Leader: The new realism

The challenge is to build, within those constraints, a project that is distinct from the coalition’s offer of slow immiseration for the many and impunity for the few.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have been forced to acknowledge their tricky position on the wrong side of public opinion on two vital questions. On the economy, there is suspicion that excessive spending by the last government is the cause of current misery. On welfare, many voters think that Labour presided over a system that rewarded idleness.

The challenge for the party leadership is to recognise the public mood without accepting so much blame as to do the Tories’ work for them. In co-ordinated speeches, the two Eds have set about that task. Mr Balls has clarified his approach to the public finances in the light of bleak forecasts. He does not envisage a future Labour government spending more in its early years than the coalition plans to do. Meanwhile, Mr Miliband has set out new ideas about social security that emphasise the link between contributions paid in and benefits paid out. This is to address the charge that the system doles out “something for nothing”. Labour has also accepted that the total welfare spend will have to be capped and that certain coalition cuts – say, to child benefit – would not be reversed.

One concern is that making benefits more conditional than universal is an intellectual surrender to enemies of the welfare state. There is also anxiety that oaths of fiscal discipline are a conversion to Conservative economics.

Those concerns can be assuaged. The principle of universal welfare does not dissolve in targeted cuts. The greater threat is a decline in the perceived legitimacy of taxpayer-funded benefits, a process that is accelerated if Labour cannot articulate voters’ concerns. Likewise, Labour cannot credibly offer an alternative to the coalition without acknowledging fiscal constraints.

The challenge is to build, within those constraints, a project that is distinct from the coalition’s offer of slow immiseration for the many and impunity for the few.

Labour’s new realism about spending limits is a necessary step towards winning over sceptical voters – but if it represents the limits of its imagination as it attempts to create a new political consensus, then the party is in trouble.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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