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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Ria Navosti/Reuters
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The Syrian War and the return of great power politics

If the line between peace and war is being blurred, so is that between fact and fiction.

Wars have a nasty habit of creeping up on you, especially when you are unprepared or disinclined to fight them. There was a time, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the notion of a third world war seemed so fanciful as to belong to the realm of science fiction. As it stands, the prospect of a global conflagration, involving two or three simultaneous theatres of great power conflict, in which the goals of the major actors are conjoined, is unlikely. Neither the second or third most powerful militaries on the globe – China or Russia – wants to take on the strongest, the US. That said, they are not averse to giving its less powerful allies, the UK included, a bloody nose or a fright.

So while it is alarmist and irresponsible to talk of a third world war, the notion of sparks flying on the borders of a Nato country, or in the South China Sea, is more than plausible. These problems require greater situational awareness and dynamism – both of which have been in short supply in our foreign policy in recent times. We cannot afford to go through a traumatic process of introspection every time we need to make a decision about the world outside, as happened in parliament this month. At some point, this will catch up with us.

The conflict in Syria contains so many variables and so many actors that a clash in the skies between some of the bigger beasts involved has been long feared. The shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey, after an alleged incursion into Turkish air space – and the claims and counterclaims that followed it – provides the latest reminder of just how thin the dividing line between peace and war can be. We may think of wars starting when one country wakes up to find another’s tanks on the lawn but just as often unintended consequences can be the cause. Often, too, the precise tipping point is evident only in hindsight.

In Britain we are taught to believe that the Second World War began in 1939. But ask that question to a roomful of students from any other country and they will tell you a different answer. For the Chinese, it began with the invasion of Manchuria by Japan in 1931 (and because of the failure of the League of Nations to do anything about it, they were not alone in this belief); whereas American involvement did not begin until ten years later. In Europe, the game of territorial revision and the preparation for another war began not long after the ink was dry on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

It is not inconceivable that future historians will talk of a great power clash that began at the time of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. One hopes instead that after retreat and hiatus, the refocusing of attentions on Syria might be the moment that the tide begins to turn. International politics has no hard and fast rules. Nonetheless, there are certain cycles of history of which we should be wary. The degeneration of the international system is one; the simultaneous atrophy of our minds and muscles is another. And while history does not repeat itself, it does contain warnings, in which – to adapt The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon by Karl Marx – both “farce” and “tragedy” often feature.

Much has been written about the return of great power politics and the “revenge of geography”. Perhaps more dangerous is an international arena full of insecure parvenus, which are spinning plates at home and abroad. Turkey and Russia fit that profile. We should remember that both Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Russia’s, Vladimir Putin, regard themselves as heirs to formerly great empires. For that reason alone, this is unlikely to be the last game of bluff and brinkmanship we will see in the near future. As Zara Steiner wrote in The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-39, personality, ideology and emotional predilection played crucial parts in the outbreak of the Second World War, in a way that belied the usual theories of the international environment.

Identifying threats and dangers before they materialise can sometimes lead to cabin fever and paranoia. However, foreign policy by crisis management, or by annual conference – which is becoming the British habit – begets other dangers. More than 400 years ago, in 1612, Francis Bacon, the philosopher-statesman and attorney general, bemoaned the lack of “care and circumspection” that he saw in the affairs of princes. In particular, he expressed concern that the statecraft of his time seemed to consist of “fine deliveries and shifting of dangers and mischiefs when they are near”, rather than “solid and grounded courses to keep them aloof”. It was a dangerous course to try to master fortune, swatting away crises when they arose without being willing to put one’s shoulder to the wheel. In order to prevent war, one must keep one’s eyes on the horizon at all times: “Let men beware how they neglect and suffer matter of trouble to be prepared; for no man forbid the spark, nor tell whence it comes.”

These are wise words too easily forgotten. Taking care of one’s security requires some housekeeping, made easier by working with friends and allies. It also requires a greater degree of historical literacy. 

A mistake we are apt to make in the West is to think that the road to war is paved with machismo, or masochism, or naked ambition and greed. This is only one side of the equation. Of at least equal importance are wilful relativism, neglect of problems and postponement of difficult decisions; and following that, the rush to repair the damage when it becomes clear that things have been left too late.

Britain entered the two world wars with deep reluctance, insufficient armaments and a sense that other options had been exhausted. The US, with more latitude and more security, was in essence provoked into joining both and did so at the cost of much domestic political anguish. France – even though it was confronted with a mortal enemy at its borders – was unprepared for the ferocity of the fight.

None of this was inevitable. Indeed, the problem with fatalism about the Hobbesian nature of world politics is that it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. While the fault did not lie at the door of what became the western alliance, all three could have done more to prevent the wars that broke out with a more robust defence of international order, more effective co-operation between them and a shared and coherent approach to the world. When more opportune moments had passed, they succumbed to hedging, quick-fire marriages of convenience to the nearest bidder and short-term gambles. Thus we were prepared to pander to Mussolini in the hope that the road to peace ran through Rome.

