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

A first look at this week’s magazine.


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

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


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.


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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.