Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Sunday, 28 December 2014

An open letter to Virgin Trains


Dear Virgin Trains

Many thanks for your sweet email last night, in which you asked what I thought of my journey with you yesterday. On a scale of 0-10, you wanted to know how likely I am to recommend your company to my friends, family or colleagues.

I replied 0, and when you asked why, my reply began with the words: "You must be joking …" I thought you might like a fuller explanation, because so far, amid the chaos and recriminations surrounding yesterday's rail fiasco, you've got off undeservedly lightly.

We booked our tickets to Cumbria in October. Then, just a few weeks later, you sent me an ominous-sounding email, entitled, insultingly, I thought, "Don't be a pudding."

You said that because of essential engineering work over the Christmas period (work that you had somehow forgotten to mention when I bought our tickets), you advised me to postpone my return journey. (Question: if I book a rented cottage in the Lake District, why do you think postponing my journey is even an option?)

There was an alternative: you said I could travel back to London via Preston, Manchester and Sheffield. Call me clairvoyant if you like, but that didn't sound to me like such a great idea. But I phoned you anyway, and a very helpful person at your call centre somewhere in India took me through the timetable to see how it might work.

Could I make seat reservations? Ah, that would require four separate phone calls, to four separate train companies. That's when we decided to rent a car instead. Yes, as it turned out, it was the right decision, although 10 hours for a journey of just under 300 miles is not the best testament to the health of the UK's motorway network. (Nothing to do with bad weather, by the way, just the usual lane closures.)

So, Virgin Trains, here's what you should have done. First, you should have warned me when I booked our tickets of the likelihood of major disruption. If Network Rail delayed telling you of their plans (and, by the way, I feel for the thousands of rail engineers who slaved away over Christmas -- I do understand the need for track maintenance and upgrades), you should have said so, threatened to sue them, and offered me a full refund.

Second, you should not -- definitely not -- have sent out that crass, automated email last night. It was plain insulting.

As it happens, I love travelling by train. Earlier this year, I crossed Europe almost entirely by rail, with no trouble at all. The UK's railway system is a disgrace. I know it's not all your fault, but you really shouldn't have sent me that email last night. And yes, I do want that refund.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Peshawar: lost for words


Being at a loss for words is never ideal for a journalist, yet the mind-numbing massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar has left me struggling.

I can think of only three occasions during more than four decades as a journalist when I've experienced a similar inability to find the appropriate words: the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989, when 96 people were crushed to death; the Rwanda genocide in 1994, when an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in a matter of weeks; and the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, in which nearly 3,000 people lost their lives.

It's not just the numbers that freeze the brain; it's something much more fundamental than that. It's the sense that this simply should not be happening; it is not how the world was meant to be; it is, in all senses, appallingly, horribly wrong.

When children lose their parents, they are called orphans. When a spouse dies, the survivor is called a widow or widower. Yet we have no word to describe a parent who loses a child, because -- at least since the advent of modern medicine -- it is just not meant to happen. 

It's not only the words I've been struggling with. I have also been trying to imagine the mindset of someone who conceives, and orders, such a murderous attack on schoolchildren. And if that's hard enough, how much harder it is to imagine what's in the minds of the men who actually pull the trigger, who see the children cowering, hear them screaming in fear, and shoot nonetheless.

To try to understand is not the same as trying to excuse. No one should ever seek to excuse the cold-blooded, deliberate mass murder of children. But without trying to understand, we have even less chance of finding a way to prevent more such ghastly attacks.

So here, hard as it is, is my attempt to understand. The Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), who said they were responsible for the Peshawar attack, claimed it was in response to Pakistani army attacks on their bases in north Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan. The school, they said, was used mainly by army families and was therefore a legitimate target for a revenge attack.

According to a spokesman, the attackers were under orders to kill only boys over the age of puberty. Even if that is indeed the case, and we have no reason whatsoever to believe it, it would seem the gunmen flagrantly disobeyed their orders.

But suppose some of the gunmen had seen members of their own families killed by army strikes. Suppose some of the casualties had been children (which is almost certainly the case, as tends to be the way with such operations). Would that enable us to understand better the brutality of the counter-attack?

I don't think so, even if -- and again, we have no reason to suppose this is the case -- the gunmen were indeed from the areas where the army has been in action. In fact, some of the survivors are reported to have said that the attackers spoke Arabic or another non-local language -- possibly Uzbek -- which suggests that they were anything but local.

So what about the shadowy figures who conceived and planned the attack, the Taliban leaders thought to be hiding out across the border in Afghanistan? (Incidentally, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the so-called Durand Line, named after Sir Mortimer Durand of the Indian Civil Service, is in many places almost entirely a work of fiction.)

For them, as for their Afghan counterparts, with whom they share an ideology but not a common leadership, the goal is to smash the authority of the central government and carve out an area where they can rule unhindered, in accordance with their own traditions and beliefs.

There's also a well-founded suspicion that some of them are backed, if not sponsored, by elements deep inside Pakistan's military structure, who share at least some of their aims (weakening the civilian government, destabilising Afghanistan, keeping India on its toes). We may assume, I think, that even if that were the case, they would draw the line at slaughtering the children of fellow military personnel.

On Thursday, though, the man accused of being the mastermind behind the attack on the Taj hotel and other targets in Mumbai in 2008, in which 165 people were killed, was freed on bail by a court in Rawalpindi. I'm not at all sure what we're meant to make of that.

This is the region where more than 100 years ago Britain and Russia were engaged in the Great Game, vying for dominance in a strategically crucial area of central Asia. The tragedy is that so little has changed. Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are still caught up in -- and players in -- the 21st century version of the same brutal game.

The 132 children of the Army Public School in Peshawar who died in last Tuesday's attack were its latest victims. They will not be the last.

Does any of this help to explain why they were killed? Not really. I suspect nothing can.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Osborne's world: it hasn't fallen in. Perhaps he should get out more

Our text today is taken from the Book According to Osborne: "The chancellor addressed the multitudes and he spake thus. 'Has the world fallen in? No, it has not.' And the multitudes pondered upon his words and were perplexed."

