Many years ago, when I was about 35 and my father was 62, he described me as ‘dangerously liberal’. I laughed my socks off. How on earth, I thought, can one be ‘dangerously’ liberal. Could one be ‘dangerously’ enlightened or ‘dangerously’ considerate? Wasn’t to be called ‘dangerously’ liberal just as nonsensical?
Well, dear reader, I still think it is, or would be, nonsense to describe someone as ‘dangerously’ enlightened or ‘dangerously’ kind, but I now see my father’s point about the dangers of being overly liberal. Unfortunately, he is now dead these past 21 years, so I can’t tell him.
I suspect it was folk who were ‘dangerously liberal’ who were regarded by the Soviets as ‘useful idiots’. (I thought it was Lenin who first used the term, but according to Mr Wikipedia, so far no one has found the phrase used in his published work of transcripts of his speeches. Anyway, it doesn’t actually matter who first said it: we all know what it means, and if you don’t, you probably are one.)
My father was of the generation who fought in the war. Although he was born in 1923 and under 17 when war was declared in September 1939, after two years at Cambridge (where he gained a ‘wartime degree’ which he never converted into a full degree by spending one more year at college after the war), he enlisted (or was called up – I don’t know which, but it isn’t relevant) and after serving in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, he took part in D-Day.
Then, at some point, he joined Army Intelligence, I think because he had a gift for languages and spoke excellent French and German.
His link with ‘intelligence’ lasted in one form or another until he retired, although I am hazy about details to the point of knowing more or less nothing specific. And exactly how those links gelled with something that I do know about him – that he campaigned for the then Liberals in either the 1950 general election or the one held the following year (perhaps he was asked to keep tabs on them, but I suspect that at 27 he was still something of an idealist) - I really don’t know. At some point in the early 1950s he went to work for the ‘BBC Monitoring Service’ in Caversham (and coincidentally in the building my old school, The Oratory School, had been turfed out of during the war to make way for whatever government agency thought it needed it) and I think it is now generally agreed that that organisation had more to do with Her Majesty’s secret intelligence services than Aunty (as we once knew the BBC cod affectionately.
As a kid I once asked him what he did there, and he told me that staff listened to foreign radio stations to pick up news which might be broadcast in bulletins by the BBC. And perhaps they did, or perhaps some of them did. I really don’t know. I once, many years later, asked my father what his politics were, and he, rather proudly I felt at the time, described himself as a ‘right-wing radical’, whatever that can mean, which is everything and nothing.
In 1959 he was posted to Berlin as the ‘BBC’s Representative’ where he had an office and three staff in Savigny Platz.
The office also had its own studio from which my father weekly broadcast a short talk beamed into East Germany (Die Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and which I know think, knowing just a little more about his role in Berlin, that were used to pass on message to whoever MI6 wanted to pass on messages. His boss in the BBC was head of what was known as the German Service. Why, I have often since asked myself, would the BBC want a German Service although it didn’t want, need or have a French Service, an Italian Service or, to labour the point, an Austrian Service.
The BBC also had a correspondent in Berlin, and he never used the studio. Why not I wonder?
After we had been in Berlin for a year or two, a certain Charles Wheeler became the BBC’s correspondent in Berlin. (It must have been his second posting there if his Wikipedia entry is right, because it says he served as the Berlin correspondent for three years from 1950. Well, he would have been 33 at the time, so it’s very possible. All I know is that he served there as correspondent in the Sixties. I know because we went around to his house several times and I met him and his wife Dip. However, I simply think the Wiki entry is just wrong, and that his stint as correspondent in the Sixties was his only one. Furthermore, the entry makes no mention of his first wife — I don’t know her name — who, I understand, had an affair with one John Freeman, who she married after divorcing Wheeler.)
Wheeler, who was undoubtedly a very good journalist, was, I think avowedly, liberal, although not in the political sense. I suspect he knew or at, the very least, suspected my father had links — whether extra-curricular or not — with the security services and disapproved. I do know, partly from comments my father made later in life, that the two didn’t really get on and rather disapproved of each other. Perhaps Daddy (I always called him that, even though as I grew older I felt it did sound rather daft, but could think of no reason not to) also thought Wheeler to be ‘dangerously liberal’.
