Craig Murray, a human rights activist and the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, was the keynote speaker at the annual Tomlinson Memorial Lecture 2013 at the University of Nottingham. Murray became a renowned UK public figure in 2003 after taking a stand on the ‘War On Terror’.
During his tenure as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Murray deviated from the actions of his predecessors by reporting on the extensive human rights abuses being committed under the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, and criticised the use of Uzbek intelligence – obtained through torture – by UK security services. The Foreign Office (FCO) forced Murray to resign in October 2004.
After the Tomlinson Memorial Lecture, Impact News caught up with Craig Murray to find out about his perspectives on recent national security developments, his life as a British Ambassador, his take on the new ‘Ambassador’ series and what his plans are for the future.
What is your opinion on national security given the rise of whistle-blowers, especially following revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden?
States are clearly becoming stronger to the detriment of the liberty of the individual. But at the same time, citizens are using social media and the means of the internet to kick back.
We actually have more power than ever before as we can disseminate information about what the state is doing, just as much as the state is trying more than ever to control information and therefore how we think and react.
“You’ve got an ultra-aggressive state kicking back”.
So you have this amazing conflict, where you’ve got people like Snowden and Assange, who can achieve more in disseminating information than was ever available to people before, but you’ve also got this ultra-aggressive state kicking back against them. You have this fascinating moment in history and it will be interesting to see which way it will go.
Have you noticed a change in the rhetoric on the ‘War on Terror’, or the actions of the British Government – particularly in reference to the Foreign Office?
The rhetoric on the War on Terror has definitely softened. They don’t really use the phrase ‘the War on Terror’ anymore but we are still warned against the apocalyptic danger. Therefore the language has slightly changed but the policies haven’t.
“We still receive intelligence obtained from torture”.
We still receive intelligence obtained from torture, intelligence from dictators, and even now we are receiving intelligence from the torture chambers of the military dictatorship in Egypt.
We are also seeing any democratic gains of the Arab revolution being overturned very quickly and we are still getting this tremendous hype against Islam. The West is completely failing to try to explain Islamic culture or the history of the nations which we attack, or the complex patterns of human inter-relationships in conflict zones through the media.
“I was really scared by the BBC’s extra-ordinarily hyping propaganda to try to get us to go to war in Syria”.
In fact, I was really scared by the BBC’s extra-ordinarily hyping propaganda to try to get us to go to war in Syria. The situation in Syria is absolutely terrible, but there is no doubt whatsoever that atrocities have been at least as bad on the rebel side, as on the government side. The idea that the solution for this is for us to take one side and then go in and bomb and kills lots more people is crazy.
And yet we got such a one-sided propagandistic view of the conflict from the media. The British Parliament taking a stand against [this hype] was perhaps a defining moment – ‘we were suckered into the Iraq war, we are not going to go through all that again’.
“There is no genuine choice between the mainstream parties, particularly in the area of foreign affairs”.
One thing that worries me about British society, however, is that people don’t believe politicians; they don’t trust them and think that they are all liars – all of which is true! But then people then become apathetic and don’t vote.
Membership of political parties is currently at an all-time low and participation in public life has gone down. I don’t blame them though, because there is no genuine choice between the mainstream parties, particularly in the area of foreign affairs for example.
Blair took us to war in Iraq and Cameron tried to take us to war in Syria. When you reach a stage where there is no democratic outlet for the way most people feel, its problematic.
How would you say your perceptions changed about the Foreign Office (FCO), following the disagreements that you had with them about exposing the human rights record of the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan? What would you recommend to any UoN students thinking of working for them?
My feelings are quite complex about the FCO because I worked for them for about 20 odd years and most of the time I actually really quite enjoyed myself.
Often I was doing things I believed in and I felt that were good – for example I spent 3-4 years of my life working on helping Poland to prepare entering the EU.
“I think if any [students] think human rights are very important, they would find it very difficult to have a career in the FCO”.
But at the end of the day, in British foreign policy, doing good, is not really an end in itself. The end is to further what British politicians define as being in the British interest and, as you know [from what] we saw in the ‘War on Terror’, that involves torture and illegal war.
Ultimately you end up working with that, so I think it depends what your priorities are in life – I think if any [students] think human rights are very important, they would find it very difficult to have a career in the FCO.
“If you wish to isolate yourself from evil in the world, you would just have to lock yourself in your bedroom and never come out”.
But I wouldn’t say to them don’t get involved or to rule out Government as a job. For example there are plenty of things in DFID (Department for International Development) that you can do, which are very useful, but that’s not to say again that DFID is not going to be wrong.
But we have to live in society in which we are born and brought up, and if you wish to isolate yourself from evil in the world, you would just have to lock yourself in your bedroom and never come out. Also there probably aren’t any jobs in which you will never have an ethical dilemma.
“If you are asked to do something which is wrong, then just say no and leave”.
So I don’t want to be too ridiculously purist about it and if well-meaning people want to join the Foreign Office, I certainly wouldn’t tell them not to. But just be aware – I think that it’s a good idea to always think that whatever you are doing is not for life.
Do it when you think you are doing good and enjoying it, carry on it with it – but then if you are asked to do something which is wrong, then just say no and leave.
What are you your feelings about the new ‘Ambassador’ series?
I am quite annoyed about that. The producers that made it invited me to a meeting and asked me if they could buy the rights to Murder in Samarkand [the book documenting my time in Uzbekistan], to which the answer was no, for a whole variety of reasons.
“Plainly it is a rip-off of Murder in Samarkand”.
But then – I mean there is no doubt at all that the first episode was very squarely based on Murder in Samarkand, down to individual, quite detailed incidents, not simply just that ‘Tazbekistan’ is quite clearly Uzbekistan. So plainly it is a rip-off of Murder in Samarkand.
I think that’s unpleasant and unfriendly, particularly as when they started making it, I contacted them and said that we ought to have a meeting, and I phoned them up about 10 times. I was never allowed to speak to anyone senior- all I wanted to say was look obviously this is taken from my book, I’m not furious but I think that we should have a cup of coffee and talk it over.
“It actually scares me that no-one in the UK thinks that is wrong… in a healthier society, people would think it was a bad thing”.
And they just refused to talk to me at all and then they denied that they had ever met me, which seeing as they had asked for me to come for a meeting and written to me and I had letters that said all that, to then deny that they had ever met me or even heard of me, was really unbelievable.
But there’s a much more serious side to this, which is the FCO’s involvement in the project and it actually scares me that no-one in the UK thinks that is wrong, particularly as the FCO has said openly, that part of their aim was to give people a better image of the Foreign Office.
“We don’t live in Stalinist Russia; it’s not the job of the FCO to make comedy programs to improve its image”.
We don’t live in Stalinist Russia; it’s not the job of the FCO to make comedy programs to improve its image, and it’s not the job of comedians to work for the Government or try to improve the Government’s image. The whole project is just really weird and in a healthier society, people would think it was a bad thing.
What are doing at the moment and will you be running for MP for the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the next general election in 2015?
I spend a lot of my time doing development work in Africa, [but] I am [also] finishing a historical biography of Alexander Burnes, which is a bit of a labour of love – I am hoping to bring it out next year.
And yes I am going to be spending a lot of time working for the SNP on their referendum campaign – nobody has asked me to stand as a candidate. I might actually resume my diplomatic career as Scottish Ambassador to Dublin….