You may remember the occasion. It was the morning after Mr Osborne had delivered his autumn statement in the House of Commons. My esteemed former colleague John Humphrys was giving him a light grilling on the Today programme. Mr Osborne, joined later by David Cameron, took grave exception to what they complained was the BBC's "hyperbolic" coverage of the likely consequences of their plans for further cuts in government spending.

You've been going on about this for four years, was the gist of their complaint -- and look, the world hasn't fallen in, has it?

I choked on my cornflakes. Of course, their world hasn't fallen in. They don't depend on a few extra pounds in benefits to get them through the week, nor do they rely on social services to keep their families functioning. I somehow doubt that they use public libraries, or Sure Start centres, or community youth centres, or drugs rehabilitation units. Nor does anyone they know -- family, friends, neighbours.

In their world, nothing has changed. Executive pay continues to rise at obscene rates, and bonuses continue to be paid as if there's a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. So looking at the world through their eyes, yes, it's true. Everything's fine and dandy.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the world where the vast majority of voters live, things look a bit different. According to the 2014 British Social Attitudes survey: "The cost of energy bills rose by more than 60 per cent between the start of the economic crisis in 2008 and 2013, and food, water and transport costs all rose by more than 20 per cent … Yet rises in costs have not been matched by rising earnings … the average (median) household is six per cent worse off in real terms in 2013/14 than its pre-crisis peak."

According to a recent report by the UN children's agency UNICEF: "The UK was one of only four countries which experienced an 'unprecedented increase' in severe material deprivation – a measure of whether families can pay the rent, heat their homes and afford reasonable diets for their children. The other three countries affected were Greece, Italy and Spain ... "

And according to a new parliamentary report, average rents in the UK have increased by nearly a third over the past decade, much more than in either France or Germany. Let's not even think about the cost of actually buying somewhere to live.

It seems Mr Osborne has either noticed none of this or thinks it doesn't matter. After all, his world hasn't fallen in. That's why he's so confident that he can carry on hacking away at the already grossly inadequate assistance that's on offer to those in the most desperate need.

Could someone persuade him to read the piece by The Guardian's food writer Jack Monroe, who knows only too well what being in need really means? She gave evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into poverty:

"My head in my hands, choking out words, tears rushing down hot, humiliated cheeks, I raised my head to look at the array of varying expressions looking back from the other side of the room; a Labour MP, two Conservative peers, and a Conservative MP looked back, a mixture of horror and sympathy as I publicly crashed and burned. Fear and humiliation and self-loathing leaping on me like a set of hyenas, as I sobbed: 'I can’t even answer my telephone any more if it’s an unknown number, if it rings early in the morning, or I don’t know who it is. I can’t even open my own front door. It’s not the same front door as the one I sat with my back to, morning and afternoon, cowering as bailiffs battered on the other side of it. It’s not the same phone number. It’s not the same front door. I’m not in debt. There are no more final demands, no more red capital letters, no more threats. But … I can’t even open my own front door.'"

So what does the Labour party say about all this? In a heavily-trailed speech on Thursday, Ed Miliband outlined what he called a "tough and balanced" approach to reducing the government deficit: "We start from believing that this country needs a long-term plan to make the country work for working people again, not just for a privileged few at the top."

Which is all well and good, even if it doesn't make for a snappy chant on an anti-poverty protest march. And I could have done without that mean-minded emphasis on "working people", as if career-break parents, or people with chronic illness or disability, somehow matter less.

There is a problem, though, for left-of-centre politicians who care about building a fairer society: most voters aren't keen on being nice to people on benefits. The British Social Attitudes survey reported that more than half the British public believe that most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one, and that current benefits levels are too high. Three-quarters believe that "large numbers of people" falsely claim benefits.

So if Ed Miliband started promising to do more for people living in poverty (the word appeared just once in Thursday's speech), it probably wouldn't do him any good at the ballot box. And if he doesn't win next May, he won't be able to do anything at all.

If Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne win, on the other hand, they will be able to continue to construct a world that works perfectly well for them, their families and friends, even if it causes real hardship for millions of their fellow-citizens.

After all, it hasn't fallen in, has it?


Friday, 5 December 2014

Is it time to leave Planet Earth?


I'm wondering if I should start packing my bags. Not for Christmas -- for good. Apparently, we're on course for 2014 to be declared the hottest year ever, both globally and for the UK.

So if we go on like this, at some point Mother Earth will become uninhabitable. True, not in my lifetime, or yours -- but according to one study, it could happen in about 300 years from now. Which, in evolutionary terms, is the twinkling of an eye.

I tend to be a great believer in the power of human ingenuity. I reckon that, on the whole, the human species has shown itself to be remarkably adept at finding solutions to the challenges that threaten us.

For example: when our ancestors realised that raw meat was less easily digested than cooked meat, they started to cook it. When they noticed that babies die in cold temperatures, they swaddled them. When they started to work out how they were infecting each other with life-threatening diseases, they invented drugs. And when they decided they were over-breeding, they came up with contraception.

On the other hand, as the financial investment advertisements always remind us, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Just because we've managed to survive so far doesn't mean we'll survive for ever.

Which brings me to the other news item that caught my eye: NASA's plan to launch a new spacecraft which, one day, could take us to Mars. (A planned launch on Thursday was postponed because of technical problems.) Mars, of course, is the one planet theoretically within reach of Planet Earth that just might somehow be able to support some form of life.

I remember many years ago hosting an international phone-in programme on the BBC World Service when we asked listeners if they thought the billions being spent on research into manned space travel was money well spent. (I've just looked it up -- it was in February 2003, after the loss of the US space shuttle Columbia, and the deaths of all seven astronauts on board.)

You can still read some of the comments online. Typical was this one: "Manned and unmanned space exploration are both extremely important to the future survival of the human species." And that was a view reflected by many of our callers, who said we've got to keep exploring space because one day we'll have to find a new planet to live on.

I have nothing against space travel -- indeed, as a life-long obsessive traveller, I'd happily slip into a space suit and blast off into the bright blue yonder tomorrow if the price was right and I could be guaranteed a safe return.

But I don't share the view that the future of the human race depends on colonising another lump of rock. For me, our future lies right here, on this planet -- and it's up to us to ensure that it remains habitable.

