The price of beans: today in Britain, some working families are so stretched that parents are going without the basics so that they can feed their children. Photo: FELICITY MCCABE
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Why are so many people using food banks?

Last year, almost a million free food parcels were handed out. At the Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank, Sophie McBain meets the people only a pay cheque from crisis.

Parsons Green is a quiet, affluent neighbourhood of west London. The streets surrounding the green are lined with smart delis, boutiques and champagne bars, and the well-off regulars at the White Horse pub on the corner have earned it the nickname the “Sloaney Pony”. The red-brick terraces of the nearby Peterborough estate sell for £3m or more. Tucked between two of these multimillion-pound homes is ChristChurch Fulham, an Anglican church that since 2010 has housed the local food bank.

Between April 2014 and January this year, Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank handed out more than 3,000 free food parcels. Most of its clients have travelled in from more deprived corners of west London or further afield, but once or twice residents of the Peterborough estate have been forced, by an unexpected job loss and huge debts, to come here for help, too.

“Most people are only a pay cheque away from a crisis,” said Daphine Aikens, the food bank’s founder. We spoke last summer in the short lulls between new arrivals. Every now and then she jumped up from her chair to clear away plastic tea and coffee cups and cake plates, or to make sure the leaflets from local charities were arranged just so on each table. It was an unexpectedly quiet morning, she said, but still a steady stream of people turned up. A mother-of-three who had fled an abusive relationship; an old man; a young couple; a skinny teenager in an oversized hoodie; a single mother with learning difficulties and her ten-year-old son, who translated for her; an Eritrean asylum-seeker whose claim had been rejected, and who wasn’t eligible for a parcel but had nowhere else to go. “I really can’t help you again,” the volunteer said, searching the woman’s face for a sign of understanding.

Aikens used to focus on giving to international NGOs, until she discovered how many people were going hungry closer to home. When she brought up the subject at church a member of the congregation directed her to the Trussell Trust, a charity that runs the UK’s largest network of food banks. Aikens says her work is inspired by her Christianity. “Part of our faith is that we want to serve and to love, and believe people are of value,” she explained. “Lots of people haven’t ever been told they’re of value. Here we can tell people they’re of value, that they deserve the food.”

The Trussell Trust operates as a “social franchise”, which means that each food bank is run as an independent charity but the central organisation provides training, guidelines and logistical support. The details vary from town to town but the overall set-up is the same. Doctors, social workers, the police and various charities hand out vouchers to people in crisis. With this voucher, they can then collect three days’ worth of food from their local food bank. Food banks were designed as an emergency stopgap: the aim is that people should collect no more than three parcels, by which point they should, in theory, have found a more sustainable solution.

The trust was founded in 1997 by two former UN workers, Paddy and Carol Henderson, and was originally conceived to support street children in Bulgaria. Then, in 2000, Paddy received a call from a mother in Salisbury whose children were going hungry. Her story inspired him to open his first food bank in the city, which he ran from home. In 2004, he decided to expand the model. “The simple phrase that stuck with us was that ‘if Salisbury needs a food bank, every town should have one’,” says Chris Mould, chairman of the Trussell Trust, who has worked with the organisation since 2003.

In recent years both the number of food banks and the numbers of people who use them have risen exponentially. Between April 2008 and March 2009 Trussell Trust food banks handed out 25,899 parcels. In the corresponding period in 2010-11, covering the time of the last general election, it gave out 128,697. By last financial year (2013-14), that figure had grown nearly eightfold to almost a million parcels. This year the figure is likely to be higher still: 492,741 parcels were given out between April and September 2014, an increase of 38 per cent over the same period in 2013.

This is not the full picture. The Trussell Trust’s 430 or so food banks are believed to account for roughly half the country’s network, but there is no complete database of the charities giving out emergency food aid. The lack of data is partly due to the government’s apparent lack of curiosity about how many people are falling through its welfare net. “The government does not monitor the use of food banks and has no plans to do so,” the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed in response to a Freedom of Information request in December 2013. In March, the department confirmed that this remains its position.

When a series of reports drew links between government welfare policies and increased food bank usage, the DWP repeatedly insisted there was insufficient evidence for these claims. “Figures used in the media about food banks have been self-reported by food bank providers and their users, and the statistics have not been independently checked or verified,” the DWP said in 2013. Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust told me he “would push back very strongly on criticism of the data”, and emphasised that the trust complies with Office for National Statistics guidelines as best it can.

