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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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How to criticise the left

Thanks to the internet, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us.

If you use Twitter a lot, you may have wondered exactly how to criticise large parts of the left without sounding like a bigot, a racist, or worst of all Richard Dawkins. 

The legacy of what the internet calls “identity politics” is that the lived experience of an individual now not only informs a given debate, as well it should, but dominates it, leaving no room for dissent.

Coupled with the binary nature of the internet, in which layered ideas are pounded flat by the limitations of the format, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us. There are no in-betweens.   

For instance, even advocates of political correctness (as I am) often concede that the use of inclusionary language can potentially be wrongheaded or clumsy. Yet anyone caught contravening the latest iteration of an increasingly esoteric cant is blacklisted as a witch, a heretic, a mansplainer, a “whorephobe”, Richard Littlejohn, or a similarly unflattering slur.

It leads to a question: is this hectoring attitude towards cultural shibboleths likely to alienate well-meaning middle-grounders from ever truly engaging with the ideas?

Not that engagement is always the objective. The development of stylesheets to define a person’s credentials is also a defensive weapon – if someone lacks the argumentative tools to tackle an idea, they can discredit the person having the idea instead. It’s an excuse for emotional, rather than critical, thinking. “Why,” a leftist might ask today, “should I engage with Peter Hitchens on immigration or drug law, when he’s a Tory/racist/space alien?”  Twitter is lousy with people who know the answer before they’ve asked the question.

Equally the internet is a great way of insulating yourself against challenging ideas, and you can even become something of a left-wing darling among choirs of like-minded peers. But no matter your cachet within the hierarchy of progressiveness, will you ever be qualified to reliably discuss Beethoven if you’ve only ever listened to the Dead Kennedys? 

The reason I feel the need to analogise is that creativity is required to express ideas in an age where words and ideas can quickly become taboo. Try having a grown-up conversation about freedom of speech or immigration or austerity without the debate quickly descending into a face-off around each word’s representative categorical implications. Unironic use of the words free speech mark you as a libertarian, your stance on immigration makes you either pro or anti racism, and what you think about austerity implies whether or not class privilege courses inexorably through your veins. I am using this garish italicisation as is customary for non-integrated foreign words, because at this point they may as well be: these words have no longer have any original or literal meaning but represent only a wider cultural idea, like saying plus ca change or c'est la vie. 

Without doubt, this is a result of use, misuse and overuse, the sucking until flavourless the sour and sweet confectionary of political rhetoric. Powerful, provocative words cannot enjoy unlimited transplantations in and out of their intended context. Soon, the context will stop sticking, like worn-out velcro. We risk devaluing useful globules of language by repurposing them so often not as useful signifiers but as brands for the ideologically impure. 

This problem is by no means limited to the left – just look at how similarly right-wing parodies of social liberals miss the point of trigger warnings and safe spaces, warping the words beyond their intended uses – but the unifying factor of this context-free approach to language is that it makes criticism impossible without invoking some real or imagined transgression.

Think about when Charlie Hebdo recently published cartoons of Aylan Kurdi. The cartoons were many things – tasteless, offensive, upsetting – but instead the controversial magazine was accused of making fun of a young boy’s death. A cursory Google translation of the captions and an ounce of critical analysis confirms that this interpretation simply wasn’t true – but try typing that online without looking like you endorse Charlie Hebdo’s repugnant sketches. Like so much else, the answers to our questions of cultural morality exist in the spaces, where they can’t produce retweet-grabbing soundbites.

Maybe we should give up expecting balance in any criticism of the far left, the far right, or anyone. But we should always try to remember one of the things that separates us humans from pigs – chiefly, the ability to analyze a piece of communication critically. Tempting though it may be to allow emotions alone to decide our allegiances, mindlessly trotting in hundred-strong herds to whoever is offering the biggest pail of swill, we have the power to understand the world – and its language – objectively. We have the power to analyse and critique and discuss, beyond the scope of our base instincts. It’s a controversial thought these days, but perhaps if we remembered it more often, political discourse on the internet and beyond wouldn’t feel so much like Lord of the Flies. 

