…and a merry New Year (I think that’s the right way round, don’t you?). Be safe, be happy, and enjoy what 2016 brings…
…and a merry New Year (I think that’s the right way round, don’t you?). Be safe, be happy, and enjoy what 2016 brings…
Last week, I argued against joining in the Syrian war but promised a separate piece on domestic terrorism, which you’ll find below. I’m glad to see signs of MPs thinking carefully, before this week’s vote. Cameron presented his case to the Commons in a calm and non-partisan way and has convinced many Labour MPs, and Corbyn has put the alternative case equally soberly (see http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/jeremy-corbyn-is-more-sensible-about-syria-than-david-cameron/ for a Conservative view of his position). Both deserve a hearing: ultimately, we need to decide this issue separately from the day-to-day party political stuff. But I still think personally that the project is fatally flawed by the absence of a credible plan for what we hope to achieve in Syria.
On domestic terrorism in Europe, the Paris attacks, like the 7/7 attacks in London, are a reminder that there are people who are perfectly willing to kill as many civilians as they can in pursuit of religious craziness. It doesn’t matter what your faith is (if any), how you vote or whether you have any view on the Middle East – if you happen to be around when they start shooting, you’re a potential victim. I don’t agree with those who say they are motivated by this or that Western policy – the terrorist position is not as rational as that.
It’s important to stress, though, that this is not only insane but very, very rare. Paris, 7/7 and 9/11 were all horrific, but they are so familiar because they were exceptional. There are not many people who are quite that fanatical, and they tend to stand out, enabling the security services to do a generally effective job. The danger from terrorists in statistical terms of walking around in London or Paris or Brussels is negligible. It’s horrible, but it’s literally the activity of a lunatic fringe. I don’t say that just to offer reassurance, but to note that we shouldn’t rush into changing our society in fundamental ways because we think that the terrorist threat justifies everything.
What about wider sympathy? Do the madmen swim in a sea of people who passively support them? Do Muslim Britons think differently from non-Muslim Britons? There is some polling on this – not about the terrorism itself, but about people who go to Syria to fight on one side or another. The pollster Survation did a survey on this. They say:
“A clear majority of British Muslims, 71%, say they have “no sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria”. 5% had “a lot of sympathy” and 15% had “some sympathy”. These figures represent a significant drop in sympathy since March, from 8% and 20% respectively. In total 8% fewer Muslims have any sympathy for Muslims leaving for Syria than they did in March. Interestingly, when we polled the remainder of the British population in March, 4% of non-Muslims expressed “a lot of sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria” and 9% expressed “some sympathy”, suggesting that attitudes held by the Muslim and non-Muslim populations are not that different.”
Survation has complained to the Sun, which wrote up the survey as “20% of Muslims support ISIS”, which is wildly misleading, since the survey didn’t ask about ISIS and a lot of people fighting in the Syrian quagmire are not in ISIS (according to Mr Cameron’s controversial estimate, 70,000 are fighting against both ISIS and Assad).
So if the terrorists are both rare and isolated in both Muslim and non-Muslim circles, do we need to do anything? Yes, I think we do. I’m more open now to intelligence-gathering of a kind that in normal times I’d resist – for instance, I think it’s of legitimate interest to the security services if someone repeatedly visits extremist websites or corresponds with known extremists, and I’d accept that they should be able to monitor it. Sometimes, there will be a perfectly legitimate explanation – journalistic research, for instance – but in the current situation it’s reasonable that a closer look should be taken. This should be subject to independent review, to ensure that the power is not used disproportionately.
It’s important, too, to encourage active support for counter-terrorism. If you had reason to think that someone you knew was planning to help terrorism, you shouldn’t just shake your head dubiously: you should report it at once. Schools, religious leaders and politicians can all play a part in encouraging this, while separating it clearly from hassling people who simply have a different religion. We do not have a problem with people peacefully attending mosques; we have a problem with terrorism.
Terrorists would like everyone to see the situation as Muslims vs everyone else. We need to be careful not to feed that idea, because the reality is different: it’s terrorists vs everyone else. If we work together, calmly and proportionately, they will be defeated.
First, apologies for the long pause in updates. I’ve stepped back from day-to-day updates on Broxtowe (please see the browtowelabour.com website for Labour’s updates) but I do intend to keep commenting from time to time on national issues.
The obvious question coming up is whether we should join the Americans, Russians and French in bombing ISIS in Syria – and perhaps further involvement thereafter. The case for action has clearly been strengthened by the horrific terrorism in Paris. If anyone was in any doubt about the murderous evil that ISIS presents, that doubt should now have disappeared. Another important development is the agreed UN resolution urging all powers to take action to combat the terrorism. Although this stops short of explicitly making the attack on ISIS a UN mission, it clearly gives a level of international agreement that we have not seen for a very long time.
That said, it’s easier to get into wars than get out of them, and it’s right to ask some questions. How will defeating ISIS in Syria affect terrorism in Europe? Can ISIS be defeated in Syria without ground troops, and if not, are we willing to get involved again with ground forces? The allies attacking ISIS are completely divided on the future of Assad, with Russia strongly supportive and Britain entirely hostile – if ISIS is defeated, what happens next? What exactly are we trying to achieve? What would victory look like, and is there an exit strategy, or would this be an indefinite commitment?
