The Stop the World Coalition

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The most dominant movement in British foreign policy is not either of the main parties, or any major campaigning group. It is the Stop the World coalition. This is a broad alliance, encompassing Andrew Murray, Lindsey German of the far left to to Matthew Parris and Peter Oborne of the heterodox right and points inbetween.

The stop the world coalition has broad appeal because it proceeds from a number of reasonable positions, a number of truths held to be self-evident.

First, that while tragedy and genocide are awful and regrettable, it is primarily the responsibility of someone else to offer a solution. This might be the actors themselves, other regional powers, the United Nations, or any other group you wish to identify.

It follows we should rely on such partnerships to resolve the crisis with a minimum of activity on our part. It may be that those partners have strategic interests or repressive behaviours that are entirely opposed to our objectives. However, they are better placed to act than we are without them.

From this it is concluded that we should restrict ourselves to pursuing policy aims that are entirely blameless (humanitarian aid, calling for talks, accepting a smattering of refugees and so on).

Finally, if neither international partnerships nor humanitarian support are proving effective in preventing terrible outcomes, we should oppose any military intervention. As Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition put it in the aftermath of the decision not to strike Assad last yearthere is hardly a problem in the Middle East (or elsewhere) that Anglo-US military intervention cannot make worse”.  (Murray believed, with many others, that a corner was turned in Western policy last year. He was right. We have since seen what lay on the other side.)

This scepticism is a reasonable challenge to any proposed military action, whether against genocide, chemical weapons use, or to protect a civilian population.

No such actions should be taken lightly and you would surely want to explore all alternatives, ensure a broad consensus, and have stable relationships with significant regional players before commiting to any warfare, with all its awful consequences.

You’d also want a high bar challenge for likely ‘success’, well-defined immediate objectives, and a clear understanding of the longer-term consequences of any action, in human lives most importantly, but also of time, money and ongoing commitment1.

The problem comes when this set of reasonable scepticisms becomes rigid opposition to all action. Instead of being an appropriate constraint against over-optimism and self-regard, this position becomes entirely negative, ruling out all options not described above as likely to lead to disaster.

Why is this problematic when the risks of any intervention are entirely real?

Because it envisions a world in which other actors do nothing. To be successful as policy it relies on a situation where the world has stopped, and  there are few or no negative consequences for inaction.

This is a crucial point, because you can only accept that ‘our intervention can only make things worse‘ if you do not account for the possible actions of others. The binary choice is not ‘the current situation‘ versus ‘the situation after western action‘ but ‘a range of future situations in which Western military action has been pursued‘ and ‘a future where they have not – and others have responded‘.

In that future we find the choices of others, whether the choice of Assad to use barrel bombs, Iran to supply him or ‘ISIS’ to terrorise Shi’a, Christian and Kurds. Those futures are not all within our control2.

If we look at Syria, there was, and remains, a strong case against Western Military intervention from the beginning of the rebellion. Perhaps the Assad regime would fall without our involvement. Perhaps a diplomatic peace could be reached. Supporting the FSA with airstrikes would have been very unlikely to get UN approval with Russia at the security council. Acting against Assad, especially if half-heartedly, might lengthen the war, giving him recourse to secure arms imports from states that would see his fall as a strategic defeat. Finally, if, as in Libya, we intervened and then left, we might see Syria become a quagmire from which we were absent. So we chose not to act.

However, even though we did not act, and so cannot have caused these possible negative outcomes, things still got very much worse. Those articles and published this time last year saying that the ‘rush to war’ had been halted ring hollow now.

They ring hollow because while we were passive Iran and Russia were willing to support Assad. They ring hollow because international inaction and (in all probability) regime collusion created the conditions in which ultra-extremist groups could prosper. They ring hollow because from Qatar to Iran, allies and opponents behaved in ways we had no control over.

They ring hollow because the world did not stop simply because we wished it to.

As a result even greater instability was created – one driven largely by actions of those – Russia, Iran, Assad, Hizbollah, Islamist extremists- over whom the ‘west’ had no control, and facilitated by the choices of actors (Maliki, Syrian rebels, and so on) whose options were affected by an absence of Western (really American) presence.3

This is why the Stop the World coalition has a problem.

It is not that it is wrong to oppose Western action. The starting tenets – a humility in foreign affairs,  an acceptance of the importance of partnership, a preference for peaceful means over military, a recognition of the limits of Western influence are all valuable qualities.

The problem is that it is wrong to assume Western action is the only significant wellspring of negative consequences.

By assuming a world in which the actions of others impact barely at all, they minimise the dangers and risks of inaction. Their policy invites not stillness, but a space into which others can, and will rush, creating further instability.

You end up with a policy agenda that is helpless in the face of profound challenges. All options are bad, and all choices are ruled out, and all you have is a repeated plea for others to behave in a way in which you would like them to behave..

Worse, you end up with a circle in which whatever imperfect choice is made becomes the sole cause of future misery. If it is only ‘our’ actions that appear significant, and things continue to get worse, then any choice made can be blamed for that worsening. The role of others becomes insignificant.

Contain Assad through sanctions and overflight- and be blamed for the death of innocent children and global radicalisation.

Do not constrain Assad – and be blamed for regional instability and collude in likely genocide, leading to global radicalisation.

Take military action to overthrow Assad  – and be responsible for all that flows from his fall, including global radicalisation.

Or let Syria turn into a grinder of souls, with all that entails.

We have seen each of those options played out before.

Why does such a position appeal? For some, I suspect it is a consequence of realpolitik – Here we find ‘realists’ who see it being of limited concern to us if a dictator slaughters his people so long as he does not bother us, or who hold that a policy of masterly inactivity will have few negative consequences at home, while the costs abroad are no great concern of ours.

For others, there seems to be a sense in which Liberal Democracy is the source of global injustice, not the best approximation of a remedy. This can either appeal to either left or right, creating a strange admiration for the likes of Putin or Ba’athist regimes from the Galloways and the Obornes, who see them standing up against very different oppressions, no matter who they themselves oppress.

However, this seems to me to be a minority. Most of those who are doubtful are doubtful for good reasons. The objections raised above to western actions are reasonable, coherent ones. Unfortunately, though, the world is not going to stop. Others are going to act whether we wish them too or not.

To go from the grand to the risible, it seems likely that at least some British Jihadi’s were influenced by Anjem Choudary. Anjem Choudary and his tiny band of extremists hated Britain and the west before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before September 11.