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The Syrian tragedy and the crumbling of world order

Industrial-scale murder, state collapse and huge displacement on Europe’s borders have destroyed old certainties.

The west would like to forget Syria but it refuses to be forgotten. Since the civil war there began in 2011, our expressions of sympathy with its benighted people have followed an oddly cyclical, almost ­ritualistic pattern. Every summer, when our politicians are away on holiday, news from Syria seems to have an odd way of flooding back into the headlines. Something gruesome unfolds that once again draws our attention. There is a tragedy to prick our conscience, or some new horror – perpetrated by the regime or its enemies – to shock our sensibilities.

The crisis in Syria is developing fast. Iranian and Russian involvement is increasing by the week, in addition to the role played by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states in funnelling money into the conflict. US policy is likely to develop considerably over the next few months, as it is widely agreed that the existing approach has not achieved its aims. France has announced a new aerial campaign against Islamic State. The real choice facing Britain will be whether it, too, is capable of, or willing to, play a part.

Parliament may be about to begin another hermetically sealed intellectual debate about non-intervention and intervention. But others will continue fiddling in Syria for their own purposes, and Britain will face some of the consequences.

Interfering in the Middle East is a thing of which weary western governments, and their populations, have become extremely wary. It is for understandable reasons that our response to events in the region begins from that premise. What we are now presented with, however, is the corollary: the consequences of a “kick the can down the road” foreign policy.

Some of the results of this seem to resonate with us more than others. Last year it was the fate of the Yazidis threatened by the so-called Islamic State that was the spur to action. The response to the image of the three-year-old boy Aylan Kurdi, dead on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey – one of two Syrian Kurdish children killed in the latest tragedy involving boatloads and convoys of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war zones in the Middle East and North Africa – seems to suggest that reserves of sympathy have not yet been exhausted. Or, at least, that there are still some things that cannot be ignored. Yet the truth is that our compassion is on a sliding scale. We are fast becoming more, not less accustomed to these things.

The refugee crisis has intruded into our neighbourhood, and therefore our collective conscience. But it is just one small example of the further descent of Syria into darkness. That Aylan Kurdi – who died together with his five-year-old brother, Ghalib, and their mother, Rehan – was fleeing the town of Kobane is a reminder of just how connected these things are. Earlier this year, Kobane was given a momentary reprieve after being besieged by Islamic State (IS) for months. US air strikes helped Kurdish fighters take back the town but it remains extremely vulnerable to attacks. The IS capital, Raqqa, is just two and a half hours’ drive away to the south. At the end of June, IS fighters infiltrated the town in disguise, detonated three car bombs and opened fire, massacring more than 100 civilians.

The limitations of air strikes as a method of countering IS, or even of providing ­protection to the civilian population on the ground, are becoming clear. In Syria, Britain’s official position is that it does not take part in air strikes, as it has not had a written request from President Bashar al-Assad to do so – thus, an RAF drone attack on two British civilians in Syrian territory on 21 August has been explained as “self-defence”. In Iraq, where Britain does contribute to the aerial campaign against IS, at the invitation of the Iraqi government, the situation is only marginally better.


Since Barack Obama’s offensive against Islamic State began nearly a year ago, the self-declared ­caliphate has been deprived of an estimated 10 per cent of the territory that it held at its peak and yet, in fact, IS has increased the range of its attacks – both in Iraq and in Syria. If one considers the activities of its devotees in places such as Tunisia and France, it has spread its wings further still.

IS has weathered the storm and its brazenness is unbounded. At the end of May, just a few hundred IS fighters managed to recapture Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in Iraq. In August, it was reported to have used mustard gas in Marea, near Aleppo, against other forces also fighting the regime. Having reached Palmyra, its fighters have blown up much of the ancient ruins and executed an 82-year-old guardian of temples from the 1st century AD.

