City, Liverpool Street Station all the way to Threadneedle Street, the home of the Bank of England. Many of the buildings in the area, including the famous Natwest Tower which then housed the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank had to be demolished and rebuilt.

These were a few in a series of bomb blasts that became a regular disruption to life on the mainland. An exasperated British government did not know how to respond but such was the ferocity of the bomb blast and its impact on one of the Crown Jewels of the British economy, that the entire City was cordoned off with a ring of steel for several years, to control the flow of traffic. As a young professional then, I used to drive through the City to get to work and was lucky not to have been caught in the blast. The most i suffered was the inconvenience of having to cope with checkpoints and looking for alternative routes for many years subsequently. It ended some lives; blighted others but for many of us this was just another of the disruptions we had grown wearyingly used to.

In February 1996, another IRA bomb exploded on one of London’s iconic red double decker buses on the Aldywch near the Strand. Three people were killed and many others injured. Curiously on this occasion, the IRA failed to give any warning as it had done in previous attacks. I distinctly remember that was the day when my reflexive but fast-diminishing sympathy for the Republican political cause all but ended. It could have been me on that bus.

The Aldwych bus bombing followed right on the heels of the Docklands blast in the city’s new financial district at Canary Wharf just over a week earlier. Two people, including a newsagent from the subcontinent, were killed; a 100 others were injured including a British Moroccan family whose father was permanently disabled. Docklands marked the end of almost two years of self-imposed ceasefire by the IRA and the return to many such atrocities until the Good Friday Agreement at the zenith of Tony Blair’s Prime Ministership when the “hand of history” was proverbially placed on his shoulders.

Defiance and Stoicism

So while the attacks on Parliament yesterday by a marauding terrorist who deliberately mounted a pavement and drove into an unsuspecting crowd, were utterly contemptible, they also reminded Londoners of the experience we lived with for many years. Seeing many of my ‘townsfolk’ turn out in large numbers to protest the attacks was moving and in particular, because they were vocal in their defiance of the attempt to divide this multicultural and ethnically diverse and beautiful city. IRA terrorists were Irish but no one attacked Irish people because of that or held them responsible.

Despite the efforts of the news media to play this out endlessly, the people of London quickly returned to the humdrum routine of their daily lives. The dastardly attack may have been a rude reminder of what we put up with for years, but like all the others before it, the people of London showed that it would not change our lives. We have lived with the scourge of terrorism for years and we will not be cowed by it.

We are all Londoners too

Memes like “Je suis Charlie” spread widely among non Parisians after the unfortunate spate of terrorist attacks in Paris; this time I can proudly say “I am a Londoner too” in solidarity with the people of my home city – and mean it!

Ekow Nelson
Gurgaon, India
March 2017

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What and who the President left out

Ekow Nelson

The President, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, used his speech on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Ghana’s independence to retell the story of the struggle for self-government – memorialising victims and celebrating ‘heroes’ alike. He recalled seminal moments in that struggle, like the formation of the Aborigines Rights Protection Society on 4th August, 1897 and their unprecedented but successful mobilization of opposition to the Lands Bills that “forced the colonial authorities to retreat”.

In many ways, what the President did was to render his version of our recent political history about which there is little consensus, with many contested claims on both sides –especially between the United Party’s (UP) and the Convention People’s Party’s (CPP) versions of events.

While the speech was generally commendable in lauding the contributions of people as diverse as the musicologist Dr. Ephraim Amu, Yaa Asantewaa and the formidable Dede Ashikisham, the President also seized the opportunity to condemn what he called the “infamous Preventive Detention Act of 1958” and celebrated many of the prominent politicians who were detained under it.

The Act, of course, has been the subject of debate for years and the famous Supreme Court case – “RE: AKOTO AND 7 OTHERS” –on its legality and whether Parliament or the Constitution of Ghana alone was [then] sovereign and supreme crystallised the differing opinions on this part of our history perfectly. And it seems to me that the opposing sides on this issue will remain irreconcilable for a long time. The President, however, has every right, particularly as a human rights lawyer, to state his position unequivocally on this issue and I respect that.

