My department just moved into a new building, and, being in a new building, acquired a new set of cleaners. I got chatting to one of them the other day and asked her where she was from. “Chile,” she told me. She had come to the UK some time after the coup, when other family members had been imprisoned and life had become impossible. She had been given refugee status and had raised a family here. She had been back once, but Chile had become a foreign country to her, all her life was now in the UK where her children had grown up. Often, such is the fate of the refugee, permanently exiled, a whole life, with its plans, expectations and connections, very different from how it might have been. In the late 1970s and early 80s I was involved in Latin American solidarity work in Oxford and got to know quite a few Chileans. Many seemed to be happy and friendly people but others were scarred by the experiences they had been through before exile, and it showed. People fleeing conflict, persecution and the threat of torture or death are very vulnerable and often fragile. At least British governments of the 1970s and 80s recognised and put into practice their obligations towards such people. Things are different now.
Today is the fortieth anniversary of that other, bloodier, September 11th when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile and overthrew a democratically-elected left-wing government, with thousands killed, “disappeared”, tortured or imprisoned. The Chilean coup hung over the leftists of my generation as a warning of what can and might happen, should capital ever be seriously worried about its entitlements and prerogatives. Such an atmosphere spawned novels such as Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup, an imaginative recreation of what a British Chile could be like. We know that in the recesses of MI5 and the Tory right there were murmurings and proto-plans. Plans for eventualities in which the country proved “ungovernable”, where the far left become too strong, or where the miners “brought down” another government. (Of course, it was the electors who actually deposed Edward Heath.) We knew too of the likely hand-wringing reaction of supposedly democratic liberals and conservatives, should such an intervention prove “necessary” closer to home. That thought was present in Ralph Miliband’s well-known “The Coup in Chile”:
In so far as Chile was a bourgeois democracy, what happened there is about bourgeois democracy, and about what may also happen in other bourgeois democracies. After all, The Times, on the morrow of the coup, was writing (and the words ought to be carefully memorized by people on the Left): “… whether or not the armed forces were right to do what they have done, the circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene”. Should a similar episode occur in Britain, it is a fair bet that, whoever else is inside Wembley Stadium, it won’t be the Editor of The Times: he will be busy writing editorials regretting this and that, but agreeing, however reluctantly, that, taking all circumstances into account, and notwithstanding the agonizing character of the choice, there was no alternative but for reasonable military men … and so on and so forth.
There seems little prospect of the today’s left in Europe posing the kind of threat that would make such a coup “necessary” (though maybe a Syriza-led government in Greece would have tested, and might yet test, that proposition). Still, the words of the editor of the Times find echo in the reflections of many an op-ed writer about recent events in Egypt where “reasonable military men” have “in good faith” believed it their “constitutional duty to intervene”. (That wasn’t a coup though, was it? And the massacred of the Muslim Brotherhood have, on the face of it, little in common with those executed in the night in football stadiums.)
One thing that has changed greatly since 1973 is the sense of obligation of states in the “West” to the victims of persecution. However many Brothers are slaughtered in Egypt, they will find it very difficult to make their way to the United Kingdom in order to claim asylum. Certainly, no British government will be making it easy for them, just as they have taken steps to prevent the arrival of Syrians. Should any “Chileans” of today arrive in a boat in Australia they will not be able to make a new life, but will be sent to rot in a camp in Papua New Guinea. Still, we can be somewhat proud that, forty years ago, when Chileans sought refuge, that despite the attitudes of Times leader-writers, the commitment and solidarity of the Labour movement then ensured that a haven was there for some.