What I find so frustrating is that it really isn't difficult to reduce carbon gas emissions and slow the process of climate change so that we can stay where we are. Retro-fitting of existing buildings, more investment in renewable sources of energy and less carbon-hungry means of transport -- all would be good for the creation of new jobs and exports, and good for the future of the planet as well.

And if, for some reason, you still don't believe that climate change has anything to do with human activity, here's the latest from the UK Met Office. According to Peter Stott, Head of Climate Attribution, their latest research shows that "current global average temperatures are highly unlikely in a world without human influence on the climate. Human influence has also made breaking the current UK temperature record about ten times more likely."

OK, so what if 2014 turns out to be the hottest year on record? One freak result proves nothing. But here's another one of those unfortunate statistics that, in a sane world, should persuade the climate change sceptics finally to admit defeat: 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred since the beginning of this century.

Nothing to do with us? Sorry, the evidence is overwhelming. Fortunately, it seems that governments are coming round to the same view, and the international climate change talks currently under way in Peru may end with an agreement that really could make a difference. At last, China and the US, the world's two biggest carbon polluters, are working together on an emissions reduction formula that could work, while safeguarding the interests of the world's poorest countries who are desperate for economic expansion.

So no, I won't be packing my bags. I like the planet I was born on -- and I remain convinced that we will find a way to ensure that it remains human-friendly.





Friday, 28 November 2014

Please, no more awards for Tony Blair


I have a proposal for an urgent new UN security council resolution: that it shall be deemed contrary to the spirit of the United Nations charter to give any more awards to Tony Blair.

The US would probably veto it. But surely it's still worth making the point: enough already. Perhaps you recall Tom Lehrer's complaint when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize: "Political satire just became obsolete."

The latest Blair bauble -- a "Global Legacy Award" -- comes from the US branch of Save the Children, which says the former prime minister was recognised for his role at the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005 which pledged to "make poverty history" and agreed to write off $40 billion in debt owed by by the world's poorest countries.

But the award doesn't seem to have gone down too well with some of Save the Children's own staff. An internal letter signed by 200 of them called the award "morally reprehensible" and said it was "inappropriate and a betrayal of Save the Children’s founding principles and values." An online public petition protesting against it has been signed by more than 100,000 people.

As it happens, I'm not one of those who believe that Blair is evil incarnate. I met him on only a handful of occasions during his time as prime minister, and I was always left with the impression of a man possessed of almost messianic certainty that he was put on earth to make it a better place and rid it of bad people.

I do believe that he made an appalling error of judgement in backing President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. It was an error that involved the UK in one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of recent times -- I described it some months ago as "the most disastrous military adventure since the German army marched into Poland in 1939."

So yes, Tony Blair must share responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed the 2003 invasion. I suspect that one reason why so many people now feel such deep antipathy towards him (including, I imagine, many who voted for him in the past) is that to this day he has never admitted that he got it wrong. (He did, though, tell the Chilcot inquiry in 2011: "Of course, I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life.")

Compare that to, for example, Hillary Clinton, who also backed the invasion, but who wrote in her memoirs: "I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple." If only Mr Blair could find it within himself to say something similar …

I'm sure you'd want me to be fair-minded about this. (Actually, I'm not at all sure, but I'll try anyway). Because there is a case for the defence, and it was robustly put by Tony Blair's former director of political operations, John McTernan, in The Guardian.

It goes like this: first, that as a result of Blair's commitment as prime minister to halve UK child poverty by the end of this decade, "huge sums were spent and the number of children in poverty fell. It was one of the greatest triumphs of government social policy … "

Second, that at the Gleneagles summit, "the ambitions of the development movement were not just tabled, they were fulfilled. Debt became, for a time, not just an issue to campaign on but one to resolve once and for all … The persuasive power of the UK hosting and chairing the G8 – the power of the bully pulpit – was used to change Africa for good."

And that, presumably, is what Save the Children US regards as Blair's "global legacy". (We'll assume for the sake of argument that the presence of several former top Blair aides in the higher echelons of the Save the Children management structure has nothing whatsoever to do with it.)

The McTernan defence has some merit. But to me he sounds too much like a character witness giving evidence on behalf of a defendant in the dock. "Members of the jury, he may have committed a terrible crime, but don't forget all the charity work he did." It's not really a defence at all, it's a plea for leniency.

So please, no more awards. Ever since Mr Blair picked up the US's highest civil award, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour, in 2009, he's been collecting them like a schoolchild picking up gold stars for good behaviour. "Look, mum, I got another one. Aren't I good?"

It looks needy. And it's undignified. And it sends out an appalling message: that those countless unnecessary deaths in Iraq don't matter -- that history has already expunged them from the balance sheet because Tony Blair also did some good things.

But those deaths do matter. They matter a great deal, and they are a reason for profound, lasting shame. So let's save the baubles for more deserving recipients.

Finally, and please excuse the trumpet-blowing, I thought you'd like to know that last Tuesday I was named at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards as independent blogger of the year.

Friday, 21 November 2014

It's time for Israelis to wake up

The worshippers were slaughtered as they prayed. Their killers stopped only when they themselves were killed. And then some of their co-religionists praised them to the skies, as heroes and martyrs.

I'm describing the appalling, sickening scenes at the Kehilat Bnai Torah synagogue in Jerusalem last Tuesday, when four rabbis and an Israeli police officer were killed in an attack by two Palestinian cousins.

But I'm also describing the equally appalling and sickening scenes at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron more than 20 years ago, when an Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire and killed 29 Palestinian worshippers as they prayed. Another 125 were injured.

Israelis rightly reacted with grief, shock and anger at the Jerusalem synagogue attacks, and there are now real fears of a descent into even greater religiously-fuelled violence.  And there was particular anger at statements from Hamas, which holds power in Gaza, and the Islamic Jihad movement, which praised the killings and called for more of the same.

Hamas said the attack was in response to the death of a Palestinian bus driver, who was found hanged in his vehicle last Sunday. An autopsy found that he had committed suicide, but a Palestinian doctor who participated in the autopsy has said he believes the driver was murdered. Islamic Jihad said it "salutes the operation in Jerusalem which is a natural response to the crimes of the occupier."

