In this week’s New Statesman: The intervention trap

Olivier Roy asks: "As France and Britain are lured into Africa, what is al-Qaeda planning?" PLUS: Bryan Appleyard on the entitlement of the super-rich.

Olivier Roy: The intervention trap

In our cover story this week Olivier Roy – head of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence – writes in an exclusive essay on al-Qaeda in Africa. The French and British military action in Mali misunderstands the nature of terrorism and the ambitions of al-Qaeda. The complexities of al-Qaeda across Africa, and France’s multilayered reasons for intervening in the Malian conflict, leave few clear answers. He writes:

It is clear that we are still stuck in the kind of semantic and political confusion introduced by the Bush administration when it launched its “war on terror” after the 11 September 2001 attacks . . .

There is nothing new or distinctive about the activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) or any of the other small bands of international jihadists operating in the Sahel. The groups linked to al-Qaeda are nomadic, almost by definition – they are not anchored in the societies in which they operate.

The composition of the group that attacked the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria is a case in point: its members were from several different countries and of various races, and also included converts . . .

It would be absurd for the French to think that they could evict al-Qaeda from the Maghreb by occupying territory: al-Qaeda would simply regroup a little further away. And if the aim is the destruction of these groups, that is also absurd. Given the small numbers of fighters involved (a few hundred) and given that al-Qaeda recruits internationally, it would be easy for them to take flight, to cross borders or to return to London or Toronto in jeans and without beards . . .

Facts are stubborn things, as Lenin said. In spite of the moralising, the ideological posturing, the junk geopolitical strategising (the west against Islamic terrorism) which has held politicians, journalists and the military captive for a decade, though it has been continually disproved by events, the old problems will return . . .

Bryan Appleyeard: The age of entitlement.

The new super-rich have no allegiance, obligation or connection to wider society, says the award-winning journalist Bryan Appleyard in the NS Essay this week. In an impassioned piece on the “rising narcissism” and impunity of those who made their wealth in rogue finance, Appleyard argues that we have entered a new “age of entitlement”, where the super-rich live in a “mirror-lined” and “legally protected” bubble.

Perhaps it was ever thus: the rich have always been different. But that’s not true. Some­thing big, something moral, has changed . . .

“Shocking” is too soft a word to describe the crimes of the financial sector. They are almost thrilling in their creative abundance . . . loading the world economywith ever greater levels of risk and throwing millions of people out of work. And so on. All the time, they were enriching nobody but themselves. The banks and their buddies have been on a crime spree that would have glazed over the eyes of Al Capone . . .

I witnessed the cult’s apotheosis at the World Economic Forum in Davos in the early 1990s – I sat in on a meeting at which sharky young businessmen more or less said they would trample on their grandmothers for the sake of the bottom line. Viciousness had been validated. That is the enduring view in the financial sector. “There is no incentive in the financial world,” a very prominent insider told me, “to be moral . . .”

The new entitled live in a mirror-lined bubble. Also a legally protected one. I was told of a hedge-fund boss so vile that investors withdrew their money but did not sue, because other hedge funds would then refuse to do business with them. On top of that, they are protected in Britain by libel laws and a tax system that, as John Lanchester [the author of Capital] points out, not only shields our own entitled from scrutiny but also encourages equally entitled foreigners to come here . . .

“You might as well say, ‘Bond villains, come and live here,’ ” he [Lanchester] says. “Our libel laws don’t help. There are a lot of zillionaires about whom we are going to read the truth uncensored only when they are dead. It’s an astonishing situation, when we have such a proliferation of incredibly rich criminals.”

Kathleen Jamie: The spirit of Bannockburn

Next year, a referendum on independence will determine Scotland’s future, but the country’s artists have already launched their own fight for freedom. With the vote timed for the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, the battle that “secured [Scotland’s] independence and confirmed its national identity”, the poet Kathleen Jamie – who was invited to compose words to be inscribed on the new Bannockburn memorial – writes, in a Letter from Stirling:

Bannockburn was an unlikely triumph for the Scots. The English forces were vastly superior in number, but the Scots knew their own land. The Bruce had chosen well and trained hard; he made use of the forests, bogs and waterways around him. Driven into soft ground, the English horses floundered and so did the men . . .

It’s a potent site. The weight of history, the sobriety of the monuments, the weather and the light, the slaughter, resistance, the subsequent union, devolution, turns of fate, a refusal to submit, “freedom”, whatever that means – the whole Bannockburn thing was ours in a small way to redirect.

The thing is, many Scots, myself included, have no problem distinguishing independence from nationalism, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum, not because of a Bannockburn sentiment, but in the knowledge that any Holyrood government need not necessarily be “nationalist”.

The Battle of Bannockburn was a colossal, defining event. The move towards independence, on the other hand, is a process long and slow.

PLUS:

 

Rafael Behr: The Tories are blinded by rage against the Lib Dems, while Labour’s cold fury is thawing

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr says the Conservatives are “fantasising about governing beyond 2015, without the shackles of coalition”, but notes that at the same time Labour’s post-election fury towards the Liberal Democrats is thawing. Read his piece in full on our website here.

Craig Raine: On Manet’s subtle sexuality

It would be impossible to paint ‘modern life’ without touching on the touchy subject of sex. Manet’s Olympia (1863) tried the direct address – the barely defiant ‘so what?’ of the courtesan, the sack artist, the cool professional – and ran into even more trouble.

Laurie Penny: Can Rihanna videos really turn a girl into a knicker-dropping strumpet?

The language of ‘sexualisation’ as employed by professional pearl-clutchers such as the Tory MP Claire Perry, implicitly assumes that sex is always something done to a woman rather than something we do… By this measure, a young girl merely has to leaf through a copy of Cosmo or stumble upon a Rihanna video on YouTube and wham, that’s it: sexualized. Ruined forever. Nothing to be done.

In the Critics:

  • Jonathan Derbyshire reviews The Scientists: a Family Romance by Marco Roth
  • Kate Mossman reviews A Prince Among the Stones: That Business With the Rolling Stones and Other Adventures by Prince Rupert Loewenstein
  • Alexandra Harris reviews Paul Kildea’s major new biography of Benjamin Britten
  • Novelist Toby Litt reviews Tracey Thorn’s memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen
  • Ryan Gilbey is not wholly convinced by Robert Zemeckis’s new film, Flight.
  • Rachel Cooke sings the praises of Jonathan Meades’s new documentary for BBC4, The Joy of Essex
  • Will Self's Real Meals column

And much more.

Read further in our “In the Critics this Week” blog here.

All this and more in this week's New Statesman, on newsstands and online available for purchase here.

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.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.