In this week's New Statesman: Will Europe ever go to war again?

T.G. Otte on why we have learned nothing from the First World War. PLUS: Olivier Roy on the myth of the Islamist winter and the News Photos of the Year 2012.

In the New Statesman’s leader this week, we address Leveson, the press and transparency. The public debate post-Leveson has been “dominated by the threat that any implementation of his central recommendations might pose to the principle of free speech” and with far less emphasis on “the best way to protect members of the public from the kind of offences that the Leveson process exposed”.

An “ad hoc” meeting of news editors at 10 Downing Street (from which Private Eye, the Observer, the New Statesman and others were omitted) has done little to move the debate towards a fair and unbiased perspective on industry reform:

The awkward truth for all concerned is that the press is a shrinking corner of the media landscape. So many of our newspapers are losing tens of millions in income each year. There are urgent debates to be had about the protection of free speech, the boundaries of acceptable discourse and what constitutes invasion of privacy – online. The clubbable disquisitions of newspaper editors are as relevant to the moral and legal challenges thrown up by the digital revolution as the concerns of monasteries were when the printing press threatened their monopoly on scripture.

What matters most in this case is not the system the editors’ club conveniently devises to let itself off the hook of statutory regulation but the perception that the process is honest, transparent and driven by respect for victims of press abuse as well as the principle of free expression.

In our second leader, the NS applauds “how much has changed” since David Cameron voted in favour of a ban on “promoting” homosexuality in schools in 2003:

Perhaps no other piece of legislation introduced by Mr Cameron’s government will do more to promote human happiness. At a time of economic misery, that is something to celebrate.


T.G. Otte: The great carnage

The historian and former Foreign Office adviser T. G. Otte writes a sweeping analysis that considering the nature and consequences of the First World War and the tensions within Europe present then, and now. The fraught posturing of politicians in 1914 may seem familiar to many of us today — but have we failed to learn our “broader lesson” from the war? He begins:

The announcement of the government’s plans for a programme of events to commemorate the First World War is welcome, not least because policymakers should know and understand the nature and consequences of conflict. To learn any broader “les­sons”, it is necessary to re-examine what led to the war. It is tempting to look for large causes, given that July 1914 started a chain reaction that led to two world wars and a European “civil war” that lasted until 1989/91. But, in doing so, historians often paint a picture of an inevitable conflict, of Europe reaching boiling point and then exploding violently. That would be the wrong lesson . . .

The decision-makers of 1914 could not know their future any more than we can know ours. It is therefore important to appreciate the elements of risk and uncertainty their calculations contained. International crises generate their own dynamic and internal logic, of which events are both cause and consequence – and it is here that 1914 offers lessons.


Olivier Roy: The myth of the Islamist winter

The prolific author and expert on political Islam Olivier Roy, writing for the NS this week, debunks the myth of an “Islamist winter”. In a bilateral discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the al-Nahda government in Tunisia, Roy asserts that the spirit of protest which gripped the two nations throughout the Arab spring “is not about to be extinguished”. Far from being an “Islamic revolution”, Roy says, the current state of government in the Arab world is rather “a coalition that is con­servative in politics and morals but neoliberal in economics”, and one that bows to a newly empowered public:

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the Islamists who came to power through the ballot box are seeing their popularity erode and are tempted to hold on to power by recourse to authoritarian measures. But they have to deal with the legacy of the Arab spring. They face a new political culture: now, one where people who disagree with the government take to the streets; where there is no reverence for established power and the army and the police no longer inspire fear.

Morsi’s success on the international stage has encouraged him to flex his muscles at home. But Morsi has gone too far too fast in his attempt to reinforce the power of the presidency at the expense of a judicial apparatus that was able to retain a degree of autonomy under Hosni Mubarak. And his failure to anticipate and understand the strength of public opinion has made things worse.

What is more, society [in Tunisia] has absorbed the culture of protest more deeply than in Egypt. At the local level, demonstrations and riots against the government are common currency... The Islamists can use old techniques (treating their political opponents as “traitors”, introducing censorship, martial law or a state of emergency), but this won’t prevent the people from calling them to account.


Photo Special: The Best News Images of 2012

In a special feature in this week’s magazine, the New Statesman brings together the year’s best news photography. From the highs of the London Olympics and Barack Obama’s re-election to the lows of civil war in Syria and Libya, to the voices of courageous women such as Malala Yousafzai and Pussy Riot, who made their protests “heard in the face of terror and oppression” – this was 2012. Curated by Rebecca McClelland and with an introduction by Sophie Elmhirst.

(A Libyan man looks out from his ruined apartment in Ajdabiyah, destroyed by heavy shelling during the Libyan civil war. PHOTO: Yuri Kozyrev Noor Images)




Rafael Behr: Forget the lib-lab pact, Clegg's current position suits the opposition perfectly

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr writes on cross-party political allegiances: “There is nothing new in political rivals teaming up to achieve their goals.” On the Leveson report, Nick Clegg finds himself closer to Ed Miliband, but he cannot be seen to jump ship from the Conservative coalition just yet, whether on this matter or others:


. . . the Lib Dems are pushing coalition as an attractive and stable system of government. That requires getting to the end of the parliament with a chest full of gleaming policy trophies. Prematurely flouncing away from power is not in the plan.

 “We can’t be seen to be throwing off the fiscal straitjacket at the first opportunity,” says a Lib Dem strategist of the party’s dilemma. “Nor can we stand at the next election in a position where people can say, ‘They have exactly the same platform as the Tories.’


Laurie Penny: The urge to "save" women from selling sex is little more than puritanism

For “In the Red” this week, Laurie Penny argues in favour of decriminalising sex work, lambasting the “treacherous stream of public opinion” that has seen the debate over the sex trade usurped by “neo-Victorian” lobbyists and the public, rather than the voice of those within the industry. Penny writes that legislation is more often “designed to protect the middle classes from the more ‘unsavoury’ elements of the community” than to protect sex workers effectively. It is a class, even a gender, issue:


Their stories [those of female and male sex workers] are often very different from the simple tale of victimhood told by anti-sex-trade campaigners. The voices and opinions of sex workers, however, are usually silenced in “mainstream” debates about prostitution.

The elements of class suspicion at work here shouldn’t have to be spelled out. When “nice” women with regular incomes take a stand to deny the agency and attack the morality of people working in precarious conditions, what else are we supposed to call it?

For groups such as the European Women’s Lobby, prostitution is always male violence against women – so the many men who work as prostitutes don’t really count. Sexually conservative feminists have never seemed anxious to save male sex workers. It’s as if there were a sort of “prejudging” going on. It’s almost like – what’s the word? Oh, yes. Prejudice.


In the Critics

In the Critics section of this week's magazine, Simon Kuper, author most recently of The Football Men, reviews Tout seul, the memoir of the former French national coach Raymond Domenech. None of the stars of the French game – Zinédine Zidane, Nicolas Anelka, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribéry, to name just four – emerges unscathed.

Also in the Critics:

David Herman reviews In Two Minds, Kate Bassett’s biography of Jonathan Miller

Lesley Chamberlain on Benoît Peeters’s biography of Jacques Derrida

Leo Robson reviews Both Flesh and Not, a posthumous collection of essays by David Foster Wallace

Philip Maughan talks to the crime writer Val McDermid

Architect Amanda Levete charts the progress of her firm's scheme for a new gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

Ryan Gilbey reviews The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey

For this and more read our "In the Critics this week" feature on Cultural Capital.


Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at:

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.