These "Syria for idiots" pieces are getting a bit much

Where will it end?

The Syria Question: It’s stolen the headlines and public debate this summer as Congress and Parliament come to loggerheads. But how can you have an answer if you don’t know what the Question is? Here’s a simple explanation from one K N Al-Sabah in a letter to the FT:

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!

Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!

Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!

Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

K N Al-Sabah, London EC4, UK

Comprende? If not, don’t worry, the letter’s recent trending on Twitter inspired some uncomplicated visual graphics, most notably @TheBigPharaoh’s "The Complete Idiot’s Chart to Understanding The Middle East", as picked up by the Washington Post. One glance at the chart and its blue, red and green arrows depicting who "supports", "hates" and "has no clue" of who, and you will probably also have "no clue" about what is really going on in the fast changing region.

Perhaps this is overcomplicating things, especially for the American public, half of whom could not find Syria on a map, as surveyed by the Pew Research Centre "only 50 per cent of respondents correctly identified the shaded country as Syria. Almost one in five (19 per cent) thought it was Turkey, 11 per cent said it was Saudi Arabia, and 5 per cent said it was Egypt".

This inspired the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof to Tweet "Now members of Congress will have to consult maps and figure out where Syria is".

Perhaps this was meant as a joke, but then on Tuesday, General Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the US Army told the BBC "many of our politicians are not educated on what is really going on in Syria". Just as well, then, the UK has renounced intervening alongside the US.

The public – who have no say in the Syria Question – might not need to know who "supports" or "has no clue", who is "pro" or "backing", or who "hates" or is "against" who, or even, for that matter, know where Syria is. But if the Syria Question is so complicated that it confuddles the politicians, then a longer debate and strategy is surely needed. Perhaps Commons or Congress should invite Mr K N Al-Sabah to read out his letter to them, complete with the updated allegiances of the UK and US. Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

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.

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