They would have hated us whatever we said, did or failed to do. They would have sought outrage after outrage. If we had not invaded Iraq, perhaps even now, some radicalised young Jihadi from Welling would be fighting outside Baghdad because the West had betrayed Islam by colluding in Saddam’s brutal post 9/11 oppression of Islamism.

Intervention is not always right. But because others will still intervene whatever the UK and the US does, dogmatic non-intervention contains its own contradiction. The Stop the World coalition is doomed to fail.

 

  1. I suspect a significant proportion of readers will be asking how this relates to Israel. Fair question. From my perspective, the prospect of outside intervention fails on a number of points. First, I doubt Hamas would welcome a ‘peacekeeping force’ that limited their ability to fire rockets at Israel. Without that commitment any such presence would become an unwelcome occupation force very rapidly. Second, there is a pretty clear diplomatic solution available right now, which both parties are engaged in. So in that case, the prospect of intervention falls on precisely the sorts of grounds outlined. As for issues like arms sales, blockades and so on, this relates directly to the main thrust of the article – it is reasonable to be concerned by arms export licenses, but a bit odd to be concerned about them while being indifferent to Hamas’s importing rockets and tunnel building materials from Iran []
  2. To draw an extreme analogy: The US withdraws our military presence from South Korea and North Korea launches an assault on Seoul. To judge the humanitarian consequences of any US response without considering what a North Korean takeover of the peninsula would mean is plainly ludicrous. However, if you accept ‘our intervention only makes things worse’ as a governing principle that would have to be your conclusion. The question that is sidestepped is ‘Worse than what, exactly?’ []
  3. ISIS apparently took Taqba military base from the Syrian Army last night, securing MANPADS and Missiles and even a fighter jet. These were all Russian imports intended to bolster Assad. Intervention happened without us []

A small Summer for politics

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Last week Danny Finkelstein said the following about this here blog.

This is a much appreciated compliment, and most kind of him. Inevitably, receiving such kind words coincided with a period in which I had almost nothing useful to say about British politics.

International politics, certainly. Gaza? Most definitely. Israel, naturally. ISIS, Syria, Iran and Iraq? I am only constrained by my awareness of ignorance. The domestic repercussions of tragic events elsewhere? These are issues of import.

Yet British politics? The very stuff I am supposed to know about, to care about, to be excited and thrilled by?

It palls. It bores. It seems irrelevant and childish and somewhat pathetic. Nine Months to go before a historic election and I was… lethargic.

Nor can I blame the politicians for this. They are doing their part.

They want me to know how significant a choice this election will be, how much difference it will make.

Both Labour and Tory summer campaigns are predicated on the significance of ‘the choice’ the electorate face next year. The Tories say a Labour government would destroy jobs by raising taxes, and wave a death tax at me over Labour paying for Social care, while wasting billions on welfare payments. In response, Labour promise tough action on Energy companies and limiting Rail fares, while as if in rebuttal to the Tory campaigns on health and jobs Liz Kendall makes considered speeches about the challenges facing the NHS and Social care and Chuka Umunna edits an entire well researched book about new Industrial policy and broadening growth.

Some of this is merely aggressive tackling, the political equivalent of a knowing, but not violent, foul on your opponents. The Tories are not going to ‘privatise the NHS’. Labour won’t introduce a death tax, or destroy job growth, while similarities are quietly downplayed1. Mostly though, these are real issues. The differences between the parties mean something important.

Unfortunately, they also feel incomplete. For all the significance of these issues, Their prominence in our political debate suggests that our politics finds it hard to offer a coherent, popular response to the three much larger problems the next government will be faced with, and so is attempting to turn significant, second order issues into far bigger divisions2.

The huge challenges are muted because they cause problems for both sides.

First, there’s the deficit. The Tories find it hard to talk about beyond the level of sloganeering. They proclaim “We’ve Cut the deficit” but neglect to add “Just nowhere near as far, or as fast as we thought we would” because that would involve admitting the persistence of the deficit means their projections for post-election budgets require laughably optimistic reductions in Welfare spending. They would like us to think this is a simple matter of cracking down on scroungers, but this money is in fact largely paid to precisely the sort of aspirational families they seek to represent. Labour on the other hand, is sharply aware that reducing such benefits would hurt hard-working families, but has little political will to promise to put up taxes or reduce departmental spending to make up the difference.

So both say little about the future. The forward projections are so ugly however, it is almost inevitable therefore that after the next election there will be some sort of fudge of these choices, with a tax increase, some welfare and departmental spending reductions, and a gentler glide path of deficit reduction.

The significant difference between the Parties will be about the precise make up of the fudge. This will be real, significant and make a difference to hundreds of thousands of families and jobs.

Unfortunately, we can only guess at how these decisions would be made, because the first party to admit it would have to make these particular tough choices would be absolutely slaughtered for so doing. So, we have to try and guess where the taxes would rise, and where the spending would fall and when we’d meet our deficit targets.3

Directly related to this vagueness is the believability of our positive promises. Since the constraints on the next government will be so tight, it is hard to imagine that in any particular area there will be a large surplus to be devoted to desirable ends. Whether that’s a tax cut for the low paid, or a huge increase in innovation and research spending, or funding to smooth the integration of Health and Social care, every promise elicits the sceptical reaction ‘So how will you pay for it’? In response, there is a tendency to identify waste to eliminate, or fat to be trimmed by localising, or future rewards to resolve current commitments.

Well, maybe. But it’s easier to say there’s wastage to save or promise returns to come than it is to find one or be certain of the other.

This means that even when politicians do make big, bold, promises, they seem rather presumptuous. A long-term economic plan? Higher wages? Lower Taxes? An NHS with neither rationing nor markets? A booming export led economy with top quality science and innovation? Houses being built as if it was the Thirties (or the fifties and sixties, if you prefer council flats to private houses). There’ll all desirable, but not easy to do with no new money.

Finally, then, there’s our foreign incoherence.  Whether Europe or the Middle East, our basic position seems always to be that we know how we would like the world to be, and to be clear that we are very much against it not being that way now, but to have no particular plan for moving from position A to position B.

The government may want a reformed Europe, and the opposition may be very keen on a diplomatic solution to Syria, but neither seems to willing to embrace a plan that might deliver either.

