Friday 18 December 2015

2015: a year of terror

How quickly we forget. Just a year ago, 132 children in Pakistan were killed in an attack by jihadi gunmen on a school in Peshawar. We recoiled in horror -- and then we moved on.

Just as we did after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris last January when 17 people were killed. And the attack in Kenya in April when 148 students were killed. And the one in June in Tunisia when 38 people, most of them British tourists, were killed. And the one in October in Ankara when 102 people were killed. And the one three weeks later on the Russian passenger jet in Egypt when 224 people were killed.

(We haven't forgotten, because we never even noticed, that in March, more than 140 people were killed in suicide bomb attacks on two mosques in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a.)

All that before the attacks in Paris a month ago, in which 137 people were killed. According to a list in Wikipedia of Islamist terrorist attacks during the course of 2015 -- a list that must inevitably be incomplete and can be only a very rough tally (it excludes, for example, any attacks in Syria) -- there have been 105 attacks this year, with a total death toll of around 2,800.

2015: the year of terror. An all-out assault on Western civilisation and our way of life.


Because the country that has suffered the highest number of attacks this year is Nigeria, thanks to the murderous activities of the jihadi group calling itself Boko Haram. Next comes Iraq, followed by Afghanistan. These are not countries that are 'Western' in the generally accepted sense of the word, yet they have been targets far more frequently than Europe or the US. Which means, of course, that the jihadis have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims.

It is also worth noting that the deadly attacks by jihadis long pre-date the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Who now remembers the attacks in Paris in 1995 by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria that killed eight people? Or the attack in 1997 in Luxor, Egypt, that killed 62 tourists? Or the one in 1998 when 200 people were killed in attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania?

How quickly we forget. And, more to the point, how quickly our political leaders forget. Which helps to explain why their responses to the threat posed by jihadis tend to be so piecemeal and ineffective. Perhaps they have never heard of the American philosopher George Santayana, who wrote: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'

Bombing Islamic State targets in Syria may, possibly, help to reduce the threat of further IS advances in Syria and Iraq and may, again possibly, help to reduce the threat of further attacks in Europe. What it will not do is 'defeat' the ideology that underpins its appeal to those who flock to join its ranks.

I'm not at all sure, in fact, that an ideology can be defeated. What we can do is propose an alternative ideology that offers a better future than a suicide vest and death. In other words, an ideology that offers young men in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria, a future which offers more than a life of oppression and unemployment.

The same applies to young Muslims in Belgium, France and the UK, because those who join IS do so in the full knowledge that they are almost certainly going to their deaths. What a calamitous failure of Western policy-making it is that the message of jihadi zealots, whether online, in mosques or in jail, can be more attractive than the alternatives that should be on offer.

So the task for 2016 is to craft a far more sophisticated response. It needs to be a response that reaches young potential jihadis before they turn in desperation to an apocalyptic vision of a global caliphate. A response that encourages them to feel an integral part of the society in which they are growing up, rather than part of a suspect minority in which everyone is regarded as a potential terrorist.

In places like Nigeria and Chechnya, it means putting in place a governing structure that does not depend on cronyism and corruption. In Europe it means rethinking how political leaders refer to Muslim minorities. It means being prepared for the long haul and not falling into the trap of thinking that the only response to a terrorist attack is to introduce ever more oppressive 'anti-terrorist' measures.

The key is good governance. In a country where all citizens feel they have an equal chance of making something of their lives, where they don't come to believe that the odds will always be stacked against them because of their faith or ethnic origin, there will be far fewer tempted to end their lives by blowing themselves up in crowded places. It is a difficult message for politicians to sell -- I don't see Donald Trump or Ted Cruz being much persuaded by it, for example -- but it's a message that we need to hear.

And here's another message for American voters as they prepare to elect a new president in 2016. Remember those 2,800 deaths from Islamist terrorism worldwide this year? Each one of them a life cut short unnecessarily, leaving behind grieving families and friends in more than 25 countries across the globe.

So what about the 12,700 people who have been shot dead in the US since the beginning of this year? That's more than four times as many killed by guns in one country alone than by jihadi terrorism in the whole of the rest of the world.

I just thought it was worth mentioning.

Friday 11 December 2015

People Together: confronting fear and bigotry

It is time to take a stand.

Against bigotry. Against fear. Against lies.

It is time to take a stand against those who seek to divide us and turn us against our neighbours. And to stand up to those who seek to terrorise us into submission.

From the moment when the first human beings huddled together in primitive agrarian communities, we have known that we are stronger together than apart. That is why the people whom we should fear most are those who seek to sow discord and division.

It is time to stand together: Muslim and non-Muslim, black and white, young and old. It is time to unite against the fanatics and the bigots. They want to turn us against each other, so our response -- our only response -- must be to come together.

Together against Donald Trump. Together against Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. And together against Islamic State. The danger we face is not foreigners, or immigrants, Muslim or non-Muslim -- it is fear. Fear born of ignorance, exploited by those who seek power. I'm not interested in labels, so I will not give them a label. But open a book of European history and you soon see where fear and ignorance can lead.

The opposite of ignorance is knowledge. So to answer those who fear the foreigners, let us point to all those (many of them Muslim, by the way) who staff our health services, serve in our armed forces and police services, care for our elderly and vulnerable, drive our buses and trains, own and run our corner shops, establish our small businesses and create jobs. In the US, we must point out -- again -- that more than half the chief executives in Silicon Valley are foreign-born.

How about a rallying cry? People Together. La Gente Unida. Le Peuple Ensemble. Das Volk Zusammen. Churches and mosques; towns and cities; leftwing and rightwing; trades unions and employers' organisations; celebrities, musicians, film stars and teachers, social workers and community activists; David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn; Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

And how about mass rallies in the New Year? Trafalgar Square in London, The Mall in Washington DC, the Place de la Republique in Paris, the Plaza del Sol in Madrid. Hundreds of thousands of people. Together. United against bigotry and fear.

Donald Trump calls his supporters 'the noisy majority'. Noisy they most certainly are, but to call them a majority is another of his lies. According to the latest opinion poll, fewer than half of American voters support his idea of banning all Muslim immigrants from the US. That means that he speaks for the minority, not the majority. Even if his ideas are backed by significant numbers of likely Republican voters, they are themselves a minority.

In France, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, the xenophobes and Islamophobes also claim to speak for the majority. They do not, but it is time to organise to confront them. We should not forget that in 1933, when the National Socialist German Workers Party, led by Adolf Hitler, came to power, it had won less than half the votes cast.  Within months, Hitler had banned all other political parties.

The people who support Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage are not all bigots, but they are frightened -- and they are angry. They are frightened by the changes they see around them, by the disappearance of secure jobs and affordable housing, and by the cultural and ethnic changes that they neither understand nor want. And they are angry at the political élites who have ushered in these changes and who have ignored their fears.

So how do the political élites respond? By redirecting the anger towards the traditional scapegoats: the foreigners, the migrants, the Muslims. In the days of strong trades unions and workers' education, there was at least a mechanism for pushing back against the lies. But those days have long gone, along with the coalmines, the steelworks and the shipyards.

The idea that a billionaire property developer (Trump) or a former stockbroker (Farage) can somehow claim to represent the interests of those who have been cast aside by the forces of globalisation and free market capitalism is frankly risible.  As for the Front National in France, the French commentator Natalie Nougayrède wrote in The Guardian: 'France is a country that for three decades has suffered mass unemployment. It is a country where globalisation is widely perceived as something of an existential threat because it is associated with the loss of jobs and a national loss of status … The fact is that France has failed to adapt to the challenges of globalisation.'

So who is going to point out that it wasn't immigrants or refugees who crashed the banking system, and it's not immigrants or refugees who benefit from a grotesquely unfair taxation system that sees those at the top of the pile rewarded with obscene wealth while those at the bottom are squeezed to within an inch of penury.

The trend towards populism and demagoguery is not a purely Western phenomenon. President Putin of Russia, President Erdoğan of Turkey and prime minister Modi of India all exploit the same fears as Trump, Le Pen and Farage. All know that in order to deflect popular anger at their own inadequacies as political leaders, they need to identify alternative culprits. So they point their fingers at the traditional suspects.

It is time to answer their lies. It is time to organise in defence of those who need defending, just as the people in communities devastated by the recent floods in northern England organised to defend themselves and their neighbours. I doubt that they checked first on their ethnic origin or religious faith.

It is a task perfectly suited to the newly-enrolled members of the newly-energised Labour party, if they can be persuaded to tear themselves away from tearing each other apart. Clicking on a petition calling for Trump to be banned from Britain won't quite do it, as well as being wrong in principle.

Yes, Trump is dangerous, but even more dangerous, as Franklin D Roosevelt pointed out more than 80 years ago, is fear itself. The columnist Simon Jenkins wrote this week: 'Fear is the most potent of political weapons. It is more deadly than greed, ambition or love of home. It is dangerous because it feeds on the irrational in human nature.'

The author and journalist Michael Goldfarb, author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews From the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance, asks in this week's Jewish Chronicle: 'Are Le Pen and Trump true fascists or simply nativist racists? Or are they just self-aggrandisers with an eye on the main chance? Does their demonising of Muslims remind you of the demonising of Jews back then? Is this really the return of fascism? Or something merely unpleasant but less threatening? And did you ever think "it" could happen again?'

So as an early Christmas wish, or an even earlier New Year resolution: no more fear, no more bigotry. People Together.

Friday 4 December 2015

A day is a long time ...

What a difference 24 hours make. On Thursday morning, after an unexpectedly powerful speech from Hilary Benn, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was reeling. The look on his face as Benn was applauded -- applauded! -- in the Commons chamber said it all. Not a good day at the office.

Twenty four hours later, after a stonkingly good by-election victory in Oldham West and Royton, Mr Corbyn is entitled to turn on his critics: "Can't win elections? Too extreme? Really?" On a wet Thursday in December, after a parliamentary debate that showed the party's deep divisions in all their gory splendour, Labour actually increased its share of the vote, up 7.3% compared to the general election in May. A good day at the office.

Lesson One: don't believe what you read in the papers. But Lesson Two: take the long view. Labour has not suddenly become a lean, mean election machine, simply because it won a by-election in what should always have been a rock-solid seat. The party's civil war is only just beginning, and just like the war in Syria, it will be long, messy and bloody.

It is tempting to quote Macbeth and see politics as little more than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing." Tempting, but wrong. The past few days have signified a great deal for both the UK's main political parties. They have probably signified rather less, however, for the people of Syria, ostensibly at the heart of this week's debates.

For the prime minister, Wednesday night's Commons vote authorising RAF action against IS targets in Syria as well as in Iraq marked the successful conclusion to a two-year campaign to reverse the humiliation of his defeat in 2013 when Labour under Ed Miliband refused to back his proposal to send the RAF into action against President Assad. As the Financial Times put it, this week's vote marked "a return to the world stage by a prime minister accused of presiding over a 'deeply worrying' strategic shrinkage."

For Mr Corbyn, the debate brutally demonstrated his tenuous hold over his parliamentary colleagues, and the toxic nature of some of the key relationships inside his party. The Oldham result will encourage his supporters to ratchet up their pressure on unconvinced Labour MPs: "You say we're unelectable under Corbyn? What about Oldham?" The result will do nothing to heal the party rifts.

So what does it all mean for Syria? In his Commons speech last Wednesday, Mr Corbyn said: "Yet more bombing in Syria will kill innocent civilians -- of that there's no doubt -- and turn many more Syrians into refugees." It is impossible to disagree: bombs kill people, and not only the people against whom they are aimed, yet it is worth examining the record.

According to the Ministry of Defence, "in more than a year of strikes against Daesh (IS) targets in Iraq, there have been no reports of civilian casualties resulting from UK air operations. RAF Tornado and Reaper aircraft have flown a total of 1,632 combat missions and have carried out more than 380 successful strikes in Iraq."

Maybe. Chris Woods of the airwars independent monitoring organisation estimates that more than 360 civilians have been killed in Iraq by coalition air attacks over the past year, but it is impossible to calculate how many, if any, of them were a result of UK action. Professor Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College, London, is prepared to accept the MoD claim but warns that they are "not a sure guide" to likely consequences in Syria.

According to US press reports, in Iraq several hundred Sunni tribesmen, trained by US soldiers and backed by US air strikes, are expected to join Iraqi army troops imminently to launch an assault on the IS-held city of Ramadi. If they do -- and if they succeed in dislodging IS -- it will be heralded as an example of how air strikes can help in the battle of attrition against IS.

There is, of course, one big difference between Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, foreign intervention forces work side-by-side (up to a point, anyway) with the national army. In Syria, at least for now, similar cooperation with Assad's army is inconceivable. It will make the task in Syria even harder than it is in Iraq. But, in my view, that doesn't mean it's not even worth trying.

On their own, a few more air strikes from RAF Tornados and Reaper drones will not turn the tide. But if UK participation in the Syria air campaign gives the British more clout at the negotiating table, together with such key players as Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, this week's Commons vote will not have been in vain.

Friday 27 November 2015

Syria: Why I am a reluctant bomber

In the interests of taste and decency, let us look away from the gruesome spectacle of the civil war that has engulfed the Labour party and concentrate instead on the far more serious conflict in Syria. So here are some questions that you might like to ask yourself (with my answers) before you decide whether you agree with David Cameron that the UK should now join the international military action against IS in Syria.

1. Is IS a direct threat to the UK? My answer: Yes. What happened in Paris two weeks ago could happen here tomorrow. Several hundred British citizens are believed to have gone to Syria to join IS; according to Mr Cameron, about half of them have returned. The PM also says that over the past 12 months, police and security services have disrupted seven terrorist plots "either linked to ISIL, or inspired by ISIL's propaganda".

