I've been researching Gertrude Bell's role in WW1 recently; and, in re-reading some passages by her and about her, I’ve been reminded of the denial of the Armenian genocide by the then prominent Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock - and I feel fucked off all over again by the Liberal Democrat Party’s tolerance of his stance. The Lib Dems are not the Party you'd expect to be in denial about one of their own MP's genocide denial; but it seems that Hancock could get away with pretty much anything - including (in my opinion) indirectly traducing the memory of not just Bell but also British war hero Lt Col Charles Doughty-Wylie VC who was in the frontline, saved thousands of lives, and recorded in detail his prevention of the 'dry run' of the genocide.
Hancock was well known for his many visits to and positive words about Azerbaijan, a Turkic country that has been involved in a bitter and protracted territorial-ethnic conflict with neighbouring Armenia since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. It's a conflict which has led to humanitarian crises of refugees and displacement on both sides - Armenian and Azerbaijani - centred on and around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Archaeology and history shows a complex picture of the movement and settlement of peoples and territorial disputes along ethnic and political lines in Eurasia over millennia. In terms of more recent centuries, I've spent a while studying the accounts of Gertrude Bell about the attempts of the British (notably Bell herself and T E Lawrence), and the French and Russians, to carve up and influence the pre- and post-WW1 landscapes not just of the Middle East but also of the Caucasus region, once the Turkish Ottoman Empire had fallen.
Bell and her close confidante Charles Doughty-Wylie (a man whom Bell genuinely loved) left eye-witness accounts as well as analytical reports which described aspects and causes of the Armenian massacres that took place before, during and after the Great War. They both believed that they were planned, large-scale attacks on Armenians as a people by agents of the Ottoman Empire. History agrees with them - certainly that the events of 1915 especially, where some 1.5 million Armenians were killed, should be acknowledged as a genocide and crime against humanity.
While Hancock, I long suspected, fancied portraying himself as a bit of a scholar, I think that his views on the Armenian genocide show his true colours – not so much a political historian as a conscience-free opportunist. And the Liberal Democrat Party must have realised just how big a moral mess Mike Hancock MP had sunk into when in 2010 he reportedly referred to the Armenian genocide as a ‘so-called genocide’ based on ‘historically dubious' claims. And he went even further than this, the evidence seems to show. He’s credited in his Wikipedia entry as saying in March 2010, ‘Armenia is like a headless chicken that runs around in circles. They really do not know where to run.’
I've written before about inaccuracies in his Wiki entry - but this passage seems to stack up. The context of his outburst was United States Congress's Resolution 252, a dry-sounding yet bleakly moving document which acknowledges the reality of the Armenian genocide. The longer quote attributed to Hancock on the website of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), where he is seemingly credited as speaking for the UK Parliament, adds, 'In my opinion, the Americans have made an important error that they will regret. I hope that President Obama will use his influence to halt ratification of this document, as its factual basis is historically dubious ... Armenians are more concerned about the events of a century ago, having evidently lost control over the situation that they currently face. Armenia's economy is limited, being intertwined with that of Russia' (28th April 2010). This wasn't Hancock arguing with the semantics of 'crimes against humanity' (the term with which the British government condemned it in 1915); this was the woefully clumsy Hancock trying to tinker with history.
Hancock wasn't a noticeably unintelligent man, although his undeserved arrogance was legendary. He was canny enough to choose his sides to his best advantage, and seemingly able to build for himself a conscience-free zone in which to do it. He appeared to read books on political history. On the few occasions I can recall being allowed in to his car to go leafleting for the Lib Dems, the back seat – where I was told to sit - always had a couple of brand new political biographies lying on it. The first time I got in his car, I picked one book up and looked at it. ‘Do you read books?’ Hancock asked. I thought it an odd question, given that he knew I’d been a university lecturer for many years. As it turns out, I gave completely the 'wrong' answer, with what I thought was a winning smile. ‘Yeah. Actually I’ve written a couple myself.’ He barely spoke to me again after that.
Hancock wasn't always an Armenian genocide denier, though, according to parliamentary records. He signed an Early Day Motion in 2005, along with other Liberal Democrat colleagues including Vince Cable and his pal Bob Russell:
That this House considers that the time is ripe to acknowledge as an act of genocide the mass murder of Armenians carried out in the Ottoman Empire in 1915; urges the Government to enhance its international reputation by joining other countries, including those in the European Union, who have recognised this act of genocide; and calls on the Turkish Government to acknowledge the actions of its predecessors. (EDM 642, tabled 2nd Feb 2005)
And then there was the significant and well-publicised Early Day Motion 357 tabled in November 2006, which was signed by 182 MPs - an unusually large number for a motion about foreign affairs. Most of the Lib Dem big hitters were signatories, including Charles Kennedy, Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, Vince Cable, Jo Swinson, Ed Davey, Annette Brooke, Alistair Carmichael, Danny Alexander and Norman Baker. The text was a simple demand to acknowledge the Armenian genocide.
