Notes From the Margins…

Our Man in Slovenia

  • February 24, 2019
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If the behaviour of British diplomats these last two and a half years is anything to go by, the UK may not be taking the giant strides across the world stage that Brexit visionaries seem to think it should.   Take foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt’s visit to Slovenia last week.  Showing all the intellectual gravitas of Peter Sellers’s Chance in Being There, Hunt attempted to ingratiate himself with his hosts by describing Slovenia as:

A really remarkable transformation from a Soviet vassal state to a modern European democracy, a member of the EU, a member of Nato, a country with a flourishing economy, growing its tourism year in, year out, and this is really an example of Europe at its best.

Where to start with this?   Well firstly, with the indisputable fact that Slovenia was never a ‘Soviet vassal state’.  It was, until 1992, a member of the former Yugoslavia, which was not a Soviet vassal state either.

As many people are aware, and have been aware for some time, Yugoslavia famously broke with Stalin in 1948, and held on to its own version of ‘workers self-management’ socialism and international neutrality  throughout the Cold War.

For most of that period, as a Pathé news clip once described it, Yugoslavia occupied the position of an ‘in-between, precariously balanced between East and West’ which meant that Slovenia did too.  Had Hunt had the slightest interest in Slovenia, Yugoslavia or anywhere else, he could have read the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas’s Conversations With Stalin, in which the then-partisan communist leader describes in painful and telling detail his disillusionment with the Soviet Union – including the atrocious behaviour of Red Army soldiers during the liberation of Yugoslavia –  which anticipated the historic break in 1948.

Hunt or his speechwriter might have come across the name Dragica Srzentic, the Yugoslav communist and partisan leader who delivered Tito’s letter to Stalin breaking relations – and later spent 10 years in a female labour camp because she disagreed with Tito’s criticisms of Russia.  Hunt might have remembered the famous letter than Tito sent to Stalin in 1949:

 

Image result for tito to stalin letter 1949

 

All this passed Hunt by, even though by his own admission this was not his first visit to Slovenia.  You can’t blame Milan Brglez, former president of the Slovenian parliament, for observing that ‘The British foreign minister comes to Slovenia asking us for a favour [discussing the rights of British and Slovenian nationals] while arrogantly insulting us.’

It would be charitable to think that Hunt confused Slovenia with Ruritania – a mistake that Western Europeans have often made when thinking about any part of Eastern Europe.

 

 

But the most probable explanation is that Hunt simply had no idea what he was talking about, and no interest in finding out what he should be talking about. This is, after all, a man who mistook the nationality of his own wife, who also compared the European Union to the Soviet Union, and nearly collapsed British-Japanese trade negotiations because he told Japan to hurry up.

Hunt is clearly a man who wears his knowledge lightly, perhaps because there is so little of it to carry, but his ‘gaffes’ belong  to a wider tendency that transcends his personal limitations. His clunking appearance in Slovenia followed Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson’s blustering airfix toy threat to send an aircraft carrier to the Pacific – a threat that China responded to by cancelling trade negotiations with the UK.

Williamson, like Hunt, might have done well to have learned a bit of Chinese history, such as the Opium Wars or the humiliation of the interwar Shanghai ‘settlement’ – episodes which have generally led to a certain reluctance from an economic superpower to respond to puerile fist waving from former fireplace salesmen.

And few people will forget that Hunt took over from the idiot king Boris Johnson, whose all-round oafishness, ignorance and outright racism alienated almost every country he set foot in.

Some commentators have suggested – rightly – that the ignorance and arrogance on display at the highest levels of government is symptomatic of the Brexit era, in which the misreading or misremembering of history has become part of our ongoing attempts to relaunch Empire 2: 0.

Men like Hunt, Williamson and Johnson clearly appear to believe they can say what they like about anything foreign, without any negative consequences – domestically at least.  This is why Johnson could compare the Irish border with traffic congestion charges in London, and why a senior Tory recently asked why the Irish refused to ‘know their place.’

Brexit has certainly provided an ideal climate for such ignorance to flourish, but Brexit didn’t cause this by itself.

It’s only necessary to remember Tony Blair, when he was visited by three Iraq experts on the eve of the Iraq War, who tried to explain the complexities of Iraqi politics to him.   At the end of these presentations Blair said of Saddam ‘ but the man’s evil, isn’t he?’

Blair knew nothing about Iraq and he didn’t care to know anything that contradicted his quasi-religious messianism,  until reality exploded in his face.  Cameron was no better, bombing Libya without any thought as to to what would happen next.

For years now, our politicians have had no compunction whatsoever in ‘intervening’ to save countries they knew nothing about, and little interest in finding out about them – and without any serious assessment of the consequences.

Now Venezuela is joining the list, and if the US intervenes and the bombs do fall, you can bet that our man in Slovenia and the fireplace salesman will be sending in troops, weapons or planes to help.

And as for what comes next, that’s not something that will really concern us.  It’s been like this for a long time, and for a long time it worked – for us.

But now, for the first time in our history,  this same level of ignorance, arrogance and shallowness has brought the UK itself to the brink of disintegration.  Reality is exploding in our faces, in ways that we once would never have thought possible, and the endless ‘gaffes’ of our politicians are just one more indication of the deeper political morbidity that has brought us to the brink.

 

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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