2. So won't joining the military action against IS make the UK even more of a target and increase the threat to British citizens? My answer: No. The UK is already a prime target.

3. Will it make the UK safer? My answer: Possibly, if it discourages young Muslims from travelling to Syria to join IS, and if it forces the group's leaders to scatter, making it more difficult for them to coordinate attacks. Cutting their supply lines and hitting the oil facilities they have captured could have an effect. It could also have little or no effect.

4. Is IS a threat to the region and therefore an indirect threat to the rest of the world? My answer: Yes. In the words of UN security council resolution 2249, passed unanimously a week ago: "The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security." The resolution called on all UN member states "to use all necessary measures to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria."

5. Can IS be defeated militarily? My answer: No. As experience in Afghanistan has amply demonstrated, defeating a terrorist group by military means is an impossibility. The US-led air campaign against IS in Syria has already conducted more than 2,500 attacks, with relatively little to show for it. Mr Cameron acknowledged as much in his 36-page response to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs select committee: "The objective of our counter-ISIL campaign is to degrade ISIL’s capabilities so that it no longer presents a significant … threat." Note the operative word: "degrade", rather than "defeat" or "destroy".

6. So at what point would any UK military action cease? My answer: That's a very good question. The implication in Mr Cameron's statement is that a campaign of air attacks would lead to an accelerated political process in which "moderate" opposition groups would be strengthened and President Bashar al-Assad would be encouraged to step down as part of a transition to a more democratic Syria. That seems a huge leap of faith.

7. Isn't there a real risk that the UK would do more harm than good by joining the military campaign? My answer: I doubt it. UK involvement is unlikely to be a game-changer, despite the prime minister's claim that the UK has "world-leading military capabilities to contribute, which many other countries do not possess."

8.  What is the strongest reason for UK joining the military action? My answer: It would demonstrate that we remain part of a global community that has come together in a way not seen since the international action against Saddam Hussein following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. A coalition that includes the US, Russia, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey cannot easily be dismissed as simply a rerun of the US-led coalition against Saddam in 2003. And to ignore a direct appeal from France, our closest European neighbour, would inevitably be seen as turning our backs on a neighbour in need.

9. What is the strongest reason against the UK joining? My answer: I recognise that our experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where we bombed the bad guys only to find that more bad guys emerged from the rubble, is not exactly encouraging. On the other hand, military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone did have positive outcomes.

10. Why should we believe anything that Cameron says, given that it's presumably based on extensive briefings from the security services, who were so catastrophically wrong about Iraq in 2003? My answer: because this time, unlike when the debate was about whether Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction, no one is arguing that IS is not a real threat or doesn't really exist. The only debate is over how best to confront the threat.

So how would I vote if I were an MP? I'd vote Yes -- but with a very heavy heart.

Friday 20 November 2015

Paris: a few home truths

Why do we insist on ignoring what stares us in the face? The suicidal fanatics who threaten to kill us in the name of their perverted brand of Islam are not refugees from Syria, or deranged zealots from the mountains of Pakistan: they are, with only very few exceptions, men and women who were born in our hospitals, educated in our schools and who grew up in our cities.

The men who carried out the attacks in London in 2005 were born and raised in Leeds, Bradford, and Huddersfield. The men alleged to have carried out the Paris attacks last week were born and raised in Belgium and France. The men who murdered Lee Rigby two years ago were both born in London to Christian parents from Nigeria. 

Many of the attackers were already known to the police. Some had records as petty criminals. Others had clear links to identifiable terrorist groups. So as we still struggle to comprehend the crime that was committed in Paris last Friday night, perhaps we should start by examining what is going on under our noses.

That means asking difficult questions about why some young men growing up in Europe feel so alienated from the society in which they live that they want to destroy both it and themselves. In particular, it means thinking about the way our leaders use words like "we" and "they".  The scholar Ian Buruma put it admirably: "We know that a dangerous minority of young people are attracted by reasons to die. What is needed badly is a superior reason to live."

It might also be useful to acknowledge the past. In the words of the Harvard professor Stephen Walt: "Decades of misguided U.S. and European policies have left many people in the Arab and Islamic world deeply angry at and resentful toward the West. Those policies include the West’s cozy coddling of various Arab dictators, its blind support for Israel’s brutal policies toward the Palestinians, and its own willingness to wage air campaigns, employ sanctions, or invade Middle Eastern countries whenever it thinks doing so suits its short-term interest."

But this is at best a partial explanation, because it fails to address the very obvious fact that the jihadi phenomenon is also a real threat to people and places far beyond the shores of Europe and the US. The simply stated goal of the killers is to force everyone, wherever they live, to bow to their will. 

Ask the people of Bangladesh, Egypt, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan (have we really forgotten the attack in Peshawar less than a year ago, when 130 schoolchildren were massacred?), Russia, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen, all of whom have suffered grievously at the hands of jihadi zealots. And ask the people of Raqqa in Syria what it is like to live under the rule of these brutal fanatics.

So what can we do to confront the danger? Here is my 10-point plan:

1. Improve the way our intelligence services process the information that is already available to them. (I am not convinced that they need extra powers, although see 4. below.) They seem to be pretty good at identifying potential threats; they are not so good at keeping a close eye on them. Five of the Paris suspects are thought to have fought for IS in Syria before returning to Europe, so why were they still able to plan and carry out their attacks?

If that means increasing the intelligence services' budgets so that they can take on more staff, then let's increase their budgets. The more data they collect, the harder it will be to sift what matters from what doesn't. If it were up to me, I would abandon both the British and the French nuclear weapons programmes and concentrate resources on defence against today's threats, not those of 50 years ago.

2. Have a long, frank talk to the security authorities in Belgium, which is emerging as the weakest link in Europe's anti-terrorism campaign. According to the Brussels-based analyst Bilal Benyaich: "Brussels is a black hole in Europe’s anti-radicalisation policy. It is easier for people with bad intentions — be they criminal, mafia, or terrorist — to live life under the radar here than in any other major European city."

3. Keep a much closer eye on what is going on in Europe's jails. Prisons and the internet are the two key drivers in what is known as "radicalisation", the process by which vulnerable, confused young men can be turned into suicidal killers.

4. Look again at the way encrypted social media and instant messaging technology can be exploited by terrorist groups. I am deeply reluctant to allow the State any further access to our private communications, but we need to be clear-headed: if fanatics are planning massacres undetected because the authorities can't decrypt their communications, we need to deal with that.

5. Similarly, the EU should suspend the Schengen open-borders regime that enabled the Paris killers to cross back and forth between France and Belgium without anyone noticing. It will be a huge nuisance to millions of travellers, as well as damaging to EU trade, but I suspect the families of those who were killed in Paris will regard it as a price worth paying if it helps to prevent future attacks.