The taking of Palmyra gives IS control of one of the main roads to Damascus, the Syrian capital, which has come under shelling from rebels in recent weeks. Assad – beleaguered but helped by a new infusion of support from allies – has begun a counteroffensive. He is supported principally by Iran. Freed from sanctions on its nuclear programme, Iran has announced a huge increase in military spending and has doubled down its efforts in Syria. In the past few weeks, Russian troops have also been seen on the ground, and more are expected soon. As politicians in Britain talk about the need for a renewed political initiative, no one seems to have noticed that Tehran and Moscow have announced their own “road map” for a Syrian settlement, entirely independent of the west or any serious Sunni partner.

Damascus will not fall without the most horrendous bloodbath. In the middle of August, Assad responded to attacks on the capital by bombing a market in Douma, about ten kilometres north-east, killing roughly a hundred non-combatants. US intelligence officials recently suggested that it is highly likely that he will use chemical weapons again if any of the regime’s strongholds is threatened.

The Syrian conflict and its related ills – including the refugee crisis, the growth of Islamic State, the destabilisation of Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey – contain all the ingredients for further escalation. There is no reason to suggest that we have seen the peak. From IS-inspired attacks to the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, it is also clear that these events will continue to impinge on our neighbourhood. A “general consensus” on foreign policy might turn out to be impossible. The Chilcot report hangs like a guillotine over the Labour Party but there is a moment when self-criticism becomes self-indulgent.

With the crises in the Middle East and eastern Ukraine, it has become fashionable once again to talk of a “world order”. Industrial-scale murder, state collapse and huge population displacement on Europe’s borders are symptoms of how old certainties are being undermined.

The very idea of world order has always been subjective. The prevalent world order of the past two centuries has been crafted in an Anglo-American image. It was against this that first the Kaiser, and then Hitler railed in the years leading to the two world wars of the 20th century. It was a countervailing global system that the Soviet Union tried to establish as an alternative during the cold war. Today, the Chinese have a different conception of world order. They want to recraft and rebalance the existing order, though they see merits in maintaining a stable system. Henry Kissinger is among those who have argued that the American and Chinese conceptions of world order are not necessarily incompatible. The two superpowers may reach a new balance and an accommodation; for the moment, however, we may be entering a place somewhere in between. The era of US unipolarity is coming to an end. Yet it is Europe that is feeling the pinch more than the United States.

After the Second World War, the US replaced Britain and France as the dominant external power in the Middle East. It has become tired of that burden. A combination of three things – exhaustion from costly interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, less dependency on Middle Eastern oil, and a pivot to the east – has made it no longer willing to shoulder this responsibility to the extent that it once did. President Barack Obama believes that the costs now outweigh the benefits, though even he finds that the region repeatedly sucks him back in.

The European nations, Britain included, have not prepared themselves fully for the consequences of this. Even a 10-degree turn of the head in Washington, DC has caused a power vacuum. Their minds and their muscles have atrophied after so many years under the Nato umbrella. Suddenly the ­borders of the region – arbitrary lines drawn in the sand a hundred years ago – look like just that. North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant – areas that were once of great strategic importance to Britain – have come back to haunt us, in ways we did not anticipate.

While evoking images of a stable state system – a reassuring equilibrium that satisfies the desire for symmetry and balance – world order also depends on something more intangible: perception. That perception, in turn, implies certain boundaries of conceivable action. A viable world order is therefore one that has some sort of moral foundation. It is not only supposed to prevent large-scale wars between states but also to mitigate catastrophe and to check the worst excesses of human behaviour.

Our moral and mental world order has had its share of shocks to the system since the fall of the Berlin Wall. State failure and mass murder in the Middle East and Africa have precipitated top-level political mobilisation and international activism. The efforts to prevent such things have often been inadequate. And yet, future historians will most likely look back at the turn of the 20th century as bearing witness to a surprising degree of collaboration and co-operation between the world’s leading powers on
issues such as genocide, famine and even climate change.