If the line between peace and war is being blurred, so is that between fact and fiction. It is no coincidence that surges of utopianism, such as the gruesome version envisaged by Islamic State (Isis), tend to proliferate at the same time as dystopian thinking. This reflects the breaking and making of world-views and the contests between them for supremacy.

In the two decades before the First World War, the novels of H G Wells – such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – contrasted with the assumption of many of his fellow socialists that the future would be bright and progressive. Wells’s reflections were shaped by the advent of new technologies, such as air power, and their likely impact on conflict. In The New Machiavelli, published in 1911, just three years before war began, he explored the changing nature of “statecraft” in an era of bureaucratisation and big state power. His views reflected the jarring of British self-confidence about its place in the world and the fears that the existing order had been destabilised and that others were better girded for the challenges of international competition.

Sadly, these themes seem rather relevant again today. In July this year, two American defence experts, P W Singer and August Cole, published Ghost Fleet: a Novel of the Next World War. While the book is a Tom Clancy-style thriller set in the near future, a serious point underlies it. Singer and Cole have used their expertise in hi-tech and cyber warfare to paint a vivid picture of what a modern conflict between China and the US might look like – with 400 scholarly endnotes to suggest that it is not pure fantasy. Their cast of protagonists include an American battleship commander, a Chinese astronaut, a disillusioned Russian counter-insurgency expert and a teenage hacker wreaking havoc from his bedroom.

In this period of anxiety it is no surprise that “scenario planning” is back in vogue. Cambridge University’s new Forum on Geopolitics has begun a “Nightmare Series”, which addresses the consequences of political or humanitarian crises, such as a quarter of the world’s population running out of water, or a Russian invasion of a Baltic state. Some scenarios are more plausible than others, of course. In Theories of International Politics and Zombies, the American academic Daniel Drezner road-tests various theories of foreign policy against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse. While Drezner is indulging his love of the zombie genre, his underlying argument contains a punch: it is that our existing approaches to international affairs are time-bound and often fall apart when stretched or confronted with a crisis that we have not yet anticipated.




If the full consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq had been known, it is certain that its architects would not have gone through with it. By the same token, if the extent of the fallout of the Syrian Civil War had been known, might the international community have offered a more robust response at the outset? Might it have done more to shore up the dam at the critical moments – when points of no return came and went – such as Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his people in 2013? From the start of the conflict, our prevailing assumption seems to have been that it would work itself out within certain parameters (ugly, perhaps, but not intruding on our neighbourhood).

Wishful thinking – that Assad would not conceivably cross our mental bounds of acceptable conflict – has been the handmaid of inaction. This has come at a price. Among other things, it has presented Britain, after two years out of the picture, with a more vexing problem than the one parliament washed its hands of in 2013.

The changing role of Turkey in the conflict is an indication of the way in which our whole approach towards the crisis has been in a tailspin; and, once again, how neglect and flat-footedness have allowed us to miss successive opportunities to stabilise the situation. In 2011, relations between Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Kurdish population seemed to be improving considerably. Academic experts talked about the change in Turkish-Kurdish relations – which included better co-operation between Ankara and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq – as one of the few good news stories in the region and a sign of the maturing of Turkish foreign policy.

At the end of 2012, Erdogan even announced peace negotiations with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which, a few months later, was followed by a PKK ceasefire and a withdrawal from Turkish territory. Meanwhile, Turkey offered some of the most robust early criticisms of Assad’s crackdown against the early spurts of dissent, in what became the Syrian Revolution, and offered sanctuary to the leaders of the Free Syrian Army. It was in Ankara that officials from the UK Foreign Office and US state department tried but failed to groom those leaders into plausible opposition leaders.

There have been moments along the way when more could have been done – not to wrap up the conflict in a neat bow but at least to stabilise the situation, manage down the violence and establish some red lines. The Middle East contains the wreckage of many foreign policies. Yet two not too distant successes – which asserted some order and saved many lives – include the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 and the no-fly zone that provided a safe haven for 12 years to Iraqi Kurds (now the firmest allies against Isis and requesting the same help again). In August 2012, it was in co-operation with Turkey’s then foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, that Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, seemed close to agreeing a plan for a no-fly zone on the Turkish-Syrian border, only to be overruled (so it was claimed) by the White House.

Fast-forward three years and the situation has been turned on its head, though Ankara-Erbil relations remain solid. Turkey has a serious problem with a resurgent PKK and the peace process is in tatters. Turkish Kurds accused the government of complacency after an Isis suicide bombing killed 32 in the largely Kurdish town of Suruc in July. Turkey has engaged in air strikes against the PKK and has done more to tackle it than it has done to take on Isis. One reason for this is that there are so many Isis fighters passing through Turkey that it is vulnerable to a dual threat from within its borders. It also understands that the US regards Kurds in both Iraq and Syria as the most effective ground forces taking on Isis. To complicate matters further, the Syrian-Kurdish YPG (“People’s Protection Units”) is aligned with the PKK, rather than the more moderate KRG in Iraq.