To Israelis, to Jews outside Israel, and indeed to just about everyone else, there is something especially abhorrent about any attempt to justify, let alone encourage, such cold-blooded slaughter in a place of prayer. In an article in the US publication The Atlantic, the leading American commentator Jeffrey Goldberg wrote: "Hamas's endorsement of the massacre of Jews at prayer in their holy city confirms -- as if we needed confirming -- that its goal is the eradication of Israel and its Jews."

And he contrasted Hamas's praise for the Jerusalem attack with what the then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said after the Goldstein massacre in 1994: "You are not part of the community of Israel ...  You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out." (Rabin was assassinated by an extremist Jewish gunman the following year.)

His disgust was not, however, shared by all Israelis. A quick check with Wikipedia reminds us that to Goldstein's supporters, he was every bit as heroic as the Jerusalem synagogue attackers were to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Goldstein was described by one rabbi at his funeral as "holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust". The epitaph on his gravestone, which to this day is regarded as a shrine by some Israelis, calls him "a martyr with clean hands and a pure heart."

Even more shocking to my mind was an article published in the leading Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post in February of this year, on the 20th anniversary of the Hebron killings, written by David Wilder, described as "a spokesman for Hebron's Jewish community".

(Context: Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, overwhelmingly Palestinian but with a vocal and militant Jewish settler minority. It's where the patriarch Abraham, revered by both Jews and Muslims, is said to be buried, and where in 1929, long before the establishment of the state of Israel, 67 Jews were massacred in one of the worst atrocities of the British mandate era.)

This is what David Wilder, who described Goldstein as a friend, wrote: "Baruch Goldstein was not a bloodthirsty terrorist whose goal in life was to kill as many people as he could, as often as he could. He was a brilliant doctor, whose purpose in life was to save other people’s lives. His purpose in life was also to actively support and promote Jewish life in the State of Israel."

He went on to describe Goldstein's murderous rampage as "a tremendously appalling error, which cost the lives of many people, which cost him his own life, and which left an indelible stain on Israel."

And then he continued: "That having been said, and realizing the horror of his act, it must be examined and remembered in the perspective of what was happening around us and to us. Had there not been an intifada, with some 160 Jews killed, with very little government attempts to protect the Jewish victims, he never would have broken and committed the acts that he did.  And we cannot and must not forget that what he did, as ghastly as it was, was miniscule compared to the terror and death Israelis have faced at the hands of hundreds of Arab terrorists over the past decades."

Change a couple of words here and there, and it's not hard to imagine friends of  Ghassan and Uday Abu Jamal, the Jerusalem synagogue killers, saying exactly the same.

Yes, it's one article, by one man. An extreme viewpoint, not shared by the vast majority of Israelis. But Israelis need to confront a truth that too often is ignored: they too have their zealots, and their murderers. They too have spokesmen who glorify mass murder. When they recoil in horror from the triumphalism of some Palestinian groups, they need to remember -- just occasionally -- to look in the mirror.

Jerusalem has been at boiling point for several weeks, with many Palestinians angered by calls from some religious Israelis to change the status of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, cherished by Jews as the site of their ancient temples and by Muslims as the site of al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam.

I am the son of refugees from Nazi Germany. I am also a former Middle East correspondent who was based in Jerusalem. I grieve for all those killed in both Israel and Palestine in what seems to be an unstoppable cycle of violence. I hope I don't have to spell out that I unreservedly condemn the killing of Jewish worshippers in Jerusalem as much as the killing of Palestinian worshippers in Hebron. And just in case there's any doubt, I'm no fan of Hamas, whose corrupt, brutal rule in Gaza, and whose cynical use of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians, has brought nothing but misery to Palestinians both in Gaza and the West Bank.

Nevertheless, and it gives me no pleasure to write this, it is time for Israelis to wake up, because their complacent belief that the status quo works perfectly well for them is dangerously wrong. Their insistence on voting for political leaders who have no serious intention of seeking a resolution of their historic conflict with the Palestinians is leading them ever closer towards the abyss.

Every time the Israeli government announces a new plan to expand its (illegal) settlements in the occupied West Bank, Palestinians hear the words "we are stealing more of your land". And the longer Israel maintains its vice-like grip on the throats of the people of Gaza -- not allowed to leave, not allowed to fish, not allowed to trade -- the greater the risk of yet more violence.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is by no means the most hardline member of his own Cabinet, says Israel will "settle the score with every terrorist" after the Jerusalem synagogue murders. It's the kind of talk that fuels yet more violence, and more hatred. It does nothing to lessen tension.

The sad truth is that Israelis have grown far too confident that their overwhelming firepower -- and the continued support of the US Congress -- makes them invincible. It does not.




Friday, 14 November 2014

In defence of Ed Miliband

Perhaps I'm the last person in the country -- but I still like Ed Miliband. More than that, I think he could be a pretty good prime minister. Yes, I know there aren't many of us left, and I want to try to analyse why.

Let's leave aside all those voters who would never dream of voting Labour anyway.  And those who couldn't possibly vote for a party whose leader "looks weird". And those who would never vote for anyone at all. The people who interest me are the voters who do intend to vote, who may well have voted Labour in the past (especially when Tony Blair was leader), but who now cannot imagine themselves voting Labour again.

According to a recent YouGov opinion poll, nearly 40 per cent of voters think Labour cares more about the lives of ordinary people than other parties do. You might think that should convert into lots of votes from ordinary people.

But then you look at some other figures: which party has the better team of leaders? Who's more competent? Who has more ideas for making the country better? On every count, the Tories do better than Labour.

Most people have better things to do than follow the day-by-day (more often minute-by-minute) twists and turns of Westminster politics. They form their political views from a mix of sources: family and friends; TV; the newspapers.

As it happens, many of Mr Miliband's ideas are popular. According to a poll carried out in September, Labour's policies on the NHS, the minimum wage, apprenticeships, the self-employed, and energy pricing are all backed by more than half the voters who were asked.

On their own, though, popular policies are not enough. The politicians proposing them must also be regarded as credible -- pollsters like to say it's a bit like choosing a surgeon or a plumber: even if you're confident that they know what to do, you also need to be confident that they will be able to do it. 