On Europe, to get reforms, we’d probably have to give something back, and that is off the table for much of the Conservative party. In the Middle East, making a deal with Iran and Syria on the one hand, or the Saudi’s and Egyptians on the other is unattractive in its brutal Realpolitik, because the consequences would be murderous, likely akin to Saddam’s post 1991 repression of Kurdish and Shi’a rebellions. Yet the obvious alternative, of taking action ourselves to support those who do request our alliance, whether the FSA or Kurdish, involves a risky commitment most in politics no longer wish to make for the sake of a problematic, imperfect shift in the Middle East.

So instead, we ineffectually call for peaceful resolutions, hoping that aid drops and handwringing will solve a problem they show no sign of stopping.

Three big issues then: The persistent deficit, the consequences of this for our services and spending, and the gap between our desires for the world and our ability to achieve the same.

Three issues on which opposition and government feel united in their desire to leave off the political battleground, to focus instead on rail caps and death taxes, personalities and slogans. Perhaps they’re right to do so.  After all, there’s not much political benefit to being the person saying that the next government will be a grind, not a Cockaigne.

However, while we take this approach, our politics will feel small and tentative and reactive, as it has throughout this summer.

  1. all parties find it easy, for example, to praise Transport infrastructure in general, and damnably hard to justify it in particular []
  2. There is one other huge issue, too, of course, Scottish independence, but other than occasional doe eyed entreaty to stay, and thinking up bizarre stunts like piles of stones and hand holding, there’s little the English political parties can do about this. Which I suppose underlines the smallness of our political debate, though I can’t imagine going on and on about it would have been much good to anyone []
  3. For example, we might assume that Labour would invest in capital budgets, not current spending, because this is implied by the no larger current deficit pledge. However, if the suspicion lurks that we do this by calling as much as we can as capital spending, then we really just take ourselves back to the same place. It’s a workaround, not an answer []

Complicity

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What is it to be complicit in the actions of another state?

It is a question raised by those speaking loudly against Israel, but not against Russia, or Syria, who argue that the reason their voice is loud in one case, but muted in another is to reflect Britain’s complicity in Israel’s attacks on Gaza. The same argument is made about Egypt.

The argument runs that we back Israel, or at least affect a lopsided neutrality, while we stridently oppose Russia’s provocations in Ukraine, and the murderous barbarity of the Syrian regime. Therefore the efforts of those who oppose atrocity and violence have a primary responsibility to speak out about those instances that we are complicit in.

One response would be to point out that complicity is not an on-off switch.

Take Russia. We sell Russia arms. Last year about £86 million worth of export licenses were granted. In terms of specific arms sales, we sell about as much to Russia as to Israel, according to the Campaign against the Arms Trade.

Perhaps in France, where helicopter carriers are on order western complicity is clearer, but even in Britain, the arms trade continues apace. Russian firms were still at the Farnborough airshow, for example, despite a delicate diplomatic dance in which we pretended they weren’t wanted and the Russians pretended not to go.

One of the leading suppliers of Russian arms to Syria, the state-owned Rosboronexport used the opportunity to pitch their arms exports to middle eastern and Latin American countries.

I doubt Russian policy would be affected much if we stopped arming Russia entirely and ended our complicity in the Russian arms trade. They’d just invite people to Russia and get their sniper rifles and night vision goggles from China.

Our complicity with Russia isn’t really in arms, but in being be a safe haven for their elite’s money and, possibly, to be an insurance policy for a future repression, a need expressed in the desperate acquisition of prestige assets, whether football clubs, art collections, newspapers, seats at party fundraisers or central London property. (more…)

Not in my name?

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It is hard to express my feelings about the gulf that has emerged between my views on the terrible, catastrophic situation in the Middle East and most of ‘leftish’ opinion1.

I feel further adrift from my domestic friends than I ever have. Adrift, not just due the divide between what many of my sympathetic elected representatives, newspapers, journalists and erstwhile political allies seem to believe and what I instinctively grasp for2, but adrift in my own ignorance and ineffectiveness.

After all, I sit in sunny London, with opinions that cost me nothing, but could cost others much.

Yet it feels cautious silence is also a way of hiding, because that silence is exploited by the confidently certain. Yes, I am an armchair general, but so is an MP, so is an editor, so is a fashionable columnist who argues for the opposite view to mine3. If Russell Brand dares to share his opinion, perhaps I should too4.

So if what follows offends, or is stupid, or over-generalises, I apologise. I recognise these flaws, have half-choked on them myself, but feel the need to try -somehow- to splutter my ignorance into the world nonetheless.

Today, Stop the War have organised a great demonstration calling for an end to the attack on Gaza.

This is not merely a call for peace; for the end of bloodshed. It cannot be. After all, the cautious truce agreed last week ended not with an attack on Gaza, but an attack on Israel.

Instead, the demonstration is something more than just a call to an end to violence. It is a call for a particular solution.

Fair enough. The roots of this conflict are difficult, and complex, the flaws on all sides apparent. Yet the stated aims of the demonstration would not produce the desired peace.

If Hamas remains committed to the destruction of the entire Israeli state, then to propose an unconditional end to restrictions on Gaza, when Hamas rule Gaza and use imported concrete to build tunnels to attack Israel, imported metal to build rockets to bomb Israel, and at the same time demand a boycott of Israel; then you effectively demand, not unconditional peace, but a tilt in the battle to Hamas. To Hamas, note, not to the Palestinian Legislature, or Fatah, or the people of Gaza, all of whom want an immediate ceasefire, then talks and negotiations and a permanent peace with Israel, but to Hamas, who want no such thing.

Still, I sympathise with those marching, because I think most marchers are not making a cold  calculus of the interests of factions, but instead expressing human sympathy for the victims of violence.

It is the tragedy of Gaza that demands sympathy, and rightly so. It is the dying children of Gaza, the insanity of war that brings people out on the streets in their thousands. If you were at that demonstration, and if that was your aim, I salute and admire you motivation. It is why I donated to the Disaster Emergency Committee appeal today. (For Gaza, and to their three year old appeal for Syria)

Those deaths ask us: Have Israeli forces committed crimes? No supporter of the British Government and troops during the Troubles can deny it is extremely likely, even certain.  Any Crime should outrage us, and we should demand they be investigated and punished, but they do not require assent to a proposed solution that is no peaceful solution at all.

So, today’s marchers, I too want peace and justice.

