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History Does Not Always Favour A Hero

May 25, 2008

Michael White
The Guardian (UK)
May 22, 2008

In politics the right thing to do is not necessarily to plump for the more heroic option, even though it looks good. Critics do not have to sort out the long-term consequences of a gesture which may have played well on the day. Does Gordon Brown's decision to meet the Dalai Lama tomorrow, but not at No 10, fit into the sensible or the supine category? Or is the way voters see it (if they notice at all) coloured by how they view him as a leader: too indecisive to go to sign the Lisbon treaty with EU colleagues, but signing all the same?

In that context, the prime minister will get little credit for being the first western leader to meet the spiritual leader of Tibet since renewed protests against Chinese rule flared again this year. Despite Angela Merkel's criticism of China's human rights breaches, Germany fielded only a junior minister this month.

But the fact that the pair will meet at Lambeth Palace instead of Downing Street has angered critics, who argue that the Dalai Lama must not be treated merely as a spiritual leader of his people. "Many people will conclude that he is trying to have it both ways: to see him and not offend the Chinese government," Sir Ming Campbell told the New York Times yesterday, as if that was not a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Lhasa has been at loggerheads with Beijing since China reasserted its claim to sovereignty by occupying Tibet in 1959, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India. On such a sensitive geopolitical fault line as the Himalayas, it has been a bone of east-west contention ever since. Chinese modernisers resent Tibet's ingratitude.

Flexible precedent may have guided Brown's decision. When he came to London in March 1991, the Dalai Lama saw Prince Charles, the Speaker and Lord Chancellor, plus Neil Kinnock, then leader of the opposition. In December 1991 he saw John Major at No 10.

In 1993, he saw the Archbishop of Canterbury, the foreign secretary (Douglas Hurd) and the Queen Mum. He took tea with her (and Hurd) again in 1996, as well as addressing a private meeting of peers and MPs. In 1999 he saw Tony Blair at No 10 and other VIPs. By 2004 it was deemed prudent not to see him there.

Why? Diplomatic calculation shifts, as Archbishop Rowan Williams, tomorrow's host, understands: he spent a fortnight in China in 2006. Beijing has emerged into the world as a serious global player on every front. The wider world welcomes that: it has little choice.

Trade, the global dash for oil, and the Olympic handover to London, temper any heroic impulses in Whitehall. So does the knowledge that the Chinese government does not react well to slights. "You do not move the Chinese by spitting in their face," says one former diplomat.

As Brown told MPs yesterday, Burma's neighbours are best-placed to help the Burmese people. China is also a key player in Darfur. Realism v heroism: the eternal dilemma.
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