Saudi Arabia's Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud with David Cameron, April 2012. Photograph: MATT DUNHAM/AFP/Getty Images
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Mehi Hasan on friendly versus unfriendly dictators

Cameron's speech on Islam and democracy contains some glaring omissions.

Three quick responses to David Cameron's big speech on Islam and democracy in Indonesia:

1) According to Nick Watt's report in the Guardian:

Cameron will cite Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, the former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Assad as he says: "In each case the Arab spring has shown that denying people their rights in the name of stability and security actually makes countries less stable in the end. Over time, the pressure builds up until the people take to the streets and demand their freedoms.

How can the PM keep a straight face? No mention of his friend, the King of Saudi Arabia, who is the biggest roadblock to democratic reform in the Arab world and who Cameron visited in January. No mention of his friend, the King of Bahrain, who has killed, tortured and gassed his own country's "Arab spring" protesters and who has been invited to attend the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in June. No mention of his ally, the President of Uzbekistan, a brutal dictator who has the UK "over a barrel" and who was visited by Cameron's Defence Secretary Philip Hammond in February. When will the British government, and western governments in general, understand and recognize the obvious fact that we will have no credibility as critics of anti-western dictators until we decide to denounce and distance ourselves from pro-western dictators? When will we end our brazen double standards?

2) In his speech, according to the Guardian, Cameron condemns Islamist "extremists – some of whom are violent – and all of whom want to impose a particular and very radical, extreme version of Islamism on society to the exclusion of all others. And this total rejection of debate and democratic consent means they believe that democracy and Islam are incompatible."

Yet the Prime Minister knows perfectly well that not all Islamists reject democracy or free and fair elections. See the Ennahda party in Tunisia. See the AK party in Turkey. In fact, on a visit to Turkey in July 2010, Cameron told his counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the Islamist AK party: "I very much admire the leadership that you have given to Turkey."

I am no fan of Islamist parties but, again, why the double standards from the PM?

3) I'm all for the British government encouraging democracy and freedom around the world but when will we realise that such values can be encouraged and promoted without the use of bombs and bullets? Intervention can be in the form of diplomacy, engagement, dialogue and trade; carrots as well as sticks. Plus, the sticks don't have to be violent either: there are sanctions, boycotts, international criminal tribunals, etc, on offer.

In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, the empirical evidence suggests that it would be much wiser for western governments to back nonviolent, rather than violent, protests against unelected autocrats and dictators.  In opposition, Cameron admitted as much: "We should accept that we cannot impose democracy at the barrel of a gun; that we cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet - and we shouldn't try. Put crudely, that was what was wrong with the 'neo-con' approach, and why I am a liberal Conservative, not a neo Conservative."

How things change.

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.

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from deficit into debt. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.