Muslim grievances, popular royalty and why I was wrong about 9/11

Osama Bin Laden was a fool and a failure, and he was lucky that George W Bush, an even bigger fool, made him, for a while, into more than that. Muslims had legitimate grievances. For decades, western countries, led by the US, treated the Muslim world with imperialist contempt, regarding it mainly as a collection of oil wells to be raided at will. Seedy, corrupt dictators were propped up across the Middle East. Muslim dislike of the west's glitzy consumerism and sex-obsessed culture was patronised as medieval backwardness.

Muslims needed a charismatic and visionary leader to give them self-respect and lead a fightback, which was bound to involve violence - as the US and its allies never hesitated to use great violence in their own interests - and some inevitable instances of what Americans call collateral damage. Given his Messiah-like looks, Bin Laden might even have become a third world hero like Nelson Mandela who, we should recall, also led an armed resistance movement and was once denounced as a terrorist.

Bin Laden was too stupid to see the oppor­tunities. He preferred an obscure, mystical, death-obsessed nihilism, which could engage the support of only a tiny minority of Muslims. Al-Qaeda killed Muslims and non-Muslims, rich and poor, black, brown and white, indiscriminately. There was little apparent attempt to select targets of real strategic importance. The twin towers may have been the perfect symbol of American power and arrogance. Westerners intent on violence at least pretend to care about civilian casualties even if, in practice, they often don't.

Many terrorist movements issue warnings of attacks; they are still denounced as bloody murderers but retain at least tacit support from many people on whose behalf they are supposedly fighting, as the Provisional IRA did among Catholics in Northern Ireland. Al-Qaeda appeared deliberately to prioritise collateral damage, allowing western leaders to claim that it would more happily kill 300,000 New Yorkers than 3,000.
It is said that Bin Laden's death will give him the status of martyrdom and inspire Muslims to new heights (or lows) of resistance and revenge. I doubt it. In our parochial, ahistorical way, we talk about how the 11 September 2001 attacks changed the world for ever and suggest that this month's events in Abbottabad mark another watershed.

But Bin Laden will most probably end up as an unpleasant historical curiosity. In a few months, the brave, largely unarmed rebels
of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen - who seem barely to have heard of Bin Laden - have inspired more people than he did in a lifetime. I think, and I hope, that they will prove of far greater historical importance.

Second thoughts
A footnote to the above. When I edited the NS issue immediately after 11 September 2001, I misjudged the nature and significance of what had happened, an error that was partially reflected in what became a notorious (though, in some quarters of the world, much-celebrated) leader. I wanted the cover line to say, over an image of the burning twin towers, "The Uprising". Colleagues dissuaded me. Rather belatedly, it occurs to me that I should thank them.

Never mind the ballots
When working people go on strike, they are usually denounced on all sides, by Labour as well as Tory politicians, left-wing newspapers as well as right-wing. Laws are proposed to make it more difficult for them to withdraw their labour. But when capitalists go on strike, it's a different matter. British Gas threatens to shut down its offshore drilling in Morecambe Bay, in protest against the government's decision to impose a windfall tax on the profits, and it gets a sympathetic hearing even from the Guardian. Note that neither British Gas nor the oil companies argue that the tax will wipe out the profits, only that the profits won't be high enough. Words and phrases such as greed, blackmail, holding the country to ransom, punishing innocent children and risking old folks' lives come to mind.

Perhaps our rulers, having made it as hard as possible for unions to organise strikes, could now apply similar principles to big companies and require shareholder ballots before they suspend operations.

The dear hunter
Feminists and Labour MPs - not categories that usually overlap all that much - are accused of being politically correct when they object to David Cameron telling the opposition's Angela Eagle to "calm down, dear". Yet the same people who criticise the left's concern for good manners are sticklers for correct behaviour. Cherie Blair declined to curtsey to the Queen and, according to some commentators, that would explain the lack of a wedding invitation to her and her husband. Would Cameron address the Queen or Lady Thatcher as "dear" and would we ever hear the last of it if he did?

Throne away
As for that wedding, one was unable to ignore it without facing "thought crime" charges of being joyless and unpatriotic. As the Queen now appears more popular than ever and the Duke of Camberwick Green (or whatever he's now called) a less crustily reactionary figure than his father, a bleak future of jubilees, weddings and royal births stretches ahead to the end of time.

Prince Charles was once the great republican hope. But anyone who lives long enough in Britain becomes a "national treasure", even the Duke of Edinburgh. Given his mother's genes for longevity, Charles will certainly have achieved that status when it is time for him to ascend the throne.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.