But I cannot march with you.

Yes, I think the solution the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, and George Galloway, and Stop the War offer for the Middle East is misguided and wrong.

But it goes further than that.

I can’t march with you because I don’t really understand what it means to march for this single peace in the Middle East, when the whole Middle East is engulfed in war. I don’t understand how the principles inter-relate, how the causes link.

For the broader left, too, I don’t really understand how we can, over the last year, oppose military action in Syria, support military action in Iraq, and propose a kind of half-neutrality in Gaza. What is this approach, what is its purpose or aim or strategic justification5?

I understand the motive. I think it’s decent and kind, and well-intentioned of our leaders. I support the motive. It’s just I don’t think it will work, I don’t think it makes sense, and I don’t think it will end well.

Almost a year ago, the same people marching today to demand a halt to Israeli attacks on Gazan civilians marched to halt an attack on Assad’s regime in Syria after it committed one of the worst atrocities imaginable against Syrian civilians.

Almost all the left ended up agreeing with that stance. Almost by accident. We argued for caution. We got inaction. We congratulated ourselves  for ‘preventing a rush to war’.

We had done no such thing. The Syrian war already existed. We simply chose to do almost nothing about it.

Certainly the action proposed last year – limited airstrikes against a regime that had committed chemical weapons attacks- was limited and insufficient to conclude the wider conflict, but we opposed it anyway. So the Syrian regime made a concession on using chemical weapons, switching to barrel bombs and chlorine gas instead, safely certain no consequences would follow.

Those barrel bombs, those chlorine gas attacks, those regime atrocities all came after we ‘stopped the rush to war’.

That war has raged further and faster and wider and wilder, and now many of the same voices that opposed intervention in Syria because the situation was too complex, we had no clear national interest at stake, and action risked making things worse, while there was no clear exit strategy, stand ready to intervene in the consequential conflict in Iraq, a conflict that has mutated and become more malevolent, but is surely no less complex, no less incendiary and offers the west no clearer an exit strategy6.

A year later, military action has become humanitarian. We have to act to prevent atrocity.

Forgive me for wondering, but what have we been standing aside from in Syria, these past three years, but a humanitarian crisis, full of preventable atrocities?

We had alternatives.

We could have done more, militarily to support the civil, more or less secular opposition when they rebelled against Assad. Such action would have had consequences. It would have cheered Hamas, perhaps, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Not that I think demonstrating that the west can defend muslims from murderous regimes should be abandoned for such a small reason. Might even have helped, in some way.

Perhaps our actions would have been presented as imperialist. More seriously, we might have dropped a bomb on a civilian facility and killed innocents. After all, Amnesty international, no less, accused NATO of War Crimes for our attack on a Serbian TV station.

Alternatively, we could, like Russia7 have cynically argued that Assad is a monster, but he is a known monster. Let him slaughter the rebels, as we allowed Saddam to slaughter, and at least Syria will be a peaceful graveyard. That too, would have been a decision. This too would have had consequences. Terrible ones.

Instead, we did effectively nothing. We did nothing for understandable reasons. We had become leary of consequence of our choices in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Somalia and Sudan.

But it turns out that our avoidance of consequence also has consequences. Money flowed to the most extreme, sometimes from our supposed allies. Iran and Hizbollah operated in Syria, even though the west did not. Consciously or not, Assad helped create an enemy that would bring him allies and secure his foreign supporters. That extremist Sunni enemy grew rich and ambitious on an illicit oil trade, perhaps selling energy to the very Syrian regime it intends to destroy. Our policy of inaction had consequences. Genocidal ones. The Islamic State we will attack today grew strong in the brutal chaos of a Syria we were indifferent to.

For me, the same applies in Libya: Here, we acted to prevent an atrocity, then effectively walked away, fearing the consequences of sustained presence. As we looked away, things fell apart to the extent the Libyan government is now pleading for for greater western commitment, and getting little. Maybe we’ll end up supporting another strongman, who will murderously solve the problems for us while enriching his cronies, whether directly or through Egypt’s own de facto dictator.

Perhaps then we should have made the decision we made a decade ago, when Libya renounced terrorism – that though Gaddafi was a monster, he was at least agreeing only to be a monster to his own people, and might even stop being that one day? I think not, because standing aside from his 2011 military campaign would have been inhumane. If we hadn’t acted, there would have been a disaster too. Just a different, and probably worse, disaster.

Instead, we intervened, patted ourselves on the back, then stood aside. Is that better or worse than a sustained intervention?

I haven’t even begun to mention the destruction in Congo, which we seem to have just decided was too difficult to worry about.

The truth is I don’t understand what it is to be a progressive in foreign policy these days. I know the mood is against liberal intervention, but I don’t know what it has been replaced with.

I do know what we would like.

We would like the Israelis and Hamas to stop fighting and find a mutually acceptable peace. We would like Assad to reach a diplomatic solution with the Syrian National Congress. We would like the Libyan government to act against Islamists. We would like Egypt to be less intolerant and brutal. We would like Iran to stop supporting Assad, and backing Maliki, and supplying Hamas. We would like Russia to not invade Eastern Ukraine. We would like a broad alliance against the Islamic State. We would like various Arab ruling families to stop funding extremism abroad and repressing human rights at home.

That is a noble and great agenda to advance, but without ever being prepared to accept responsibility for achieving it, or accepting the consequences of acting and falling short, it is also meaningless. A pose, not a policy.

These aims are wonderful aims, but in a multi-polar world, achieving them will be extremely difficult. The consequences of almost all choices will be dangerous and fraught.

Is being a progressive in foreign policy merely to will peace and loathe destruction, but to shrink from any proposed action for achieving this, fearing it will breach peace and promote destruction?

If all we offer is a series of wishes, but no guarantees, no consequences, no commitment for the long-term, then our aims are destined to fail, and we will find ourselves in a world far worse than one we acted in, however imperfectly.

Without the willingness to risk our own standing, or to follow-up on our declared principles, we look ridiculous.

Better to not advance high principles of morality, than to advance them then by constant inaction mock them.

Often not to act will be the right decision, horrifying though this can be. At the extreme, there is no question that military escalation in North Korea would be a terrible mistake, even if that means condemning millions to a terrifying half-existence.

In every case I have mentioned, there is a strong, sensible, rational case for western inaction, as well as a case for action.