So try this as an experiment: next time you're with a group of friends, ask them what they think of Ed Miliband. Then ask them the same question about David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

My guess is that many of your friends will say something along the lines of "They're all the same. Can't tell them apart. Wouldn't trust any of them." You may well say the same yourself.

According to YouGov, people who dislike Ed Miliband describe him as unconvincing, unelectable, out of his depth, weak and irritating. Those who like him (yes, it's a much smaller number) say he stands up for ordinary people, is intelligent, honest, genuine and decent.

It doesn't help that the leaders of the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems look much the same and sound much the same. It also doesn't help that the economic crisis from which we are only now beginning to emerge began under Labour, and continued under the Tory-LibDem coalition -- so if you've been suffering the consequences of casino banking and austerity for the past five years, it's extremely tempting (and by no means entirely unjustified) to blame the lot of them.

They all make the same promises; they all blame each other; they all "passionately believe" that they have all the answers. I suspect one reason, although not the main one, why Nigel Farage is doing so well is simply that he looks and sounds different.

Mr Farage is a big problem for Mr Miliband, and not only because he cynically articulates the fears of some traditional Labour voters. He takes up huge amounts of media space that might otherwise be occupied by Labour. UKIP is simply more interesting than Labour at the moment; it's the new kid on the block; it's news, not history. The same goes for the SNP, whose vertiginous rise in popularity threatens to lose Labour sackloads of Scottish seats next May.

So Mr Miliband struggles to find airtime other than when his own party succumbs to one of its periodic bouts of internecine insanity. Add to that the determination of his right-wing media critics to damage him at every opportunity, and you have a dangerously toxic brew. It did for Neil Kinnock, and it may well do for Mr Miliband as well.

He told the BBC's Nick Robinson that he's "not in the whingeing business" about media coverage. (It's worth watching the interview here.) What else can he say? But he needs urgently to assemble a media team who can do for Labour in 2015 what Alastair Campbell did for the party pre-1997. I have the impression that Mr Miliband tends to care more about getting the ideas right than about selling them -- admirable, but also short-sighted.

Sometimes he reminds me of Barack Obama: they are both thoughtful men with interesting ideas, and they both have ruthless ambition that they disguise well. (Obama challenged Hillary Clinton when no one thought she could be beaten; Mr Miliband challenged his own brother in an act of breath-taking audacity.)

The result of next year's general election may well be a total mess. David Aaronovitch of The Times summed it up well: "The bookies …  very roughly suggest a 20 per cent chance of a Tory victory, a 20 per cent chance of a Labour one, 20 per cent of one or the other ending up in coalition with the Lib Dems and a 40 per cent chance of no two parties being able to form a majority government together."

I wouldn't be at all surprised if we end up having two general elections next year, just as we did in 1974. If the May election leaves the country ungovernable, there'll be nothing for it but to ask voters to go to the polls again and hope for a clearer answer. (In 1974, a minority Labour government led by Harold Wilson was elected in February and then re-elected in October with an overall majority of just three. By 1977, it had lost its majority and signed the Lib-Lab pact, which enabled it to limp on until it was swept away by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.)

In the meantime, perhaps someone will notice that, according to the Financial Times, Treasury officials fear that David Cameron's tax cut promises "risk undermining fragile public finances and could be 'a disaster' -- and that according to one of his own Foreign Office ministers, the Lib Dem Lord (William) Wallace, Britain has no coherent foreign policy and is sinking into “sullen and suspicious nationalism”.

In my view, we deserve better.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The fall of the Wall, Russell Brand and the 89ers


Twenty-five years ago, on 9 November 1989, I was on shift at The World Tonight as a newly-arrived presenter. It was the night the Berlin Wall was breached and history was made.

I don't need to try to remember what I felt that night because I kept a recording of the programme. So here's what I said at 10pm on the night the Cold War finally ended.

"Tonight's announcement from East Berlin [that east Germans would in future be allowed to travel directly to west Germany] must surely spell the end of the Berlin Wall. How long, I wonder, before the bulldozers move in to tear down that ugliest of eyesores which has disfigured Berlin for the past 28 years?

"Perhaps it's all too much to take in  -- the changes have come so fast that it's hard to keep up with the new realities of an eastern Europe in which a 40-year-old political dam has finally burst."

I do remember feeling as I spoke the words on air that perhaps I was over-egging it a bit -- I didn't really believe that the bulldozers would soon be moving in and that the wall would be literally torn down.

I have visited Berlin several times over the past quarter century, and I was back there last month -- 25 years on, you have to look hard to see where the wall once was. In most places, its existence is marked only by a barely-visible line of cobbles snaking through the city.

My 95-year-old father was born and raised in Berlin, but to him, 9 November represents an entirely different anniversary. It was on that same date in 1938 that Nazi mobs rampaged through Germany in an orchestrated orgy of anti-Jewish violence that became known as Kristallnacht. It was the moment when my father's family and many others finally concluded that there would be no future for them in Germany.

So 9 November is one of those rare dates that mark two entirely separate turning points in history. What would Europe look like if there had been no Kristallnacht? What would it look like if the Berlin Wall, by a mixture of accident and design, hadn't crumbled in 1989?

The historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a fascinating Guardian essay yesterday: "1989 has become the new 1789: at once a turning point and a reference point. Twenty-five years on, it has given us what is, politically, the best Germany we have ever had ... It has made possible the Europe we have today, with all its freedoms and all its faults. There is no corner of the world its consequences have not touched."

And he raised an interesting question: if Europe's two other major turning points in 20th century history, 1939 and 1968, produced their own, distinctive generations -- the 39ers who were formed by the Second World War, and the 68ers whose dominant reference points are the cultural, social and political upheavals of the 60s -- where are the 89ers?

Garton Ash suggested one possible answer: "I believe that the 89ers may not be those who were active then, or youthful witnesses at the time, but those who were born in or around 1989, and are only now moving from the university of learning to that of life."

In other words, they are the Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and others who are now in their mid to late 20s -- the young Europeans who barely recognise the existence of borders, who criss-cross their continent at will, seeking educational and employment opportunities wherever they may find them.

