Petition power cannot be brushed aside

The road pricing crisis should be seen as the first challenge of the Gordon Brown era. It will be Br

As I write, more than 1.3 million people have signed the online petition on the Downing Street website to "scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy". After Douglas Alexander, the Transport Secretary, went on the radio to denounce the petition's organisers for peddling "myths", an extra 200,000 people signed up. By the time you read this article, the figure will be much higher still, and cabinet ministers will be even more infuriated with the British public than they are already. The petition deadline is 20 February, by which point it is possible that the numbers will have reached the level of those who marched against the war in Iraq.

It is not that two million people cannot be wrong, but the government cannot afford to be entirely dismissive of this level of public feeling. Alexander may be right in saying that, as a country, we have no choice but to deal with congestion, but being right is not enough.

This is the first time Alexander's mettle has been tested as a minister. As one of the Chancellor's trusted allies, he will play a prominent role in any post-Blair government. The road pricing crisis should therefore be seen as the first challenge of the Brown era. It will be Gordon Brown, not Tony Blair, who will have to deal with the consequences of this decision, whether or not ministers decide to cave in to pressure. This may not be "Labour's poll tax", as the Daily Telegraph would like it to be, but it will give an indication of how a Brown government will approach mass opposition to its policies.

Alexander is one of a group of young politicians around Brown who are defined by the power of their intellect and convinced of the wisdom of their views. The Transport Secretary's frustration at the apparent stupidity of his opponents has been evident in recent days as he has struggled to put across an argument that, to him, must appear blindingly obvious: if we are to reduce congestion on our roads we must persuade people to leave their cars at home. A series of pilot schemes for road pricing must seem to Alexander an utterly reasonable way of going about this. But people are rarely convinced by an argument which begins with the assumption that the person making it is cleverer than they are.

Old right-wing causes

It can't have gone unnoticed in government circles that the most popular petitions on the No 10 website are either the old right-wing causes or Tory party policy. This may explain why one minister is said to have described the Downing Street adviser who came up with the idea for putting petitions on the website as a "prat".

None has attracted anything like the number of signatures on the road pricing petition, but the next three in order of popularity urge the government to scrap inheritance tax in the next Budget, to repeal the Hunting Act 2004 and to scrap the proposed introduction of ID cards. In all, 60,000 have signed the inheritance tax petition, set up by Macer Hall of the Daily Express as part of his newspaper's campaign on that issue. Roughly 25,000 have signed the hunting petition and around the same number have signed up to oppose ID cards.

But this is not the whole story. Other petitions that have received more than 3,000 signatures espouse liberal and left-wing causes. The opposition to ID cards is not a Tory monopoly. There are also popular petitions to oppose the renewal of Trident, ban faith schools and scrap tuition fees. Admittedly, there are also petitions to replace the national anthem with "Gold" by Spandau Ballet and to make the Prime Minister "stand on his head and juggle ice cream" which have more than 3,000 signatures, but for the most part the suggestions are serious.

Those around Brown will be sorely tempted to scrap the online petitions as a crazy Blairite innovation, but they would be unwise to do so. They may be an expression of public frustration at conventional politics, but they also point the way forward if politicians can avoid the temptation to sneer. The e-petition system was set up by Tom Steinberg, though he is not being blamed for the idea itself. Steinberg is a web evangelist and political activist, whose projects such as and have been designed to re-engage people with politics. His thinking is close to Our Say - set up by Saira Khan of the TV series The Apprentice - which campaigns for increased use of referendums on issues of public interest.

It is too easy to dismiss this "citizen politics". Governments know too well that the problem with giving people too much say is that sometimes they come to the wrong decision, as would almost certainly be the case if local referendums were held on individual road pricing schemes. But if ministers take the approach that petitioners are just wrong-headed or "spreading myths", people may choose to make the ultimate bad decision and vote them out of office.

Show Hide image

Why Tehran hates Isis: how religious rifts are fueling conflict

Above all, the Islamic republic wants stability – and to fight back against a group that despises Shia Muslims.

The alliance between Iran and Syria might seem an unlikely one. As Iran is an Islamic republic, one might not expect its closest ally to be a dictatorship that grew out of the political doctrine of Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist movement that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. But politics – and perhaps especially the politics of relations between states – develops its own logic, which often has little to do with ideology. Baathism advocated Arab unity but two of its founding fathers, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both Syrians, disliked each other and would not be members of
the same party.

Projects to fuse Syria and Egypt and, later, Syria and Iraq foundered, creating in the latter case a personal bitterness between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Saddam Hussein, though both were Baathists, at least nominally. That led to the two states breaking off diplomatic relations with each other at the end of 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, Syria and Iran became allies against Iraq. Syria cut off an oil pipeline that had allowed Iraq to export its oil from a Mediterranean port and Iran supplied Syria with cheap oil.

Iran and Syria had other things in common, including resistance to the US in the region, opposition to Israel and a supportive relationship with the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, which led to the creation, with Iranian help, of Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, Syria has been of value to Iran as a reliable ally but also as a bridge to Hezbollah.

How does all that affect the present desperate situation in Syria and in the Middle East more widely? The first point to deal with is Iran’s position towards Islamic State, or Isis. Some commentators would have you believe that Iran and Isis, as so-called Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, have something in common, or that Iran’s Islamic Revolution had something to do with the origins of Islamic State.