Later in life, just a few years before he died, I asked my father about his links with the security services and he did tell me a little, although the story was consistently that he ‘helped out a little’. What the truth is, I really don’t know, and I’m not inclined to speculate, mainly because I’ll probably get it wrong and there’s very little indeed to be gained from doing so.
I’ve been rattling about my father — as preambles go the above must surely take some beating — because although I don’t share what I think must have been his politics, I now fully understand what he meant by ‘dangerously liberal’ and why he called me that at the time. (It is, perhaps, also quite pertinent that I am said to look rather like him, have inherited several of his mannerisms and traits, can get very short with people on the phone as he did and in many other ways take after him. But it would also be fair to say that in many other ways we are quite different.
I do feel that he, like many of his generation, had his salad days cruelly cut short by World War II, and where I was free to indulge myself, grow my hair long, smoke dope and take acid and generally postpone maturation and adulthood for many years, he and his generation had to grow up very fast indeed. I think it is something which is sadly rather forgotten these days.
For example, he once told me that by the age of about 22 he was a captain and in charge of many men whose lives depended on him making the right decision on the spot.
At 22 I was doing very little but feeling sorry for myself, falling in love, having as much sex as I could — though by no means enough — and wondering what the hell to do with my life. I was, of course, as I have detailed in previous blog entries, entirely convinced that I was ‘a writer’ but did absolutely nothing about it at the time which only shows the degree to which we can all con ourselves thoroughly if we really put our minds to it. But to conclude this preamble: my father described me as ‘dangerously liberal’ and ever since then I have been very conscious of the dangers of possibly being a ‘useful idiot’. And that, on a route perhaps for more circuitous than is necessary, brings me to the question of: what the bloody hell is going on in the Ukraine?
Here are supplementary questions: are the Russians really intent on, as some fool Ukrainian politician suggested a few days ago, ‘starting World War II? What are the U.S. objectives in this whole sorry saga? Does Putin have some strategy or is he just busking? Just why is the EU getting involved and does it have any strategic interest? There are many, many more questions, but of which the final question must be: when, as I intend to, I write what I am about to write, am I still being, in my father’s rather succinct accusation, being ‘dangerously liberal’?
. . .
You and I, though not John Kerry, Sergei Lavrov, our very own William Hague and whatever prat the EU has in place to fulfil the role those three perform, can only go on what our media tell us. I like to think — and a report from Kiev on the World Tonight reinforced in me the impression — that ‘Aunty’ BBC does do its very best to be objective. Kerry, Lavrov and Hague (and, of course, the EU Prat) are privy to intelligence reports which you and I will never get to hear. The problem is that, courtesy of that old favourite conspiracy theorists the world over, ‘wheels within wheels’, their own intelligence services might well have an agenda of their own.
But even bearing that in mind (i.e. ‘news is what doesn’t appear in our newspapers’) they undoubtedly have a fuller picture of what is going on than we poor saps do.
One thing which has remained in my mind was a commentary from a Russian (most probably on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight) who, I gathered, was reasonably independent, who insisted that both sides, the Russians and the West, have miscalculated and fundamentally misunderstand each other and the situation on the ground. Perhaps from him, perhaps from elsewhere — I really don’t remember where — I got and get the impression that Russia’s main motivation is to re-establish a national Russian pride. And, perhaps in a ‘dangerously liberal’ way, I find I have a certain sympathy with that. It’s as though it feels — note ‘it feels’ not necessarily ‘it has been’ — pushed a little too far, to have lost a little too much face since the demise of its Soviet empire and has decided enough is enough.
We can argue until we are blue in the face the ‘rights and wrongs’ of whether or not, for example, Crimea is an ‘intrinsic part of Greater Russia’. At the end of the day all we get is a cacophony of opposing views. And at the end of the day the question is irrelevant.
Putin (whose popularity, incidentally, is said to be soaring in Russia, although there are also a great many who don’t want to give him the time of day) says that Russians in other counties must be protected.
