Friday 30 October 2009

Is there common ground in the polarised Kaminski row?

Here is a rather curious thing about the highly polarised debate over the new European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament, and the political history of its leader Michal Kaminski.

With one side mostly shouting "smears" at any questions about Kaminski's history and the other seeming to shout "extremist" in interrogating it, the surprising thing is there is relatively little disagreement about the facts of Michal Kaminski's history, nor even too much dispute about what the major British parties think about most of those controversies.

It remains true that Left and right are not going to agree about the political sense of making Michal Kaminski the leader of a European Parliament group, detached from the major west European centre-right parties.

Even so, there may be more common ground about the case of Michal Kaminski than you would think. Here are six things which I do not think many on the right or left or independent media voices could seriously dispute about Kaminski, though they do disagree about the weight to give to these facts.

1. Michal Kaminski was a member of a far right group in his youth.

This seems to be undisputed. The Polish Chief Rabbi today said on the Today programme: "as a teenager [Kaminski] did join an organisation in Polish known as NOP which is unfortunately openly anti-semitic and neo-nazi. He also quit that organisation as a teenager."

(There is a disagreement over calls for David Miliband should apologise for pointing to Kaminski's history. The Foreign Secretary can legitimately argue that his description of Kaminski as "a man denounced by the Chief Rabbi of Poland for an anti semitic, neo Nazi past" is consistent with the Chief Rabbi's new comments, as well as his earlier July statement).

(There remain contested issues over details of the timing, and the nature of the group at that time: Kaminski's official account has been that he was only a member aged 15 to 17, when it was part of the anti-Communist underground; but the Daily Telegraph reported that he was a member aged 17 to 20, so between 1989 and 1991 after Communism. This is also part of the argument about the nature of the NOP, discussed in this Left Foot Forward thread).

2. * Michal Kaminski opposed the Polish government's apology over the Jewadbne massacre and all major British parties - both his allies and opponents - oppose his position and would contest his language over this.

The fact of Kaminski's campaign in opposition to the Jewadbne apology now appears entirely uncontested, after he dropped his claim to The Observer in July that he always supported the apology and "never tried to stop the commemoration". He has dropped his denial this summer that he "never gave an interview" arguing that an apology depend on “someone from the Jewish side will apologise for what the Jews did during the Soviet occupation", instead repeating (in slightly gentler language) the argument of an analogy with an apology "from the whole Jewish nation" in his Jewish Chronicle interview three weeks ago.

It is also clear that the major British politicians disagree with and disapprove of Kaminski's position on the Jewadbne apology - and that the Conservatives do not agree with or condone his language about a Jewish apology (though that latter criticism has been more muted than it might have been).

(So the disagreement here is about how strongly this Kaminski argument is criticised; which is linked to some disagreement about how far the 2001 campaign had anti-semitic undertones or links, given that there were both mainstream and extremist arguments about the apology).

3. Michal Kaminski has stated his clear opposition to anti-semitism now; the Jewish Chief Rabbi has welcomed this, stating rather carefully that "I have heard from Mr KamiƄski in public and in private. I certainly see him as a man that today is against antisemitism," while not withdrawing his earlier remarks about Kaminski's regrettable associations.

The fact of Kaminski's public opposition now to anti-semitism is not contested by Labour voices. Denis MacShane writes that he does not accuse Kaminski of anti-semitism now, though he does strongly challenge his Jewadbne position, especially calling for a withdrawal of the calls for Jewish apologies.

All of the British political parties share a commitment to challenging anti-semitism, and believe that it is important to maintain this. Denis MacShane worked on a cross-party basis to chair a Parliamentary group inquiry on anti-semitism which reported in 2007 on how to tackle a rise in anti-semitism, and which forms the basis of his recent book Globalising Hatred.

Critical media voices like Martin Bright of the Jewish Chronicle who find some of Kaminski's views alarming, are not accusing him of anti-semitism. Bright wrote that "I have no reason to believe he is an antisemite or to doubt his commitment to the state of Israel. But I also have a much clearer idea of precisely what he is: a socially conservative east-European Catholic nationalist with all the unfortunate baggage this entails".

4. Michal Kaminski supports Israel

The Economist intelligently discussed the need to make a distinction "between attitudes to Jews and attitudes to Israel".