People like the high-flying young Bulgarian whom I met recently and who works in London as a strategist for one of the world's biggest banks. To her parents, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and who still live in Bulgaria, the life she leads is simply beyond imagining.

Some of Europe's 89ers are also what we might call the Russell Brand generation, who regard traditional politics with contempt. They are the generation for whom jobs are scarce, often insecure and poorly paid, and for whom home ownership is an unattainable dream, thanks to the lunacies of the property market. For them, the freedoms that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War -- freedom, among other things, from the fear of a thermo-nuclear war -- have brought few obvious benefits.

Yes, they can travel freely, if they have the money. Yes, they can buy trainers, jeans and T-shirts to their hearts' content, if they have the money. But the hopes of those who were in their 20s in 1989 have turned into the disillusion, and anger, of those who are in their 20s now.

Let us not forget that the events of 1989 were also a triumph for free-market capitalism, enabling a rapid process of globalisation to gather pace. Multi-national corporations were able to cut their labour costs by opening factories in low-wage eastern Europe, and the power of organised labour was greatly weakened. Capitalism creates losers as well as winners -- and some of the losers are 89ers. 

The 39ers were scarred by the horrors of a world war. The 68ers (yes, I'm one of them) were starry-eyed idealists who believed they would change the world. The 89ers? They look at those images from the night the Wall was breached, and they wonder. What did that historic night really mean for them?

Friday, 31 October 2014

This immoral government

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I have rarely felt so ashamed, or so angry. David Cameron, it seems, regards it as a "moral duty" to cut taxes -- but not to save desperate migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. By comparison, Marie Antoinette ("let them eat cake") was compassion incarnate.

Sometimes, it's a real disadvantage in politics to be blessed with a memory. But I do have a memory -- and I remember the days when Mr Cameron branded himself as a "compassionate Conservative". As recently as 2011, the Tories published a pamphlet in which they still insisted that they stood for "modern, compassionate Conservatism".

Huh. Compassionate, as in: No, we won't help to fund an operation that rescues drowning migrants, because -- get this -- it might encourage others to embark on equally perilous journeys. As in: No, I won't rescue a child running across a busy road, because it might encourage other children to do the same.

Not my definition of compassion. Not, I suspect, Sir Nicholas Winton's either. He's the man who, at the age of 105, was honoured in Prague this week for having arranged the escape from the Nazis of more than 600 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in 1938. What did he say as he received the Order of the White Lion from the Czech president? "I thank the British people for making room for them."

That was then. This is now. With a government that blithely announces it won't help to fund an operation aimed at saving migrants from death. It's in good company, by the way -- other EU governments have similarly decided that the message from Europe to those who are fleeing for their lives is: "We'll let you drown. We don't care."

The immigration minister, James Brokenshire, had the brass neck to stand in the House of Commons and argue, apparently in all seriousness, that the Italian rescue operation in the Mediterranean has had the "unintended consequence" of risking more migrants' lives as more and more desperate people try to flee to a place of safety.

Someone needs to take him to one side and explain the difference between causation and correlation. Yes, there are more people risking their lives; no, it's not because some of them are rescued when their rotting vessels sink beneath them.

Mr Brokenshire clearly can't be expected to have noticed what's been happening in places like Syria and Libya, from which many of the migrants come. The idea that perhaps the ever-worsening conditions there have caused even more people to risk their lives clearly hasn't crossed his tiny little mind.     

According to the European Border Agency, more than 180,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year. The population of the EU is 500 million.

In Jordan, there are more than 600,000 registered refugees from Syria alone  (the true figure is probably far higher.) The population of Jordan is 6.5 million.

In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now make up well over a quarter of the country's total population. So do they shoot refugees at the border -- to discourage the others? No, they do not.

Mr Cameron and his colleagues have no such scruples. There are too many people fleeing from terror and violence, they say. If we let some of them drown, others who may have been thinking of trying to flee will decide instead to stay at home to be shot, bombed, starved, tortured or raped.

As an example of cold-blooded heartlessness, it would be hard to beat. Instead, our prime minister talks of morality in terms of tax rates: “It is morally right that the rich pay their fair share in tax; and right that those who are able contribute to our public services and safety nets,” he wrote in The Times yesterday. “But what is morally wrong is government spending money like it grows on trees."

How disgusting. To dare to use the words "morally wrong" in a discussion about taxation levels within days of having admitted that you're prepared to let people drown without even trying to help them.

I'm not naïve. I know Mr Cameron has an election to win, and is terrified about UKIP snapping at his heels. I understand why politicians need to win votes -- but by deliberately letting people die? I'm not easily shocked -- but I do find that truly shocking.

It may have escaped Mr Cameron's notice, but when people are threatened by war, genocide or famine, they try to escape.  They do not flee because they think they might like to try a life on benefits in the UK, but because they are terrified. How hard is that to understand?

The migration debate has now become so toxic that it will soon lead directly to avoidable deaths at sea. It is also woefully misinformed: the average British voter thinks nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of UK residents are foreign-born; the true figure is 13 per cent, which is almost exactly the same proportion as in France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium. So no, Mr Fallon, we are not being "swamped". And shame on you for suggesting otherwise.

(Funny, isn't it, how support for UKIP is highest in places with the lowest numbers of immigrants -- and lowest in places like London with the most immigrants. It's fears, not facts, that drive this debate, yet the government still, shamefully, feels the need to pander to those fears.)

I wrote last May that I was proud to be a citizen of a country that is so attractive to immigrants. I still am. But I am ashamed, deeply ashamed, of our government.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Journey's end: migrants, then and now


A little over three months ago, together with a like-minded American journalist friend, I set out on a journey that we called In The Footsteps of Our Families.  The idea was to retrace the journeys made by our immigrant forebears, from eastern and central Europe to the UK and US.  This week, on the streets of New Jersey and New York, our journey came to an end.

The timing could not have been more poignant, coinciding as it did with a remarkable piece of journalism published by The Guardian, pulling together the stories of dozens of 21st century migrants. Their experiences made those of our forebears look like walks in the park.

