Liam Fox wages “war among the people” (. . . his own people)

The Defence Secretary is making statements at odds with British strategy in Afghanistan and the natu

While getting my quick politics fix this morning on Politics Home, I saw the bit on the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, getting "slapped down" over Afghan policy. According to the Daily Mail, William Hague gave Liam Fox a dressing-down for describing Afghanistan as a 'broken 13th century' country and for suggesting that troop withdrawal could happen without development.

In the Times, Fox is quoted as saying: "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."

The stories in the press focus on the issue of mixed messages coming out from the various ministers, particularly Andrew Mitchell and Fox. And I have just seen that, in the NS, Samira Shackle has picked up on the story, with comprehensive quotations, and works the angle from the perspective of the offence caused to the Afghan government by these "colonialist, orientalist remarks" by a clumsy Dr Fox.

Not surprising, as the Afghans are an intelligent and proud people who are touchy about any perceived disrespect. In the same vein, Hamid Karzai's somewhat "erratic behavior" of late can apparently be referenced to Barack Obama's patronising attitude and "negative body language".

However, what struck me was that Fox seemed to be making brash statements at odds with British strategy in Afghanistan and the nature of the conflict being dealt with. As he is Defence Secretary, this is a glaring concern.

The conflict in Afghanistan is arguably a "New War", or what General Rupert Smith in the Utility of Force might categorise as a "war among the people", which is, he writes:

. . . both a graphic description of modern warlike situations, and also a conceptual framework, in that it reflects the hard fact that there is no secluded battlefield upon which armies engage, nor are there necessarily armies: definitely not on all sides. To be clear: this is not asymmetrical warfare as "war among the people" is different: it is the reality in which the people in the streets and houses and fields -- all the people, anywhere -- are the battlefield. Military engagements can take place anywhere in the presence of civilians, against civilians, in defence of civilians. Civilians are the targets, objectives to be won, as much as an opposing force.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.