But taken as a whole, for a speech that was part a lesson in political history and part tribute to the many who played major roles in our struggle for independence, the President left out key sections of our community who are more than dotted ellipses in our historical narrative. Specifically, there was no mention or tribute to the many innocent people who lost their lives through the very turbulent years of sustained bombings in the early 1960s. One doesn’t have to apportion blame or take sides to acknowledge that these dastardly acts occurred. Here is a sampling of what the President left out of his version of our history.

In 1962, the ceremonial opening of Ghana’s third Parliament in the new Republic which was scheduled for September 25th, was postponed until October 2nd because of a bomb explosion in the West End Arena of Accra on September 20th that injured 100 people. According to the London Times “[a] public meeting had been held in the West End Arena, and the crowd set out in a torchlight procession led by Young Pioneers, when after less than a mile the bombs went off. Most of the casualties were members of the Young Pioneers.” This explosion came right off the heels of an earlier bomb attempt on President Nkrumah’s life on September 9th on Independence Avenue.

The Kulungungu explosion which occurred when a bomb grenade was thrown near President Nkrumah’s car while on his way back from talks with President Maurice Yameogo in Upper Volta, did not feature either. President Nkrumah himself escaped unhurt but four people were killed and fifty-six others, including members of the President’s entourage were injured. This bomb attempt so shook the world, that Queen Elizabeth II and British Prime Minister Sir Harold Macmillan sent messages of sympathy. The Queen’s message read as follows: – “I was shocked to learn of the attempt on your life. My husband and I are greatly relieved that you are unharmed. Please convey an expression of our sincere sympathy to those who were injured.” Yet this cataclysmic event that shaped our political discourse and even led to the unprecedented sacking of then Chief Justice Arku Korsah, did not get a mention in our current President’s version of our history. One wonders: did Chief Justice Arku Korsah not get a mention because of ‘Re: Akoto’?

It is also particularly notable because among the series of prosecutions brought by the Attorney-General for the Kulungugu bomb attack was one ‘State v Otchere’ heard by a Special Court constituted by Justice K. Arku Korsah, Chief Justice, Mr. Justice W. B. van Lare and Mr. Justice E. Akufo Addo, both Justices of the Supreme Court. Of course, Justice E. Akufo-Addo is the father our current President Nana Addo Dankwa-Akufo-Addo. All three Justices found Robert Benjamin Otchere (a member of parliament for the United Party) “guilty on both counts of conspiracy to commit treason and treason and convict[ed] him accordingly.” The Justices (including the current President’s father) also concluded that Joseph Yaw Manu, the second accused, also a member of the United Party “bears full responsibility for all the acts of the said Obetsebi Lamptey [celebrated by the current President] and therefore for the Kulungugu incident, and we therefore find him guilty on both counts of (a) conspiracy to commit treason and (b) treason, and we convict him accordingly”. But neither this nor the victims of Kulungugu were acknowledged in our current President’s version of our political history.

These atrocities were preceded by explosions much earlier, and prior to the visit of the Queen of England to Ghana.  On November 6th 1961 a bomb explosion went off near the national lottery building in Accra. While no damage was done to property and no persons were injured, the police took away and detonated other timed devices found at the location. According to reports, three hours later, “a second bomb went off near a big roadside hoarding carrying coloured pictures of the Queen and Nkrumah”. All that occurred while the British Foreign Secretary Duncan Sandys was on a reconnaissance visit to Accra to assess possible security risks with the Queen’s visit. To assure Her Majesty’s safety, Sandys undertook a personal tour of Accra, and at one point even got out of his car at Black Star Square to examine the damage to the Independence Arch from an earlier explosion on Saturday November 4th .

