Back to the 70s? If only

Far from being a blighted decade, the 70s marked the height of progressive politics.

Is Britain heading back to the toxic mix of politics and business seen in the 1970s?, asks Kamal Ahmed in the Daily Telegraph.

Not since the 1970s has there been such an "anti-business" mood in politics and among the general public. This is the first election since that blighted decade when talk of "fat cats" and "taxing wealth" are legitimate election issues. Some might say "What do you expect?", but I think we may come to regret an over-correction following the events of the autumn of 2008.

If only it was true that Britain was heading back to the 1970s!

If Ahmed was right, we'd expect to see at least one of our main parties advocate the extension of public ownership. Instead all three promise even more privatisation. We'd also expect to see calls for a new Wealth Tax and for the top rate of tax to be far more than 50%.

Far from being a 'blighted' decade, the 70s marked the zenith of progressive politics, as I argued here.

Not only that but the decade gave us the best television comedies (think Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life, Rising Damp and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin), the best tv drama (think Upstairs Downstairs, The Onedin Line, When the Boat Comes In, and Lillie), and the best football, (think Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, Holland in 1974 and Argentina in 1978).

It was a great decade and we even had the heroics of Red Rum too.

But neoliberals like Kamal Ahmed hate the 1970s because capital was not in complete control. Half the world had ditched capitalism all together, while most countries outside of the communist bloc operated a truly mixed economy, where the interests of ordinary people came before the interests of multinationals and Goldman Sachs.

The task facing true progressives today is not to turn the clock further forward, but to turn it back- to a decade when things were immeasurably better for the majority of people on the planet than they are today.

This post first appeared on Neil Clark's blog

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.