The case of Nick Griffin, and his support for the Gaza operation, clearly shows that anti-semites can be vocally pro-Israel.

But Kaminski is not Griffin, and his support for the state of Israel is not contested.

5. Michal Kaminski has given contradictory accounts of his own political history.

The Economist's argument that "even his denials contain suspicious self-contradictions" also seems to me to be entirely uncontested, given how many times he has had to reverse the facts of his public account.

This may explain why the Conservatives' "due diligence" process uncovered no issue of concern, and why it remains difficult to get at the truth. I think it certainly shows that simply taking Kaminski's own statements at face value, and charging those who scrutinise them as smearing him is unwise and unfair.

It may be part of the reason why some relevant questions - such as Kaminski's role in promoting anti-semitic rumours about President Kasniewski having a Jewish grandmother during the 1995 Presidential campaign - remain unanswered.

But Kaminski's shifting accounts do not prove that he is a secret extremist. A (relatively) more benign explanation is that some of the answers would be inconvenient or embarassing, and that he hoped the questions would go away if dismissed. That was unwise, and the failed cover up is a legitimate reason to question the quality of his leadership, while his supporters may question how far these evasions were fundamentally important untruths.

6. Michal Kaminski has operated in democratic politics for several years.

Kaminski has been a mainstream politician on the Catholic nationalist Polish right, known primarily for bringing in modern media 'spin' techniques, though several of his statements would never be made by a British or west European context, such as those about gays, which he has appeared to regret in more recent intervews.

There are many reasons why British politicians may criticise the authoritarian populism of the Law and Justice party. He has not been a pariah politician as an MEP since 2004, and the party was part of the EPP group. (There were many protests including in Britain in 2005-6 at some outlandish homophobic statements, and the banning of pride marches, while ConservativeHome readers were divided with 36% polled in 2006 feeling the party's homophobia meant it would not be an appropriate partner, with a narrow majority being supportive of an anti-federalist alliance). But Law & Justice are generally accepted to be a democratic right-wing party even if, in Polish domestic politics, most British Conservatives would almost certainly be closer to the Civic Platform governing party of Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Polish domestic politics. (Daniel Hannan is a strong advocate of Kaminski).

The challenge from the centre-left is not that Law & Justice are entirely beyond the pale - but about the political sense or strategy of preferring these new right-wing allies to the centre-right mainstream including all of the major west European conservative and Christian Democratic parties.


The disagreement

So that is the history of Michal Kaminski.

I do not think much of the account above is contested as a matter of fact, as opposed to debating how much weight the different aspects of his complex and sometimes contradictory political history should have in judging a leader of a democratic right-of-centre alliance.

Kaminski is not a neo-fascist, but he has had several political associations he now wishes to avoid or play down; the evidence that this involved making at least opportunist use of anti-semitic arguments or links in the past is strong; I also find the evidence that he has substantially changed his views fairly convincing.

So opponents of the Conservative Party will continue to question whether he was a good or appropriate choice to lead a modern Euro-reformist or Eurosceptic group. Many will agree with the judgement The Economist's Bagehot column of Kaminski that "at best he is a distastefully cynical demagogue", and will not think the (undisputable) fact that "there are viler and more extreme politicians in both these countries" is a recommendation for a pan-European leadership role.

Conservatives will argue that the politics of post-Communism are complicated, and that
their political opponents are mostly concerned that the new group will break the mould of European politics; while Labour will argue that the more likely outcome is that the new group will be cut off from power and influence and will risk isolating the British centre-right.

These arguments have often centred on the personal history of Michal Kaminski. Those issues matter - though, barring important new revelations, there may not be much more to add to the arguments on either side. That might mean that more attention is paid to the much broader political argument about the wisdom or folly of the Conservatives' new alliances - and what that might reveal about the different political visions of Britain's role in the European Union.


Al Widdershins said...

The trouble with the Kaminski focus is that it distracts attention from the Tories new friends in Latvia. Hooking up with PiS is stupid, but can, just about, be defended (if only from a position of ignorance in certain respects), but the other lot... no, that's just disgraceful. If Labour (for whatever reason) ended up in the same group as such a laughably unreformed and unrepentant Stalinists as the Czech Communists, then I think we'd have seen a lot more media attention and very different arguments from certain people.

