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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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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.