longtime political commentator who has written more than two dozen books on world history and politics, seven novels and scripts for the stage and screen. He is an editor of the New Left Review, where his most recent article is about President Obama at war and titled "President of Cant." His latest book, published last month, is the concluding novel of his Islam Quintet, titled Night of the Golden Butterfly.
In Britain, the unfolding political drama following last week’s inconclusive elections has taken a new twist. On Monday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered to resign as head of the Labor Party later this year. He announced the opening of formal negotiations with the rival Liberal Democrats to form a progressive alliance and block the Conservative Party from retaking power. The Conservatives, led by David Cameron, won most seats in Parliament in last week’s elections but fell short of a majority. We speak with longtime political commentator and writer Tariq Ali in London. [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We begin today in Britain, where the unfolding political drama since last week’s inconclusive elections have taken a new twist. On Monday Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered to resign as head of the Labor Party later this year. He announced the opening of formal negotiations with the rival Liberal Democratic Party to form a progressive alliance and block the Conservative Party from retaking power.
PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: The reason that we have a hung Parliament is that no single party and no single leader was able to win the full support of the country. As a leader of my party, I must accept that that is a judgment on me. I therefore intend to ask the Labor Party to set in train the processes needed for its own leadership election. I would hope that it would be completed in time for the new leader to be in post by the time of the Labor Party conference. I will play no part in that contest. I will back no individual candidate.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Conservatives, led by David Cameron, won most seats in Parliament in last week’s elections but fell short of a majority. Labor came second, and the smaller Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg, came a distant third. The Conservative Party has been talking to the Liberal Democrats in order to try and form a government, but Brown said that the Liberal Democrats now wanted to talk to Labor.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on what’s happening with the whole British political scene, we’re joined now from London by veteran political commentator, writer and Pakistani-born political activist Tariq Ali. He has written more than two dozen books on world history and politics, seven novels, and scripts for the stage and screen. He’s an editor of the New Left Review, where his most recent article is about President Obama at war, called "President of Cant." His latest book, published last month, is the concluding novel of his Islam Quintet, called Night of the Golden Butterfly.
Tariq Ali, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Sorry you couldn’t make it to the United States a few weeks ago because of the volcano in Iceland and the ash that kept all the planes on the ground. But Tariq, talk about what‘s happening right now in Britain.
TARIQ ALI: Well, Amy, what is essentially going on here is that you have three mainstream parties: Labor, which has been defeated; the Conservatives, who have the largest popular vote and more seats in Parliament than anyone else; and the Lib Dems, the Liberal Democrats, who hold the balance. And they’re all maneuvering — the Lib Dems, in particular — to see who is going to offer them more cabinet positions, who and, more importantly, which of the other two parties are in favor of changing the electoral system to proportional representation, so that in the next election, the members of Parliament are elected on a proportional basis, which is what happens in most of Europe and which is certainly more democratic. Both the Conservatives and Labor are offering changes to the electoral system, provided the Lib Dems decide to back them.
And these sort of games are going on, are very entertaining to the television journalists and people who report them, but a more fundamental point is this: all these three parties agree with each other on the economic measures that have to be taken, i.e., massive cuts in social welfare public spending, which will hurt the poor, and to support the banking system and the financial system in this country. All three are agreed on that. All three political parties are agreed that the war in Afghanistan has to continue as long as the United States says it has to continue, backing the United States in Afghanistan. On smaller issues, there are odd differences in nuance, but there are no differences in substance. So I’m just bemused when I hear talks of a progressive coalition. What is going to be progressive of about it? All three parties are going to do more or less the same thing, which is attack the poor.
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq, for a non-British audience, though, can you say at least what the Lib Dems, the Liberal Democrats, the Labor Party and the Conservative Party, what each are supposed to represent?
TARIQ ALI: What they represent?
AMY GOODMAN: What each one, what bloc, what political ideology, they’re supposed to represent, for people who don’t live in Britain?
TARIQ ALI: Oh, I see. Well, the Conservative Party are, of course, a party of the center right. Traditionally they have exercised power for most of the twentieth century. They were defeated in ’97 by New Labor, which was Tony Blair’s Labor Party, very much modeled itself on the New Democrats of Bill Clinton, moved the party to the right, positioned it to take par, and essentially carried on what the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher had been doing.
The Liberal Democrats are a traditional party of the center, which sometimes agrees with the Conservatives and sometimes with Labor. They were enlarged when a group of right-wing Labor MPs left the party in the ’80s because they thought the party had moved too much to the left.
So, technically, if we just want the labels, the Tories are center right, Labor and the Lib Dems are center left. But to be quite frank, in concrete terms as to what’s going on in the world and in the British economy, which is in a worse state in terms of debt than the Greeks, all these parties are going to punish the poor. All these parties support the war in Afghanistan. So what will happen if either coalition takes place is not going to be that different.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Tariq Ali, there are calls now, major calls, for political reform. The columnist in the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne, he writes this. He said, “You can also argue that everybody lost this election. If 71 percent of the voters rejected Labor, 64 percent rejected the Conservatives, and Clegg failed to” — Nick Clegg — “failed to achieve the big breakthrough many had expected.” What are people calling for right now in terms of proportional representation?
TARIQ ALI: Well, we don’t know, because there hasn’t been a poll carried out on what most people want. But the Conservatives have today offered a referendum on changing the electoral system, which I think is a start, saying that let’s put it to a public debate and let’s vote on it. And I think — I hope, because I’ve always been in favor of it myself, that a majority would vote for a proportional system of voting in Britain. That is now on the table. And it’s a — we’ll wait and see whether the Lib Dems accept that offer or not.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. Tariq Ali is a British Pakistani political commentator, writer, activist and editor of the New Left Review. He’s speaking to us from London. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Tariq Ali. He’s a British Pakistani political commentator, writer, activist and editor of the New Left Review.