That is wholly misleading. The extreme Wahhabi/Salafi form of Sunni Islam that underpins Islamic State regards Shia Iranians – and, indeed, all Shia Muslims – as heretics and apostates. This hostility is not somehow theoretical or theologically abstract: it is visceral, bitter and deep. It inspires frequent suicide bombings of Shia mosques and other targets in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and (more recently) Saudi Arabia. It is a major threat to Iran and to all Shia Muslims – a greater threat to them than the Isis threat to us, because they are geographically closer. The Iranians are supporting the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq in self-defence and supporting the self-defence of those they are sympathetic to in those countries (the Iranians back the Alawite Assads in Syria because of their long-standing alliance but also for sectarian reasons). They are not acting, as the Saudis and some other Gulf Arabs would have us believe, because they have hegemonic ambitions in the region. That view arises from the insecurity and paranoia of the ruling elites in those states and their dislike of Shia Muslims.

The Iranian regime has many faults. We may deplore the repressive policies of the regime internally, its treatment of women and the unacceptably high level of executions there. But on most of those points, there are others in the region that are worse; and in our thinking about what to do in Syria, Iraq and the region more widely, we have to consider Iran’s record as a force for stability or instability. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians helped to establish the proto-democratic governments we backed and, like us, have consistently supported them since, despite their weaknesses and failings. With the exception of its policy towards Israel, Iran has acted to favour stability elsewhere in the region, too. (Recent reports suggest that the Iranians have stopped funding Hamas.) Considering the actions of the Saudis towards Shias in Bahrain and Yemen, the Iranians have responded with restraint.

Iran’s acceptance of greater Russian involvement in Syria has to be seen in the context of the wider instability in the Middle East. Again, we should not misjudge it. It seems that the latest, more intensive Russian intervention came at a point when the Assad regime was coming close to collapse. The Iranians were therefore bound to welcome the intervention; but the history of relations between Iran and Russia is not a happy one and a greater Russian military presence in the Iranians’ near abroad must be making some of them uneasy. When Russian ships launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that tracked across Iranian territory on their way to targets in Syria (announcing at the time that this territory was “unoccupied”), “uneasy” was probably an inadequate word.

After the settlement of the Iranian nuclear question in July (when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions), hopes for further immediate co-operation between Iran and the West have been disappointed – in particular by the apparent ban of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on bilateral discussions with the US. Nonetheless, there have been discussions, notably in the margins of the recent multilateral talks on Syria.

Just as there was opposition to the nuclear deal within the US, there was strong opposition in Iran. Khamenei’s ban is best understood as reassurance to those hardliners that, apart from the nuclear deal, it will be business as usual.

The nuclear deal is a major event in Iran’s foreign policy but if the Iranians are cautious in developing their relationship with the West, that may be no bad thing. The multi­lateral talks on Syria could be a good place for that to begin – those talks are, in any case, the best hope available for a solution to the carnage in that country. There are models for that in what was done recently in Somalia; one fruitful avenue to explore for the Middle East as a whole could be a multi­lateral negotiation culminating in a treaty guaranteed by outside powers, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty that brought the Thirty Years War to an end in Germany in the mid-17th century.

Lurking in the background to all this, however, and behind the shocking massacres in Paris on 13 November, is our queasy position towards Isis and the troubles of the Middle East. Some Iranians believe that western countries secretly support Isis. That is wrong, of course – it is a view based on conspiracy theories and misleading propaganda – but not as wrong as we might like to think.

Since 1979, when the Saudi royal family got a scare from religious radicals briefly occupying the sacred precincts in Mecca, it has appeased extreme Wahhabi clergy within Saudi Arabia and has supported the application of their doctrines within and without the country. Outside Saudi Arabia, it has funded mosques preaching Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world, to the point that their brand of Sunni Islam is now becoming dominant in many communities where previously it was quite alien, symbolised by the practice of those British Pakistanis who have begun to adopt dress codes from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the wearing of the niqab.

Al-Qaeda, Isis and their sympathisers are the result of those 30 years of preaching hatred (along with other contributory factors such as the collapse into civil war in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the alienation of young men of immigrant origin in western countries). Isis does no more than put into practice the doctrines of puritanical intolerance advocated by Saudi Wahhabism. Our too-uncritical support for Saudi Arabia puts us in a shameful position.

The debate over whether or not to send RAF warplanes to bomb Isis positions in Syria is secondary to the need for the bombing to be done in close, effective support of ground forces. We may have to swallow our misgivings and accept that we bomb in support of Iran’s troops, or Assad’s, in addition to those of the Kurds or others.

We also urgently need to re-examine our relations with the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab States that have supported and encouraged the spread of extreme Wahhabism. The Saudis have belatedly realised that Isis is as much a threat to them as to everyone else (it may actually be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia because the jihadis’ dearest wish is to establish their caliphate in Mecca and Medina).

Yet that is not enough. We need to make clear that our continued friendship towards the Saudis cannot simply be bought with the weapons we sell them but has to be conditional upon taking a more responsible attitude in their religious policies – not so much for human rights reasons, as Jeremy Corbyn and others have suggested (although those reasons have their place) but for our security and for the stability of the Middle East region.

If that preaching of hatred is not stopped – as the preaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually came to an end – then even if we, the Iranians, Russians and others succeed in defeating Isis, we will only find ourselves confronted in a few years by yet another generation of murderous jihadis, recruiting from another bunch of foolish, ignorant and disaffected young men, just as Isis followed on from al-Qaeda

Michael Axworthy is senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Revolutionary Iran”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State