Why the past matters
Dec 3rd 2009
A defence of last week’s column about Europe’s new foreign minister
LAST week’s column on Lady Ashton’s appointment as the European Union’s high representative for foreign policy attracted a flurry of comments. Many were negative and some of them furious.
The criticism falls into two categories. Some readers see nothing wrong with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (for which the then Ms Ashton worked in the late 1970s and early 1980s). They see it as a noble (or at least well-intentioned) organisation, which attempts to rid the world of nuclear weapons—a cause, one might add, also backed by Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. The fact that the Soviet Union supported some of CND’s goals is neither here nor there: ideas are not responsible for the people who believe in them. From this point of view, Lady Ashton has nothing to apologise for. To term past association with CND as in any way as culpable as having had some indirect ties to the apartheid regime in South Africa is a grotesque smear. That cause was basically evil whereas the “peace movement” was basically good.
A second group of readers believe that the past is simply irrelevant. CND may or may not have been a Soviet front. But at the time it was a cause which in its broad aims enjoyed support from many people and most of Britain’s Labour Party (including Tony Blair). Suggesting that Lady Ashton deserves particular opprobrium is mean-minded and unfair, and is probably part of a hidden agenda to discredit her in order to (insert favourite conspiracy theory here).
The smoke from straw men being incinerated risks clouding the debate. The column explicitly conceded that many people supported CND for rational and genuine motives. CND affiliation is quite unlike a past in, say, the pro-Soviet wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Some may find it uncomfortable when a moral giant like Vladimir Bukovsky says that western peace movements were financed and orchestrated by the Soviet Union, but he is a serious person and his allegation deserves a hearing. However, the column explicitly did not say that Lady Ashton had done anything wrong, or that she was a communist fellow-traveller.
The column did note the oddity that west Europeans tend to be a bit amnesiac about the horrors of communism and the culpability of people in the west who defended it (which at the time included at least some members of CND and the Labour Party). But they have lively memories and finely tuned moral reflexes when dealing with some other issues, especially ones that are safely long ago (such as slavery or colonialism) or involve enemies of unquestionable evil such as Nazi or apartheid regimes. That is a comfortable position, but not universally accepted or immune from criticism.
It was not west Europeans who were herded into cattle trucks to die of cold and hunger in Siberia. It was not west Europeans who had to choose between denouncing a colleague or seeing their own children denied education. It was not west Europeans who had to live in the stifling humiliating, backwardness and stagnation of the late communist era. It was not west Europeans who got shot if they tried to flee their own country.
Lady Ashton’s supporters may well feel that dragging up an innocent and unrelated episode in her past career is hurtful and unfair. But from many east Europeans’ point of view, the peace movement risked prolonging communist rule by weakening the west’s pressure on the evil empire. As the EU’s foreign-affairs chief, she has to represent them too. Simply denouncing as bigots those who mind about this issue will aggravate the concern, not dispel it.