Even within this interlude of human history, it was clear that some tragedies were deemed more worthy of action than others. July marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre. This was a crisis, after all, which unfolded within Europe in the context of western triumph in the cold war. More than anything, the response to Srebrenica is a ­reminder that our moral radar is directed by time and place, by context and locale.

Not every tragedy can be fixed. But history tells us that when the standards by which nations conduct themselves in the international arena begin to slip, the condition can spread quickly. Before long it becomes gangrenous. In 1902 J A Hobson, who had been a reporter in the Boer war – during which Britain was widely condemned for establishing the first mass concentration camps – warned that the behaviour of the leading states was deteriorating rapidly. While Germany and Russia were bolder in their “professed adoption of the material gain of their country as the sole criterion of public conduct”, other nations had “not been slow to accept the standard”. The whole art of diplomacy had been remodelled to make “national aggrandisement without pity or scruple . . . the conscious motive force of foreign policy”. This was a “sliding scale”. Hobson warned that conscious, deliberate adoption of these standards by all the major powers was “a retrograde step fraught with grave perils to the cause of civilisation”.

In 1904, ten years before the First World War, J L Garvin, the influential journalist who went on to take over the editorship of the Observer, agreed with Hobson that the prospect of a general war was increasing every year. The way in which treaties were disrespected and international arbitration was ignored was deeply concerning. But he also argued that it was disastrous to pursue a foreign policy “merely in the spirit of nebulous benevolence towards mankind”. To preserve world order required firm action, rather than nervous hand-wringing. To declare “a plague on both your houses” was not enough. Men such as Hobson had a tendency “to magnify the mote in our own eye, and to accept the assurances of our brother that there is none in his own”. The effort to be impartial became a snare when it led “to special pleading for an enemy or a competitor”. Ominously, Garvin wrote under the pseudonym “Calchas”, the Greek prophet of the Trojan war.

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War prompted some of our leading historians to compare the crisis that caused it to the one in which we find ourselves today. Chris Clark, the author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, has warned against making too many comparisons. But the fable of his book – that the statesmen of the era sleepwalked into the crisis, most believing that war was extremely unlikely, and did not see their error until it was too late – is a pertinent one. In international affairs, sometimes things are more fragile than they seem.

Margaret MacMillan, the author of The War That Ended Peace, has been more willing to draw comparisons. She points out that the modern Middle East has certain uncomfortable similarities with the Balkans in the early 20th century – competing ethnic and religious groups, aspirant new nations, revolutionaries and terrorists, and a crumbling of the existing state system. “Instead of muddling along from one crisis to another,” MacMillan recently warned, “now is the time to think again about those dreadful lessons of a century ago in the hope that our leaders, with our encouragement, will think about how they can work together to build a stable international order.”

After 1918 a world order was envisaged but never truly achieved. The Treaty of Versailles did not provide a firm foundation for it, and revisionism began before the ink on it was dry. More importantly, it soon ­became clear that it was easier to challenge the postwar order by force than by discussion. The great tragedy of the interwar years was not the failure to articulate the necessity of a world order, but the failure to stand up for it.

The so-called realists of the interwar era – such as the scholar E H Carr and Neville Chamberlain – put the blame on naive idealists and their fantasies of world government. But this view has been challenged forcibly by Adam Tooze in his most recent book, The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931. For Tooze, the restless search for a new way of securing order and peace was the expression not of “deluded idealism”, but of a “higher form of realism”.

Its failure can be explained in two ways. First, the fascist and revolutionary powers did everything they could do undermine it and were not answered until it was too late. Second, the United States remained a reluctant Goliath, unsure that it wanted to bear the burden for stability in Europe and the Middle East. For Tooze, even Woodrow Wilson was a somewhat conservative president in this respect, unwilling to pollute the American republic by messy foreign entanglements or sorting out the mess made by others. This is not wildly dissimilar from Obama’s world-view.

