Arab Spring: from instability to progress

It’s time to re-write the rule book.

Authoritarian dictators may have ensured stability, via repression, trhoughout the countries of the Middle East and North Africa for the past 40 years - while the oil-hunger countries of the world watched - but it is mass instability that is now bringing rapid progress to the region. From the whirlwind of the Arab Spring - from street protests, to uprisings, to revolutions and civil war - we are seeing how instability is delivering seismic shifts and progress to the political, economic and social landscapes of Arab countries. And, it's happening within seasons, not decades, fuelled by the aspirations of its people.

Democracy takes time, granted, and how you get there has long been documented but what is happening in the Arab Spring can not easily be labelled, and no pre-packaged 'long-term strategy' readily applied. Its pace and unpredictability are its assets, which also mean it is impossible to judge the next step.

Instability can reduce confidence, breed doubt and panic - in Europe we currently fear Euro-contagion and a 'double dip' which has sent our markets reeling and gold bullion peaking. Similarly, some Arab countries are miscalculating their moves and imposing irrational policies to try and stabilise their countries while others are already planning elections, signing huge international investment deals and bringing together tribes and dissidents who have long been left out in the cold - and in many cases countries are doing both.

Indeed, many Arab countries will take two steps forward and one step back, and some will even resist change while also trying to introduce reform, as they learn how to read and respond to the 'Arab street'.

This past 10 days we have seen a plethora of such changes from Mahmoud Abbas submitting the UN bid for Palestine and boldly declaring that the Arab Spring has arrived in Jerusalem, to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's incremental yet still unprecedented moves in giving women the vote in 2015 and revoking the sentence to lash a woman for driving her own car, Qatar continues its support for Arab nationalist uprisings - financially and militarily - by committing $0.5bn in development loans to Tunisia while at the same time accepting the resignation of the brains behind the rise of Al Jazeera, Waddah Khanfar, and replacing him with a Qatari royal, to the surprise return of President Saleh to Yemen and Turkey imposing an arms embargo on Syria while hosting opposition figures in Ankara.

The Arab Spring has reminded us all, including strategists who write 'five-year plans on progress and stability' and dictatorships that try to hold to power, that once in a while a black swan comes along, enabling incredible progress to be made even in the most unlikely of places, where instability can sometimes be a force for good and not knowing what the next move is, becomes your most an invaluable asset.

And, when that 'place' is an entire region of hundreds of millions of people - many who are under the age of 30 - who share a language, a culture, a hunger for change and progress, and a desire to achieve their aspirations, then it is time to re-write the rule book on 'how to deliver progressive change, equality and rights'. There are rumours that the Nobel committee will award this year's Nobel Peace Prize to the main actors in the Arab Spring, which would be consistent with having awarded it to John Hume and David Trimble previously. No one saw that coming either.

 

 

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

0800 7318496