During the attack on the Palace of Westminster last week, the
Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood displayed both courage and compassion in
trying to save the life of the murdered PC Keith Palmer.
Largely unknown to the British public until then, Ellwood became
a national hero. He was raised instantly to the Privy Council and there is talk
of him being given a knighthood.
But if democracy means anything, it means retaining our rights
and our duty as concerned citizens to pass judgement on Ellwood as a minister.
And his performance there has fallen far short of the courage and compassion he
showed as a man.
For the last two years, Ellwood has been the minister
responsible for dealing with Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen.
During this period, the Saudis (and their Gulf allies) have
inflicted unspeakable carnage.
They have bombed weddings, markets, funerals,
and a large part of Yemen's architectural heritage. Countless homes have been
Officially, air strikes now account for some 40,000 human
casualties, including 1,900 woman and more than 2,500 children.
have died through lack of medical treatment, and increasingly from famine.
UNICEF estimates that a child dies
every 10 minutes
in Yemen from hunger or lack of medicine.
Throughout this pointless and unnecessary war, Ellwood has been
one of the most important apologists for the Saudis - and their campaign of
He has repeatedly insisted that there is no
Arabia has broken international humanitarian law.
He has helped
independent international investigation into alleged Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
Ellwood also misled the House of Commons on several occasions
last year when he said that the British government had carried out its own assessments
Saudi conduct and concluded that there had no breaches if international
In an excruciating
moment in July 2016
, Ellwood issued a scrappy statement to
Parliament in which he admitted that he had not been telling the truth, and
that no such assessments had been carried out.
It was issued on the final day
before the summer recess and with not a word of apology.
Ellwood claims his repeated failure to tell the truth was down
to a "mistake".
As I have explained
, this is an implausible explanation for the Foreign
Office failure to be straightforward about the Saudi campaign of carnage in
It actually maligns the competence of serving officials who cannot
Of course, the prime offenders are the Saudi war machine and its
murderous allies among the Gulf states.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to
absolve Ellwood of all responsibility.
This is because Britain is one of the most important allies of
We have used our clout as a permanent member of the Security
Council to prevent an independent UN investigation and insisted that the Saudis
themselves can be relied on to make this assessment - in other words, to mark
their own murderous homework.
Britain continues to allow our major defence companies to supply
arms to Saudi Arabia, along with the US, sending more
than $5bn worth
the conflict began.
We all know the excuses.
Britain has important strategic
interests in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is one of our closest allies. Thousands of
skilled manufacturing jobs in the north of England depend on British aerospace
contracts with Saudi Arabia.
Our politicians insist that Britain acts as a critical friend,
speaking the truth in private to our Saudi allies, while supporting them in
I believe that Tobias Elwood is at heart a decent man.
he has indeed confronted the Saudis and sought to persuade them of the error if
their ways. If so, his solicitations have had no effect.
I visited Yemen last July and saw for myself the damage that the
Saudi bombers (backed by the British) have done to this remote and
astonishingly beautiful country.
Dr Ahmed Yahya al-Haifi, a senior doctor in the Republic
Hospital in Sanaa, told me that 25 patients a day in his hospital alone were
dying unnecessarily because of a shortfall of medicines.
I saw the bridges, deliberately destroyed from the air to stop
aid getting through to desperately needy areas.
I talked to relatives of those
killed in Saudi air strikes.
I was moved to hear many people I met speak of their deep
affection towards Britain, remembered fondly by older people as a colonial
power, and their bewilderment that we were now supporting their Saudi
They told me they supposed our readiness to betray the Yemeni
people was because of oil money and the arms trade.
I couldn't disagree with
Double tap, double standard
I am certain that Ellwood knows all of this, and that must
Politics at a senior level often involves difficult and morally hazardous
But the Saudi conduct in Yemen is not morally hazardous. It's
morally repugnant. It makes all its defenders collude in war crimes.
Ellwood did everything he could to save the life of one
policeman horribly murdered in Westminster.
But has he done enough to try and
save the lives of tens of thousands of Yemenis who have been killed or maimed
by the Saudi-led coalition, backed by the British?
There's a double standard here.
Four people were killed and
approximately 50 injured in the attack last week in London. This was terrible
and the British people were rightly appalled and disgusted.
However, it is important to reflect that this sort of thing
happens all the time in Yemen, and on a much larger scale, and that it is
sanctioned by the British.
It is hardly ever reported in the British press, and
never on a front page, even though it's a British-sponsored war.
And the heroism required to save lives in Yemen is close to
superhuman because of the Saudi practice of "double tap" air strikes.
This is the practice of sending a second strike deliberately to kill the
rescuers of victims of a first strike.
In the northern Yemeni town of Saada, Amat al-Kareem wept as she
told me how she was widowed.
Her husband, an ambulance man, had rushed to the scene of a
Saudi bombing in order to pull four wounded civilians out of the rubble.
had put them into the back of the ambulance and were setting off for the
hospital when the Saudis returned with a second and far more deadly attack.
It killed her husband, his colleague, along with the four
wounded civilians. In all 26 people died.
The UN Security Council respectfully stood for a minute's
silence to remember the victims after the London attack last Wednesday.
It has never marked any of the victims of the UK-backed Saudi
atrocities in Yemen.
Never forget there is a connection with the atrocities we
support in the Middle East and attacks in Britain.
A large part of the British establishment has always been in
denial about this.
For years, Tony Blair refused to accept that the 7/7
bombings had anything to do with his decision to send British troops to Iraq in
But even before the invasion, MI5 had warned that sending troops
to Iraq would jeopardise the lives of British citizens back home.
We don't know
yet what the long-term consequences of condoning Saudi murder in Yemen will be.
Of course, we should never allow our foreign policy to be
determined by domestic "blowback" or the fears of terrorism back
home, but it is important that we understand that many people across the Middle
East no longer believe that Britain is a peace-loving country at all.
They don't think we are on the side of decency and tolerance.
They think that we are on the side of murder and anarchy.
If they are Yemeni,
they are right.
As Middle East minister, Tobias Ellwood has to sit down with
dictators and make deals with torturers. It's a depressing job for any minister
with any sense of decency.
Like all his predecessors, at least since the end of cheap oil
in 1973, the central premise of our Middle Eastern policy has been never to
criticise whatever faction of the dynasty of Saud is ruling the country they
named after themselves.
We have pretended that Saudi Arabia is a loyal ally in
the "war against terror".
We ignore the fact that Saudi money bankrolled
al-Qaeda and probably continues to
bankroll its even more murderous successors.
The British Foreign Office has made itself dependent on a regime
which fundamentally despises Britain. The regime is divided and tottering.
have no idea who will rule the country and its oil if the regime falls – or
control the colossal arsenal which we have so eagerly sold it.
As Middle East minister, Tobias Ellwood is caught up in the
heart of this moral quandary.
No minister in any post will ever make all the
right judgements. In the Middle East, judgements are harder than almost
Ellwood's response to last week's terror attack in Westminster
was commendable. He showed that his instincts were in the right place.
displayed physical courage.
But there is also something called moral courage.
involves making a decision which does not bring you into physical danger, but
which may jeopardise your career, or cost you in some other way.
Has Tobias Ellwood showed moral courage over Yemen? At the end
of the day, only he can really answer that.