"Conservatives will argue that the politics of post-Communism are complicated"

I suppose that they will. But in doing so, all they'll proove is quite how little they know about it.

Must admit that I find the calls for Miliband to apologise to be a little disturbing - I don't think the undertones there are deliberate, but they're less than pleasant all the same.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for the interesting comment. You do pick on one of the weaker sentences of the post. I was trying to describe a debate; I think that is more or less what the right would say. That and 'there are some dodgy people everywhere', which seems an unsatisfactory defence of the group they have created.

There are two issues:
* The other parties: I think Left Foot Forward have attempted some good analysis and may do more. The media struggle to maintain an attention span, if it becomes more complicated than swastikas. (The Latvian case is about the Latvian SS: I don't claim to be an expert on the wartime history of Latvia, but Observer foreign affairs editor Peter Beamount offered an informed view that the Tory account does seem to gloss over the Latvian SS history, and to have misreported the current politics of the deeply contested March 16 commemoration).

* The puzzle of political strategy is why - unlike Maggie T - you can't bear to be allied with Gaullists, and the Swedish moderates, and German Christian Democrats, Irish conservatives and the Polish centre-right, and prefer this rag-tag group as a route to influence.

The Kaminski focus reflects the fact that he is the leader of the group, rather than any member of it; but also, around Jewadbne, I think the particular nature of the language used about needing Jewish apologies first (and here I think I am somewhat generous to the Conservatives: they have stated that they disagree with Kaminski on Jewadbne, but have called it a position of that people of 'goodwill' took. Given the importance we all place on the cross-party consensus against anti-semitic language, it would be good to hear a much clearer distancing - from Kaminski himself, and from the Tories - about the Jewish apology call. But I was looking for the common ground; I do think no British politician or party would use such language, nor do I think the Tories condone it, and I suspect they became aware of it later, when already dug into this strong defence of Kaminski).

Newmania said...

Its interesting to see how the trendy lefties think you have scented blood with this man`s past it seems like yesterday ,en passant, the Labour Party were running its anti Pole by election at Crewe , proving once and for all that its public standards fall somewhat short of Lord Haw haw . How soon before that never happened I wonder
In this case we know the Government ands Toby Blair for had no problem, with Kaminski prior to his involvement with the Conservatries party and gently holds hands with numerous Euro oddities in the Europhile army .
I wonder what it is the Labour Party has against the Poles ,.The Polish resistance saved more Jewish lives in the Holocaust than any other Allied organization or government. It was a part of the Polish Underground State and driven by fierce Nationalism .Poland had no collaborating administration .It was occupied by the Soviet Union as we know and throughout most of that period the left of the Labour Party were supportive at the very least expressing a ghastly faux equivalence between the USSR and the US which I remember and you would no doubt , like to write out of history.
You may despise the Polish people 80% of whom, agree with Kamisnkis view of our fatuous addiction to apologies but I see much to admire in them . It half the Wermacht to hold the country whereas the French were docile controlled by one man and his dog.
We have watched with dismay to see a Foreign Secretary clearly eyeing his future career being prepared to trash a good friend to this country as well as draw attention to the true cause of the left in Europe which is to annihilate the “Forces of Conservatism”. This aim was often openly expressed as you will no doubt recall , or has that become a myth ?
As the hidden ratchet in the thinly disguised Lisbon Constitution winds up over the next few years and the extent of the lies and betrayal perpetrated by Tony Blair and David Milliband become apparent , I anticipate not the acquiescence you are counting on but a sort of blitz spirit determined to keep our country .
Your idea that we must only deal with people whose past passes some New Labour test calls to mind so many what-aboutaries that I struggle to survive the snow storm , just what sort of a ridiculous argument do you think you are making ? None I can fathom and I conclude it is only yet another way opf associating racism with Conservatism , what words will you have left for the BNP if most of two countries are racists by inference by your bizarre logic ?

If it is impossible for ordinary Conservative opinion to sit with mainstream European progressive Federalists and Socialists then I am not surprised , we are not like them and if this means there is no democracy for us in Europe then I daresay you are rejoicing . I am not at all sure this further attempt to trick and betray the country out of existence will win the plaudits you obviously feel it will.