My friend Stu Seidel traces his roots back to Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. My own family’s roots are in Germany, from which both my parents fled to escape from the Nazis. So the first stop on our journey was the small town of Pastavy in Belarus, which Stu’s grandfather left in 1914. A few days ago, we paid our respects at his graveside, in the King Solomon Memorial Park, in Clifton, New Jersey. 

Along the way, we visited Lithuania, where Stu’s grandmother was born and where mine died, shot by the Nazis in 1941, and Poland, where my mother was born, in a town that when she lived there was in Germany.

Last week, I was in Berlin with my father, who at the age of 95 wanted one more chance to visit the city of his birth. We walked the streets of his childhood, stood where his school used to be, and visited the graves of his grandparents and great grandparents.

A couple of days ago, I found the New York apartment blocks where my father’s older brother first lived when he arrived in the US in 1937. Remarkably, they seemed wholly unchanged.

I also visited Ellis Island, just off the southern tip of Manhattan, where between 1892 and 1924, 12 million immigrants were processed. So what happened in 1924? That’s when the US Congress passed tough new immigration laws, the purpose of which, according to the official government account, “was to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What, after all, is the main reason people give today for not wanting to allow in more immigrants? “They’re not like us.” I dare say my parents, and Stu’s grandparents, weren’t “like us” when they first arrived – yet it didn’t take them long to adapt.

Which bring us to today’s migrants, especially those from countries like Eritrea or Syria, ravaged by war and from which most migrants washed up on the shores of Italy have come. Inevitably, I suppose, I see them as today’s version of my own forebears, escaping from danger, looking for security, hoping for an opportunity to start a new life.

Incidentally, you may wonder why the UK seems to get more than its fair share of asylum seekers. The answer is that it doesn’t. According to The Guardian’s investigation, using figures for the 12 months up to June 2014, Germany received five times as many asylum applications as the UK, Sweden and France more than twice as many, and Italy a third more.

Yes, the applicants for asylum look bedraggled and unkempt when you see pictures of them huddled outside Calais. Yes, some of them get into fights and cause problems for the police. They don't look too great when they are pulled from the Mediterranean after a ramshackle boat provided by unscrupulous people-smugglers has capsized and sunk. Nor, I venture to suggest, would you in similar circumstances.

The fact is that they are like us. Their children will grow up to be French, Swedish, German or British – and it would be a major tragedy if current concerns over a tiny handful of British-born jihadi fighters were to blind us to the potential that immigrants represent.

A hundred years ago, migrants from eastern and central Europe were sometimes portrayed as dangerous revolutionaries and bomb-throwing anarchists. (Some of them were revolutionaries, and a few of them did throw bombs.) In 1905, a British newspaper editorial (no, not the Daily Mail) insisted that “the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil … shall be forbidden to land.”

It’s a shame that the immigration debate seems not really to have moved on. The slogans of the anti-immigration lobby today exactly parallel those made a century ago. Yet there aren’t many families who can honestly claim that there are no migrants in their past, whether from Ireland, Italy, Poland or France.

No nation can survive for long by erecting high walls along its borders to keep the foreigners out – Japan tried it and ran into all sorts of trouble: an ageing population, a diminishing work force and a stagnant economy.

So I end my journey feeling even more admiring of migrants than when I began. I admire their courage, their strength and their determination, whether they come from Poland, Romania, Somalia or Syria. And I remember what I was told when my Dad and I visited the Isle of Man in August, to return to where he had been interned as an “enemy alien” in 1940.

During the First World War, apparently, thousands of Italians had been held on the island, as well as Germans. Why were there so many Italians living in Britain? They were the ice cream sellers.

Imagine a Britain with no Italians. A country with no ice cream, pizza or pasta. Or a country with no Indians, Pakistanis, Turks or Kurds. No curries, corner shops or kebabs. A poorer, duller, drabber country.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Iraq and Syria: a better way


In May of last year, President Obama announced that future US air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be authorised only when there was a "near certainty" that civilians wouldn't be harmed.

The new policy was in response to growing hostility to the strikes, especially in Pakistan, where several hundred civilians are believed to have been killed by US military action. It is, after all, quite difficult to persuade people that you're trying to help them confront a terrorist threat if you end up killing them in the process.

So it is totally baffling that the "near certainty" principle apparently doesn't apply in Syria or Iraq, where US air strikes are now targetting Islamic State fighters. According to the American investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, reporting for Yahoo News, "a White House statement … confirming the looser policy came in response to questions about reports that as many as a dozen civilians, including women and young children, were killed when a Tomahawk missile struck the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria's Idlib province on the morning of Sept. 23."

So how does the White House justify its casual acceptance that civilians in Syria and Iraq are likely to be killed by US missiles? Ah, the "near certainty" principle applies only "outside areas of active hostilities", says a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. And that's not the situation in Syria or Iraq, obviously.

So that's all right, then. Which, of course, it isn't. I can think of no policy more likely to achieve the precise opposite of what's intended than one which blithely accepts that innocent civilians will be killed. As a recruitment tool for IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL), it's hard to think of a more effective weapon.

I seem to recall that the Obama administration was "appalled" by civilian casualties during the most recent Israeli military action in Gaza -- "totally unacceptable and totally indefensible" was how it described an Israeli strike on a UN school being used as a shelter for civilians. I don't say it was wrong to speak out then; I do say it is wrong now to lower the bar for authorising air strikes against IS.

But let's be absolutely clear: IS do need to be confronted and defeated. The argument is not about the goal, but about the means. A horrific UN report published yesterday accused the group of carrying out mass executions, abducting women and girls as sex slaves, and using child soldiers in what it said may amount to systematic war crimes.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein: "The array of violations and abuses perpetrated by ISIL and associated armed groups is staggering, and many of their acts may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity."

So instead of air strikes aimed at solitary military vehicles trundling through the desert, or apartment blocks where IS leaders may or may not be sheltering, perhaps there's another way. A way that would mean turning our attention back to Syria, which is where IS is based, where it is strongest, and where it has greatest freedom of action.

In a fascinating recent article for the New York Review of Books, two former senior US National Security Council officials, Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, sketched out a very different approach, starting from the premise that the best way to defeat IS is to change the balance of forces on the ground in Syria.