Balancing the considerations, Turkey has been seen to support the coalition called the Army of Conquest, which includes the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Within Iraq, its increased involvement is viewed with suspicion by the government in Baghdad. The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has raised the prospect of going to the UN Security Council if hundreds of Turkish troops sent to Bashiqa, north of Mosul, are not withdrawn, describing their deployment as a violation of national sovereignty. Turkey claims the intervention is to protect military trainers helping to contribute to the protection of Mosul from Isis.

So, whereas Turkey was once regarded as the potential solution to Syria, it is now seen as a major part of the problem. The US state department is putting pressure on it to get some control over its border with Syria, through which most of Isis’s foreign volunteers travel; the increase in its presence north of Mosul may, in part, be an answer to requests to do more against Isis. At the same time, the EU has announced that it will give £2.1bn to Turkey to help it manage the refugee flow from Syria and has held out the prospect of reversing its political ostracisation from the rest of Europe. This, in effect, is betting on horses that have long since bolted.

All of this was before President Erdogan was faced with his greatest foreign policy challenge to date: the downing of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 jet. When Syria shot down a Turkish jet in 2012, Erdogan argued that “a short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack”. At what point did Russia cross that line, by Turkey’s vague definition of a transgression?

It seems we are entering the phase of international politics in which the pre-prepar­ed script runs out. Yet despite the smokescreen, claim and counterclaim, some things are now clear. One of them is that Russian jets continue to target rebel groups other than Isis in Syria, including Syrian Turkmens who are fighting against Assad’s regime. The idea of a “grand alliance” of the West and Russia against Isis is not as clear-cut as some had presumed in the wake of the Paris attacks. There may be tactical reasons for closer cooperation with Moscow but this does not constitute a long-term strategy in itself. Rather than looking for phantom solutions – for the RAF to be home by Christmas – it is necessary to re-enter the mental space where we can envisage some sort of future for Syria after its civil war.

In the first instance, this will require closer co-operation with our established allies, particularly the US and France. While some co-operation with Russia is plausible, this should not come at the price of propping up the Assad regime in Damascus. Isis has been allowed to flourish, more than anything, because of the policies adopted by Assad. In the game of catch-up, it is important to think beyond the immediate horizon.

Britain has now signalled its intention to re-enter the domain of those nations that take risks to deal with problems in which it has a share of responsibility. Having done so, it will confront a crisis that is immeasurably worse than the one from which it stepped away in the summer of 2013. The existing policy of the Obama administration is likely to be adjusted over the coming months, because of the recognition that air strikes alone are not enough to deal with Isis or the conditions in which it thrives. More efforts will be made on the diplomatic front but there are already signs of a further escalation of military operations. Now, at the very least, is the most opportune moment to whisper into the driver’s ear.




Since the Commons vote on air strikes on 2 December, the RAF has made sorties into Syrian airspace and has made a significant dent in Isis’s infrastructure by bombing oilfields under its control. It is clear that these missions, combined with an already significant intelligence oversight, are more than symbolic. Nonetheless, the symbolism alone should not be sniffed at, as it speaks to a fundamental cornerstone of the British grand strategy.

The recent Strategic Defence and Security Review, published on 23 November, argued for the crucial importance for Britain of a “rule-based international order”. Two days earlier, a UN Security Council resolution called upon “member states that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures . . . on the territory under the control” of Isis. It was the UK’s willingness to pay the price necessary for that rule-based international order, in close co-operation with its most important allies, that was at stake in the Commons debate.

This is not the end of the foreign policy debate in Britain, which – after almost complete neglect in the general election in May – has become hotter than at any time since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There remains the counter-argument that the UK should leave the table altogether and gamble that it is safer in splendid isolation.

“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here, because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing,” said Neville Chamberlain in a radio broadcast in 1938 after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Before the Paris attacks of 13 November, Jeremy Corbyn was preparing to deliver a speech advocating that the UK pursues a “more independent foreign policy”. Now that the fog of the Syria vote has passed, it is incumbent upon the diehard opponents of any intervention abroad to make their case, fully and frankly.

There is also an important difference between outlining genuine alternatives for our foreign policy and merely filibustering and disrupting the existing process. The UK parliament arguably has more sway over the conduct of foreign policy than any other deliberative assembly of its nature in the world, compared to any of the G8 nations (with the exception of Germany). If anything, its influence has increased in recent years. There is a danger of undermining this privilege by abusing its processes or appealing beyond its doors. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion,” said Edmund Burke to the electors of Bristol in 1774. Government and legislation were “matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination”, he continued, “a flatterer you do not wish for”.

What is certain is that the attacks on Isis will do damage to the group and its aspirations to statehood but any gains will be temporary without a strategy to deal with the Syrian Civil War as a whole. As a result of the parliamentary vote on air strikes against Isis in Syria on 2 December, the UK can now be a serious participant in that discussion. But ultimately we cannot expect a world tuned to our genteel sensibilities to emerge by itself, while others expend their blood and treasure. An intellectual hurdle has been passed. As Francis Bacon ended his essay on statecraft, “It is the solecism of power to think to command the end, and yet not to endure the mean.”

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires