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The truth about Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn and the new McCarthyism

False accusations by yesterday's spooks against Milne and Corbyn are a direct attempt to stop a popular and democratically elected leader from becoming prime minister
Jeremy Corbyn and Seumas Milne, the Labour Party's director of communications, arrive at the annual Labour conference in Liverpool, 23 September 2018 (Reuters)

In the year I was born, 1954, the Cold War was at its height and an American senator was laying waste to the careers of the innocent by denouncing them as communist sympathisers, reds under the bed.

His name, Joseph McCarthy, has entered the lexicon of political notoriety. McCarthyism is defined today as "the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence".

Exactly the same is happening to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his adviser Seumas Milne, a former colleague of mine on The Guardian. McCarthy no longer exists. But the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, still does.

Evil genius

On Sunday, Dearlove made national headlines by telling the Mail on Sunday that Milne was a security risk who would have to be fired if Corbyn became prime minister.

"Anyone with his sort of background could not be let anywhere near classified information. It would be out of the question," Dearlove said. "That means Corbyn could not make the judgments and decisions a PM has to make unless he stopped consulting him."

Corbyn or Milne can defend themselves. My concern in writing this is the truth: A quaint, minority pursuit these days

The MoS editorial went further. Milne, they decided, was not an idiot like his boss, Corbyn. The received wisdom about the popular Labour leader is that he is not too bright. No, Milne was much more dangerous than that because he was intelligent, educated at Oxford, and a son of the establishment. One of them.

"Mr Milne is not some naive patsy. He is a serious operator. He knows what he is doing when he sympathises with Middle Eastern terror groups and when he hobnobs with Vladimir Putin’s regime.

"His lifelong, highly selective hostility to the state of Israel is a long-standing feature of the intellectual hard Left to which he belongs. But it helps to sustain the increasing isolation of, and mistreatment of, individual Jews in the Corbyn Labour Party."

The root of anti-Semitism

For those of you circling the earth on the International Space Station, and whose jaws must be dropping at the crudity and mendacity of this political discourse, I promise you I am not making this up. It's in black and white.

So Milne’s sin is that he is not just a Palestinian-terrorist-Putin-sympathising Trot, not just that he has somehow become the root of the cancer of anti-Semitism in the Labour party, but that he is a class traitor.

"Unlike his bumbling and poorly informed chief, Mr Milne comes from Britain’s elite class and is a highly educated and very intelligent man. This is what makes his extraordinary career and his unconventional political positions so important," the MoS wrote.

One onslaught followed with another. Within minutes, Tom Watson, Corbyn’s deputy, said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: "The test for him as leader is to eradicate anti-Semitism. It is not Labour Party members who will be the judge of that, it is the British Jewish community. I think he understands now that if he is ever to be prime minister he needs to rebuild that trust."

What is the truth?

Let me be clear about where I stand in all this. Like many Londoners,  I disagree with Corbyn over Brexit, who held firm to the view,  when I interviewed him at the start of his tenure as leader, that it would be wrong to hold a second referendum.

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I also hold no truck with anti-Semitism. Unlike Luciana Berger, the MP who resigned claiming anti-Semitism had taken root in the party, I know what it means to be hounded out of town as a Jew. My mother and father fled Vienna in 1936 and 1938 respectively and in my loft there is a stack of Nazi documents listing the equipment impounded from my grandfather’s dental surgery.

The Nazis proudly recorded their crimes. Each page of carefully typed inventory ends with the words "Heil Hitler". When an anti-Nazi slogan was daubed on the wall outside my grandfather’s dental practice, a Nazi gang forced him to scrub it off … with a toothbrush.

Corbyn or Milne can defend themselves. My concern in writing this is the truth: a quaint, minority pursuit these days, I admit, but one to which I remain whimsically attached. Why? Because in at least two of the three charges against Milne, I was either personally involved or witnessed the same thing myself as a journalist.

The charge sheet

The charge sheet against Milne goes as follows: that, as Oxford student, he stayed in Beirut at the height of the civil war in 1977 with an array of leftist Palestinian militants; that on a trip to Jerusalem with Corbyn, he met two members of Hamas on a trip paid for by MEMO, a UK organisation promoting the Palestinian cause; that soon after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Milne chaired a meeting in Sochi addressed by Vladimir Putin, all expenses paid by the Russians.

