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Conscientious objection isn’t a legitimate posture for Britain in the face of Isis ferocity

After Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain has re-entered a period of unresolved purpose.

The United Nations this week will again debate the Middle East. As the diplomats enter its New York HQ they will walk under an Akkadian copy of the “Eternal Treaty”. Signed in 1259BC, it grandly aimed to “establish peace and brotherhood for all time”. In what is often regarded as the first negotiated peace treaty, the Hittite king Hattusili III and Pharaoh Ramesses II concluded two centuries of conflict after the Battle of Kadesh, in modern-day Syria. But although that country may be the cradle of peace diplomacy there’s unlikely to be any need to hammer another nail into those UN walls to hang up a new Syrian agreement.

Against this backdrop, MPs will consider RAF raids against Isis positions in Syria two years after parliament voted on air strikes on Assad. In conceiving this monthly column, I decided not to be a commentator on Labour’s all-too-irregular ups and all-too-frequent downs. I’ve refused three approaches to write a book about what may be the most traumatic six months in Labour’s history. Each offer was financially rewarding but none was in the party’s best interests. But I do want to talk about what happened in that vote on 29 August 2013.

As shadow defence secretary, I knew that what was on the table was a very limited RAF campaign against the Assad government. It was a million miles from regime change by military means. Modern mythology believes that MPs were against the possible use of force. In truth, 270 MPs voted for the government motion and 220 backed Labour’s variant of a similar policy. Both proposed a conditions-based posture on British action – and they had the backing of 490 MPs in total. Labour voted against the government while not expecting to win. The government voted against Labour while not expecting to lose.

That night I didn’t join in the customary cheers of some opposition MPs that greeted the government’s defeat. How could I? We hadn’t just won a vote to protect family tax credits. Assad had dropped chemical weapons on schoolchildren in their playground. Parliament had contrived to do nothing about it. Instead, I had a furious row with Michael Gove as we loudly traded industrial language in full view of dozens of MPs. Over the next few days, I stretched the elastic of collective responsibility to snapping point. I wrote about how uneasy I felt about the outcome and urged parliament to think again.

Yet as time has passed I know I shouldn’t just have written about it. I should have stood down from the shadow cabinet in the hours before the vote. Of the hundreds of votes over 18 years in parliament, 29 August 2013 was the one occasion I allowed commitment to my party to defeat my sense of right and wrong. I should have been true to myself. I will always regret not being so.

Two years on, this summer, prominent politicians were under more pressure over whether they would lend their spare room to refugees, rather than how they would use the power of the house to which they have been elected. Rightly, no government can bind its successor. Nor should any parliament be imprisoned by its predecessor. Of course, much has changed in politics since 2013, not least the presence of the 56 “anti-war” SNP MPs, who will oppose military action anywhere in the world to placate their new members in pursuit of a referendum rerun. And there are others who say it’s now too late to intervene. Many of them are the same people who claimed last time that it was too early to get involved.

I’ve heard the argument that military action won’t work. I agree: alone it would achieve little. An Iraq-type coalition of the willing won’t happen and in any case would fail. What’s more, the idea of a Lebanon-style power-sharing agreement is as naive as Isis is barbaric. The jihadists are too busy beheading innocents and rubbling antiquities to talk. There is no Hattusili or Rames­ses in their ranks.

I respect conscientious objectors and the Quaker traditions. At times in our history it has taken true courage to stand out from the crowd. But conscientious objection isn’t a legitimate posture for a P5 nation in the face of Isis ferocity. And when put on the spot about a Syrian strategy, too many politicians simply parrot the line: “We shouldn’t have attacked Iraq.” It’s a legitimate argument about the past. It’s not a plan about the future.

It all feeds into a sense that, after Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain has re-entered a period of unresolved purpose. After 1956 and the Suez humiliation, the British political class was shaken out of a foreign policy shaped by its past. In 1962, in the immediate shadow of the Cuban missile crisis, the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson told West Point cadets: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” In 1968 George Ball, a former undersecretary of state, wrote of a “special problem” rather than a special relationship. He thought Britain had become hamstrung by its history, and bemoaned “Englishmen reared on the heady heritage of exotic empire”.

The most important military decision in the coming months is not Syria but the Strategic Defence and Security Review. The new plan should commit the UK in law to the Nato defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP. It’s right to enshrine the aid budget in law, and it’s not wrong to do the same for defence.

Britain still has so much going for it internationally. Yet our multinational nation state almost unravelled last year and may yet unwind from Europe. A lack of clarity about what it means to be British at home is matched by huge uncertainty about what Britain means abroad. Parliament should shortly get the responsibility to vote on air strikes. When it does, MPs will not only decide what they believe should happen in Syria, but also what they think of Britain.

Jim Murphy is the former Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and leader of Scottish Labour 2014-15.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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