The government also does not collect data on people living with food insecurity in the UK, although in December 2013 a group of six experts, in a letter to the British Medical Journal, described food poverty as having “all the signs of a public health emergency”. In August last year John Middleton, vice-president at the Faculty of Public Health, the standard-setting body for public health specialists in the UK, told the Observer that GPs had reported a rise in Victorian-era diseases caused by malnutrition, such as rickets and gout, as Britons on low incomes struggle to feed their families healthily. So, even without comprehensive data, the very existence of food banks poses a troubling question: why, in one of the world’s richest societies – and in a country that prides itself in having welfare provision designed to care for its citizens from cradle to grave – are so many Britons at risk of going hungry?


Sam and Joe (their names have been changed at their request, as have others in this article) have been together for just over two years. They met at work, at a supermarket in Hertfordshire. It’s just as well they have each other, they told me, because they don’t have much else. Most days they eat once. They wait until as late as they can possibly manage, then they have a meal of rice or potatoes or (“if we can afford it”) bread – “anything filling”, Sam said. I met them on their second visit to Tower Hamlets Foodbank, in a church surrounded by council blocks. This east London borough has the highest rate of child poverty in the city; the average income is £11,400. I arrived ten minutes before the food bank opened and already a queue had formed outside the door.

Not long after the couple met, Joe, who is 27, left his job to move in with his grandmother and care for her while she was dying of cancer. Then Sam’s mental health grew worse and she found she could no longer work. She thinks she is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome – she was abused as a child and left home at 15, and before she met Joe she had been in a string of violent relationships – but she has been waiting for months to see a psychiatrist. When Joe’s grandmother died, they were not allowed to keep on her tenancy. They thought they would end up homeless, but just in time they found somewhere to stay. The problem was that for two months their housing benefit didn’t come through. “We’re just sort of stuck at the moment,” Sam said.

The report Emergency Use Only, published last November jointly by the Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust, found that Joe and Sam’s experience is not uncommon. Many people arriving at food banks have experienced a number of personal shocks in succession – bereavement, the loss of a job, illness – but between half and two-thirds of users end up at food banks because of problems with benefits. This includes delayed payments, changes to benefits such as the reduction in Disability Living Allowance and financial penalties known as sanctions. As a condition of receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), claimants are required to demonstrate that they are actively looking for work, usually by applying for a set number of jobs a month, and to participate in various training schemes. If they fail to meet their targets they can be sanctioned, meaning that their benefits are cut. Equally, people receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because of a disability or a long-term health condition can be sanctioned for failing to attend a mandatory interview or training programme. In the year to September 2014, 895,000 sanctions were placed on ESA and JSA claimants, up from 564,000 in the final 12 months of the last Labour government.

Emergency Use Only estimates that between 20 and 30 per cent of food bank users have recently faced a sanction. In January this year a former jobcentre official told a parliamentary inquiry that staff were put under pressure by their bosses to meet targets for sanctioning clients. This might explain some of the more unfair examples unearthed by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty, which included a man who was sanctioned for writing on the wrong line of his form, and another fined because the job application forms he was required to fill didn’t arrive until after the deadline for applying.

A standard sanction under JSA is loss of benefits for four weeks, or 13 weeks in the case of a second “offence”. For a single person solely reliant on JSA, this can lead to a complete loss of income for up to three months. Under the DWP’s policy, if the suspension of support is going to cause “hardship” you can apply for a payment of 60 per cent of JSA, or £43.40 a week, after two weeks. Its guidelines make clear that it expects that an individual’s health will suffer under sanctions: “it would be usual for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health if they were without . .  . sufficient money to buy essential items for a period of two weeks”. Pregnant women, families with children or people with long-term health problems may be exempt if it is deemed they would “suffer a greater decline in health than a normal healthy adult”.

Under a pilot “Foodbank Plus” model run by Tower Hamlets, all visitors to the food bank also speak to an adviser. Martin Williams of the Child Poverty Action Group, who is one of the co-authors of Emergency Use Only, helps visitors with their benefits claims: how to appeal decisions, speed up delayed payments, access advances. The people he sees seem increasingly desperate, he says. For instance, it’s not uncommon for someone with severe mental health problems to be rejected for Employment and Support Allowance and placed on Jobseeker’s Allowance instead. They are then immediately sanctioned because they are too unwell to meet the job application and training requirements for JSA claimants. “Before, you’d see people who have been without help for a couple of weeks, but now it’s not uncommon for people to go without comfort for months,” Williams said.

On the afternoon I visited, he helped Joe and Sam apply for a short-term benefit advance to cover their immediate shortfall and said he would chase up their unpaid housing benefit. How did they feel about the future? I asked. Sam was already gathering up their plastic bags of tinned goods and Joe was still slumped in his chair, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. “I’ve given up on optimism or pessimism,” he said.