Things got so unstable and frightening that the British government threatened to cancel the State Visit by the Queen. In a statement to the House of Commons in London, Foreign Secretary Duncan Sandys assured British Members of Parliament that “if it should appear to us [the British government] that the visit would involve abnormal risks, we would not hesitate to advise cancellation”. Earlier the British sent two Scotland Yard officers to Accra to examine security arrangements to ensure it was safe for Her Majesty to travel.

The Queen’s visit passed without incident but the bomb explosions did not cease after she left or the Kulungugu trials. On 9th January 1963 another bomb explosion claimed the lives of four people and injured 85 in Accra. By then such bomb explosions had killed 21 people and injured 400 citizens of our newly independent country. These faceless and nameless victims, almost all of whom were neither politicians nor activists, did not get a mention in President’s roll of honour, nor were they acknowledged even simply, as innocent victims of the struggle.

I had hoped that given his radical youth and his father’s involvement in the trials of the bomb atrocities that blighted our politics and nation in the 1960s, that the President would be more balanced in his historical narrative. Alas I was wrong. The speech pretended to be all-inclusive, but it was sadly a partial history of our country, with a personal point of view – the President’s.

Sixty years on, one would expect pretence, denials and obfuscations to be a thing of the past and we would be mature, and grown-up enough to admit all our faults. The President’s speech, however, demonstrates that we are not yet ready for an open and honest conversation about our past. We will remain divided until we get a President who is committed to healing our nation and embracing all our stories.

So here is to all the victims of the bomb explosions of the 1960s who were left out of our President’s address on 6th March 2017. Your sacrifices, though not offered voluntarily, have not gone unnoticed. One day you too, will get your deserved memorial.

Ekow Nelson, New Delhi, India

6th March 2016

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Somme and the futility of war

Ekow Nelson, July 2016

Today, 1st July 2016 is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, perhaps the bloodiest in the ‘Great War’. Over one million soldiers died or were injured in less than six months with almost 60,000 deaths in the British army alone on day one. As I wondered what one could learn from this, one hundred years on, my mind immediately turned to Wilfred Owen and his celebrated ‘Dulce est Decorum est’ provided me with the angle I just needed.

For hundreds of years since the Roman lyrical poet Horace coined the phrase “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori “ in his third ode celebrating Roman virtues, the admonition – “it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country” – became axiomatic and for over a millennia, young men proudly volunteered to fight for King and Country. War was a patriotic duty and most countries celebrated it. It was a measure of your strength ; most leaders woke each morning wondering how they could project their power. Napoleon went on a rampage seizing much of modern Europe and the Holy Roman Empire from Aachen to Alsace.The Ottomans expanded their territory overrunning everything in sight. The Spanish Conquistadors brooked no opposition in Latin America destroying much that stood in their way and England and France did much the same in other parts of the world The battles of Waterloo, Trafalgar, the thirty-year and hundred day wars are all celebrated as part of European folk history. War was virtuous, and leaders were made or broken by how they fared in their conquests.

Until 1914: when opposition to war became less muted with many more conscientious objectors than ever before. Field Marshall (popularly known as Lord) Kitchener’s infamous advert calling on his fellow countrymen to sign up for war, signalled a clear shift in the population’s attitude, reticence even, towards war – fighting unquestioningly for one’s country was no longer as noble an ideal as Horace had glibly suggested. The impact of war and its deleterious consequences on individuals and families became an important consideration.

It was in this milieu that the young English Poet and WW1 soldier Wilfred Owen found himself and wrote most of his powerful poetry even as he lay and fought in the trenches on the Western Front. While his friend Siegfried Sasoon was an earlier well-known opponent of the Great War, Owen’s poetry, in my mind, went beyond mere opposition to articulating more powerfully, the futility of war. Apart from his graphically descriptive ‘Dulce et decorum est’ – arguably the most powerful war poem of all time (reproduced below) in which he described Horace’s axiom as “the old lie” – others like ‘Strange Meeting’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ were equally evocative in challenging the old notion that war was a noble thing.

The first world war is not only known as the War to end all wars (for its sheer brutality), it is also described as the last of the great wars of choice, in contrast with the second which, as is generally agreed, was a justifiable and a necessary response to the outbreak of European fascism.

Curiously, no other wars since are celebrated in the way many pre-nineteen century European conquests and wars – from the battles of Hastings and Stamford Bridge to Waterloo and Trafalgar – were, in triumphalist tones. The Vietnam War is now a byword for how not to poke your nose in other nations’ affairs. The two Iraq wars are anything but celebrated – they were disastrous and opposition to Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait signalled our lack of tolerance for unprovoked aggression. No one celebrates the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Traditional tribal wars like the Rwandan genocide are seen as barbaric and no one believes there is anything noble about the Syrian civil war or even the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Few, if any wars, in the 21st century are celebrated.

As a species we have grown not only weary of war; we have rejected Horace and are as concerned about the tragic consequences of war – the waste and vanquished futures of our youth.

That is what the centenary of the Somme reminds me of. We are better now than we ever were. We value individual lives and patriotism alone is not enough for us to sacrifice our sons and daughters on the smouldering pyres of the battlefields of meaningless wars. That, in large measure, must be credited to the young Shropshire lad, Wilfred Owen, whose antiwar poetry has shaped our thinking about war and stirred subsequent generations into questioning its utility. It is his tragic death on armistice day that I mourn on this anniversary of the bloodiest battle of the ‘Great War’.

July 2016, Abu Dhabi

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Dublin could be the winner!

Ekow Nelson

There are indications that large financial institutions like JP Morgan have started looking around for alternative bases to ensure their continued access to the EU Single Market, after Britain leaves the EU. Frankfurt and Dublin have been mentioned as possible alternatives to London. While Frankfurt has a well developed European financial services sector there is every reason to believe Dublin could become a more suitable alternative, over the long run.

Dublin is only about an hour or so away from London. And bankers could easily commute by air. Ireland, the land of WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde, GB Shaw, James Joyce and JM Synge, is linguistically at least, as natively English as England. They speak and write English, the language of business and financial services that links the important markets of London, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore, just as well, if not better, than the English. They have a first-class education system and a talented workforce – if they have not emigrated. And over the years, since their membership of the Common Market in 1973, have seen their economy grow with billions of investments from the EU. Like the UK, Ireland has a flexible labour market with a low (even lower) tax regime that has attracted many media and Tech companies to site their European HQs there.

The historic ties between the peoples of Ireland and UK go back a long way even if they are littered with periods of bitter and bloody conflicts. Before the Single European Act, Irish people could travel freely to the U.K. and vice versa for work and that will not change.

There has been no land border between the two countries for hundreds of years and despite the decision to quit the EU, it is inconceivable one is about to ever introduced. In fact I will bet everything I own on there not being one after we leave. The absence of a land or air border will enable the free flow of financial services talent between the two countries.

The U.K. is Ireland’s biggest trading partner and will remain so for a long time. So even if the UK does not negotiate favourable trade terms with the EU (which is understandable if the EU wishes to deter other member states), neither the EU nor Ireland will oppose favourable bilateral trade agreements between the UK and Ireland.

The UK’s trade deficit of some US$90Bn with the EU suggests it will remain an important market to EU member states. They sell more to us than we to them. We will still buy BMWs, Alfa Romeos and Bosch goods.

Ireland then, becomes the UK’s link to the EU and the backdoor channel for favourable trade with Europe. Dublin could well become Europe’s new financial powerhouse alternative to London.

Ireland, whose applications to join the EU were also rejected in 1963 and 1967 ostensibly because it was too underdeveloped and agrarian, could well play the crucial role of bridging the UK with the EU.

Dublin could be the winner and for the English (and even the Scots) that would be far preferable.

Abu Dhabi, June 2016


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