One observation trotted out time and again is that Hitler said something very similar about Germans in foreign countries, and look how that ended. But whatever his objectives, I don’t for a moment think Putin has any of the wacky ideas which drove Hitler. And I think — this quite possibly ‘dangerously liberal’ commentator thinks — that it would be very silly indeed to write off such nationalistic sentiments, however much they strike us Westerners as irrational. We here in the West are apt and dismally unimaginative enough to insist that ‘our’ values are the only worthwhile values and that values which deviate from those are, at best, noth worth taking seriously, and, at worst, must be actively opposed.
What are the facts? What is the sentiment in Eastern Ukraine? For every report I have heard that many there feel a kinship with Mother Russia, I have heard other reports that suggests that many Eastern Ukrainians, despite feeling a kinship and valuing their Russian heritage, want to keep a distance from Moscow and retain their independence.
What is, or better, what might be the purpose of massing Russian troops just the other side of the border with Eastern Ukraine as we know they have been? I find it incredible to accept that Putin is planning some kind of invasion to annex Eastern Ukraine, because what would be the purpose?
At the end of the say he would gain very little but lose a great deal. And are there, perhaps, a great many Russian ‘businessmen’ who are doing rather nicely, thank you very much, and would prefer stability rather than instability because the suspect they would have too much to lose? I would find it far easier to believe that the 70,000 Russian troops are there ‘just in case’ they are needed ‘to protect the lives of Russians’, even though any such action would be driven by sentiment rather than rationality.
Another commentator suggested that Putin has rather painted himself into a corner.
Taking over Crimea was one thing. Trying to take over Eastern Ukraine would be quite another and, at the end of the day, more trouble than it is worth. Yet if such an action were driven more by nationalistic sentiment than rational thinking, would if even matter that Russia had a great deal to lose? I heard, years ago, a suggestion that what distinguishes humankind from all other forms of animal life (because for better or worse we are merely just another form of animal life on the planet) was not the ability to act rationally, but the ability and propensity to act irrationally.
Then there is the very odd and worrying question: just what does the U.S. have to gain from all this? Why is the U.S. getting involved? I’d best immediately make clear that I refuse to accept at all that it is acting in the interests of ‘democracy’, of ‘what’s right’, of protecting freedom? In my eyes the U.S. lost all such credibility when it invaded Iraq for no reason I can make out, and had previously made a complete fool of itself by starting, then losing, the Vietnam War (and, it has to be said, the U.S. has form in these matters: the Spanish/American war was a pretty cynical debacle, too, even if the U.S. apparently ‘won’).
So what has it to gain by ratcheting up that tension in the Ukraine?
There is a good case to be made out that it was U.S. meddling in the first place which kicked off the whole sorry saga. And why is it so content to pal up with a whole range of unsavoury neo-fascists in Ukraine, many of whom are members of the ‘interim government’. OK, the previous president was a kleptomaniac and corruption was rife. But although that president has now gone, corruption is apparently just as bad and getting worse.
So what is the U.S. game plan? Does it even have one?
Closer to home, why it Britain getting involved? Wouldn’t it have been a lot more sensible to have remained strictly neutral and perhaps later been in a position to act as an honest broker. But no, we had to jump in with both feet and are now hitched to the American bandwagon from which it will prove impossible to unhitch ourselves. (The former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, by the way, when invited to join in the bunfight which was Vietnam, was wise enough to reply ‘thanks, but no thanks’. It didn’t make him any friends in Washington, but thank you, Harold.)
Then there’s the EU, that great political irrelevancy of our time: what on earth makes all the politicos — men and women who give the distinct impression of having hightailed it to Brussels to make a career for themselves because they simply didn’t have the nous to make it in their home countries — in Brussels think? What does the EU have to gain? Does it have some arcane strategy by which the EU will benefit in the long run? Perhaps it does, but I can’t think of any.
Then there is us, you and I, here in the West. And then there are the Ukrainians themselves, without a working government and living in a failing economy. What do we and they have to gain from it all? Or better how much exactly do we have to lose from all these shenanigans, the conduct of which we have no control over whatsoever.
Am I being ‘dangerously liberal’?
My father, were he still alive, might say so. I rather think I’m not. My view in this as in many other matters is that it’s pointless to do something for no very good reason whatsoever. And that is what seems to be happening here.