Can you talk about why Brown had to step down, why the Prime Minister was ultimately forced out by the people and the parties, Tariq?
TARIQ ALI: Well, I think the only reason Brown has agreed to go is because the Liberal Democrats said that they couldn’t even consider joining a coalition with Labor if Brown were there. So he came under very heavy pressure from those who maneuver and entreat behind the scenes — Mandelson and Alastair Campbell and various other unelected people — who finally forced him out. I think it is a popular decision, because he’s not been very popular with his own party in recent years. But the reason he agreed to do it is hoping that the Lib Dems will now accept Labor, under a new leader, as coalition partners, to which the Conservatives are saying, “We will have another non-elected prime minister like Gordon Brown,” because the electorate will not have chosen them.
So all this is going on now, Amy. It’s, you know, a lot of political games and maneuvers being played, while the country’s economy is in a total mess. And no one is coming up with any serious measures which can change the way in which the economics of this country function. Gordon Brown, of course, is the architect of neoliberal economics in Britain.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, we want to turn to a different issue, to the case of the failed Times Square bombing. On Sunday, US Attorney General Eric Holder publicly accused the suspected bomber Faisal Shahzad of working with the Pakistani Taliban. He made the comment in an interview on Meet the Press.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: The Pakistani Taliban has directed this plot. We know that they helped facilitate it. We know that they helped direct it. And I suspect that we are going to come up with evidence that shows they helped to finance it. They were intimately involved in this plot. I am comfortable in saying that they were involved in what Shahzad tried to do. And I think that’s an indication of the new threat that we face. These terrorist organizations, these affiliates of al-Qaeda, or these organizations that are somehow connected to the kinds of things that al-Qaeda wants to do, indicates the worldwide concerns that we have to have.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s Attorney General Eric Holder accusing the Pakistani Taliban of having ties with the failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. Tariq Ali, your thoughts?
TARIQ ALI: Well, I don’t know, to be perfectly frank. And I don’t think anyone knows at the moment. But it wouldn’t totally surprise me if this man was linked to the Pakistani Taliban. I mean, they’ve been going on for months saying that all the drone attacks, which are killing innocents in Pakistan, will be revenged. So they had a pathetic attempt at it in New York against, essentially, civilians, ordinary citizens.
But I think one shouldn’t link this necessarily to al-Qaeda. I’ve noticed now, increasingly, the way politicians talk, everything gets linked to them. US intelligence, British, European intelligence reports, more or less, have been arguing for the last five years that al-Qaeda itself is a busted flush. And at the same time, intelligence reports have been saying, however, because of these wars that are continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan, more people are becoming attracted to terrorism and terrorist methods. So I think politicians in the West, and especially in the United States, can’t completely de-link the two. If you’re in a foreign country, if you’re bombing day in and day out, if you’re send — attacking people in Pakistan with drones — and the figures of people killed now run into hundreds, and they are not all terrorists, as everyone knows; women and children are being killed — then, sooner or later, someone is going to try and do what this guy did.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Tariq Ali, there’s a major meeting in Washington, DC. President Karzai has arrived with much of his cabinet. They’re holding talks with President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What are your thoughts now on the future of Afghanistan? You wrote a recent article about President Obama and the war, called "The President of Cant."
TARIQ ALI: Well, you know, quite honestly, if you look at what Obama is doing both domestically and in the rest of the world, by and large, it’s a continuation of Bush’s policies. In Afghanistan, he’s gone one step further, which is, as he promised during the campaign, he has escalated the war. Thousands of more troops have been sent in. In Obama’s year and a half in power, there have been more drone attacks inside Pakistan than there were in the last term of Bush. This is what people in that part of the world are experiencing. And it’s not getting them anywhere.
Now you have a situation where Hamid Karzai, who was put into power by NATO and the United States, a total creation of Washington, a puppet ruler, as we used to say in the old days, is now saying, “You’re killing too many of my people, and I can’t go along with this,” and is now, with American support, negotiating with sections of the Taliban. So the whole policy is in a crisis. It’s a mess. The fact that Karzai, who was elected without any opponents, can stand up and criticize the United States is an indication of how bad things are in that country. And, of course, the reason he feels so confident is, A, he knows the war is going badly, and B, his own brother is the richest man in Afghanistan. Thanks to the NATO occupation of the country, he’s become a billionaire twice over, and they are buying support. And they think that that gives them the right to take on the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the state of the antiwar movement in Britain right now, in regards to Afghanistan and Iraq?
TARIQ ALI: Well, the antiwar movement itself is weak, Amy, as everywhere. There is no European country where this movement today is strong. We have the odd ritual demonstrations against the war. They are not very large. But public opinion is against the war. Over 60 percent of the British population is in favor of withdrawal from Afghanistan. In Germany, the figure is nearly 80 percent of the people. In Holland, you have had a situation where the Dutch Labor Party has walked out of the government because they were not in favor of keeping Afghan troops — their troops in Afghanistan much longer. A big debate is going on behind the scenes within the elites all over Europe. They don’t like this war. They want to get out as soon as possible. The only reason they’re staying is because the United States tells them to. But public opinion is not for it. But this view is not represented in any government which is in power today. It’s just not reflected.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Tariq Ali, we want to ask you to stay with us as we turn to the situation in Greece.