Leader: The west needs a grand plan to pay its debt to the Arab world

A multilateral fund should be deployed to support economic development and civil society.

During his recent visit to Egypt, David Cameron declared: "I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane
at 40,000 feet." Yet, less than a week later, the Prime Minister became the first world leader to raise the possibility of direct military intervention in Libya. Mr Cameron's belligerent tone was a hasty attempt to compensate for the government's incoherent response to events in the Middle East and North Africa. As Benjamin Disraeli once remarked, you can tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures.

The PM's decision to reaffirm his call for a no-fly zone on the day that plans were unveiled to make 11,000 members of the armed forces redundant was further evidence of his lack of judgement. But his confused approach is a reflection of a wider question: what is the purpose of post-Blair British foreign policy? The disastrous consequences of the Iraq war have left the public and policymakers with little appetite for military intervention. Yet support for those fighting for democracy in the Arab world remains both a moral duty and an act of national self-interest. The region's post-revolution governments are unlikely to forget those who came to their aid and those who spoke merely of the need for "stability". If the west's commitment to Arab democracy is to be more than rhetorical, it should draw inspiration from the Marshall Plan, which was used to reconstruct postwar Europe. A multilateral fund should be deployed to support economic development and civil society in the region's nascent democracies. The six Arab Gulf states, currently reaping the benefits of inflated oil prices, should be encouraged to contribute.

Such an act of solidarity, as proposed by the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, would encounter significant political opposition. A Republican-led Congress is determined to reduce America's humanitarian aid budget by 41 per cent and the $250m civilian aid budget to Egypt is earmarked for cuts of 10 per cent. In Europe, voters enduring the largest fiscal retrenchment since 1945 are understandably unsympathetic to calls for increased aid. But a grand plan for the Middle East, which would bolster the region's democrats while reducing the appeal of political extremism, is in the long-term interests of the west.

The British government should support what would be an effective and judicious use of soft power. The initial signs are not encouraging. The coalition has announced its intention to withdraw all UK funding from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN agency that co-ordinated the trade union struggle against apartheid in South Africa and Stalinism in Poland, at a time when unions have been playing a leading role in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The General Union of Tunisian Workers was at the forefront of the revolt against Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's government. In Egypt, where the trade unions have been state-controlled since the Nasser era, an independent confederation has been formed to fight for political freedoms and workers' rights. History teaches us that strong, intermediate institutions are an essential guarantor of democracy. The coalition should reverse its ill-timed decision to end ILO donations.

It remains unclear whether the Arab spring will result in the spread of democracy, as in eastern Europe in 1989, or whether authoritarian forces will fill the void, as happened in Europe after the uprisings of 1848. What we can say with certainty is that the west's history of supporting the region's autocrats means that it has incurred an obligation to do all that it can to work for the former possibility.

The experience of the past decade proves that neither the military adventurism of the Blair government nor the debased "realism" beloved of Foreign Office Arabists is a viable policy option. Instead, we need an approach that combines scepticism towards military intervention with an unambiguous commitment to the promotion of democracy. A grand plan for the region - and the enlightened statecraft that it would herald - would go some way to repaying the west's historic debt to the people of the Arab world.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide