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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.