Yet I don’t understand  on what basis we are making this calculus today. What weight of regrets do we pile up, assess and say, “sorry, we cannot”.

For the Stop the War leadership, the argument is simple. Whatever the west does is wrong. If it sends ground troops, it is imperialist. If it uses sanctions and no-fly zones, it is cruel. If it does nothing, it is complicit.

For the traditional right, perhaps it is equally simple. Whatever affects our national interest dictates our actions. If Syrians want to slaughter each other, that’s their affair. If Israel and Gaza attack each other, we side with our ally. If Russia attacks Ukraine, we ask how much the City would suffer.

For those of us who do not oppose an expanded global liberal democracy on principle, nor are indifferent to the impact of the  rejection of liberal principles by the brutal or the theocratic, there should be an alternative.

One that says that where we can act to support our principles, we should, and that while we should be cautious of over-confidence and sharply aware of our own conceit, the burden of inaction should weigh just as heavy in our accounting as the burden of action.

If Liberal Intervention overreached, we should say so, and why, and on what basis we will intervene more modestly and humbly.

Yet instead there seems a mere absence. Just marches for peace, when there is already a war. Demands for peace that are not really demands for peace, but posture or platitude. An instinctive opposition to military action, when that may be the only thing that prevents far worse.

It is easy here, in safe, warm London, to say such things and not live with the consequences of saying it. I accept that. The charge is admitted.

But it is just as easy to march against a choice, or to issue a press release against a policy, and not live with the consequences of that marching, or that refusal.

  1. Yes, ‘leftish opinion’ is a terrible generalisation. I suppose I mean the ‘liberal consensus’, the broad estuary of opinion and instinct that takes in the leadership of the Labour party, a large chunk of columnists, broadcasters and journalists, the political leadership of the Trade Union movement, and a whole army of others. Like any estuary, its course and content is ever-changing, its tide low or high, but feel part of it, and you know you are part of something great and supportive and meaningful, while strand yourself on a bank or get caught in some creek or eddy, and you become very aware of your separation, of being -apart-. I sometimes wonder whether the anger of so many progressive recidivists springs from their sudden sharp isolation from this great, mutually supportive, uplifting, immersive, instinctive flow. To be cut off is a strange and terrible thing, especially when you see who is still carried along in the stream – a bigot, say, or a fraud, or a patsy []
  2. Nor is this some internal party point scoring, or a coded critique of the current leadership. A small example: The other day I got into a slight spat with a former Labour cabinet minister who was saying that the only reason he could think of for David Cameron’s policy on Gaza was that Donor influence had been bought to bear on the PM. Challenged on this by me, he argued that other than donor influence, he could conceive of no plausible reason Cameron would not simply echo Obama. Two things troubled me about this. First, that the idea that shadowy, presumably Jewish, donors could buy a British Prime Minister was seen as a perfectly acceptable charge to make against both parties, but also that it was impossible to believe that Cameron simply thought criticising Israel equally to criticising Hamas was a mistake was not even a plausible possibility. No, it had to be the ‘Donors’. This former minister is, and remains a proud Blairite []
  3. And if anyone wants me in Kurdistan, well, they only have to ask. I’ve been asking to go for years []
  4. To put it another way, I don’t hold that my view should have much weight, but it should still be expressed, and tested, and rebuffed []
  5. For the record, my position on outside intervention in Gaza is that I would welcome an outside military presence in Gaza, subject to three conditions. First, the Gazan authorities should desire it, so it is not an ‘occupation’. Second, the role would be both to prevent external military incursions and to prevent attacks being launched on Israel and Egypt from Gaza. Third, to prevent the military presence being sucked into a guerilla war, the same body would have to have control over trade routes into Gaza, at least until there is no prospect of same being used to turn the UN forces themselves into human shields or targets. However, I doubt there would be much enthusiasm for this without a wider peace established first. Without such, an outside force would rapidly become an occupier, at least to someone []
  6. I want to be fair here, because there is an argument I respect that tells me I’m wrong. If the action we proposed was inadequate to preventing the Assad regime attacking civilians, would such attacks have been a mere waste. They might have been, but I think they would have forced greater caution. However, I agree both that this is uncertain and that a wider political solution was needed. I just think we would have been more likely to get one if we had acted more firmly and earlier against Assad. However, the action proposed was so limited and late, perhaps it may indeed have done very little good []
  7. or an eighties Rumsfeld []

Personalities, Promises and Policies

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When Ed Miliband stood up to decry a political and media that places image above policy, it was easy to both agree with his argument and note the inconsistency in any politician making it.

There was Miliband, in front of a carefully selected human backdrop, speaking without notes or written text, about the importance of substance over style.

Inevitably, the speech prompted thoughts of earlier speeches, earlier moments. Hugo Rifkind and Andrew Rawnsley recalled the leadership election slogan handwritten on posters by his campaign team: ‘Ed speaks Human’. Iain Martin noted the the Labour leader had just returned from a White House visit apparently constructed to make him look ‘Prime Ministerial’.

I was most reminded of the exultant reaction to Ed’s Conference speeches, when he has spoke fluently, and well, and passionately, without notes. There was little rejection of ‘image’ back then by Labour advisers or supporters. As Polly Toynbee said, it was Ed Miliband “Honest, at ease in his skin, without pretence, he turned a moving story of his immigrant parents into the reason why he is drawn to give back to British society some of what its welcome gave to all of them.” .

Image has meaning. As Polly Toynbee also said then, ‘Subtlety is Miliband’s style“. The medium can be the message.

Miliband acknowledged all this – the fact that as a politician he cannot afford not to care about his image, can’t afford not to care about how his enemies seek to define him. He knows that you cannot govern through policy papers, tracts and pledges alone. He would like, as we all would, I think, a more mature, reflective, less ‘image based’ politics.

The problem is that, as a politician, he cannot make that happen, as seen in the fact that a speech about the irrelevance of image became a speech about image.

A politician can’t make such a speech, without projecting an image – and  contrasting their own self-defined persona with that of an opponent. “I am serious and thoughtful and caring” carries with it the implication: “While he is cynical and lightweight and callous.” Whether you say it out loud or not is irrelevant. Your quality is their failing.

This seems to make Miliband’s case. An obsession with style, and persona, and image consumes any debate – even one clearly seeking to reject the importance of these issues, perhaps even especially one intended to do that.

To adapt Bill Hicks, we say to any politician who makes such a point: “Ah, I see you’re going for the anti-image vote. Smart move. There’s a big vote in sincerity and depth“. Worse, any deviation or inconsistency can be painted as typical political hypocrisy.

The question we need to ask before rejecting a politics of image is why image matters so much. Is it media conspiracy, the triviality or the political class, the shortening of attention spans in the 24 hour, internet enable age?

A little bit of each I guess, but behind it all is a bigger issue. We use image of politicians as a shorthand, a signal, as a heuristic.

Nor is it merely those who don’t pay attention who use such a shorthand. Recent Research on the AV referendum by Clarke, Sanders, Stewart and Whitely suggests that the more knowledgeable voters were, the more they use leadership as a heuristic for their votes.

Think about that: Perhaps the more you know about politics,  the more you rely on your perception of a leader to guide you.

Why might this be a smart approach to politics?

Gerd Gigerenzer argues that such Heuristics are a ‘fast and frugal’ way of assessing complex problems.  In this light, an obsession with image begins to make more sense. If there is much we can’t know about the future,  then our assessment of how a party leader ‘projects’ themselves may be a better guide to what they will do in office than what pledges or promises they offer.

For example, I have no rational basis for knowing how David Cameron or Ed Miliband would react if in 2016  Russia cut off energy supplies to Western Europe. However, their image might work as a useful shorthand. If I think one is ‘Aggressive’ and another ‘Diplomatic’, I can begin to feel a preference emerging.

This preference might become even more important if I don’t really place much weight on ‘official’ promises. If I doubt that any political party can achieve all or most of its stated agenda -again because the world is complex and unpredictable- then perhaps I will regard the image of the leader as a useful guide on what they will ‘really’ attempt to do.

In this analysis, image is not at all ‘beside the point’. Rather, it is the point, because it might be a better guide to how a government will act than any rational statement of policy aims, or another blizzard of piecrust promises.

Imagine David Cameron tomorrow told us that he would increase spending on the NHS significantly. How many of us would believe him, and how many would apply our accumulated perspective of his leadership and be doubtful?

I believe the debate over ‘image’ is in the wrong place. Voters are not being stupid, but being very smart to care about political personalities.

The challenge is not to stop caring about ‘image’ but to focus on what clues voters seek for their most significant preferences.

If voters want a leader who is intelligent, humble, compassionate and brave then how do they conclude those qualities are possessed? How do voters make that assessment – by what is said, or what is done? How do politicians demonstrate such qualities, and how not?

Looked at it this way, the problem with a politics of image is not that we think about it too much, but that we think it is not meaningful enough.

We see ‘image politics’ as a mere mask, a soundbite, a photo-opp and a pose, when instead it is a shorthand for everything you are and all that you seek to do.

Your image is not a thing you can move about by a briefing or a speech or the deployment of a partner – indeed thinking that it is shows you don’t understand what your image means to voters, and how they form their views.

This might, ironically, give politicians a way out of the trap that obsession with ‘surface image’ puts a politician in – that in the attempt to portray themselves as something, anything positive in the short term, they neglect to consistently focus on what really signals to a voter that you are the leader they seek.1

Turn that thinking around, and place your political personality consistently at the core of everything you do, and you might well reap the electoral rewards. Image is deeper than you think.

 

  1. Or perhaps, the problem is that people don’t believe your promises, in which case, you need to carefully consider the believability and attractiveness of those promises – and of course, your image might affect their believability, as with the Cameron example I gave earlier []

The long overdue death of the ‘Progressive moment’?

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There are many default responses in British politics, reactions to occurrences that don’t require much thought. A good Tory one is the desire to lower regulation in the face of any downturn.

One of my favourites on the left is to declare that whatever has just happened, it is evidence that we live in a ‘progressive moment’ and represents a chance to unite the ‘progressive majority’.

No matter how bad things are politically, events can always be interpreted to vindicate our philosophy. Gordon Brown thought the aftermath of the Crash was a sign we were living in a ‘profoundly progressive moment’. Peter Mandelson said the same. Unfortunately, the electorate strongly disagreed.

It’s not hard to see why this is tempting. If we believe that we live in a time that calls for progressive ideas (which is, of course, all the time), then we live in a ‘progressive moment’, and further, if people want the nice things that we want, (which naturally, they always do) this always creates the conditions for a ‘progressive majority’, a majority whose wishes are only frustrated by misfortunes of following the wrong leaders, or having the wrong electoral system, or the left being divided.1

No surprise then that over the last few years, we’ve heard a surprising amount about how 2015 could be a progressive moment for the progressive majority. (more…)

  1. Even Tony Blair recently said he thought there was a progressive majority in the country. Though being the cut above politician he is, he did hint that it was a question of a progressive majority for something subtly different to what the party traditionally offers. []

Gaza: Avoiding ‘Victory’

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I wanted to write on Gaza in the hopeful calm of a temporary ceasefire. It was not to be. Within a couple of hours of the Ceasefire, rockets were fired at Israel, and a tunnel was used to attack Israel. Israel responded, and, while the ceasefire may continue, it is not hopeful. As I write, I’ve just heard a BBC correspondent say he recently saw three rockets launch from Gaza towards Israel.

I’ve tried to avoid writing about Gaza for several reasons. Besides the fact that it seems one of those issues on which minds don’t change, I’m sharply aware of my ignorance. Hearing the debates carried out in Britain, so much of it appears to be unwilling to discuss how Hamas’s relationship with Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Qatar, and Hizbollah affects what is happening now. The relative silence of Fatah and the Palestinian authority is not often raised, nor is the refusal of Hizbollah to get involved.

In a sharp contrast to the usually pointed critique of the ‘liberal’ interventionists’ as simplistic and moralistic made by the anti-war left over Libya and Syria and Iraq, the Gaza tragedy is often painted as a simple, straightforward morality tale, with Israel as the overbearing ‘bad guy’.

Yet I understand that impulse towards simplicity very well.

What is happening in Gaza is an awful, awful thing. The death of children, the destruction of family life, the unbridled, full agonising horror of war. These are simple, straightforward horrors. Compared to the death of an innocent baby, all of the rationalising and historical perspective in the world appears cold and inhumane. Look at a shell exploding in a playground, or on a beach, and say ‘well, the causes are complex and the roots of this are deep’, and you are not just foolish, you are deliberately looking away. (more…)

How to win an argument on Twitter

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I’ve had several twitter spats over the last few years. Shamefully, I’ve used the below techniques to win arguments.

