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In this week’s New Statesman | How Isis hijacked the revolution

A first look at this week’s magazine.

Cover story: How Isis hijacked the Syrian revolution

Martin Fletcher meets the British doctor who refuses to give up the fight against Bashar al-Assad

Plus

John Simpson on the “existential crisis” facing the BBC

With friends like these . . . Conrad Black wishes Max Hastings, Boris Johnson, Simon Heffer, and Andrew Roberts would play nicely

George Eaton: Behind the bluster, the Tories and the Lib Dems are war-gaming for a future coalition

Jason Cowley on the NS’s stricken US sister title the New Republic and the Guardian’s “Manchester City” model of journalism

The NS Interview: Michael Prodger meets the remarkable Jan Morris

Helen Lewis defends the Candy Crush MP

Robert Skidelsky: It is indefensible to cut the welfare state as if it caused the crisis

 

Cover story: The British doctor in the fight against Assad

The former Times foreign editor Martin Fletcher travels to Turkey to meet Rami Habib, a 43-year-old doctor from Leicester who joined the revolution against Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and has vowed to stay in Syria and fight despite US-led air strikes and the atrocities by Isis:

“Isis has hijacked the revolution, destroyed the image of the rebel movement and thrown a lifeline to Assad,” Habib says when we meet in October in Antakya, the modern-day Antioch, a Turkish city near the border that is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, including, now, Habib’s mother and brother. The original mainstream rebels, those fighting for freedom and democracy, feel betrayed, abandoned and forgotten, he says. “It’s an appalling situation. It shows that the west simply doesn’t care about stopping Assad or saving ordinary Syrians from his barbarity.”

In 2012, Habib set up a field hospital at the main mosque in Salma, a mountain resort 20 miles from the Mediterranean coast:

. . . his team of four doctors and eight nurses worked through the nights, amputating, stitching, dressing, using the little medicine and equipment they had. They sent the most seriously injured to Turkey, 30 miles to the north, but some died en route or while waiting several hours to cross the border.

“It was a sea of blood,” Habib says. “I never saw anything like this in Leicester, only in the movies. A few times I cried, when women and children were cut dead. Too many died in front of me.” At one point he was filmed denouncing the [Assad] regime in a burst of fury. The video was posted on YouTube, making him a marked man.

Habib, who remains committed to overthrowing Assad and has no intention of returning to the UK, is dismayed that Washington has not done more to help the Free Syrian Army:

To Habib, the US-led air strikes suggest that America cares more about a few of its own citizens than the tens of thousands of dead Syrians. They suggest it considers Isis’s atrocities worse than Assad’s. By targeting Assad’s enemies, they are manifestly helping the regime, which scarcely disguises its pleasure. “The US military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria,” one Syrian diplomat was quoted as saying in a Damascus newspaper in September. Alongside the air strikes, Barack Obama has promised to train and equip several thousand moderate rebels but primarily so they can fight Isis, not Assad. Habib is sceptical, though he firmly believes that strengthening the FSA is the only way forward. “Why have they waited three years?” he says.

 

Commentary: John Simpson on the “existential crisis” facing the BBC

John Simpson reflects on his 48-year career with the BBC and the corporation’s capacity for getting itself into “serious trouble”. Although he is not overly concerned by the present tension between the government and the BBC, triggered by its reporting of the Autumn Statement, Simpson is fearful for the corporation’s future:

The BBC has often undercut its own case during the past few years. I’m sure that a small-scale spat such as George Osborne’s annoyance over hearing a BBC correspondent draw parallels with The Road to Wigan Pier won’t end up doing the kind of damage that Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell – and Lord Hutton – did to the BBC.

But I do believe that we are now facing a genuine existential threat. And knee-jerk, ill-thought-through decisions could do us and Britain’s national life as a whole irreparable damage.

[ . . . ]

It’s no secret that the BBC is an anxious place to work at the moment and it looks as though it will continue to be so. Savage cutbacks have to be made, because its income is falling at around 15 per cent every year. People who have served the BBC well over the years and sometimes sacrificed a lot for it are worried that their jobs are under threat.

Simpson dismisses as nonsense claims of political bias:

It has always been an article of faith among a certain type of Conservative politician and in the right-wing press that the BBC is instinctively left-wing. It started as early as 1926, when the BBC was only four years old, and Winston Churchill tried and failed to make the BBC toe the government line in its reporting of the General Strike. Interestingly, the counter-view, that the BBC is always instinctively pro-Conservative, began at the same time and is held no less strongly. That’s what happens if you’re balanced.

