Rethinking Islamism III

A brief response to critics.

When I posted earlier this week on "Misconceptions and fear about sharia", I wasn't expecting an overwhelmingly favourable response. It would have been unreasonable to imagine the post would appeal to Butterflies and Wheels.

I hadn't anticipated, however, quite such ad hominem attacks both on the NS, from Oliver Kamm in the Times and at Harry's Place, where comments have risen to such levels of insight that one begins: "And Sholto? Who calls their son Sholto, FFS? Why not Bilbo, or Frodo? So he probably inherited the plonker genes." Ah, the rapier wit of the SCR . . .

Three thoughts:

First, that many of the responses accuse me of "promoting" sharia and of somehow betraying the NS by doing so. Nowhere do I do anything of the sort. I will not accept the distortion that merely discussing the subject is a form of promotion. The NS is about looking outwards into the world, and a system of law that in some form or other is favoured by millions ought to be a legitimate subject for discussion.

Second, the majority of commenters prove my point by focusing on the most extreme forms of sharia -- which as I have said, many Muslims feel to be perversions -- and concluding that that's all it is. They don't seem to be remotely open to the possibility that it could vary in any way.

Third, what I find disturbing is not just this identification of sharia solely with what happens in Saudi Arabia, for instance, but the sense that these commenters actively wish that to be the only available version. Given the popularity of Islamist parties, some of which have already won freely fought elections, such as the AKP in Turkey and Hamas in Palestine, and the fact that more would be sure to do so if some of the Middle Eastern autocracies loosened their grip, these commenters must foresee very bleak times ahead.

I do find it strange that they seem so determinedly desirous of a future they must fear. It's almost as though some of them actually want there to be a bloody and cataclysmic clash of civilisations -- in which case, of course, the less we try to understand each other, the better.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.