The lesson of Iraq (where I mistakenly supported military action) is not to rush into battle without a coherent plan for what we are trying to achieve and what happens if we win. At present, we don’t appear to have a strategy at all; we are against Assad, but we don’t have a clear alternative, except for a vague reference to the fractured Free Syrian Army and “moderate forces”. There is, it seems to me, a danger that we are responding to the real threat of terrorism in Europe, which we don’t know quite how to deal with effectively, by doing what we do well, air strikes against an enemy thousands of miles away.
There is a case for joining the coalition out of solidarity with the other countries – not least as the emergence of combined action between the West and Russia perhaps shows real progress since the Cold War. But it is delusional to get involved in a war and think we are really tackling terrorism, without a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve either in Syria or against terror in Europe. I should like to see signs of an effective plan for compromise between Assad and the non-ISIS opposition, and in the absence of that, shouldn’t we stop trying to help overthrow Assad? Is he a ruthless dictator who has almost certainly committed war crimes? Yes. But he may be the least bad realistic option available. The belief that the end of a dictatorship in itself always makes for a better future is not always well-founded. Look at Libya. Look at Yugoslavia. Look at Iraq.
This is all too important for party politics, and notably all parties are divided on the issue. But I’d like to disagree with the common view that Jeremy Corbyn’s nuanced response and his refusal to brush into a war is a sign of weakness or even lack of patriotism. It’s part of the job of opposition leaders to ask questions and raise cautionary warnings. Corbyn’s reluctance to make generalised bellicose statements is seen as a weakness in today’s climate. It is not, however, pacifism; rather, it’s a concern to avoid rushing into a new adventure when we have only just exited from the last one. My unfashionable view is that he’s doing us a service by keeping a cool head in this anxious and fevered time.
Quite separate from what should be done in Syria is the question of how terrorism in Europe can best be fought. I’ll return to that in a later column.
For those who’ve asked how it feels at the conference, a snippet from Central News on Monday (drag forward to 6 minutes 45 seconds), kindly sent on by ITV’s reporter Alison Mackenzie:
As most of you will know from previous updates, I voted for Jeremy Corbyn, and of course I’m pleased that he’s won. Reaction has otherwise been quite polarised:
I dislike polarisation, and we have a tradition in Broxtowe of friendly dialogue, so I’d like to address this to those of you who are in the second and third groups.
As you know, I’m both temperamentally and politically a compromiser. I think that reforms usually need to come slowly, and some splitting of differences along the way are usually needed. By instinct, you’d expect me to have supported someone in the centrist tradition.
The problem is that the well of cautious centrism seems to me to have run dry. The Government is by no means centrist: while it purports to target lazy people with benefit cuts, in reality the main target is families in work on low incomes, who will be losing up to £1000 a year from next spring. Similarly, while deficit reduction purports to be in the national interest, it’s really obvious that the cuts are coming almost entirely from public services and council grants. There is a different agenda at work here.
These Conservative policies need robust opposition, rather than an apologetic mutter. Why did the Parliamentary Labour Party abstain on the benefit cuts? Because they thought you’d be annoyed if they opposed them. The party became so fixated on the need to win the centre ground that we became terrified to do anything that might disturb centrist voters, especially in middle England constituencies like Broxtowe.
But real voters are not that easily pigeonholed: I’ve found throughout the 20 years that I’ve campaigned in Broxtowe that people across the spectrum respond with interest to different ideas, so long as they’re put forward in a friendly and open-minded way rather than a shriek of anger.
I voted for Corbyn for three reasons.
Has he offered a fully-costed detailed programme yet? No. There are plenty of detailed policies that we need to decide before the next election. What level of quantitative easing for infrastructure investment could be productive? How far can we really curb multinational tax evasion? What are the practical limits to welcoming refugees?
But for the first time in a generation, we have a leader of a party who is genuinely open to discussion, rather than pushing through his viewpoint. That’s profoundly unfashionable – Blair, Brown, Cameron, Clegg and Farage have had little in common except that: they decided what they wanted and told their parties to accept it. That’s why parties have been hollowed out and why it’s so remarkable that Labour membership has now doubled. Consulting people is a rediscovery, and if it catches on, British politics will be transformed for the better.
You’ll hear a great deal of facile abuse hurled at Corbyn. For example, views differ on Trident – it’s not clear to me that the £100 billion is well-invested, and countries from Germany to Canada to Japan manage happily without it, but I know that others disagree. Disagreement on that is not, however, a “threat to the safety of Britain”, as the Conservatives would have you think. It’s a reasonable issue to debate.
So if you’re sceptical, I don’t ask you instantly to change your mind, but I’d like to ask you to suspend judgment and watch directly how Corbyn and Labour evolve – or, better still, get involved in the process yourself. It’s one of the most interesting moments in my political lifetime, and if these things interest you, it’s a pity to miss out. If Corbyn fails – as is possible – we will be back with the old jostling of hard-to-distinguish parties attempting to persuade you that they’re 10% better than their rivals. Let’s give him a chance to change British politics for the better.