Hugh Reilly: Faux political outrage left me fuming

Jalila al-Salman: torture claim
Jalila al-Salman: torture claim
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Last week, opposition MSPs competed for the frothiest mouth prize awarded to the politician venting greatest faux outrage over the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s decision to sign a contract with that bastion of human rights, Bahrain.

An apoplectic Labour MSP, Hugh Henry, fumed: “The Scottish Government needs to launch an urgent inquiry into the SQA contract with Bahrain and it should report its findings to the Scottish Parliament.” His indignation was echoed by Dr Richard Simpson, a fellow Labour MSP, who hosted a pro-democracy delegation from Bahrain at the Scottish Parliament last November.

Attempts by these politico-desperados to infer that the SNP government is somehow supporting human rights abuses in the Gulf by allowing the SQA to set up a qualifications network, while predictable, were utterly pathetic.

In 2003, Henry was an MSP when, under the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition government, the SQA hooked up with China’s education ministry. I don’t recall him speaking out on his government doing business with a regime that 14 years earlier had massacred college students in Tiananmen Square. When he rose to the post of education minister in 2006, he did not insist the contract be cancelled.

Happy to be helpful, I can reveal to Messrs Henry and Simpson that, in its desire to cut the financial losses it constantly racks up, the SQA has explored new markets in countries that would struggle to receive the imprimatur of the Scottish Labour Party. According to human rights groups, more than 60 per cent of women in Iraqi Kurdistan have undergone forced genital mutilation. This has not prevented the SQA from putting out feelers to the Kurdish autonomous regional government. The SQA is also actively involved in the Kuwaiti education system.

The Better Together folk should know that foreign policy is not a devolved power, hence it is not within Alex Salmond’s remit to meet with the Sunni king of Bahrain and demand he desists shooting pro-democracy protesters.

It will be of some comfort to Henry that Foreign Secretary William Hague is batting for Britain in a valiant effort to ensure a pro-western tyrant is removed and, in all likelihood, replaced by an elected Islamic government.

In my view, it’s hypocritical to expect the SQA to operate an ethical policy with regard to overseas business. British private companies are crawling over themselves to set-up lucrative trade deals with some of the most reprehensible regimes on the planet. Why should we insist on a higher moral standard for publicly controlled bodies?

The Scottish Conservative chief whip, John Lamont, called for “a full explanation into who knew what about this [SQA] contract.” This is a tad rich coming from a man whose party leader recently did a whistle-stop tour of the Middle East to clinch contracts for the gang of UK weapons dealers that accompanied him.

The Bahraini monarchy and its forces are responsible for the deaths of 71 activists since February 2011. This, though appalling, is a mere fraction of the numbers of innocent civilians killed in Afghanistan by Nato troops in the same time frame. Unlike the US and the UK, Bahrain has not invaded two sovereign nations – thus a Bahraini government apologist could be excused for rejecting the notion that we hold the high moral ground.

In the West Bank and Gaza, unarmed Palestinians living under a brutal occupation die like flies, yet there is no plea from Labour or the Conservatives for the Scottish Government to break off any academic ties with Israel. In my opinion, the lack of consistency in those who denounce the SQA’s partnership with Bahrain only serves to highlight the bankruptcy of their argument.

The sad reality is that almost every nation brings baggage to the world’s table. When I was a young teacher, I was often accused of being an idealist. Colleagues smiled when I implored them to stop buying Cape fruit as part of the struggle to overthrow the South African apartheid regime. Now older, I realise that choosing to boycott one country while turning a blind eye to the crimes of another is the politics of the absurd.

My heart goes out to Jalila al-Salman, vice-president of the Bahrain Teachers Association, who claims to have been tortured after leading a strike. However, one would have to be something of an optimist to think that cancelling an SQA contract would close the country’s dungeons.