Chris Bryant: The trip to Lebanon that showed me how vulnerable civilisations can be

A Political Life

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There was a minor miracle in Beirut this week – the first ever comprehensive street map of the city was published. Frankly, it's about time. Taxi drivers rarely know their way round the city and because so many streets have changed their names over the years – or been completely rebuilt after the civil war – nobody is very certain when giving directions. Finally, there is the equivalent of a Beirut A to Z.

The map is important in other ways. Reliable maps are a prerequisite for a successful economy. You need to know which land belongs to whom if you want to buy, sell or develop it, and you can't do business with someone you literally cannot find.

But you only have to spend half a day in the ancient Phoenician coastal town of Byblos, which dates back to at least 6000BC, to realise how vulnerable this stretch of the Mediterranean has been. At least 19 civilisations have traipsed and plundered their way through the town. In ancient times, the Hittites, Amorites, Jebusites, and Amalekites took their turn with the Assyrians, Persians and Greeks. Yet even after the collapse of the Ottoman empire and independence wrung from unwilling French hands in 1943, Lebanon has been a military playground for others. Indeed, for years the Lebanese have worried that out of military ambition Israel and Syria have far better maps of their streets than they did.

All of which makes me realise that I'm no nationalist. I detest the exaggerated belief in one's own cultural heritage, the puffed-up, arbitrary and unmerited self-confidence, the swift denunciation of all that is alien or foreign, the desperate desire to support anyone from the home team, however lazy or hideous. Nationalism is a nasty creed and the path from well-meaning nationalism to xenophobia and racism is slippier than the luge track in the Winter Olympics.

It's the scourge of politics around the globe. In Ukraine, Asian football fans have the living daylights beaten out of them. In Poland, football supporters chant anti-Jewish slogans. In Russia, nationalistic imprecations against Nato, the United States and the UK are the basis of a crazed military doctrine. And that's before we get on to the particularly hateful combination of religious fundamentalism and nationalism. At its least harmful, it sees the head of Beirut's Maronite church boast that he is building a new bell tower 20cm higher than the minaret at the next-door mosque. At a far more dangerous level is the passionate belief in a Shia state of Iran or a Jewish state of Israel, vanquishing foes with fanatical delirium.

Lebanon needs a dose of nation-building. It needs it even more than it needs the orgy of high-end residential construction that is going on in Beirut. But more nationalism may just leave Lebanon prey to her neighbours yet again.

No truck with nationalism

I don't care for nationalism here in the UK either. UK nationalism and Welsh and Scottish nationalism repel me equally. No, British isn't always best. I love the NHS but other national health services perform just as well. Shelley is just as dull (or poignant, take your pick) as Pushkin, or Goethe, or Neruda. Welsh cakes are very moreish, but paella and tabbouleh are equally delicious and there's a reason hummus and pizza have invaded our fridges. I'm Welsh, but the very thought of Shirley Bassey, below, Tom Jones, Bryn Terfel and the Stereophonics played on a permanent loop makes me ill. So, while I'm completely ignoring Euro 2012, I shall be cheering brilliant, determined, skilful and genial foreigners at the Olympics as enthusiastically as any Brit.

It's just Aunt Sally politics

I've had another Twitter spat with Louise Mensch. I know, I shouldn't bother. Remorseless, blind loyalty is what she does and there's no shifting her, but this tweet set me off: "Without Murdoch there would not have been a BSkyB; risked company on it; a little gratitude and recognition in order." Followed by this one: "Labour never liked business success. It's why so many of them still revile the name of Blair."

This is Aunt Sally politics. You pretend your opponent holds ludicrous views and attack them for it. But it's so dishonest. I don't know a single Labour person who dislikes business success. If anything, Labour's core passion is for full employment – and that needs businesses to succeed. The problem with Murdoch is that in building a successful broadcaster, he also laid waste the rest of the market. Until last year, you had no choice in the Rhondda if you wanted BBC3 or Channel 4 but to take Sky. Moreover, Murdoch snaps up sports and movie rights, and manipulates the operating system so that players such as onDigital go to the wall and new entrants are excluded. No wonder the Competition Commission found last month that competition in the pay-TV market is "ineffective". So no gratitude from me.

Ladies of the Rhondda's legacy

Yesterday was the 83rd anniversary of the first woman joining the Cabinet and Privy Council, the shopworker trade unionist turned minister for Labour, Margaret Bondfield. The fact that my local Labour Party is happily dominated by the renowned Ladies of the Rhondda owes much to her and the GP Ethel Bentham, the remarkably posh Edith Picton-Turbervill, Clement Attlee's PPS Mary Hamilton, the birth-control campaigner Dorothy Jewson, Labour's chief women's officer Marion Phillips, and the health minister Susan Lawrence, only two of whom had more than 37 months each as MPs in the 1920s.

In their footsteps, Dari Taylor, a Rhondda girl, was elected for Stockton in 1997. When she did her first local radio phone-in, she was so relieved to survive it unscathed that she relaxed on the last question. "What's the most difficult thing you have to do every day?" "To be honest, it's handling nine inches of mail every morning."

twitter@ChrisBryantMP

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