Jim Murphy: security is at the heart of the new centre ground

The Shadow Defence Secretary has a theory about the changing complexion of British politics

I have interviewed shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy for this week's magazine. He talks about a range of subjects: Labour's difficulty talking about class; the protest camp at St Paul's Cathedral; the epic problems facing the party in Scotland; the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

As ever there wasn't room to print everything he said and there was one extended passage that I thought deserved more attention than the constraints of the page allowed. We talked about the legacy of Thatcherism and the way she effectively changed the parameters of political debate in Britain. Did she identify a shift in the "centre ground" of politics or did she redefine it by force of will? There is a lot of discussion at the top of the Labour party at the moment about the prospect of a change in the political landscape equivalent to the one that happened between the late Seventies and mid-Eighties. The theory goes that the financial crisis that started in 2007-8 and continues today will force a social upheaval and a dramatic reappraisal of government's role in the economy. The orthodoxy of the Thatcher and Blair years, in this view, is obsolete. Ed Miliband's contention is that the Tories, wedded as they are to that Thatcherite orthodoxy, are intellectually unable to grasp the scale of this change and under-equipped to respond to it. Labour, he thinks, has the opportunity to harness the national mood.

I discussed this with Jim Murphy. He had an interesting take on the "new centre" which he characterised as follows:

This new centre is populated by ideas and policies from both the centre-left and the centre-right. People wanting a government to intervene in a way that would be more consistent with an ethos of the centre left on industrial policy, on bank bonuses, on those sorts of things - an instinct that would have its heritage in the centre left of politics. But then things like crime, immigration, welfare which instinctively some people - not me, the ill-informed orthodoxy - would have that on the centre-right.

Security is the biggest part of this new centre - financial security, job security, home security determination to have answers from centre left - and then there's personal security - community security, immigration, welfare, cohesion. Some people say traditionally that sense of security comes from the centre-right.

I'm not sure that Miliband would phrase it in that way, but there is a lot of overlap. The Labour leader has accepted a lot of language traditionally associated with the centre-right (and, it must be said, New Labour) of "toughness" on crime and the need for a welfare system that makes demands of recipients to take more responsibility for finding work. But he has also reached across to more radical left impulses in his criticism of "predatory" capitalism.

There will always be people in the Labour party - and elsewhere - who see this attempt to find a position that appeals across the political spectrum as cynical "triangulation" and craven capitulation to fear that the country's instincts are ultimately conservative. I'm not so sure. It is too early to say that Miliband has arrived at a settled new political philosophy for Labour - at least not one that can be easily distilled into a clear message and used as the basis for a campaign. But it is noteworthy that Murphy, who co-managed David Miliband's campaign and is generally held up as the shadow cabinet's leading Blairite, and Ed, who famously promised to "turn the page" on New Labour, are converging on the same political terrain.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear