Nick Clegg triumphs at PMQs

Breaking news: he really believes this stuff.

From the Commons chamber.

Nick Clegg today became the first Liberal to respond to Prime Minister's Questions since the PMQs sessions began in the early 1960s, and the first to address the House on behalf of a PM since Lloyd George in the 1920s.

With David Cameron away in the United States and Conservative and Lib Dem spin doctors sitting side by side in the Press Gallery, Clegg stood in for the first time since his party took power at the May election, with Jack Straw standing in for the acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman.

Straw asked about Afghanistan, and whether Cameron's expressed desire to see British troops coming home by 2014 was unconditional. Clegg said the pledge was for 2015.

Straw claimed that Clegg's answer did indeed imply that the pledge was "conditional", but the Lib Dem leader said clearly: "We will see combat troops home by 2015."

Straw moved on to ask about the government loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, which was refused early on by the coalition, although it has now been revealed by the Financial Times that the government wrongly accused the company's directors of being unwilling to sell more equity to private investors. However, Clegg quickly diverted the exchange on to Peter Mandelson, before the Speaker intervened to say it was not relevant. Straw also asked Clegg about marriage tax breaks, which the Lib Dems previously opposed.

The discussion moved on to the economy more widely, with Clegg quoting Peter Mandelson's diaries as reporting that Alistair Darling wanted to raise VAT as the new government has since done.

Straw began to lose his voice as he shouted at Clegg, and was himself shouted down. Clegg said he needed "to go away and practise a bit more".

There was confusion as Straw got up to ask a final question but the Speaker called the next MP, while Straw stood at the despatch box shaking his head and indicating he had one more question. The Speaker, John Bercow, said he thought Straw had had his allotted questions, but then corrected himself and called Straw once more.

The question was along the same lines as before, but Clegg got the better of the exchanges by saying he hoped that Straw would one day account for his involvement in "the illegal invasion of Iraq". It was interesting to note the ferocity of Clegg's attack, given that he was sitting next to two ardent supporters of the "illegal invasion", William Hague and George Osborne.

Clegg later claimed that Britain has inherited from Labour not just a "fiscal crisis", but also a "social crisis", with social mobility falling.

There was momentary silence when Kate Green, the impressive new Labour MP, asked about a constituent in Stretford and Urmston who suffers from septicaemia, pneumonia and MRSA and is wheelchair-bound, yet faces a medical test in order to receive disability benefit under this government. Clegg defended the plan, claiming to have met constituents who actively wanted such tests to clarify their position in relation to benefits.

Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Labour MP, asked for a total reconsideration of Britain's strategy in Afghanistan, amid the deaths and opinion polls in that country showing that western involvement is not working, instead of a plan to withdraw in another five years' time. Clegg said he disagreed but admired Corbyn's "consistency" on the issue.

Overall, Clegg more than held his own in a rowdy House, and showed himself more than capable of enthusiastically defending the actions of the new Tory-led coalition government.

The Deputy Prime Minister will however continue to face questions over the series of U-turns his party has performed since entering government. Today, though, he sailed through without much in the way of effective, coherent criticism from the Labour front bench, whose need for a new leader is increasingly apparent.

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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.