Let me deal with this in reverse order. The meeting Milne chaired was organised by the Valdai International Discussion Club. This is a group of about 40 specialists on Russia; journalists, academics, and analysts who meet Putin once a year.

Milne was in good company - the New York Times, the Economist, the FT, the Times, Brookings Institution were regulars, for different reasons.

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For the journalists it was access. For the US analysts, it was intelligence. The media had different policies on whether to accept the lavish hospitality. The NYT and FT insisted on paying for the trip themselves. The other media, including The Guardian, were less fastidious.

The only reason Milne was invited as a journalist from The Guardian was because I had dropped out. It was when I heard Putin repeating the same lines he used the year before that I decided enough was enough. Milne was initially  invited to Sochi as a speaker, although he found when he got there that he was chairing a meeting  - a common enough occurrence with these gigs.  

The fuss in The Guardian was initially about him going to Sochi  after Russia was considered beyond the pale  following its  take over of parts of Ukraine. Milne was phoned up by Jonathan Freedland as his plane was on the tarmac, although the trip had already been  signed off by the company's foreign travel system in which you had to declare where you were going and who was paying.  Curiously, no such attention had been paid to Timothy Garton Ash's expenses-paid trips because they had been paid by governments considered allies.

MI6 hobnobs with Putin

However this list of organisations hobnobbing with Putin is not exhaustive. I have a little bit of intelligence for Dearlove and the Mail on Sunday about whom else attended Valdai, and "hobnobbed with Putin". 

It is someone of whom Dearlove cannot be unaware: his successor at MI6, and the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir John Scarlett. I had a drink with the man. Scarlett travelled on a new UK passport, scrubbed clean for the visit.

Scarlett’s meeting with Putin took place in a bizarre setting, accurately described by fellow Valdai members Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution, who co-authored a biography of the Russian president.

The only reason Milne was invited as a journalist from The Guardian was because I had dropped out

Hill, who is another Brit, sat next to Putin in 2010 and today she is Donald Trump’s chief Russia adviser and regarded as a restraining influence. Presumably, Hill is not regarded by MI6 as a security threat, although she was a serial hobnobber with Putin. 

The encounter between Putin and Scarlett took place at an old Soviet dairy turned into an equestrian centre for Russia’s new elite, in the discrete setting of the woods outside Moscow. Putin had tired of presenting himself to us at official venues and wanted to display himself as a representative of New Russia -  rich, confident and in your face.

The stage setting, a wooden hunting lodge, turned out to be just another elaborate piece of presidential theatre. We found out it had been rebuilt just for this meal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with journalists following a live nationwide broadcast call-in in Moscow, Russia June 15, 2017
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with journalists following a live nationwide broadcast in Moscow, Russia on 15 June, 2017 (Reuters)

There were about 40 of us seated on a long trestle table that formed a large square. Putin sat about seven place settings along from me. We noticed that his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, passed two notes, which his boss slipped into his top pocket, during a question and answer session that lasted over two and a half hours.

On one of them, Peskov alerted his boss to the presence of Scarlett sitting opposite in the extreme left hand corner of the square. The former KGB man wanted to make a point of welcoming MI6 to his elite table. True to tradition, the meeting of the two spymasters went off the rails.

So Milne shaking hands with Putin is treason. But MI6’s Scarlett doing the same is not? 

Peskov told Putin that Scarlett was the one wearing the red poppy. The problem was that the meeting fell on the anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of the First World War, and a number of Brits attending the dinner were wearing poppies.

So Putin, who is short sighted but too vain to wear contact lenses, alighted on Anatol Lieven, a UK academic, and accorded him the honour of running MI6 from 2004 to 2009. Lieven was confused when Putin referred to him as a "former colleague".

Dearlove cannot have erased this from his memory. Nor can he have forgotten how he, Dearlove, arranged for his boss Tony Blair to endorse Putin when he was just prime minister. He once admitted regretting having arranged for Blair to meet Putin in Saint Petersburg.

So Milne shaking hands with Putin is treason. But MI6’s Scarlett doing the same is not? 

The third man

There is another significant memory lapse in the account of Milne and Corbyn meeting two Hamas members on a trip funded by MEMO. To be invited by MEMO is not a sin. Jack Straw and Paddy Ashdown have both spoken at MEMO conferences.

