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In this week’s New Statesman | The British jihadis fighting for Isis

A first look at this week’s magazine.

31 OCTOBER 2014 ISSUE

“By the time you read this, I will be in Syria”

Radicalisation expert Shiraz Maher speaks to British jihadis who have joined Isis

Plus

Special report: George Eaton on Labour’s Scotland problem

Margaret Atwood on ageing baby boomers, generational inequality, and women writers

Life before the NHS: a 91-year-old war hero recalls the bad old days

Still awaiting the green moment: Tim Wigmore meets Caroline Lucas

Desmond Cohen: how the west made the ebola crisis worse

Helen Lewis: why your friends could be making you fat

 

Cover story

From Portsmouth to Kobane: the British jihadis

In a powerful cover story for this week’s issue, the radicalisation expert Shiraz Maher goes inside the world of British radicals fighting in Syria and Iraq. Maher describes the personal relationships he has built up, in his capacity as a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), with jihadis fighting on the ground. He recounts lengthy Skype discussions with men such as Ifthekar Jaman, who grew up in Portsmouth and last year slipped into Aleppo, via Turkey, to join Isis:

Jaman was my first interviewee. It was November 2013 and the weather was miserable as I made my way home from work. He had sent me a message to say that we could do an interview on Skype. This is very rare. Most fighters are happy only to text because of poor internet connections (and, I suspect, their own security concerns).

Several hours after the time he’d told me to expect him, I gave up. Jaman hadn’t called and it was late. I ordered a curry and resigned myself to Friday-night television. Then he rang and there I was – patched in from London to an IS training camp, somewhere in northern Syria.

Assalamu Alaikum, brother,” he said.

It was exhilarating: the start of a process in which ICSR began building relationships with fighters on the ground. I nibbled on poppadoms and chutney while he explained his motivations for going.

Maher explains that it was exposure to extreme opinions online, rather than local imams, which radicalised Jaman. He argues that social media has “empowered individual fighters to become recruiting sergeants in their own right” and, most importantly, that it is allowing jihadis to have two-way conversations with potential recruits where once they simply issued edicts:

These interactions help prospective fighters overcome lingering fears and emotional barriers. Fighters are asked, for example, how they broke the news to their parents and how their families are coping with their decision. Others ask what living arrangements are like in Syria, or how to cross the border safely.

Bizarrely, some have even asked whether hair gel is available in the IS stronghold of Raqqa. Lots of practical advice is forthcoming: bring good hiking boots, waterproof clothing and a warm coat; don’t pack radical literature; medicine for an upset stomach is also a good idea; and an iPad is recommended, for keeping in touch with family and inspiring others to make the same journey. (Hair gel, in case you were wondering, is available on the inside.)

Maher also reports on recent skype conversations with Mehdi Hassan, another “Portsmouth boy”, who was killed in Kobane on 24 October:

Mehdi Hassan was the adventure seeker. He was the youngest of the Portsmouth boys by several years and displayed a combination of youthful wonder and self-importance as a member of IS. “Will you write a book about me?” he asked. “Send me a copy please . . . address it to the big tent in the Syrian desert.”

Our interactions were often curt and difficult. He was aggressive and arrogant. I asked him what he thought of the condemnation of IS by al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Some of the global jihad movement’s most important theoreticians, such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi or Abu Qatada (who was recently deported from the UK to Jordan), have also chastised the group. “They’ve gone soft,” Hassan told me. He reasoned that they had either lost their way or sold out. He was seven years old when Zawahiri helped plan the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

 

Special report: Labour's Scotland problem

The NS political editor George Eaton has the inside story on the events which led to Johann Lamont’s resignation as leader of the Scottish Labour party last week.

Lamont’s allies tell Eaton that Ed Miliband is guilty of a “ham-fisted plot”. Some attribute her “brutal knifing” to polls which indicated that the Scottish National Party could win as many as 25 of the party’s 40 Scottish Westminster seats. Others believe Jim Murphy, the shadow international development secretary and now front runner to replace Lamont, was preparing to mount a leadership challenge. Katy Clark, the left-wing MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, tells Eaton:

“Johann wasn’t given the organisational support that she required to carry out her role. . . Every time I asked her to come to an event in my constituency, she turned up but she was often by herself. She didn’t have an operation around her, she didn’t have the organisational support and, clearly, she didn’t have the freedom that she required to do what was necessary for the Scottish party.”

Eaton notes that Lamont frequently described herself as a “reluctant leader”; her election in 2011 is evidence of the “paucity of talent in Holyrood”, he argues:

For years, even as the devolved parliament has become the defining arena of Scottish politics, Labour’s A-team has remained at Westminster, leaving the reserves to be massacred by Alex Salmond’s championship-winning side.

 

The NS interview: Margaret Atwood

Erica Wagner meets the author Margaret Atwood at the Ilkley Literature Festival as her story collection Stone Mattress is published. One of the stories—“Torching the Dusties”—explores the issue of generational inequality and Wagner finds that Atwood has some sympathy with disenfranchised young people:

“Wonderful though our automatonised world is becoming, there are a lot of people who don’t have jobs; and those people are young. When you have a lot of young people who don’t have jobs, you are going to get a lot of energy of an angry kind. Older people have built up resources – you know, why don’t we like dragons in The Hobbit?” she asks rhetorically. She is quite fond of rhetorical questions; it’s always worth waiting for the answer. “They keep everything in a great big pile and they sit on it. It’s the same reason we don’t like Scrooge at the beginning of A Christmas Carol: not only is he sitting on a vast pile of wealth, he’s not even spending it on himself. Currency is called ‘currency’ for a reason: it has to circulate. When you block the circulation you get a stagnant state of affairs.”