6. The UK should join any EU or NATO military action aimed at weakening the IS in Syria and Iraq. That means principally cutting off its supply lines and access to revenues from illicit oil sales (currently running at an estimated $1.5 million per day), something that should have been done months ago.

7. Put pressure on Turkey to stop attacking Kurdish units who are fighting IS on the ground and tighten up its border controls to stop the flow of personnel and supplies to IS units in Syria. Remind President Erdogan that France is a fellow-NATO member and deserves full support from Ankara.

8. Make it crystal clear to the rulers and clerics of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that they need to dissociate themselves in both word and deed from the groups responsible for bringing so much misery to so many people. The growth of IS is in part a result of the proxy war for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it has profound security implications for the rest of the world.

9. Intensify diplomatic efforts together with Russia and Iran to forge a ceasefire in Syria leading to a transition to a post-Assad future. The downing of the Russian plane in Egypt last month means the prospects for diplomatic progress are now better than for a very long time.

10. Resolve not to fall into the jihadis' trap. They want to create an unbridgeable rift between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between their brand of Islam and all others, including Shi'ism. We should do the opposite: build bridges, strengthen ties, create alliances.

The French journalist Nicolas Hénin, who spent 10 months as an IS hostage in Syria, described his captors as "street kids drunk on ideology and power". "Everything convinces them that they are on the right path and, specifically, that there is a kind of apocalyptic process under way that will lead to a confrontation between an army of Muslims from all over the world and others, the crusaders, the Romans. They see everything as moving us down that road."

He also wrote: "They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia … Central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned towards finding supporting evidence."

Our goal, surely, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, must be to prove them wrong.

Friday 6 November 2015

A win for Sisi

In considering the visit to London of the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, I can do no better than to quote the words of Amnesty International in its most recent report on Egypt:

"The [past] year saw a continued dramatic deterioration in human rights following the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The government severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Thousands were arrested and detained as part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent, with some detainees subjected to enforced disappearance.

"The Muslim Brotherhood remained banned and its leaders were detained and jailed. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained routine and was committed with impunity. Hundreds were sentenced to prison terms or to death after grossly unfair trials. Security forces used excessive force against protesters and committed unlawful killings with impunity.

"Women faced discrimination and violence. Some refugees were forcibly returned. Forced evictions continued. Dozens of people faced arrest and prosecution for their sexual orientation or identity. Courts imposed hundreds of death sentences; the first executions since 2011 were carried out in June."

What impressive dexterity our prime minister is demonstrating. In February 2011, there he was, grandstanding in Tahrir Square, celebrating with Egypt's pro-democracy activists the overthrow of the country's former leader, Hosni Mubarak. And here he is now, less than five years later, warmly welcoming Mubarak's successor, the former field marshal who seized power in a coup that ended Egypt's imperfect experiment with democracy.

To many Egyptians, Sisi is even worse than Mubarak. According to a new report by the Geneva-based human rights organisation Alkarama, more than 320 people have died in Egyptian jails since the military coup in July 2013,  “direct consequences of torture, ill-treatment or denial of medical care." More than 1,000 people were killed during the protests that followed the coup.

And yet. When Egyptians look at what has happened in Libya and Syria, many will conclude that they would rather stick with Sisi. For the region as a whole, as well as for the Western powers, a military-backed autocrat may look far preferable to the terror of IS. It is also far from irrelevant that Israel depends on Egyptian cooperation to keep Hamas bottled up in Gaza.

Egypt is by far the most important Arab nation in terms of size and population. There are more people living in Cairo alone than in all of Libya. It would be in no one's interests -- least of all its own people's -- for it to descend into anarchy, and the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood's President Morsi was hardly an example of liberal democracy in action.

It's only a couple of weeks since President Xi Jinping of China was in town, so there was barely time to get the red carpet cleaned. Perhaps Downing Street should get a new one made: it could have the words "raison d'état" embroided in silk thread along its entire length. Dictionary definition: "a purely political reason for action on the part of a ruler or government, especially where a departure from openness, justice, or honesty is involved." Which seems to sum it up perfectly.

President Xi was here because he brought with him the promise to invest billions in the UK economy; President Sisi followed in his footsteps because he brought the promise of cooperation in a confrontation with jihadi groups that Mr Cameron has called "a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology." Plus, of course, the prospect of some more orders for British-made weaponry.

How horribly embarrassing, therefore, that on the eve of Sisi's arrival, the UK in effect accused Egypt of such ropey security procedures at Sharm el-Sheikh airport that they somehow allowed a bomb to be smuggled on board a Russian plane, causing it to explode with the loss of 224 lives. As a result, some 20,000 British holidaymakers were left stranded when all British flights to and from the airport were suspended.

In a BBC interview this week, President Sisi insisted that he has "a roadmap for real democracy in Egypt" and that it will be for Egyptians to decide what role, if any, the banned Muslim Brotherhood should have in the country's future.

That will be hard to believe for the thousands of Brotherhood supporters currently languishing in Egypt's dismal jails -- and even harder to believe for 28-year-old Sondos Asem, who was foreign media spokeswoman for the Brotherhood during the ill-fated reign of President Mohamed Morsi and who was sentenced to death in her absence last May.

Talking to world leaders -- even world leaders with blood on their hands -- is part of the job description when you move into 10 Downing Street. Saying nothing publicly, or nothing meaningful, about their worst excesses is not. So next time Mr Cameron hosts a leader with a woeful human rights record, perhaps he could bring himself to say something about it. In public.

Then we could at least try to convince democracy activists, whether in China, Egypt, or elsewhere, that we are not ignoring them. I'm sure they would appreciate it. 

Friday 30 October 2015

A question of incompetence

Has there ever been a Cabinet minister more inept than Chris Grayling, the leader of the House of Commons? He is a man who can be utterly relied upon to get things wrong, a man whose lack of judgement and staggering incompetence defy belief.

John Crace put it perfectly in Thursday's Guardian: "If there is an argument that cannot be lost, Chris Grayling has yet to find it. Ask him to prove the Earth revolves around the sun, and everyone will inevitably end up believing the exact opposite; as an intellect, he barely registers even at the lower end of the IQ scale. So it can only be an act of pure sadism on David Cameron’s part that the leader of the house is invariably left to deal with the problems the rest of the cabinet don’t have a clue how to solve."

Those words were written after Mr Grayling's botched response to the House of Lords rebellion against the government's proposed cuts to tax credits. First he announced that there would be a "rapid review" into the Lords vote, but then, without pausing to draw breath, he assured MPs that, oh no, hand on heart, it most certainly would not be rushed. So, "rapid" as in "not rushed".

There was worse to come. Barely 24 hours later, he was back on his feet in the Commons to complain that journalists have been misusing the Freedom of Information Act. They have, he said, been using it as "a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable."