The two Hamas men were elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council who had pitched a tent in Jerusalem in protest at an Israel court order to deport them to the West Bank. Every journalist I know at the time went to see them, including me.

But the memory lapse is much more significant. There was a third man present, who has since been air brushed out of this now  incriminating encounter. It was none other than the “moderate” Labour MP Andy Slaughter, who was leader of the group.

Slaughter resigned from Corbyn’s front bench, so he is obviously not a Corbynista .But he met Hamas and engaged with them as intently as Corbyn and Milne did.  Why has he been excluded from everyone’s recollection of this damning piece of evidence?

Members of the Jewish community protest against Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and alleged anti-Semitism in the party on 26 March 2018, outside Parliament in central London (AFP)
Members of the Jewish community protest against Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and alleged anti-Semitism in the party on 26 March 2018, outside Parliament (AFP)

Milne went on the MEMO trip as a columnist. When pressure grew on The Guardian to acknowledge paid trips,  Milne  discovered that the  British pro-Israel lobby, BICOM, had arranged over 50 visits for Guardian journalists to Israel in recent years without any paid visit being acknowledged by the newspaper.

Many Guardian journalists had been on BICOM freebies more than once. I was one of them.

I have no personal experience of what happened to Milne before he joined The Guardian. He went to Beirut in 1977 when he was a student at Oxford. This was in the middle of a bitter civil war and he circulated amid a number of leftist Palestinian factions, controlled by an organisation no more radical than the PLO, which went on to recognise Israel. End of story.

But it's not. No detail of Milne’s criminal record is too small to be omitted.

It's all about Israel

I will end with just two observations. The Labour Party could very well split if more defections are in the offing. These interventions by yesterday’s spooks are not casual, nor are they ill-timed. They are a direct attempt to stop a popular and democratically elected leader from becoming prime minister. 

They are, therefore, actively, consciously and cynically subverting British democracy. You may like Corbyn or loathe him. That's up to you, but you may never be allowed to express your opinion at the ballot box, if these guys have their way. And how would you feel if the tactics used on Corbyn were  used on you? What would you do  if your character had been assassinated repeatedly and you had no means of redress? Is this the way you want politics conducted in " the mother of all parliaments"?

The second is that this debate about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is all about Israel, and whether indeed anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic. There are many British Jews who support Corbyn, who do not feel threatened by Corbyn’s pro-Palestinian stance and wrote of their support in a letter to The Guardian.

This debate about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is all about Israel, and whether indeed anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic

The problem lies with the Board of Deputies which claims to speak for all Jews in Britain. These are the leaders who have appointed themselves judge, jury and hangman in each and every allegation of anti-Semitism.

Their claim is fatally flawed when they cannot even bring themselves to condemn Benjamin Netanyahu for making a political alliance with the devotees of the late Meir Kahane.

His Kach Party was outlawed after supporter Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer at the Cave of the Patriarch’s Mosque in Hebron 25 years ago today. This massacre led to the first Hamas suicide bombs. The Likud-leaning AIPAC condemned the Israeli prime minister, but the Board of Deputies could not.

The board’s US partner, the American Jewish Committee, wrote: "The views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel."

But the Board of Deputies was silent. Tal Ofer, deputy on the Board, tweeted on Friday: "The @BoardofDeputies have said they don’t want to comment on political parties and candidates during elections."

Really? They have not stopped commenting on, and condemning, Corbyn and Labour  in the beginning , middle and end of election campaigns.  This is moral cowardice and hypocrisy of the highest order and the very heart of the struggle that is tearing not only the Labour Party apart but the British Jewish community as well.

McCarthy would be smiling in his grave. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst
David Hearst is the Editor in Chief of the Middle East Eye. He left The Guardian as its chief foreign leader writer. In a career spanning 29 years, he covered the Brighton bomb, the miner's strike, the loyalist backlash in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in Northern Ireland, the first conflicts in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in Slovenia and Croatia, the end of the Soviet Union , Chechnya, and the bushfire wars that accompanied it. He charted Boris Yeltsin's moral and physical decline and the conditions which created the rise of Putin. After Ireland, he was appointed Europe correspondent for Guardian Europe, then joined the Moscow bureau in 1992, before becoming bureau chief in 1994. He left Russia in 1997 to join the foreign desk, became European editor and then Associate Foreign Editor. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he worked as education correspondent.