"The Syrian state has already effectively collapsed," they wrote. "The country has split into pieces, is stuck in a civil war now in its fourth year, and is experiencing one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War II, with almost 200,000 dead, over 3 million refugees, and 6.5 million internally displaced people. Continued intense fighting will only amplify the havoc wreaked by ISIS and other jihadist groups."

What they propose is that the UN tries to encourage locally-negotiated truces between government and rebel forces -- they say many unofficial truces are already in place, in and around cities like Damascus, Homs and Hama. "The most realistic short-term policy goal in Syria is to find ways to limit the areas of the country in direct conflict, with the aim of both containing extremist violence and significantly reducing the number of non-combatant deaths.

"This goal is not as far-fetched as it sounds, and there is already a basis for pursuing it: through a series of local cease-fires that could, if properly implemented and enforced, provide a path toward stability in several regions of the country, even as conflict continues elsewhere."

It would mean acknowledging an uncomfortable new reality: that the alliance of Western and Arab forces confronting IS are now on the same side as President Assad. It may be only temporary, and it can probably never be openly admitted, but there are some signs that both sides understand that IS pose a greater threat to each of them than they do to each other.

Peace, like democracy, cannot be imposed from above, or from outside. But if the two sides in Syria's civil war can agree to at least a few temporary local truces, they may be better able to turn their attention to IS. That's certainly what would be in their best interests, and in the interests of their foreign backers, whether Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey.

It is local people who will defeat IS, both in Syria and in Iraq. Yes, foreign powers can help, by training them and arming them. But not by bombing them and their families.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Iraq: war without end?


By the time you read these words, RAF Tornados will either have started, or will be about to start, bombing targets in Iraq. Here we go again …

Six weeks ago, I wrote: "We should be in no doubt: we, the West, are back in Iraq." And so it has come to pass. It is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise, once the murderers of Islamic State (or Isis or Isil, take your pick) started killing American and British journalists and aid workers on video.

The primary task of any government is to defend its citizens -- so once those citizens are being brutally murdered, any government would feel compelled to take action. We can debate whether dropping bombs in the desert is the right action to take, but I seriously doubt that anyone would wish to argue that there's no need for the government to do anything at all.

As always, the US is in the driving seat. But unlike his White House predecessor, President Obama has demonstrated the utmost reluctance to go to war -- some would say he has been far too reluctant in the face of repeated warnings of the likely consequences of inaction -- but he now says the US has a  “comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” to confront IS and allied groups in both Iraq and Syria.

I find that a deeply troubling formulation. "Sustained", as in long-lasting, implies that US policy-makers envisage this bombing campaign as open-ended. Mr Obama may talk glibly of destroying the terrorists, but he knows full well that that's a fool's mission. The UK defence secretary Michael Fallon has suggested the action could last three years. My guess is that it'll be longer.

As for "comprehensive", well, no, Mr President, it isn't. In the words of the analyst Lina Khatib, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, "the strategy is a positive step forward after years of relative inaction on part of the United States, but it is far from comprehensive." The lack of any thought-out political plan for Syria is a gaping hole; what's the point of bombing jihadi rebels if you have no idea, and no plan, for what's likely to be the aftermath.

For obvious reasons, President Assad seems not to have objected to the US bombing his own country. After all, the people the Americans are attacking are the same people (some of them, at least) who are attacking him. Iran isn't complaining either, for the same reason. Any US action that weakens Assad's enemies must, by definition, strengthen him.

This morning (Friday), it was reported that his army has already been taking advantage of the US air strikes, sweeping through several villages in the north-east of the country, and making gains around Damascus. You could call it an unfortunate by-product of having to deal with the IS threat.

So we have entered a bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland world in which Washington, Tehran, Damascus, Riyadh and Doha all seem to be lining up on the same side. The Saudis, Qataris and Emiratis even seem to have deployed some of their own aircraft, which I suppose at least proves that they do know what they're for.

I always try to apply a simple test when confronted with complex conundrums: is the proposed course of action likely to do more good than harm? Will bombing IS targets in Iraq and Syria destroy the murdering zealots of Islamic State? (And by the way, I fully expect the UK to be joining the Syria bombing raids before long.) Answer: no, but they may significantly weaken the group's capacity to seize new territory.

Will more Iraqi and Syrian civilians be killed as a result of the bombing raids? Answer: yes, inevitably. That's what happens.

Will the raids encourage more young fighters to join IS, emboldened by propaganda that seeks to portray this fight as one between true believers and infidels, whether Western, Shia, or fellow Sunnis? Answer: quite possibly, although by greatly increasing the odds of IS fighters being killed, the bombings may also cause at least some potential recruits to think twice before signing up.

And there's another question that needs to be answered as well: is the military action legal? In the case of Iraq, the answer is plainly yes, given that the government in Baghdad, imperfect though it be, has requested it. As for Syria, the answer has to be, at best: hmm. A case can be made, on the grounds that protecting Iraq necessitates action across the border, but it's far from clear cut.

(As for the wisdom of hitting supply lines and bases in neighbouring countries, I would have thought that the precedent from the Vietnam war, when the US pulverised neighbouring Cambodia, supposedly to neutralise the Viet Cong, should give planners much pause for thought. The prospect of a Syrian version of the Khmer Rouge is a chilling one.)

Beyond the immediate issue of to-bomb-or-not-to-bomb (I write before Friday's House of Commons vote, but it seems to be a foregone conclusion), there's a deeper and far more difficult issue that Arabs themselves will need to confront sooner or later.

The Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem, of the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV news channel, wrote in a recent article: "Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism -- the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition -- than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed …

"The jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk -- what was left of a broken-down civilization. They are a gruesome manifestation of a deeper malady afflicting Arab political culture, which was stagnant, repressive and patriarchal after the decades of authoritarian rule that led to the disastrous defeat in the 1967 war with Israel."

If he is right, defeating Islamic State will be just the start of a far longer, far more difficult process: the rebuilding of what was once one of the world's great civilisations and the revitalising of some of the Arab world's greatest cities. Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo were once by-words for scholarship, culture and learning. Now, they are either hollow shells where people live in oppression, fear and poverty, or they are destroyed by civil war. It will be a long haul.