The accusations are replicated in so many other areas: Israel and Palestine, Europe, Russia, America and, once upon a time, South Africa and Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. I used to keep contrasting files of all the hostile and threatening letters I received about these subjects, accusing me of holding precisely opposing opinions; it amused my friends and colleagues.

 

Reflection: Conrad Black on friends, enemies and bilious book reviews

The cross-bench peer Conrad Black reflects on his discomfort on seeing friends and former colleagues attack each other’s work in print:

This has been a year of unusually frequent reviews of books by friends and close acquaintances by others I know and it is disappointing to see how bilious many of them have been. Sir Max Hastings’s review of Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon biography in the Wall Street Journal on 31 October was wildly unjust and inaccurate.

Meanwhile, Black finds Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor a “lively read but not exactly history”. And he condemns Hastings’s “shallow and nasty review” of Roberts’s biography and notes that the former’s work was in turn traduced by Simon Heffer:

Simon Heffer’s dismissal of Catastrophe, Hastings’s book about the start of the First World War, in the New Statesman in June, was slightly snappish and particularly so, given that it was largely a sequence of snide comments from other reviewers. Hastings is good at a soldier’s-eye view of war, unsteady in evaluating the conduct of generals and, apart from the very worthy Winston’s War about Mr Churchill in the Second World War, hopeless at judging the conduct of statesmen.

Heffer, who bears (legitimate) grievances at Hastings’s treatment of him at the Daily Telegraph, implied that Hastings is not “a serious scholar who fits his conclusions to the evidence” and that he is overly opinionated and reliant on the author’s “own army of research assistants”.

This is too disparaging but is at least an arguable view, unlike Hastings’s contemptible assault on Andrew Roberts’s splendid Napoleon the Great. Sir Max has lived by the pen and, if not more careful, will be left for dead by the pen, to fester with his playmate Tom Bower – against whom my libel suit (over his novel about my wife and me nearly ten years ago) is a much-anticipated event in Canada in 2015, especially by me. Canadians will be leaping like salmon to be jurors at the trial. I have had to delay proceeding with it until now to get more important litigation out of the way.

[ . . . ]

I have enjoyed my professional and personal relations with all of these men (that does not include the malicious Bower) but as historians they run an extensive gamut, from the exemplary Roberts and the solid and often elegant Heffer to the more uneven but often flamboyant Hastings and the amiable, singular and slightly unserious Johnson. But they are all distinguished in their different ways and it is rather sad that they could not be more generous in rating each other’s work, in private comments as well as in published reviews.

 

Jason Cowley: the Guardian’s “Manchester City” model of journalism

The NS editor, Jason Cowley, considers the current outcry over plans to “reimagine” the New Republic, the venerable magazine that has been the “voice of American heterodox liberalism” for the past hundred years, as a “vertically integrated digital media company”.

. . . publications such as the New Republic – and the New Statesman, for that matter – deserve to survive, let alone thrive, only if a readership exists for them, in print and online. Very few publications can afford as the Guardian does to operate a debt-financed expansionist model – it loses as much as £30m a year and yet professes the desire to become the “world’s leading liberal voice”. Let’s call the Guardian’s the Manchester City model of journalism. It is clearly one that [the owner of the New Republic Chris] Hughes no longer wishes to share. Yet can TNR become more than a vanity project without destroying its purpose and heritage, or losing its political identity altogether?

 

The Politics Column: War is in the air at Westminster

The NS political editor, George Eaton, observes that behind the bluster, the Tories and the Lib Dems are war-gaming for a future coalition:

War is in the air at Westminster. Battle plans are being finalised, generals recalled and shock troops deployed. In advance of the start of “the long campaign” in January, all parties are transitioning into election mode. Lynton Crosby, the Conservative strategist, has become the pivotal figure at the 4pm Downing Street meeting as David Cameron’s focus shifts from governing to electioneering. Ed Miliband and his office will shortly move from parliament’s Norman Shaw South building to Labour’s Brewer’s Green HQ to merge with the campaign operation. Lib Dem ministers are avoiding the Commons when possible in order to devote their energies to defending their endangered seats.

The Tories and the Lib Dems have spent the period since the Autumn Statement (which Nick Clegg snubbed to campaign in the marginal constituency of St Ives) publicly berating each other. But unlike past ructions over the Alternative Vote campaign, Cameron’s EU “veto”, the constituency boundary changes and childcare ratios, these controlled explosions are designed to benefit both sides politically.

[ . . . ]

The greatest irony of the coalition’s internecine warfare is that its members are quietly preparing the ground for a post-election renewal of vows. Both parties are consciously avoiding policy commitments that could prove impossible to maintain in a future negotiation.

