I don't do retiring and deferential

Click to follow

Three-and-a-half years ago, just after I finished my book on morality and human rights, I was elected chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN, the writers' organisation. The committee had existed for 40 years, adopting writers and campaigning on their behalf, and had had many notable successes. But the political climate had recently changed and I saw an opportunity to make our work more effective by setting up closer links with the Foreign Office, where Robin Cook was then Foreign Secretary. I also discovered that we could apply for a grant from the FCO's human rights fund, and for the last couple of years it has funded a project to allow members of the WiPC to observe trials and visit imprisoned writers.

This has transformed our activities, giving us much more contact with imprisoned writers and their families in countries such as Egypt, Belarus, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Turkey. I love this work, so the dispute in which I find myself embroiled, which has set the WiPC against English PEN's executive committee (effectively its board) and threatens to tear the organisation apart, is profoundly shocking. The immediate casus belli may seem parochial, and typical of the disputes that dog voluntary organisations, but it raises important questions about how PEN operates. Two months ago, at an open meeting of the WiPC, I was nominated unanimously to be English PEN's candidate in the election for a new chair of the same committee at International PEN. I quickly got the support of the Scottish, Mexican and Catalan centres. The new president, Alastair Niven, said it would be perverse of the executive - which is in disarray after a series of resignations - to block my nomination.

That is what it has done, causing astonishment among my colleagues and leaving English PEN without a candidate for this prestigious post. The "vote" was conducted in secret, by email, and consisted of a request for comments, not votes, on my nomination; one member of the executive, the distinguished novelist Moris Farhi, a vice-president of International PEN, resigned in protest as soon as the result was announced. Thirty writers have now signed a resolution expressing no confidence in the president and the executive, who will face a call to stand down at an extraordinary general meeting later this month. It has been signed by most of the WiPC's members, including Ruth Fainlight, Shusha Guppy, Melissa Benn, Maureen Freely and Nicholas Murray, along with three of English PEN's vice-presidents: Bernice Rubens, Francis King and Ronnie Harwood.

This dispute has brought into the open anxieties that go far beyond the immediate question of my candidacy. Many members are unhappy about a big increase in English PEN's staff costs and a move away from its image as an organisation of, and for, writers. More fundamentally, it demonstrates how the British establishment has changed since Labour came to power in 1997: I may not have the support of the executive, but the Foreign Office thinks so highly of my work for PEN that it offered me an MBE in the new year's honours list. (Officials were only mildly hurt when I turned it down.)

The president has told my colleagues that I am regarded as "too militant" to be English PEN's candidate, which I read as meaning I'm not sufficiently deferential. It is hard to believe that the executive wants a retiring human rights campaigner to negotiate with the governments of Vietnam and Cuba. It is more likely that I have offended some of the executive by standing up for the WiPC, which was under-funded until we got our government grant. It has been threatened with a disastrous, two-tier structure, which I opposed, and I have made myself unpopular by asking for more openness about whether a proposed move to charitable status will curtail our political activities.

Unsurprisingly, some people would like to keep all this under wraps, which is the English way of dealing with disagreements. But I believe members should be able to decide whether they want PEN to be open, democratic and effective, or run by people who vote behind closed doors and think they know better than the WiPC and the Foreign Office. How can we lecture foreign governments about transparency, democracy and justice if we do not live up to the highest standards ourselves?

Comments