Learning from errors of the past

The emotive rhetoric and instant clampdowns are gone. Now, under Gordon Brown, there appears to be a

Even before the terrorist attacks it was going to be a pivotal first week for Gordon Brown, Prime Minister. He had long been planning a root-and-branch cabinet reshuffle, an overhaul of the constitution and a major announcement on health. Questions had been raised about how he would react in an emergency, but he emerged strengthened from his first crisis. His bold appointment of Jacqui Smith appears to have paid off. She may not have run a large department, but her refusal to indulge in the machismo of the Blair-era Home Office has won plaudits from across the spectrum.

Just as we thought we knew where the terrorist threat was coming from, the rules of the game have changed. Again. The attacks in London and Glasgow may have failed, but they have shifted the ground under the feet of the police and security service once more. Security sources admit they knew little about the backgrounds of the network of jihadi medics working at the heart of the NHS. The rhetoric of the government and its advisers had, over the past couple of years, focused on the danger from foreign imams. It now seems that resources would have been better spent clamping down on foreign doctors. While Britain's security apparatus was still struggling to understand the scale of the threat from home-grown radicals, the jihad opened another front among sleepers working within the country's most revered institution.

News of the attacks came just as ministers in the Brown government were already preparing to dump the makeshift approach developed in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks. Tony Blair's knee-jerk response of a 12-point anti-terror plan was delivered within weeks of the London bombs, while the then home secretary, Charles Clarke, was on holiday. Both cabinet and parliament were left in the dark. The plan, worked out on the back of an envelope by Blair and one or two Downing Street aides, has been largely discredited. Some ideas, such as closing down places of worship "fomenting extremism", are now acknowledged to have been downright dangerous.

Under Smith and her deputy Tony McNulty, the Home Office (now a homeland security department in all but name) has shown signs of a more thoughtful approach. Smith has emphasised the criminal nature of terrorist attacks, a welcome change from the apocalyptic language of the Blair years. There has been no suggestion, yet, of another wave of anti-terror legislation.

Instead, as Brown set out to parliament, the new approach to security is designed to bolster not just efficiency, but also public trust, which was so damaged by the misuse of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War. A new national security council should forge a closer working relationship between elected politicians and the intelligence services, while moves to make the Commons intelligence and security committee more accountable to parliament mark a significant reform.

Ministers in the new Brown government working closely on the issue of community co hesion also realise that attempts to reach out to the Muslim communities in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 attacks were a failure. A task force with a series of working groups was set up to make proposals on improving relations with Britain's Muslims. More than 60 recommendations were made, but most were unacceptable to the government, such as demands for a full inquiry on the bombings and a recognition of the role of British foreign policy, notably on Iraq, in the radicalisation of Muslim youth. The rest were mostly ignored. Those invited to participate found the group dominated either by civil servants or by the government's allies in the Muslim Council of Britain. Ministers have been struggling to win back credibility ever since, and those who took part have grown deeply suspicious.

One minister intimately involved with the government's prevention of terrorism strategy told me: "We got it all wrong after 7/7. We should have held our nerve and not just leapt into doing something for the sake of it. We have had to start from scratch."

Foreigners and firebrands

There has already been one seismic shift in the understanding of militant Islam in Britain. It happened at the end of April 2003, when two British men, Asif Hanif and Omar Sharif, strapped themselves into explosive suicide belts and walked into a Tel Aviv bar to become martyrs. They too failed, but it sent a chill through Whitehall.

Until that point, "jihad" had been seen as a largely foreign phenomenon. Its British supporters, such as Abu Hamza, the hook-handed imam of Finsbury Park Mosque and the "Tottenham Ayatollah", Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, had been written off by the police and the intelligence service as clowns. Even the media, which demonised these firebrand preachers, couldn't quite believe they were for real. Journalists printed their claims that British boys were prepared to die for the cause and were undergoing military training abroad, but until Hanif and Sharif appeared in a Hamas martyrs' video, it didn't seem possible that British Muslims were really prepared to go that far.

No one now doubts the seriousness of the threat from home-grown radicals. In recent months, former members of the hardcore network have emerged to expose the full scale of the problem. Hassan Butt, formerly of al-Muhajiroun, the radical group, who once called for jihad against British forces in Afghan istan, has now publicly denounced his former comrades. Meanwhile, Ed Husain's The Islamist, an account of his time as a committed militant, has become required reading for government ministers. But the latest attacks in Glasgow and London would appear to show the existence of a whole new network of jihadis from the Middle East working in Bri tain's public services.

"The pattern is that there is no pattern," a senior Whitehall security official told me. "Except that these in dividuals all want to kill people."

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times