 

Column: Helen Lewis defends the Candy Crush MP

The NS deputy editor, Helen Lewis, who defended the Candy Crush-playing Tory MP Nigel Mills on the Today programme earlier this week, maintains that he was merely unlucky to be caught out (by the Sun) in a type of activity we all engage in to cope with boredom:

The first I knew of the story was at 7.20am on the morning of the Sun’s article, when the Today programme asked if I’d talk about it 20 minutes later. On air, we went through the usual dance in which I explained to John Humphrys what a computer game was and why on earth anyone might want to play one, while he did his impression of a time traveller from the 18th century, disgusted by the excesses of modern life.

  [ . . . ]

Our brains are astonishingly adaptable but their fundamental chemistry makes two and a half hours of listening to people talk about pensions a formidable challenge . . .

As ever, we talk about wanting MPs to be more like “ordinary people” but when one of them does something extremely ordinary, like getting bored, we feign surprise and offence. Let he whose mind has never wandered in a seminar cast the first stone.

By the way, I looked at parliament’s website: Nigel Mills hasn’t missed a work and pensions select committee meeting since June. He made 46 out of 51 sessions in the previous year. I’ll take someone who plays a few games of Candy Crush over those parliamentarians who don’t turn up at all.

 

Robert Skidelsky: It is indefensible to cut the welfare state as if it caused the crisis

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) warns that Britain will have to make “colossal” cuts to public spending by 2018-19, the award-winning economist Robert Skidelsky argues that “we need a cool discussion on the role of the state as owner and regulator in a market economy”.

The cross-bench peer notes that the IFS believes the necessary cuts can only be achieved by shrinking the state but, in his view, “it is indefensible to cut the state for reasons of financial dogmatism”:

If a government has to cut its spending, it is much better to tax the rich than starve the poor. However, this is alien to the spirit of cutting. The barely subliminal message of all austerity programmes is that the deficit has been caused by spiralling welfare payments to the poor, with the object of austerity being to “get them on their bikes” – like in the 1930s, when unemployment was consistently around or above 10 per cent.

[ . . . ]

It needs to be pointed out that these huge cuts imply serious losses to the quality of government services and the strength of the defence and police services.

I’m not sure which is worse: to bleed the economy with small cuts stretching many years ahead or to cut deeply now and hope for the best. What does seem clear is that politics will not allow the second and only a Labour government can avert the first.

 

Interview: Michael Prodger on the extraordinary life of Jan Morris

The NS assistant editor Michael Prodger meets the 88-year-old author Jan Morris who, over an eventful life, has been an officer, journalist, husband, celebrated writer, and a wife. Morris tells Prodger that her new book, a study of the Renaissance Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio, will be her last:

I wonder if writing about a Venetian painter provided some sort of closure with the city that had made her name as an author? (Venice by James Morris was published in 1960.)

“Yes, I thought it would be nice to end with one about a place that has given so much pleasure to me, that has meant so much to me,” she replies.

[ . . . ]

There is, in fact, at least one more book to come, but not until after her death. Why publish posthumously? “I thought when I first began it that it was going to be a more personal kind of book,” she says. “Over the years it has changed its slant. I began to think all life was allegory, my own life was allegory. So I called the book Allegorisings. From time to time I add things to it. I think it is in print in New York and London, and ready to go. So when I kick the bucket the presses will roll.”

Before he leaves the author’s home in Snowdonia, Prodger finds that Morris has already made plans for that moment:

As our conversation draws to a close she suddenly says, no doubt as a result of being prompted to reach back into her life: “My gravestone is under the stairs.” I ask if I can see it and follow her as she busies herself moving papers and files, to reveal a simple stone bearing hers and Elizabeth’s [Morris’s wife and partner of 65 years] names and the simple words Morris wrote herself: “Here are two friends, at the end of one life.” When I tell her how touching it is she says, “I think so. It moves me.”

The stone and its sentiment seem entirely consistent with her improbable life. But perhaps, I suggest, to her, as the person who has lived it, that life has seemed if not ordinary, then at least normal. “No, not at all, I think what an extraordinary life it’s been. And how lucky.”

Plus

Kenneth Baker believes English schools have undergone two revolutions

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire shares the pick of the latest gossip from Westminster

Letter from Guyana: Girish Gupta reports on a constitutional crisis in a racially divided state

Sigrid Rausing on how Estonia’s ethnic Swedes survived revolution, invasion and persecution

David Marquand on a new study of Edmund Burke’s early life
Stuart Maconie reviews four tomes of the life stories of self-made rock stars

Kester Aspden recalls how reading novels in jail helped change his future

The NS TV critic Rachel Cooke: ITV’s Christopher Jefferies drama is a triumph

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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.