Train on fire

The attitude on arriving late at Latitude and the perils of reading AL Kennedy. Scotland's foremost

I’m sure you’ve already guessed this – the most stylish possible way to arrive at a summer festival is on board a burning train. So my trip to Latitude was pretty much perfect. As the smoke billowed, we were detained at Berwick for more than an hour. This was “…due to the driver carrying out safety checks.” As matters progressed, we learned that a) train announcements will always avoid mentioning “Fire !” and “Brakes !” even if – or perhaps especially if - the train is on fire in exactly that rather important brake area and b) that trains with hot wheels trigger a hitherto unguessed-at system of restraints which then hold them for random intervals, no matter where they go.

Still, no one was hurt - or even alarmed – many of us enjoyed bonding and grumbling, and my reading was cancelled for the coolest reason ever “A.L.Kennedy cannot be with us tonight – her train caught fire.”

And Latitude – once I got there – proved infinitely more enjoyable than I had imagined four days in a big park with increasingly unwashed strangers might prove to be. Given that I had imagined it would make me beg for death by lupus, I’ll clarify – audiences were friendly, the reading was rescheduled, deck chairs were free, the pies were fantastic, the events imaginative and Robin Ince’s Bookclub was entirely magnificent - you can only imagine my delight at being on the same variety bill as a man who puts forks up his nose and a lady who tap dances while eating swiss roll. Just excellent, lovely people.

I’m used to communal events involving blockades, policemen and occasional rumpusses, so it took me a while to relax and savour the sight of adults just wearing whatever the hell they wanted and/or possibly pretending to be someone else, while almost all the toddlers present generated a massive, wobbly-indie-dancing sub-culture with a rudimentary monarchy.

Sadly, I was unable to successfully propagate the rumour that an elderly man had been dragged into the lake by swimming tapirs, or to persuade the entire audience for Blondie to yell in unison, “You’re not bad for your age!” in an appreciative manner.

Happily, I may well take a tip from Debbie Harry and bind my upper arms tightly from now on - perhaps using lengths of drainpipe - instantly firming an area that slumps so troublingly in the maturer lady. Oh, and according to a festival Tarot reader, I’m quiet, although I sometimes talk a lot, I’ve been working hard, or I’m about to, and love will find me in October. Yeah. Right.

Meanwhile, it has come to my attention that some of you, having found these blogs sometimes give the impression that I am an amusing writer, have been considering buying my books. Now, while my volumes are occasionally funny – particularly if you are, may I respectfully suggest, slightly twisted or the tiniest bit unwell - I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them if you’re – say – vulnerable, unless you want to have perhaps a slightly bruisng giggle.

So maybe flick through one in a bookshop as a tester. Or, better yet – given that a recognisable continuum from stern to pliant is suggesting itself here - wait until you see another, compatibly dominant or submissive reader browsing nearby, then hook up and give each other the thumping good read you deserve. Not that I wish to intrude. Your reading pleasure is my only aim.

Next stop, the Edinburgh Fringe, The Stand and a month of comedy – so there’s a show to polish, iron tablets to take, black shirts to count and soon August will be shining up ahead like a glorious, burning train.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.