It is necessary at this point to take a deep breath, count to ten, sit Mr Grayling down in a comfy chair, and try to explain. Freedom of information means -- how can I put this? -- that information should be freely available. That's "freely available" as in "freely available to everyone." As he himself said, presumably not comprehending the words he spoke: "It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how governments make decisions."

Now, why do we think that journalists might use the act to get hold of information? Might it, just possibly, be because they think that their readers, listeners and viewers "want to understand why and how governments make decisions"?

Might it be because journalists think their readers have a right to know, for example, how much MPs have been claiming in expenses, and for what? Because as even Mr Grayling must surely know, that information became available only because journalists claimed their right to see it under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.

(Brief reminder: in 2008, the High Court ruled in favour of a Freedom of Information Act application for the release of the details of MPs' expenses claims. The House of Commons authorities then announced that certain information deemed "sensitive" would be removed. In the event, an uncensored copy of the records was leaked to the Daily Telegraph, which published them.)

Or, to take another example, perhaps journalists thought that voters had a right to know that hundreds of thousands of calls to the 101 police non-emergency number are never answered. Or that according to a statistical evaluation by the Metropolitan Police, knife amnesties seem to have no long-term impact on the number of knife crimes committed. (These examples, and many more, are cited in a BBC analysis of the impact of the Freedom of Information Act published earlier this year.)

Mr Grayling has form for this kind of thing. In 2009, he landed himself in hot water by comparing Moss Side in Manchester to the city of Baltimore as depicted in the TV drama series The Wire. The Manchester Evening News reported: "His comments have sparked fury in Manchester - not least because all the evidence would suggest that cops and the community are winning the battle against the gangsters ... In fact, over the last two years, Greater Manchester Police have recorded the biggest reduction in gun crime of any force in the country."

In 2010, when he was shadow home secretary, the Conservative party claimed that violent crime was increasing throughout Britain. The chairman of the UK statistics authority, Sir Michael Scholar, was so angry about the misuse of the statistics that he complained to Mr Grayling by letter: "I must take issue with what you said about violent crime statistics, which seems to me likely to damage public trust in official statistics."

In office, as a grossly inept justice secretary, he introduced a widely condemned ban on books being sent to prisoners (the ban was overturned with indecent haste as soon as Michael Gove took over from him after the election last May). He also introduced a mandatory system of flat-fee court charges for defendants that the president of the Law Society described as a threat to fair trials.

His cuts to legal aid payments went down like a lead balloon  -- one high-profile fraud case was halted because of what the judge called the government's “failure to provide the necessary resources to permit a fair trial to take place”. Five of the defendants were represented by Alex Cameron QC, who offered his services free of charge. (His younger brother, by the way, is called David -- yes, that David.)

The decision to halt the trial was later overturned by the Court of Appeal, but even so, this is not a record of which any Cabinet minister should be proud. It is a shameful record of botched decision-making and woeful ignorance that should disqualify anyone from holding public office. In any other line of business, Mr Grayling would surely be dismissed for gross incompetence.

So if you have any thoughts about a job to which he might be better suited, I'd be happy to forward them to Number 10.

Friday 23 October 2015

China: a prosperity agenda?

I chose to mark the State visit of President Xi Jinping of China this week by spending some time at a wonderful art exhibition that somehow our honoured guest couldn't fit in to his crowded schedule.

Whether by coincidence or not, the Royal Academy in London is currently showing a deeply moving collection of works by China's best-known contemporary artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei. It's a real shame that the Foreign Office couldn't find a way to inveigle the President in to see it.

He could have stopped to ponder the 90 tons of steel reinforcing rods, laid out on the floor like a deep carpet of rusted metal, each one meticulously straightened after having been retrieved from the mangled ruins of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 which killed more than 85,000 people. Many of those who died were victims of shoddily built structures erected by corrupt construction companies. Hence the symbolism of the steel rods.

Or perhaps the President could have spent a few moments squinting through the viewing apertures of Ai's half-lifesize prison cell dioramas, reconstructions of scenes from the artist's 81 days of incarceration in a secret prison in 2011. Inside each iron box are fibreglass figures, showing Ai being questioned, asleep, having a shower -- always with two green-unformed guards at his side. The installation is entitled S.A.C.R.E.D, the initital letters standing for supper, accusers, cleansing, ritual, entropy, and doubt, each describing a different diorama.

The Chinese authorities weren't involved in the planning of the exhibition, although earlier this year, the co-curator Tim Marlow was quoted as saying: “I think the authorities are totally aware of what’s going on. We’re aware, they’re aware. Ai Weiwei is probably aware that they’re aware that we’re aware that they’re aware.”

Which means, I imagine, that somewhere in President Xi's briefing pack, there may well have been a mention of the exhibition, just in case it came up in conversation during his time in the UK. Although, to be honest, I do find it quite hard to imagine that the Queen would have brought it up during their dinner at Buckingham Palace.

"Oh, by the way, Mr President, I do hope you have time to pop down to the Royal Academy while you're in town. They've got an absolutely fascinating show on at the moment -- I'm sure you'd find it most interesting."

Unlikely. Indeed, as far as I've been able to ascertain, not even the culture secretary John Whittingdale has been to see the exhibition, although I shouldn't really be surprised, given that British immigration officials were reluctant even to issue Ai with a full six-month visa to allow him to visit.

The word in Whitehall, apparently, is that in this new, officially-heralded golden era in relations between our two countries, UK government policy is to prioritise what is being called the "prosperity agenda" ahead of the "rights agenda". Which is another way of saying that because we can't afford to pay for our own essential infrastructure development (nuclear power stations, high-speed rail services), we'll invite China to come up with the cash instead. No other Western nation would dream of being so indiscriminate in its use of the begging bowl.

George Osborne and the Treasury are now firmly in charge, even though, according to an excellent programme on Radio 4 last Monday by the BBC's estimable China editor Carrie Gracie, this new approach does represent a strategic shift in foreign policy. And it comes just as there are growing concerns both about China's long-term economic prospects and its increasingly muscular approach towards its neighbours.

There have been times in the recent past when critics of Britain's foreign policy have complained that we have been much too close to the US -- specifically, of course, over the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But soon we may start hearing similar complaints about our ties to Beijing: if Chinese state enterprises are to be responsible for some of our key transport links and power supplies, how likely is it that we will resist Beijing's attempts to assert its control in, for example, the South China Sea?

So as we watch Chinese enterprises prepare to build our new nuclear power stations, I shall try not to think too much about Ai Weiwei's steel rods in the Royal Academy, the 85,000 people who died in Sichuan on 12 May, 2008, or the human rights activists, lawyers and ethnic minorities who have been harassed, imprisoned and tortured. Repeat after me: prosperity agenda, not rights agenda.

Friday 16 October 2015

The new politics: Principles? I can change them

Have you noticed the new political fashion? Marxism is back -- Groucho, not Karl. "Those are my principles," goes the quote, "and if you don't like them ... well, I have others."

As with so many of the best quotations, no one seems sure that he actually said it, but for my purposes, it doesn't matter. The changing of minds is the order of the day, and it's happening on both sides of the House of Commons.

Is the UK government bidding for a lucrative "training needs analysis" contract with the prison service of Saudi Arabia? (If anyone knows what that is exactly, and why the Saudis might be prepared to pay nearly £6 million for it, please get in touch.) Yes, on Monday it was; but, oops, no, on Tuesday it wasn't.

Is George Osborne a fan of fiscal charters or fiscal responsibility bills? In 2010, when he was shadow chancellor, No, he wasn't.  Quote: “Fiscal responsiblity acts are instruments of the fiscally irresponsible to con the public." On Wednesday, he proposed just such a measure.

As for the man who is now shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, do I even need to remind you? Three weeks ago, it was: "We accept we are going to have to live within our means … we will support the charter."

On Wednesday night, it was, oops, No, we won't. "Embarrassing? Yes, of course it is, but a bit of humility amongst politicians never goes amiss."

Then came the education secretary, Nicky Morgan. A year ago, it was: "There aren’t going to be any more grammar schools under me … I am resistant to selective education." And then yesterday, for a grammar school in Kent, it was, oh well, if you insist.

And finally, at the end of a week of dizzying policy about-turns, the prime minister decided that, contrary to his previous plan, he will now provide the UK's EU partners with a written shopping list of reform demands ahead of his much-anticipated referendum.

It is 35 years since Margaret Thatcher had the party faithful cheering delightedly at the Tory party conference in Brighton: "You turn if you want to -- the lady's not for turning." She would not be much impressed by the -- what's the polite term: flexibility? -- of today's politicians. Groucho Marx, on the other hand, would thoroughly approve.

I'm with John Maynard Keynes on this kind of thing: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?" (Again, the quote may be apocryphal, but again, it doesn't really matter.) But I do have a problem with the current penchant for political costume-changing, because in all the cases cited above, it's not the facts that have changed but the political weather.

Politicians change their minds when they are persuaded that it is to their advantage to do so. Perfectly understandable, perhaps, but let's not pretend. Why don't more ministers have the honesty to admit, as did the then local government minister 10 years ago when he announced that the government was postponing council tax revaluations, that he had performed a "vaulting, 180 degrees, full U-turn"? (His name was David Miliband, by the way. Whatever happened to him?)

If you like this new political nimbleness -- and I have to admit that it does make life a lot more interesting -- you can thank Jeremy Corbyn. He's a great believer in mind-changing: on membership of the EU, renewal of Trident, membership of NATO, and, of course, the Osborne fiscal charter elephant trap.

He also deserves credit -- shared credit, to be fair, with Michael Gove -- for forcing the prime minister to drop the UK bid for that Saudi prisons contract. But although I'm pleased they dropped the bid, I have a question for them.

If it's wrong to bid for such contracts in Saudi Arabia, on the grounds that it is a country with a truly abysmal record on human rights, why is the government about to roll out the reddest and plushest of carpets next week for President Xi Jinping of China, who will be welcomed on a State visit with all the pomp and frippery that we're capable of? He will address parliament, be guest of honour at a State banquet at Buckingham Palace and ride in the royal carriage -- and the general message from his fawning hosts will be: "Mr President, if you see anything you like the look of, it's all for sale."

When George Osborne was in China last month, State media praised him as "the first Western official in recent years who focused on business potential rather than raising a magnifying glass to the 'human rights issue'." Somehow, that doesn't make me proud.

Although the number of executions carried out in China remains a State secret, according to Amnesty International it is estimated that there were more people executed in China last year than in the rest of the world put together. Yes, more than in Saudi Arabia, plus Iran, plus North Korea, plus the US and the rest of them.

Perhaps the Daily Telegraph analyst Con Coughlin was right when he wrote: "In the pragmatic world of realpolitik, strategic interests and human rights rarely make for a comfortable mix." But we have certainly come a long, long way since the newly appointed foreign secretary Robin Cook proclaimed after Labour's election victory in May 1997: "Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension."

Remember those words as you watch President Xi being fêted in London next week.

Friday 9 October 2015

David Cameron: once a PR man, always a PR man

Here's a little riddle for you: which left-wing extremist said this: "Bin Laden should be put on trial … because a trial would be the profoundest and most eloquent statement of the difference between our values and his."

And who said this: "[There was] no attempt whatsoever that I can see to arrest [Bin Laden] and put him on trial … This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy."

Was it (a) the man lauded by David Cameron because "he’s served this country, he’s served this party", or (b) the one lambasted for his "security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology"?

You've guessed, haven't you? The first quote comes from the prime minister's fellow old Etonian and wannabe successor Boris Johnson, and the second from Jeremy Corbyn. And yet although both were saying pretty much exactly the same thing, Mr Cameron regards one as a valued colleague (or so he would have us believe) and the other as someone to be cast into oblivion as a terrorist sympathiser.

Which just goes to show, yet again, that what is said by party leaders on conference platforms should never, ever be taken at face value. Even so, the gulf that separated what Mr Cameron said on Wednesday and what his government is actually doing was so vast that it had me reaching for my dictionary.

The phrase that came to mind as I listened to him was "cognitive dissonance". Definition: "the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values."

For example: he says the housing crisis is "one big piece of unfinished business" and that he wants more families to be able to own a home of their own. At the same time, he adopts policies that push property prices up to yet more stratospheric levels and deplete yet further the stock of affordable homes.

He also says he intends to tackle Britain's deep social problems: the "scourge of poverty … the brick wall of blocked opportunity". But he says nothing about his proposed changes to tax credits (the words didn't appear once in his speech, by the way) that, according to the Resolution Foundation, chaired by former Tory minister David Willetts, will together with other planned cuts increase the number of working families living in poverty by 200,000 by 2020.

Yet despite this yawning gap between rhetoric and reality, the prime minister appears to be suffering from no mental stress or discomfort whatsoever. On the contrary: he gives the impression that he's enjoying himself immensely, basking in the warm glow of an unexpected election victory, and that he feels he now has a real chance to create what he called a "greater Britain, made of greater hope, greater chances, greater security."

There can be only one explanation: he knows exactly what he's doing, but thinks we won't notice. He thinks he's so good at the talking that we won't realise in which direction he's walking. He's so excited at the prospect of occupying the political ground that Labour has (temporarily?) vacated that he can see little else. When he looks out of the Downing Street window every morning, he sees a future that is only blue.

But let's borrow another concept from the lexicon of psychology: maybe he's in denial ("a refusal or unwillingness to accept reality"). Because I spotted another word that somehow failed to make a single appearance in his conference speech. It was the dog that didn't bark, the elephant in the room -- feel free to choose your own metaphor.

