2007 and all that

Was this year a good thing? Ben Yarde-Buller casts his sideways glance over the past 12 months

Happy New EU

As is traditional the new year* began just after midnight with a wave of parties, treaties and new E.U. member states such as Bulgaria and even Romania. As the Bulgarians and Romanians had very few Gross Domestic Products* they were unable to drink any champagne to celebrate being the new poor men of Europe. However they managed to cheer themselves up by gathering in public places and attending free concerts, often simultaneously.

* 2007
* except some raw materials e.g. cabbage

Cash for Honours

Tony Blah did not have much time to govern in 2007 as he kept popping round to his local police station to swear that he had never made an Honours Penny in his life. He did not enjoy this at all, as the police refused to treat him as a suspect or indeed with any caution whatsoever, even though he was a Prime Minister and thus by definition a V.I.P.

Shaat Al-Arab

Shaat Al Arab is not a racist slur. On the contrary it is the name of a disputed waterway running between Iraq and Iran* where fifteen British sailors were humiliatingly captured by Irani terrorists in March. This was quite outrageous as at the time of their capture the sailors were very much minding their own business by boarding and searching Irani ships for smuggled goods.

Eventually Blah made a diplomatic effort and persuaded the Iranis to give the sailors right back. However he soon regretted his actions as on their return they all sold their stories to the tabloids, thus damaging Britain’s reputation (as the stories were rather boring and not even particularly well-written).

* or vice-versa depending on one’s viewpoint

The End of the Blah Era

In geological terms the Blah Era was a mere blip but to most of the people involved it didn’t seem that way at all.

Towards the end of his Era, Tony Blah started trying to work out what his Legacy should be. At first his main ideas were:

  • Africa
  • The Middle East
  • Iraq
  • Iran
  • Northern Ireland
  • Afghanistan
  • Bosnia
  • A.N. Other Country
  • Good Friday

However in the end it turned out that Blah’s Legacy was none of the above but Gordon Brown* instead.

* no relation of Bennett

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown hotly denied that he was Blah’s Legacy, arguing that if anything it was the other way round (or vice-versa). He tried to prove this by having some very firm policies of his very own, fizz:

  • almost calling several elections
  • almost pulling several troops out of Iraq
  • almost gaining the confidence of several middle class voters

This is almost known as Leadership.

Smoking Ban

Smoking harms your unborn child (especially in public spaces) and was thus banned by the government on July 1st. This is known as a smoking ban and is a highly complex and controversial issue, as will now be proved beyond reasonable doubt:

Main Arguments (for the Smoking Ban)

  • I do not smoke
  • I do not like the smell of smoke on my clothes
  • Smoking harms my unborn child

Main Counter-Arguments (against the Smoking Ban)

  • I do smoke.
  • I do like the smell of smoke on my clothes.
  • Why should I believe you? Are you a scientist?

Sub Prime Lending Crisis

This unmemorable crisis was something to do with the American economy and is thus excessively relevant though not at all interesting except to:

  • people who have a lot of money and/or free time (and/or both)
  • people who are into northern rock
  • economists, doom-mongers, sub-prime-ministers* etc

Sub-Prime Lending might (but shouldn’t) be confused with the Cash for Honours Scandal, The Abrahams Affair or Political Donations in general.

* e.g. Gordon Brown

Afghanistan, Iraq and all that

Afghanistan and Iraq should on no account be mixed up even though they are both fundamentally somewhat Muslim and thus contain millions of disaffected young men with a negative attitude (and bombs). Also they are both Asian and larger than Europe and thus ideal venues for a war on terror.

In Afghanistan the War on Terror continued steadily towards Peace by means of skirmishes, massacres, roadside explosions, the Caliban and Class A drugs.

In Iraq the War on Terror brought so much Peace, security, schools, policemen, chaos and mayhem that British troops chose to withdraw in an orderly yet shambolic fashion before they were all killed. They tried their very best to hand over power to genuine Iraqis, but by mistake gave it to some Shia* Militias instead. This was A Bad Thing but can on no account be viewed as an abject failure (least of all by the politicians in charge).

* Irani


It was thus finally time for everyone* to put their feet up and take a well-earned rest before 2008 (and all that…).

* especially politicians and other important types


1. Arrange in order of preference, starting with your absolute favourite: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Northern Ireland, Congo. Give four glib reasons for your answer.

2. In your personal opinion, what is a Mullah?

3. Which European country has the Grossest Domestic Product? (Hint: The answer is Germany.)

4. Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. Whatever next? Turkey?

5. Is this a libellous statement: “Tony Blah solicited cash for the Labour Party in return for dispensing honours.”? How about this: “Tony Blah sexed up the September Dossier in order to bolster his case for going to war against Iraq.”?

6. On a scale of 1 to 10 (via 5) how humiliating was the capture of British sailors by Irani terrorists?

7. Mind your own business (while straying into another country’s territorial waters and searching their ships for smuggled goods).

8. How cool is Britannia? (N.B. This is not a rhetorical question.)

9. Imagine for a brief moment that you trust Gordon Brown. How was it?

10. Pay lip-service to the crucial importance of the American economy then turn your mind to something more interesting (e.g. football or The X Factor).

11. Confuse and contrast Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Mesopotamia, the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban and (if you still have time) North Korea.

12. Write an email to your local M.P., expressing yourself in no uncertain terms.

13. “A Scot, a Presbyterian and an Economist.” How accurate do you find this assessment of Sub-Prime-Minister Brown?

14. Using only unavailable evidence, assess the situation in Basra.

15. Was 2007 A Good Thing? Your answer should take account of all of the following: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Taliban, North Korea, the England Football Team, Floods, Sub-Prime Mortgages, Sub-Prime Ministers, Russian Democracy, Anglo-Russian Relations, the Housing Market, Madeleine McCann, the Dafur Region, Chlorine Bombs, Global Warming and Paul Potts.

2066 AND ALL THAT - a memorable
Memorable Modern History from the Suffragettes to Saddam and Beyond (via the Coronation Chicken) by Ben Yarde-Buller & Sophie Duncan
ISBN: 978-1-90584-729-7
Price: £ 9.99
Publisher: Old Street Publishing
December 2007

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror