Responding to the Spectator

James Macintyre responds to the <a href="

Why is it that attacking the Labour party in print is seen as fair game in the Westminster playground and common practice for “neutral” journalists, but dare to turn your fire on David Cameron's Conservative party and you are dismissed as a mad, foaming-at-the-mouth red under the bed?

That's the question I asked myself not for the first time as I was alerted – while printing off Cameron's latest speech on how to cut public spending - to the attack by the Spectator's political editor, Fraser Nelson on my article in this week's New Statesman scrutinising the extent of Tory policy reform.

For going against the conventional wisdom that Cameron has “modernised” the Tory party, and looking at the major policy areas with scepticism, I am accused of being “from the Planet Zog”, of the “hard-left” viewpoint that “anything short of nationalisation of the means of production is a capitalist plot”.

Well, I am glad Nelson raises nationalisation because the point I was trying to make was precisely that Cameron has failed in making any major change on a par with either Tony Blair's symbolic abolition of the nationalising “Clause IV”, or for that matter, with Neil Kinnock's spectacular expulsion of Militant in the 1980s. (My point is that Kenneth Clarke, on the other hand, would have made abandoning the ideological commitment to tax cuts the party's “Clause IV”, creating a compromise with the electorate of the sort that Cameron, and the unsackable George Osborne, have repeatedly said is not needed (we'll see).)

Instead, from the moment he emerged on the scene and wowed the media with a speech without notes in 2005, Cameron has been awarded the title “moderniser” for nothing more than a series of photo-opportunities.

Nelson, ever keen bravely to leap to the defence of the Tory leadership, disputes this, and – unlike during the radio appearance to which he refers – attempts to list some of the changes. Unfortunately, they make uncharacteristically lightweight reading:

His first and main claim (other than references to language and rhetoric changes which prove my point neatly) is that Cameron has “embraced the social justice agenda”; but substance to back this dramatic assurance there comes none. Forgive me if I sound like I'm from the “hard-left” but my understanding of social justice is that it involves wildly leftist concepts like mild redistribution of wealth; helping the poor, and so on (not, say, raising the inheritance tax threshold for the very rich).

Incidentally, I note that Nelson's blog sits next to another Spectator one by Peter Hoskin, entitled “The Tories are ramping up their spending cut rhetoric”. I hope Nelson wouldn't smear his colleague with the “hard-left” gag.

Nelson also denies that Cameron made a U-turn on grammar schools, despite the fact that his original plan of saying there will be no new ones under a Tory government was reversed, with Cameron appeasing his Tory critics, explicitly stating this was not a “Clause IV” moment and saying “I don't go around picking a fight with my party”. I am surprised Fraser, an assiduous Cameron-watcher, “missed” the U-turn story when it was in covered by the rest of the Tory press.

Nelson also ridicules my claim that Cameron is set to penalise single mothers – perhaps this is one of the “lies” he mysteriously refers to towards the end of his blog. He must, then, have missed the story that Cameron will reward through the tax system married couples, and middle class couples when one of those is wealthy enough to stay at home. These are not, I fancy, policies aimed at the single mother on a council estate in Hull.

As to Nelson's wacky claim that Cameron has softened the Tory message on immigrants, after the Tory leader has repeatedly used the populist Sun to lament the flooding of Britain by too many of them, and accuse the Government of “lying” over “uncontrolled”, “unsustainable” numbers, I am more surprised Nelson missed them, too, than I am that Cameron has taken such an approach given his masterminding of the notoriously racist “are you thinking what we're thinking” 2005 general election strategy.

But, hey, I'm not a great one for blogging – yet - and like Nelson, no doubt, I have one or two other things to do, though there is one point on which I would agree with Nelson: we have indeed not met. So, let me suggest we have a debate on the great Cameron hologram – a venue or platform of his choice. Fraser, I look forward to meeting you.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.