The word was … referendum. As in the EU in-out referendum, which hangs around the prime minister's neck like a lead weight. If Mr Cameron urges a Yes vote -- which he will -- and the country votes No -- which it might -- his career will end in chaos and ignominy. It is a prospect so terrible that on Wednesday he could not bring himself even to utter the word.

No wonder he prefers to imagine a wonderful world in which the least well-off miraculously find well-paid jobs and affordable homes and no longer need any help from their fellow tax-payers. It's a world in which ethnic, religious and gender discrimination has vanished and every British Muslim bakes prize-winning cakes.

It's not the real world, of course, nor a world that the rest of us recognise. It's the world of the PR man -- which he once was, and still is.

Friday 2 October 2015

Just what Syria needs: more bombs

It's obvious, isn't it: what Syria really, really wants, after four years of war, an estimated 250,000 deaths and 12 million people forced to flee from their homes, is more foreigners dropping bombs.

Well, lucky Syria -- because within the last few days, both France and Russia have joined in, which means that by my count, there are now warplanes from no fewer than nine nations engaged in the skies over Syria. (The others are the US, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey.)

And who knows? Soon the UK may be there as well, although, with no disrespect to the RAF, I cannot imagine what British bombs might achieve that isn't already being tried (other than killing more people, of course). The whole thing is utterly ludicrous.

It is also horribly dangerous, because President Putin seems not to be bombing the same people as the US-led coalition, nor does he have the same goals. The US and its allies say they're targeting the Islamic State group; but the Russians appear to be more interested in pummelling other rebel groups whom they regard as more of a threat to President Assad's survival.

Russia's first air strikes on Wednesday hit a rebel group that had been trained by the CIA, in an area where there are not believed to be any IS bases at all. I dread to think what could happen if a US-backed group were to shoot down a Russian plane -- or indeed, if Assad's troops, newly armed with modern Russian weaponry and aided by Russian "advisers", managed to shoot down a US plane. We are entering, to use an inappropriate metaphor, very dangerous waters.

So I suppose we should be duly grateful that the Americans and Russians are at least trying to work out a way to avoid their various warplanes getting in each other's way. They should, of course, be talking about much more, and this is where -- don't laugh -- the EU might have a useful role.

In the tortuous negotiations with Iran leading to the landmark nuclear agreement last July, the six other governments at the talks (US, Russia, China, UK, France, Germany) used the EU's then foreign policy chief, Cathy Ashton, as their lead coordinator and negotiator. Iran is President Assad's key regional backer -- so why not use the same formula again?

Cathy Ashton's successor in Brussels, the former Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini has already made a start. Last weekend she met the Iranian foreign minister in New York, and there's talk of trying to get UN-sponsored peace talks off the ground again, coupled with the formation of an international contact group including Iran.

Washington is reported to prefer a format that would exclude the Europeans, on the grounds that we are not "directly involved". Perhaps someone should remind them of the refugees who have been heading into Europe in such huge numbers over recent months -- and anyway, both Russia and Iran quite like the idea of having Europeans at the table.

It comes down to this: should the UK use what little international influence it still has to encourage the resumption of international peace talks -- and could David Cameron and Philip Hammond bring themselves to champion the cause of the EU as an essential part of the mix?

Or would they rather ask the House of Commons to approve RAF bombing raids in Syria, even though they must know full well that a few more bombs -- even if they carry "Made in Britain" markings -- are unlikely to make a blind bit of difference?

We may be suspicious of President Putin's motives in Syria -- clearly he's aiming to prop up his client Mr Assad, but just as important, I suspect, is his burning desire to persuade the Western powers to drop their policy of trying to isolate him because of his adventures in Ukraine (which, incidentally, has gone very quiet of late. Funny, that …).

Fine. Bring him in from the cold, while maintaining the Ukraine-related sanctions. And encourage Iran to use its influence on President Assad to stop his forces' indiscriminate barrel bomb attacks on civilian areas. According to Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times, Tehran has already had some limited successes: "Where convenient, Iran has … played a role in truce negotiations on the ground. The most significant ceasefire, covering some northern villages and a southern town, was reached days before Syria dominated the UN debates. Iran represented the regime and Turkey acted on behalf of the rebels."

That, surely, is a better way forward. Because if Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have taught us anything, it is that dropping bombs on people to remove their leaders tends not to have the desired effect. It's a lesson Mr Cameron should have learned by now.

Friday 25 September 2015

Migration and the EU: an institution crumbling?

The bonds that bind the European Union are fraying. And the looser they become, the easier it will be for the UK to slip those bonds entirely and make its escape.

Or, to put it another way: the EU's migration crisis could well hasten Britain's exit. If you're in the mood for real drama, how's this for a new mathematical formula? Greek debt crisis + EU migration crisis + Brexit = end of EU.

Fanciful? Perhaps. But after the latest emergency summit in Brussels on Wednesday, even the president of the European Council, the former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, said: "What is at stake is … the future of Schengen, the sense of order in Europe and the common European spirit." In other words, the future of the EU itself.

The European Union is built on a labyrinthine system of rules and regulations designed to ensure that all members have equal rights and responsibilities. Once member states start tearing up the rule book with impunity, the structure soon starts to crumble.

The rule book is already in a sorry state. Rules about propping up weak economies were jettisoned when Greece teetered on the brink of debt default. The same thing happened to the rules on processing applications for asylum (the so-called Dublin convention) when first Italy and Greece, and then Hungary, buckled under the sheer weight of numbers.

Then Angela Merkel said "Willkommen" to just about everyone, regardless of the Dublin convention, only to kick the door shut again and tear up the Schengen free-travel agreement. In 1989, Hungary hastened the end of the Cold War by opening its borders with Austria, thus enabling citizens of the Soviet bloc countries free access to the West; in 2015, it started re-building the fences, and in doing so may have hastened the end of the EU, or at least of Schengen.

It's not a pretty picture. Mrs Merkel said in Brussels on Wednesday, as leaders gathered to discuss the migration crisis: “It cannot be that Europe says ‘We can’t handle this.’” It sounded like a whistle in the dark -- because the truth is that the EU can't handle it, doesn't know how to handle it, and can't agree on how to handle it.

For David Cameron, it's all a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, he is no longer the only EU leader unhappy at the way the institution is being run. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania are all deeply unhappy at the idea that other EU countries can simply gang up on them and order them to take in people whom they don't want to take in. (Prediction: they won't do it.)

He also has the satisfaction of noting that his fellow EU leaders have, belatedly, come round to his way of thinking that the most effective way to try to slow the numbers of people leaving the refugee camps in Turkey is to provide sufficient funding so that conditions in the camps, especially with winter approaching, remain tolerable.

But on the other hand, as long as the EU is embroiled in ugly recriminations over migration, no one will have much appetite for the nitty-gritty of the UK's demands for a re-negotiated relationship with Brussels. Besides which, if we take Mr Cameron at his word -- that he wants the UK to remain a member of the EU -- a rising tide of anti-EU sentiment is not what he was hoping for.

