The not-so-fantastic Mr Fox

We always knew he was a hawk not a dove.

From today's Guardian:

William Hague was forced to clarify the government's thinking on Afghanistan today when he declared that he would be "very surprised" if Kabul's military was unable to take the lead by 2014 . . .

He clarified the government's thinking after [Liam] Fox waded into a row in Washington over the withdrawal of Nato forces. In a speech to the right-wing Heritage Foundation he said an early withdrawal would risk a return to civil war and betray the sacrifices of soldiers who gave their lives.

An early draft of his speech made no mention of [David] Cameron's declaration last week. In the final version of his text Fox endorsed Cameron's view, though he later told the BBC that British troops would be among the last to leave Afghanistan.

There has been much discussion in right-wing circles about the prospect of a split between Fox and Cameron over the direction of defence and foreign policy, in general, and over the strategy in Afghanistan, in particular. But as the Spectator's James Forsyth rightly argues:

There is, though, a feeling in Westminster that Fox is vulnerable. Fox has already used up a rather large number of his nine lives -- think of the "13th century" comment on the eve of a visit to Afghanistan, saying that military pensions are ring-fenced when they are not and publicly announcing the departure of the Chief of Defence Staff outside of the Downing Street grid.

But Fox has a significant source of protection. He's one of the few representatives of the Tory right in the coalition cabinet. Only he, Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson are regarded as being on the right by the right of the Conservative Parliamentary Party. If Fox was to leave government, Cameron would find his right flank dangerously exposed.

Fox is not just a right-winger; he is, as commentators on the left and right have argued, close to the hawkish and neoconservative faction inside the party on foreign and defence matters. He set up the Atlantic Bridge think tank in 1997, with the aim of "strengthening the special relationship" with the United States (though it is now being investigated by the Charity Commission). The Defence Secretary was also an ardent supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So it was surprising to see his earlier non-neocon remarks on Afghanistan:

We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken, 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.

He sounded a bit like a realist, more Ken Clarke than Paul Wolfowitz. But the not-so-fantastic Mr Fox is now back on form, telling the Heritage Foundation in his speech that he did not favour what he called "premature withdrawal" (and, in fact, he plans to keep British troops in Afghanistan longer than other allied nations, according to the BBC) because:

To leave before the job is finished would leave us less safe and less secure. Our resolve would be called into question, our cohesion weakened, and the Alliance undermined.

It would be a betrayal of all the sacrifices made by our armed forces in life and limb.

Who says Afghanistan ain't like Vietnam? Here are the same sort of absurd and illogical arguments from the same sort of cold, dead-eyed defence officials -- we have to stay longer because we have lost lots of men already, so we have to stay longer and lose more lives, and then we have to stay even longer to make sure those lives weren't lost in vain, and so on and so on, ad infinitum . . .

Perhaps the Defence Secretary should be reminded of John Kerry's remarks to the Senate foreign relations committee on 23 April 1971. Then a decorated, 27-year-old navy veteran of Vietnam and a high-profile member of the anti-war movement, Kerry asked:

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

Four decades on, does Liam Fox have an answer to this question?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser