Monday, July 21, 2008

House Points: Afghanistan - "Oh, balls" from a sedentary position

I have not seen it, but I trust this column was in last Friday's Liberal Democrat News.

Westminster wisdom

If you are looking for entertainment, I recommend a close reading of Hansard. Take this exchange from Westminster Hall:

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): … We visited the microfinance initiative in Kabul and saw women entrepreneurs. Women got the microfinance loans, because they could be trusted to repay them. The men were far too unreliable a business investment.

Mr. Soames: Nonsense.

Sir Robert Smith: The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) says from a sedentary position, “Oh, balls,” but that was the practical reality on the ground that was discovered.

Mr. Ellwood: I am not sure he said that.

Sir Robert Smith: Perhaps he did not; it was something to that effect.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman must have misheard.

Sir Robert Smith: I must have misheard him, yes.

See what I mean? Westminster Hall – or rather a committee room off it – is used as a second Commons chamber. Because there is less flummery and party point-scoring than in the main chamber, its debates are often more informative. But they are not often as entertaining as this exchange from last Thursday’s debate on the international development committee’s report on reconstructing Afghanistan.

What is our presence there intended to achieve? Malcolm Bruce, who chairs the committee, said the country needs improved security, a crackdown on corruption and a strong human rights culture, especially in relation to women. Visiting Afghanistan, he had found people were concerned that we would not stay for long enough, not that they wanted us to leave.

But the doubts remain. The Soviet Union could not quell Afghanistan and several attempts at the height of British Imperial power failed too. Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, says: “Make no mistake, the Taliban influence is waning, and through British blood, determination and grit, a window of opportunity has been opened.” But you suspect people with similar names said similar things in Victoria’s day.

The minister replying to the debate, Shahid Malik, scorned the normally collegiate atmosphere of Westminster Hall and ploughed through his speech without allowing a single intervention. Which suggests the government is deeply concerned about the situation in Afghanistan – and quite possibly as puzzled as the rest of us.

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