The trestle tables at the Cadge Road Community Centre in Norwich were laid out with animal place mats and plastic cups of squash. Reel 2 Real’s “I Like to Move It” was playing at high volume, but the 50 or so children, from toddlers to early teens, lined up patiently for a plate of chicken curry. One boy whose head barely reached above the counter requested a cheese sandwich with no crusts and no butter instead, and the volunteer chef cheerfully obliged. Later there would be Angel Delight and biscuits, and then the children would learn to take fingerprints, detective-style.

When the Trussell Trust learned from local teachers and parent support advisers that many families were struggling to feed their children in the school holidays, they wanted to make sure the FISH lunch clubs they helped set up in response were fun, says Grant Habershon, Norwich Foodbank’s manager. When he retired in 2010 he started working for the Citizens Advice Bureau, but he realised that when people were in need of food he had few places to which he could direct them. When he started the food bank, he estimated he would be supplying food to 2,000 people in the city, but now it’s almost 10,000. “There have always been people who’ve struggled, there’s always been a gap [between someone falling into need and the state stepping in] . . . but it’s just too big at the moment,” he said.

The FISH clubs, which started in 2013 and offer lunches to children during the school holidays, hint at the second major driver of food bank use: low income. According to Trussell Trust figures, 22 per cent of food bank users between April and September 2014 were referred for this reason. “The determinants of food poverty and food insecurity are big, structural issues, including – and very importantly – income. That is one of the most important things: people need more money,” says Hannah Lambie-Mumford, a faculty research fellow at the University of Sheffield specialising in food poverty and insecurity in Britain.

Every year since 2008 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published its minimum income standard report. Members of the public are asked what goods and services they believe they need to ensure an adequate standard of living, and then JRF calculates how much you need to earn to reach this benchmark. As the cost of living has increased, the minimum income standard has risen but national income levels have not kept up. Today a single person on benefits earns less than 40 per cent of the minimum income standard, and families with children earn less than 60 per cent. It isn’t only the unemployed or those on benefits struggling to make ends meet: up to a quarter of food bank users are in work. Despite a prevailing political rhetoric promising to support “hard-working families” or “alarm-clock Britain”, 700,000 people in Britain are on zero-hours contracts with no guaranteed work hours, according to the latest ONS figures; and the JRF income standard – set at £16,300 a year for a single adult with no children in 2014 – is higher than the minimum wage and almost £5,000 higher than the average salary in, say, Tower Hamlets.

Kate had been bringing her three boys, aged three, five and seven, to FISH clubs since the 2013 Easter holidays. Unlike her sons, she hadn’t had lunch that day – though she picked at their leftovers. “It’s all right. If you don’t eat in the morning or the afternoon, you’re not hungry anyway,” she said quietly. That night they’d eat hot cross buns for dinner, and then they’d be out of food for two days. Until 2012, Kate worked in the customer service department at a large international insurance company. She never imagined she’d start to rely on benefits, let alone food aid, but then her partner left her.

“I dreaded handing my notice in, but I just couldn’t afford the childcare. It’s a benefits trap, because there’s no way out of it,” she said. Things were OK for the first two years, but when prices kept on rising she struggled to make ends meet and now her debts rise a little higher every month. “To live like that for two years – there’s nothing brighter, there’s nothing coming . . . I’ve gone from shopping at Sainsbury’s to Tesco’s, to Asda, to Aldi, and now I don’t even do a weekly shop.” She paused for a moment. “If I was telling you this story two years ago I’d be in tears, but not now.”

I wondered what she would do in the next two days, with three children and an empty fridge. She said she might visit her mum, who had no idea how much Kate was struggling but usually cooks lunch. She didn’t want to visit a food bank. “There are people out there more desperate than me. I’ve got a sofa to sell before I’ll go to the food bank,” she replied. “It’s a pride thing. You don’t want people to know you’re on benefits.”


On 19 December 2014, the NG7 Food Bank in Nottingham closed. In the 30 months before its closure it had fed over 5,500 people but it decided its position was untenable. In a media statement in November it objected to the local council using food banks, it said, as an alternative to state welfare provision, writing that “despite our best ongoing efforts, we have recognised that we are not being used as a temporary service of last resort, but rather being seen as a part of the long-term strategy of replacement for statutory services, [which] have a duty and the resources to address a large part of the need. We recognise that other approaches are now required to attempt to change the current situation for many in our communities.”

Of central concern to NG7 was the council’s provision of emergency funds, such as crisis loans or benefit advances. These used to be administered by the government’s Social Fund, but in April 2013 the fund was abolished and responsibility for emergency hardship payments was devolved to local authorities on a discretionary basis. Nottingham City Council’s hardship fund is designed to support a range of people in short-term need, including those fleeing domestic violence, care leavers, and those waiting for a decision on a benefit claim or who have recently experienced a disaster. NG7 objected to the council’s policy that “the expectation would be that they [applicants] seek help from friends or family and the food banks”. In other words, the council is using food banks as an excuse to give out fewer emergency payments.

“In my research, very often volunteers at food banks will say, ‘We wish we didn’t exist; our ultimate aim is to do ourselves out of business,’” says Hannah Lambie-Mumford of the University of Sheffield. This reflects not only a belief that people shouldn’t be going hungry in the UK, but also that the provision of crisis care should be the state’s responsibility. “We believe every citizen has a right to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship, which include the ability to clothe yourself, house yourself and feed yourself, and we think it’s government’s responsibility to ensure that,” Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust told me. “We designed ourselves to avoid being drawn into the world where a food bank is seen as part of the ongoing and enduring provision for people facing poverty . . . because you end up creating something which is an alternative to the state.”

In this way, food banks have become central to a much broader debate on welfare reform and the limits of state responsibility in modern Britain, a discussion that has become more urgent as the state has cut back spending. The Trussell Trust’s advocacy work has elicited a range of government responses, from dismissal to hostility. In July 2013 the Conservative minister for welfare reform Lord (David) Freud, a former investment banker, said that demand for food bank use was being driven by supply, telling peers: “If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly food from a food bank is by definition a free good and there’s almost infinite demand.” Similarly, in December 2014, Matthew Hancock, the business minister, said that he believed the use of food banks was driven by the publicity surrounding them. Ten months earlier, a Defra-funded report had concluded that there was no evidence that food bank use was fuelled by increasing provision. This report was delivered in June 2013 but it was not published for another seven months.

At other times the government has been more directly confrontational. In April last year the Daily Mail published quotations from “a senior Whitehall source”, accusing Chris Mould of “fairly misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity seeking”. Mould says he has been “put under pressure” by government officials after the Trussell Trust started pointing out that austerity cuts were affecting low-income and single-parent families disproportionately, and drawing attention to the effects of  benefit changes. “There was no communication, or dialogue, or engagement,” he says of attempts to talk to the DWP about the trust’s concerns.

Mould says that in 2013, when the Trussell and other charities criticised the decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent a year, regardless of inflation, a senior official (Mould didn’t want to give his name) warned that the government could close the trust down. (“Just so we’re clear . . . the comment that ‘the government might try to close you down’ was made in anger, and I didn’t take it seriously,” he later told me.)

At the end of last year the tone of the debate shifted. The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger published its findings in a report – Feeding Britain – and reinforced the messages of earlier third-sector studies by noting the extent to which low wages and benefit changes have fuelled demand for food banks. It made 77 recommendations, almost half of which were directed at the DWP and dealt with how benefits and crisis loans are organised and administered.

“There’s a growing consensus that what we were saying early on is true. It’s just sad that it’s taken so long for the weight of the evidence to be such that the government has had to do something,” Mould says. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, said he would look “very carefully” at the report, and announced a publicity campaign to ensure that people are aware that benefit advances are available.

“A couple of years ago, we saw head-in-the-sand denial. Today, I think we’ve got little more than window dressing so far,” Mould said when we spoke in February. He sees “little evidence” that the government is acting on Feeding Britain’s recommendations. “We haven’t won hearts or minds: [the report] hasn’t made that much of a difference, because I don’t think it’s been taken on board by the people who have the power and responsibility to make things better.”

However, the food bank movement does have many supporters. According to the most recent report by Church Urban Fund, about three-quarters of all churches in the UK now house food banks and the Church of England is adopting an increasingly active role in the welfare debate. Just before Christmas the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told the Mail on Sunday he found the plight of food bank users “more shocking” than poverty he had witnessed in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mould said he is heartened by the numbers who donate food to the Trussell Trust and the degree of public support it has – donations shot up last April after the Daily Mail published an “undercover investigation” into “scroungers” abusing the food bank system. “One of the things is that poverty is very prevalent,” he said. “Lots of people have experienced it, so they have friends who have been there, they have had parents who have been there, children who have suffered, they have struggled themselves . . . In that sense, the public are much more aware than they used to be that people are at times going hungry in the UK.”


A month after I interviewed Joe and Sam in Tower Hamlets, Sam agreed to meet me for coffee. When she didn’t show up or answer her phone I wondered if she’d changed her mind. Then two weeks later I saw her at the food bank. She smiled and waved me over. She looks different, I thought, and she said things had changed. Joe had found a job at another supermarket. She was due to have her first counselling session the next week, then a job interview. She wasn’t sure if she was well enough but she wanted to work. “I need my own money and my independence because I feel trapped. And he does, too. Trapped,” she said. So why, I wondered, was she at the food bank again? Joe’s benefits had stopped and until his first pay cheque he couldn’t afford the bus to work, so the Trussell Trust was advising them on how to find a short-term loan. They were both ready to move on with life; they just needed the bus fare.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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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