On the subject of assisted dying Atwood is undecided:

It’s a problem, she says with typical bluntness, that didn’t used to exist. “Once upon a time there were not nearly so many people living to that age; people that old would have been freakish. In the Victorian situation they would have been cared for within the extended family home; in hunter-gatherer societies, should you have someone that old, the group would have cared for such a person – except when they decided, ‘OK, that’s enough,’ and they would choose to go out themselves. ‘I’ve made my contribution, I’m a drag, and now I’m going.’ That’s why I think there’s such a movement right now for death with dignity. People feel they want to be able to choose their exit.”

The baby boomers, as they move into decrepitude, “will want what they have always wanted, which is lots of choice”.

It is at this point that – unchivalrous though it is – I can’t help wondering whether, well, this is something she’s thought about herself. She arches her eyebrows and puts on a high, mock-hysterical, chipmunk voice. “Ooooh! Are we going to talk about dying?” she squeals – but then reverts to a serious, thoughtful mien. “I understand both points of view. Like anything else we do, that kind of choice is subject to abuse.”

Although Atwood is relieved that women authors no longer have to face patronising questions about managing the housework, she believes it is far from a “utopian era” for female writers:

There are a number of younger women writers – but you can’t say they’re dominant. I think it’s more likely to be even-steven these days. And people are much less likely to feel that they are having to jump through a lot of hoops, or that they have to answer questions like, ‘So what about the housework?’ I mean, that used to happen; but I doubt that it happens very much any more.”

Well, I say brightly, surely that’s a good thing. “That is a good thing,” she agrees. “But it may be a little bit unrealistic, in that if you have children, you do have to worry about the housework. It’s not like there’s no more housework. It was never a totally unrealistic question, even though it was, at that time, a condescending question. It doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. It doesn’t mean we’ve entered some sort of utopian era where all of these problems have just gone away or been solved by little robots, because it’s not true.”

 

The Politics interview: Caroline Lucas

Tim Wigmore meets a “chipper” Caroline Lucas at her Westminster office; the Greens’ first and only MP is invigorated by the public outcry which followed a proposal that Ukip, but not the Green party, should be included in the televised general election leaders’ debates next year. Lucas believes that taking part in the debates could prove a “transformational” moment for the party. Wigmore notes she is somewhat defensive on the subject of Ukip’s success:

She says that the media fascination with Ukip “does become a self-fulfilling prophecy” and also pinpoints Ukip’s “massive financial backing”.

At the same time, she concedes that Ukip’s “clarity of message” is “something we can all learn from”.

She continues: “‘Leave the EU’ is a much easier rallying cry than the position of the Greens, which would be to say that the EU’s done some fantastic things, they’ve also done some pretty bad things, so we need to reform it.”

 

Personal story: life before the NHS

Harry Leslie Smith, a 91-year-old RAF veteran born into an impoverished Yorkshire mining family, remembers life before the welfare state:

Even now, when I look back to those gaslight days of my boyhood and youth, all I can recollect is hunger, filth, fear and death. My mother called those terrible years for our family, our friends and our nation a time when “hard rain ate cold Yorkshire stone for its tea”.

I will never forget seeing as a teenager the faces of former soldiers who had been broken physically and mentally during the Great War and were living rough in the back alleys of Bradford. Their faces were haunted not by the brutality of the war but by the savagery of the peace. Nor will I forget as long as I shall live the screams that fell out of dosshouse windows from the dying and mentally ill, who were denied medicine and solace because they didn’t have the money to pay for medical services.

Smith, who has recently published a memoir--Harry’s Last Stand: How the World My Generation Built is Falling Down and What We Can Do to Save it—sees a parallel between the austerity measures of his youth and today’s government cost-cutting:

Like today, those tragedies were perpetuated by a coalition government preaching that the only cure for our economic troubles was a harsh austerity, which promised to right Britain’s finances through the sacrifice of its lowest-paid workers. When my dad got injured, the dole he received was ten shillings a week. My family, like millions of others, were reduced to beggary. In the 1930s, the government believed that private charities were more suitable for providing alms for those who had been ruined in the Great Depression.

Plus

Lucy Hughes-Hallett on the Young Stalin: can we ever unravel the mind of the tyrant?

Dorian Lynskey on the Godlike David Icke’s Wembley Arena show

TV critic Rachel Cooke: with The Missing, the BBC squares up to Broadchurch

Melanie McDonagh on Hallowe’en and the commercial hijacking of our calendar

On Location in Plymouth: Will Self enjoys the Devonian capital’s derring-do

Art critic Craig Raine on Egon Schiele’s radical nudes

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential: defibrillators for aged peers, why David Miliband feels fraternal pity - and the Tory hopes pinned on Rupert Harrison

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR