Richard Ratcliffe’s extraordinary campaign – culminating this week with the release of his wife Nazanin – has changed the way we relate to power in Britain
I was on a call this week with Jason Rezaian.
Jason, you might have heard of him – the former Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post who was taken hostage in Iran and eventually released about six years ago.
Jason said something which perhaps you only figure out as quickly as he had if you’ve had the benefit of watching from a few thousand miles away as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori flew home. And if you’ve known Richard, as Jason has, from the very early days of Nazanin being taken hostage.
With all that perspective Jason said, “You guys in the UK are going to look back on Richard as a truly historic figure”.
And for all my boundless admiration for Richard, I thought straight away, “You’re right. I’ve underestimated him”.
He’s everything we know he is, of course. A huge figure of devotion and bravery… a sort of vision of decency… and a campaigning genius. But he’s more than that.
He is historic. Because when we think of ourselves and how we relate to power in this country, there’ll be a before Richard Ratcliffe – and there’ll be an after.
I’m Ceri Thomas – I’m one of the editors at Tortoise – and for this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I’ve been thinking about how Richard Ratcliffe changed the world.
You’ve probably heard a lot of talk this week about the 43-year-old debt that led to Nazanin being taken hostage, which was paid to get her out. A debt which Britain owed to Iran for an arms deal that collapsed in 1979.
There’s a better way to think of that debt – in two chapters. One which lasted about 39 years when the UK first denied that it owed the money, and then used every trick in the book to drag its heels and frustrate any chance of handing it over. And then a short, final chapter of four years or so, since the government accepted that the debt to Iran was real and began to look for ways to pay it.
There’s absolutely no doubt who dragged the government kicking, screaming – and sometimes spitting insults at him – over that line. It was Richard Ratcliffe.
And the difference between chapter one and two in the history of the debt is not a small thing. For those first 39 years, government after government was able to operate in ways that were opaque, deceitful, and perhaps most of all, contemptuous about their responsibility to individuals.
For the last four they’ve been forced into more openness, more honesty – and more care. That’s what Richard Ratcliffe has done.
I made a podcast about Nazanin and the tank debt last November – it’s called Trapped In Whitehall and you can find that, and everything else we’ve done about her story if you go to tortoisemedia.com/nazanin.
So of course I talked to quite a few people who’d been involved in negotiations about the tank debt over the years, and some who’d dealt with Nazanin’s case.
The most striking conversation I had was with someone who’s been very senior in British politics over a long time. He wouldn’t go on the record but he talked freely on background.
And gave me – without meaning to – the authentic voice of chapter one. Of those 39 years.
His starting point was that the link between the debt and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was a fiction invented in London by Boris Johnson to cover up for the terrible blunder he made when he said Nazanin had been teaching journalism on her trip to Iran, not just visiting her family.
The man I talked to genuinely believed that, I think. But it’s also a very convenient thing for him to believe because it absolves the government of any responsibility. And convenience is something we’ll come back to.
And even setting all that to one side, this man said, there were issues of principle. The Foreign Office should not concern itself with a person. If it allowed that to happen, it might take its eye off British interests in the wider sense. It might be swayed by emotion, not strategic calculations.
The Foreign Office, I was told, doesn’t have the capacity to care about an individual. And fundamentally, it shouldn’t care, even if it could.
Now, of course, you can see where he was coming from – this old political operator. Cases like Nazanin’s do suck up a huge amount of institutional time. Sometimes the interests of the other 65 million of us might be at odds with the interests of one person stuck in a foreign jail.
But as a matter of principle… if you decide that a person shouldn’t matter, that the game is all about the big picture, there’s a pretty thin cigarette paper between you and what a totalitarian regime would say.
And then along came Richard Ratcliffe. What does the world after him look like?
I don’t think the government has remotely figured that out yet. For two reasons.
First of all, if you were taken hostage tomorrow, your family would still be told by the Foreign Office to say nothing. They’d be fed scare stories about the horror of the media on their doorstep, and how any publicity would only raise the cost of getting you out.
And even as it dished out that advice, the Foreign Office would know how deeply convenient it was to its own interests.
I’m not sure many people in government – yet – have learned the same lessons Richard has since he took the decision to go public, very early on.
Everything he’s discovered since he took that gamble – about the way British governments work, and whose interests they prioritise – has convinced him he made the right call. And Nazanin might not be alive now if he hadn’t.
The second reason is the government’s r efusal to acknowledge – even now – that Nazanin and Anoosheh’s release was linked to the repayment of the debt.
It’s convenient for the UK to pretend that it hasn’t helped release a hostage. And it’s convenient for Iran to pretend that it doesn’t take hostages. But it’s laughable. And if – in the world after Richard Ratcliffe – there’s going to be a more mature and open relationship between people and the state, that’s a terrible way to start.
The good news is that those positions surely won’t hold. What Richard Ratcliffe has done is to make the individual impossible to ignore. He extracted Nazanin and himself from the machine of government, and gave them agency. Gave them a voice.
And he told the truth. He always called Nazanin a hostage, even when he was being told not to.
There was that long and not very exciting debate in Britain about whether we’re citizens or subjects. And one of the many admirable things about Richard, I think, is that he’s always been determined to behave like a citizen.
He’s always demanded a citizen’s rights.
And without ever thinking this was what he was doing, he’s made us all stronger citizens on his coat-tails.