The clash of civilisations will not be with Islam

“Don’t panic!” says distinguished Cambridge academic.

Amid the news that France's lower house of parliament voted yesterday to ban women from wearing face-covering veils, a pathetic piece of populism aimed at exploiting fears about Islam which has already been condemned by Amnesty, it is something of a relief to come across a more pragmatic, no-nonsense assessment of where the real sources of global tension will be in the future.

Professor Nicholas Boyle, president of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a scholar of German and European history, has just published a book titled 2014: How to Survive the Next World Crisis. Many might expect such an imminent doomsday to involve terrorism of some sort (probably Islamist, as that's the kind of terrorism most people seem to fear), or militant jihadism spilling out of Afghanistan, through Pakistan and into central Asia and the Middle East, destabilising all those pro-western autocracies we've propped up for so long.

Four years is too soon for the "couple of generations" that one Mail columnist has warned is all there is left before "Islam will be in control in Europe", but something on those lines, some tipping point in birth rates, perhaps, could soon be upon us. Or so many seem to think.

Not at all, says Boyle. "It would," he writes, "be a mistake to include [among the worst-case scenarios] a supposed clash of 'western' and 'Islamic' civilisations." How so? I'm going to quote the swift paragraph with which he dismisses such fears in full, as it's such a surprisingly different perspective:

It is not a profound source of tension in the world, of the kind that moves economies and armies. The apparent significance of the western-Islamic divide is a consequence of the dependence (in the drug-addicted sense) of the USA on Middle Eastern oil and of the disproportionate leverage on American foreign policy exercised by states in that region, from Saudi Arabia to Israel. If in the course of the 21st century that oil runs out, or alternative sources of either oil or energy in general become available, the late-20th-century concern with the culture and politics of these small and otherwise unproductive countries will seem as obsolete as 16th- or 17th-century concerns for the control of the Spice Islands.

Boyle clearly makes several assumptions here, not least that the spread of violent radicalism to what are certainly not small countries -- Pakistan, for instance -- is contingent on backing by oil money. And his rather rude description of the Gulf states makes it unlikely that his book will fly off the shelves in Doha or Bahrain, let alone Tehran or Riyadh.

But he is not a great Islamophile or "apologist". His assessment, which has no cause to be partial with regard to religion, is simply that those who constantly warn of cataclysms and "Eurabia" are wasting their time. You're worrying about nothing, he says. And with that one paragraph, he is done with the likes of Daniel Pipes, Mark Steyn, Melanie Phillips et al. As I say, a bracingly refreshing view indeed!

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.