They’re utterly pointless, because they don’t actually advance any debate, but do give you a superficial sense of victory, and usually a few extra followers

I thought I’d share them, mostly because spotting the tactic is probably a good way to beat the tactic.  

1. Start the Fire

Make a controversial or combative statement on a subject you feel reasonably confident on.There are two main ways of doing this. If you have lots of followers, make your statement universal and await replies. For example, you might say “Recent event A proves that all who hold view B are idiots”.

If you have a relatively small number of followers, you will need to target an opponent with more followers than you who has expressed a view on the subject. Ways to do this include: asking them to condemn X, or demanding to know why they haven’t condemned Y, or claiming that their views on Z show their ignorance of the topic.

It’s important not to be too controversial here. Your point needs to be reasonable enough that the opponent feels the need to respond. You’re looking for row-kindle, not great big logs of controversy.

2. Mock the response

If you have been sufficiently provocative, you will get a response. It is vital now  to escalate the disagreement in a way that highlights your superior knowledge and status.

This is harder than it looks, but can usually be achieved. Ways to do this include personal rudeness (“A typically lightweight answer”), sardonic dismissal (“of course you’d say that”). A good technique is to make a controversial statement in a longer article, wait for someone to try to summarise that statement (as they must do, given the format), then accuse them of misrepresenting you in that summary.

3. Flood the zone

Having established your superior credentials and expertise, what you need to do next is tweet several times in quick succession demanding specific responses to a series of points. The key here is to keep your opponent off-balance and to set the terms of the row.

You might demand to hear your opponents views on the relevance of the Armenian Genocide, or ask them to condemn X, where X is similar to, but not quite the same as your topic. If they are advanced twitter spatterers, they may also attempt to flood the zone. Do not be deflected. Keep returning to your questions. the faster you are, the better you will do.

Another technique for flooding the zone is to bring in reinforcements: if there are people who agree with you and reply, keep them in the discussion and demand that their points are answered. Do not be distracted by those who may reply to disagree with you. These can safely be ignored.

Remember, your key task here is to remain on the offensive.

4. Exploit the error fork:

If you’ve executed stage three correctly, you opponent will have done one of three things. They will a) have ignored a point you (or an ally)  made in a desperate attempt to reply to your rapidfire tweets, b) will have generalised, made a slight error of fact, or somesuch – such as misphrasing their views in a way you can present negatively or c) will have betrayed some frustration with your approach to debate.

If they have not yet committed the above errors, simply continue with ‘Flooding the zone’ until they do.

If they continue to make reasonable, salient, well-mannered points, you can accuse them of hiding from the real truth by focussing on detail, implying that they are a bore and a pedant.

5. Spotlight your outrage.

Once they entered the error fork, by ignoring a point, making a factual error or getting annoyed, this confirms everything you have said up to this point.

You now need to ensure everyone knows about their mistake and your disgust with their mistake.

Your best option is to demand an apology for whatever mistake they have made. “You said that I supported X. I never supported X. You must withdraw” “I didn’t say you supported X, I said that your position was the same as Xs” “Don’t wriggle. Will you admit that I am not a supporter of X or not?” Any subsequent answers or clarifications can safely be dismissed as desperate backtracking, wriggling denial, or  the actions of an ill-mannered goon.

If you get the apology, or an admittance of error, you can declare victory. If you don’t get the apology, then you can declare victory.

6. Close the Gate.

Every row needs a good ending. You need to own that ending. After you’ve spotlighted the error fork, now it is the time to close the gate.

If you’ve run 1-5 properly, there are several ways to do this. You can refuse to engage with someone who makes egregious errors. You might publicise their apology or clarification. A good approach is to declare that you are done with the debate, and, preferably, make a rueful comment about the foolishness of engaging with people with such a limited worldview.

It is essential that the closing of the gate and declaration of victory are made to the maximum audience size. If you have a lot of followers then ensure they all see your victory.  If your opponent does, then find someone famous who’ll probably agree with you and tell them about your victory. If you’re lucky, they’ll retweet you and this will start the whole cycle off again, assuring you another victory.

 

So there you go, that’s how to win any debate on Twitter.

If you spot this technique being used, feel free to accuse your opponent of Senning the debate. That should be enough to shortcut you past the Error fork, and straight on to putting a spotlight on your outrage. 

Three Years Late

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Both the British economy and British politics are three years behind where they should be. This will define the next election.

Labour has two messages for the media today. The first, from Ed Miliband, is that we should focus on substance, not style. He’s right. So let us move swiftly on to the second message, from Ed Balls, that the GDP figures announced today represent a recovery three years delayed. This is also right.

In early 2010, the British economy was showing tentative signs of emerging from two miserable years. Instead, we had the Osborne pause. Nearly two years of insignificant growth which with growth returning towards at the start of last year. Calling it the Osborne pause is a cheap shot, but it’ll do me. You could equally call it the Euro-pause, I suppose.

This simple fact, that the recovery is late. It’s later than forecasted, later than politicians expected, later than families and businesses hoped.

At the same time, even though the employment figures are strong, personal incomes are rising only slowly. The hangover of recession is still affecting us. This delay has had many consequences.

One is that the hard, long struggle of rebalancing the economy became less essential to the government than achieving growth any way they could. If it took a London housing boomlet to get the animal spirits going, that was not a problem. Another is that austerity abated and deficit reduction was shunted to the next parliament.

If the Government strategy was austerity to drive national reconstruction, Over the last three years they achieved neither, in large part because they cut ‘too far, too fast’. ((And before anyone says ‘But you’re a fiscal conservative: you wanted faster cuts. No, we didn’t. We wanted the acceptance of the need for cuts, not their overhasty introduction when the recovery was not fully established. Now they will have to do it all again.

So if the recovery is three years late, and the strategy that the government strategy of austere reconstruction was abandoned as a result, that has to be bad news for the Government, and good news for Labour, right?

Unfortunately not. While Labour has place itself at a smart juncture in British politics, it too, is three years late. I am biassed on this. Three years ago, I and others wrote a paper calling on Labour to adopt a Fiscally Conservative approach to social justice. After many fits and starts, that battle has slowly, gradually, quietly been won.