Nigel Farage and UKIP have made significant electoral headway over the past couple of years by equating EU membership in voters' minds with immigration policy. It is, of course, true that as long as the UK remains in the EU, it can't impose restrictions on the entry of citizens of other EU member states. But this is wholly unrelated to the treatment of people seeking asylum from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea or elsewhere -- yet in many people's minds, the two issues have become fused into one over-riding fear: too many immigrants.

Now add to this unstable mix the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party. He says he can't imagine a situation in which Labour would campaign for Britain to leave the EU -- yet his support for British membership remains less than wholehearted and he has in the past been extremely critical of what he has regarded as the EU's pro-free market ideology.

If you believe the opinion polls (and yes, I know that's a big "if"), the public mood is shifting towards a referendum vote in favour of leaving the EU. The day after the general election last May, I wrote: "It is not entirely fanciful to imagine that by the time of the next election, Scotland will have split away from the UK, and the UK, or what remains of it, will have left the European Union."

I'm not so sure about Scotland, but the prospect of the UK leaving the EU is looking even less fanciful now. Mr Cameron has a tough task ahead of him.

Friday 18 September 2015

Corbynism: A farewell to power

Only one thing matters for the future of the Labour party: does Jeremy Corbyn have any ideas about how to woo back the voters Labour lost to the Tories last May?

We know the Left love him; what we don't know is whether he has any idea how to win enough votes to return Labour to power in 2020. Because what his devoted fans have not yet taken on board is that there simply aren't enough Lefties in Britain to install Mr Corbyn in Downing Street.

This isn't just my opinion; it is a verifiable fact. When UK voters are asked where they place themselves on the political spectrum, the average is seven points to the left of centre. (Before the 2015 election, voters thought Labour was 36 points to the left, and Ed Miliband 40 points to the left. Goodness knows where they'd put Mr Corbyn.)

Yes, some Labour supporters who voted Green or SNP in May may return to the Labour fold under Mr Corbyn. So will some who didn't vote at all -- although the evidence suggests that when non-voters decide to vote, their choice doesn't necessarily match the expectations of the Left.

One of the first lessons that any political activist learns is that their way of looking at the world is not shared by everyone. No matter how clever, or how decent, they are, some people simply have different views.

It is a lesson that Mr Corbyn and his supporters might do well to learn quickly. Ask them how they intend to win the next election, given the huge electoral hurdle they have to overcome, and they reply that millions of people who have either deserted Labour or who haven't voted in the past -- the young, the poor, the least educated -- will now be inspired to vote, because at last they have a champion in whom they can believe.

It's possible that they're right. Possible, but unlikely. Arithmetic can be cruel, and the numbers are not Corbyn-friendly. Yes, a quarter of a million people voted for Labour's new leader last weekend -- and yes, it is a hugely impressive figure. But it is not quite so impressive when compared to the 11.3 million people who voted Conservative last May.

Let the numbers do the talking. In a report called "The mountain to climb", the left-leaning Fabian Society spelt them out. Labour will need to gain more than 100 seats in 2020 if it is to win a Commons majority, and four-fifths of the extra votes they'll need to win in English and Welsh marginals will have to come direct from Conservative voters.

The report's key conclusion was this: "The litmus test for Labour’s strategy is simple: can the party win over large numbers of people who voted Conservative and SNP in 2015?" The reason is that there aren't enough young, poor and disillusioned voters in the key marginals to make the difference -- it doesn't matter if the votes pile up higher than ever in Hackney, Tottenham and Islington, because those seats return Labour MPs anyway.

What matters is votes in all those Labour target seats that the party failed to win in May, and so far, Mr Corbyn has said nothing about what he intends to do to win those voters over.

Some of his supporters insist that winning isn't everything -- they loathe the Blairites' constant reminders that Mr Blair won three consecutive election victories -- and it is true that winning without ideals or principles is an empty victory. But principles that aren't coupled to an electoral strategy are worthless to the people whom Mr Corbyn's supporters say they care about.

It is too easily forgotten that Britain was a far better place after 13 years of New Labour than it would have been under the Conservatives. The Blair-Brown tandem was a pretty neat invention until it turned toxic, because it sent the charming Mr Blair to woo the middle classes while the quietly wealth-redistributing Mr Brown set about reducing child and pensioner poverty and setting up Sure Start centres. Between them, they introduced the minimum wage and the Human Rights Act, and they hired hundreds more doctors, nurses and teachers. What's more, economic growth, measured as GDP per capita, between 1997 and 2010 was higher than in Germany, the US, France, Japan or Italy.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, this was the Blair-Brown record on poverty reduction: "Reforms since 1997-98 resulted in an £18 billion annual increase in spending on benefits for families with children and an £11 billion annual increase on benefits for pensioners by 2010-11 …Child and pensioner poverty would either have stayed the same or risen, rather than fall substantially, had there not been these big spending increases."

But there was also the invasion of Iraq, a policy error of such magnitude that it has overshadowed everything else. No one much under the age of 30 will remember the pre-Iraq Blair, just as no one under the age of 40 will remember the days of Thatcherism. That, perhaps, helps to explain why Mr Corbyn does so well among the young: they have not yet had a chance to see how a centre-left government can deliver real benefits to those people who need most help, and how the right-wing alternative can do real, lasting harm.

The New Yorker wrote woundingly after Mr Corbyn's victory last weekend: "There is a cruel caricature, hard to erase from the popular imagination, that depicts the archetypal resident of the British far left: a bearded, bicycle-riding, teetotal vegetarian from Islington, in north London. The image is lazy and unjust; in Corbyn’s case, unfortunately, it also happens to be true."

Mr Corbyn's first faltering mis-steps as party leader were unforced errors that he should never have made. (Prime Minister's Questions was a rare first-week success.) He can't claim to have been taken by surprise when he came top of the leadership poll, yet no one seems to have warned him that he would be expected to turn up at the Battle of Britain commemoration on Tuesday, and that, yes, he'd be expected to sing the National Anthem.

Wearing a jacket and trousers that don't match, and a tie with the top shirt button undone, doesn't matter a jot to his supporters (it doesn't matter to me, either), but it does matter to the voters Labour needs to win back. Giving the impression that you just don't care what they think is simply unprofessional.

It may be that Mr Corbyn is a quick learner. The word is that from now on, he will mouth the words of the National Anthem when required, and his earlier prevarications on the EU have given way to a much less ambivalent statement that he wants the UK to remain a member. (In the world of old politics, it would be called a U-turn.) The shadow chancellor John McDonnell's apology for having praised the "bravery" of the IRA is another sign that the practice of political pragmatism has not been entirely abandoned.

At least it's a start. But I still believe that Mr Corbyn is so far from the British political mainstream that he will never lead his party to victory. In which case the only remaining question is how long it will take him -- and his party -- to realise it.