That this House believes that the killing of over a million Armenians in 1915 was an act of genocide; calls upon the UK Government to recognise it as such; and believes that it would be in Turkey's long-term interests to do the same.
This was the Liberal Democrat orthodoxy, safe ethical ground for them - and Mike Hancock also signed up to it in February 2007.
So what happened to Hancock between early 2007 and 2010? What's the story of him going into Armenian genocide denial?
It's hard to say. I supposedly knew him, and worked alongside him as a Council Cabinet Member in Portsmouth, where he held firmly on to his portfolio for Planning over the years, and I held various other portfolios; but the man was distant and snippy with me, I felt, no matter what the collegiate priorities were that needed addressing. He wouldn't even get my name right. He was absent from Portsmouth quite a lot, on 'parliamentary business'. The Lib Dems were running the Council, and Phil Shaddock had been replaced as Leader by Gerald Vernon-Jackson under some of baton-passing deal involving Hancock's parliamentary seat.
And he had met Katia Zatuliveter.
Zatuliveter is the young Russian woman from the Caucasus, who reportedly started a live-in (in London) four year long affair with Hancock. Zatuliveter in 2009 successfully applied for funds from The European Azerbaijan Society, which she claimed was Hancock's idea.
Meanwhile, what happened to Hancock's views on Armenia? Media reports on him that exist and talk about this time seem to show a man who was spending more time with young Russian and Eastern European women, such as this one from the Guardian by Luke Harding and Rajeev Syal:
"They were all the same type: long-legged, good-looking blondes, never older than 25, fluent in French, English and often German, and with a higher education," Mátyás Eörsi, the former head of the European liberal group, which includes Nick Clegg's Lib Dems, said today.
"I've been in Strasbourg since 2004. I remember at least five of Mike's Russian female assistants," said another group member, who declined to be named.
Over the subsequent years it became clear, again as reported in the media, that Hancock was holding some very pro-Russian views, to the point that concerns were raised by colleagues in Europe:
Colleagues from the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly said they were so concerned about the MP's pro-Russian views that they warned then Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy that the party might be plunged into scandal, although Hancock says that Kennedy dismissed the concerns.
And it's these views and loyalties, and the connections through Zatuliveter with The European Azerbaijani Society, which presumably, possibly, necessitated his comments on the Armenian genocide.
But this didn’t necessitate the Liberal Democrat Party tolerating his stance. What on earth were they thinking? Why the Liberal Democrat Party let him carry on with this new-found genocide denial is something that the Leadership has consistently failed to answer. It was a glaringly obvious sign that Hancock had slipped away from all Liberal Democrat principles. Even if you were to shelve all his other ghastly behaviour, which didn't so much crawl as burst out of the woodwork in 2010, his genocide denial and motives for it on their own were incredibly troubling. Hancock is also reported as saying, 'Why this obsession with political prisoners in Azerbaijan?' which should have been anathema to Liberal Democracy and all it stands for.
Yet I see no evidence that he was ever held to account or even spoken to about it by the Party.
Every historian in my professional circle would acknowledge that the recorded Armenian massacres and the politics surrounding them amount to a genocide. Again tonight I’ve been reading first-hand accounts by Gertrude Bell and her British contemporaries during the Great War about what happened. It’s not easy reading and the events left even these resilient historical figures profoundly affected. Charles Doughty-Wylie in particular behaved commendably and incredibly bravely in rescuing fellow Britons and thousands of Armenian civilians from an unfolding slaughter in Adana in 1909, and in preventing a much worse horror erupting then - what Robert Fisk has called a 'dry-run' of the impending genocide to come. Six years later, he died leading a charge at Gallipoli, and received a posthumous Victoria Cross. His memory deserves better than having his lived experiences re-written by the opportunist Hancock.
How the Liberal Democrat Party tolerated Hancock - and they did tolerate him - and his beliefs and 'lifestyle' is one of the saddest chapters ever in liberal political history, particularly for the ordinary members of a Party who worked hard for equality and social justice. To them, the Party's tolerance of Hancock, over so many years and over so many things, was a massive 'Fuck You'.
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