It has been won, not because of my paltry efforts, but because the leadership of the party saw that ‘Fiscal caution’ (They wouldn’t accept conservatism, naturally enough!) was needed, and their left-wing critics gradually lost the political will to fight them, realising that a loud left call for higher taxes or more borrowing would be electorally self-defeating.

This journey had several stages: there was the Zero based spending review, embracing the OBR, calling for the OBR to review party spending plans before the election (as happens in Australia), pay commitments, the pledge to clear the current deficit. These finally came together in the National Policy Forum this week, when the wider Labour movement signed up to this agenda – an impressive feat of party management that has gone too little unremarked in the consideration of Ed Miliband’s leadership style.

Labour has reached a very coherent political and economic strategy. This combines an emphasis on fiscal conservatism (in the best, cautious sense of the word) with economic activism to deliver social justice. This involves long-term state action to support skills, infrastructure, business investment, wages, and so on, along with a series of measures to help family finances in the short-term. (If I can blow my own trumpet, may I point out that from a Zero based review to new Fiscal rules, to an enhanced OBR, to an emphasis on infrastructure, procurement, regional growth and innovation, is precisely what we were talking about back then?)

Unfortunately, Labour has reached this position three years late, and the years of diffuse complaining about government mis-steps and miscalculations has meant a false image has been affixed to Labour – that we are inveterate, unrepentant spenders, that we will increase debt, or taxes, or both.

As Anthony and I argued back then Labour “must also resist the temptation of short-term political benefit from opposing cuts while knowing it must make more after 2015. People will see through that. We are in a time of tough choices. If Labour faces up to the challenge of advancing social justice in an era of limited public expenditure it will present a credible governing alternative. If not, the Conservatives may get an undeserved benefit of the doubt“.

We’re there now, but it took a three-year journey. Thankfully, it is not too late, because of the government’s own three-year delay.

What’s more, that delayed recovery means the deficit looms large over every policy choice.

As we argued ” The more Osborne’s plan fails, the more the next election becomes dominated by the deficit“. Look at the IFS projections for the huge fiscal challenges awaiting the next government, and that point is truer now than ever before.

As the economy finally grows, the immediate political salience of the deficit will fall, but its practical and political consequences will be overwhelming. No party can comfortably promise to borrow more, while helping working families with the cost of living  is incompatible with the scale of tax increases needed to fix the deficit without deep, sustained cuts.

This is uncomfortable, unspeakable territory for both parties.

For the Government, it exposes the hollowness of their talk of recovery. The challenges on family finances, of manufacturing, of rebalancing, of exports and, yes, even of the deficit, remain as stubbornly real as they were three years ago.

For Labour, the discomfort of setting out how we would meet the spending pledges we have tied ourselves to without unacceptable cuts or tax increases remains, as does the challenge of showing that our commitments on fiscal prudence are real, not rhetorical.

All of this was true three years ago, and is true now. There are solutions, but they seem dangerous to self-image and misplaced electoral confidence.

The Tories could return to a progressive conservatism, emphasising growth throughout the nation, being passionate about improving incomes, urgent in securing growth precisely so they can defend services as best they can.

Labour can show their willingness to think for the long-term, use the state to drive growth, not merely subsidise existing practice, but support business expansion and science and skills. Both can (in different ways) emphasise housing, and infrastructure and innovation. Both can face up to the consequences of these decisions. Both will need to set out what would not be a tax and spending priority, as well as what will.

The British Recovery is three years late. So too is our politics.

The first party to find a confident, coherent approach to the first battle will surely win the second.

After all, substance wins over style.

 

Modern Sherman Statements

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I am in a somewhat odd position for a political obsessive. I am simultaneously without any desire to be elected to office, admiring of those that are willing to endure that torment, and a loyal Labour supporter.

The latter is the kicker, because the obvious move for someone in my position is to relay the action from the ringside, but my commentary is partial and coloured. I am rather like a boxing commentator who only speaks when one fighter lands a punch, and sometimes goes on a tangent about the need to keep one’s guard up in case a future right jab makes it through an inadequate defence, apparently àpropos of nothing, but perhaps being meaningful (and irritating) if you are that fighter’s cornerman.

However, I do sometimes get asked if I want to run for things, because A) I used to want to, and not that long ago. B) It’s what everyone interested in politics is assumed to want to do.

What’s more, sometimes I forget how much I hate the poor politicians life. I forget that I like having weekends, for example, or drinking champagne in public, or not having to watch every damn thing I say to anyone. Usually this is rectified by meeting an MP, and sneaking a look at their diary. It’s a handy corrective to personal ambition.

Yet the temptation lurks. I think I have it under control, but one never quite knows. I would like to rule it out forever because other people could do it just as well and I know it would make me very unhappy. In this mistrustful, sceptical age, even such a categorical ‘Sherman Statement‘ is likely to be questioned, however. We have learned that a total disavowal of personal ambition can itself be a clever political move

So the only way to really rule out a political career is to make a Modern Sherman Statement. That is, to express a view that is so outrageous, so contrary to the public will, good taste or common sense, that you are disqualified from elective office forever.

This is harder than you might think, not simply because Nick Griffin exists, but because most outrageously provocative or controversial statements would make you a truly horrible human being (or expose your interior life in an unacceptably personal way), and that seems too high a price to pay for merely limiting a public career. While I’m happy to rule out ever being elected to anything, I don’t want to be a social pariah.

I’ve come up with a few options though, which I hope will be enough to stop me ever having an elected political career without preventing me being around politics and scratching my chin while telling other people they’re doing it all wrong.

All other suggestions gratefully accepted.

Modern Sherman Statements

1. Both Harry Potter and Game of Thrones are terrible, and anyone who likes either has incredibly poor taste.

2. Stephen Fry often seems a bit of a pompous annoying pillock, and not even that clever.

3. Innovative contemporary dance is better than football.

4. I have strong opinions on Cava versus Prosecco, and I share them at length given the opportunity.

5. I have paid £25 for a Cocktail, and regarded it as a wise decision.

6. I’d usually choose a nice lie in to holding a constituency advice surgery. Almost always, in fact. Oh, who am I kidding? Always.

7. If my job had paid my mortgage interest payments, I’d definitely have used it to enrich myself considerably.

8. If nominated, I will peremptorily denigrate all local schools and charities I visit. If unanimously elected, I shall describe local shops and businesses as being rubbish, and declare I prefer big chains for most purchases.