For the statesmen of the 1930s, too, the sense in which a carefully constructed order was unravelling fast was tangible and profound. When you read the foreign policy debates from that era, it is hard to ignore the similarities to today: a vague confidence in a nebulous spirit of internationalism, which had gone past its sell-by date; a parochial obsession with internal party politics and personalities; a lowering of the bar for the behaviour of the most malignant actors; a failure to anticipate that one’s enemies could work together to undermine the existing order; and the hope that the storm clouds gathering elsewhere would not blow too close to one’s own shores.

The point about the way in which that world order unravelled before both world wars was that it was a cumulative process. Diplomats chivvied away it at over a number of years at a lower level, but then larger pieces began to fall off with alarming speed. Once the order began to crumble, it was almost impossible to put it back together again. Right up to 1939, many hung on to the idea that the League of Nations and “collective security” was the best means of re-establishing stability. With hindsight, even its staunchest advocates understood that the League had been dead, in effect, from the moment Japan attacked Manchuria in 1931 and nothing was done. Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and Hitler’s expansionism were just nails in the coffin.

The strains on the world order are most obvious in the Middle East. Borders are collapsing and Syria’s conflict is destabilising all its neighbours and Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey in particular. There is an arms race and a string of proxy wars – including one hotting up in Yemen – in which Saudi Arabia and Iran are the leading but not sole participants. Yet Russia’s recalcitrance over eastern Ukraine is a symbol of how these things can have a domino-like effect.

Red lines have come and gone. Treaty alliances that once stabilised the state system are now looked at with some trepidation, the most obvious of these being Nato’s Article 5, committing member states to a war in the event that any one of them is attacked. Germany took much the same risk by invading Belgium in 1914 (to whose defence Prussia and Britain had committed themselves by treaty in 1839). At the very least, there are some in Moscow who calculate that Nato’s commitment to preserving the sovereignty of the Baltic states is not so copper-fastened as it once was.

Still, it is in Syria that the echoes of the 1930s are most resonant. In fact, it contains elements of the assault on Manchuria, the invasion of Abyssinia and the Spanish civil war all rolled into one: the failure of international arbitration; the brutalisation and radicalisation of a whole generation; the indiscriminate use of air power against civilian populations; and the use of the country as an ideological and geopolitical battleground for much bigger external forces.

There is also the fear – as was the case with Spain – that it will be a dress rehearsal for a much bigger conflict. The main external powers fuelling it have yet to confront each other face to face.


Closer to home, another uncanny echo from the 1930s is the incoherence and haplessness of many of those engaged in the British foreign policy debate. One reason why the policy of appeasement went unchallenged was that its critics failed to get their house in order and offer viable alternatives of their own.

The case of the Labour Party in the 1930s provides an interesting story that has lessons for today. Crushed at the 1931 election, losing more than 200 seats, Labour spent much of the next few years in a state of disarray. Its incoherence, faddishness and wishful thinking on foreign affairs were a symptom of this. From 1931 to 1935 the party was led by a grey-haired septuagenarian pacifist, George Lansbury. Within a few years, Lansbury was forced out by the “realists” in the party, such as Ernest Bevin and Hugh Dalton. They understood that Labour would never be a serious prospect for office unless it demonstrated that it was grown-up and tough-minded about world affairs and the British national interest.

Clement Attlee, who became leader in 1935, was in some ways stuck between the “realist” and “pacifist” instincts of the party. Significantly, he thought his leadership role was to be a unifier rather than one whose views were to be imposed on others in the party. Attlee was not blessed with Churchillian foresight. Over the course of the second half of the 1930s, he let Bevin and Dalton fight the battle over rearmament in the party, eventually coming round to supporting the government on the decision to increase military spending.

Yet Attlee carved his own niche in foreign policy in two ways that were to be of long-term significance to the future of the Labour Party. First, he broke from the realists in his party over the Spanish civil war. While Bevin and Dalton believed in non-intervention, in agreement with the government, Attlee visited the front line and demanded that the arms embargo be lifted to allow the Republicans to resist the forces of General Franco. Second, Attlee offered firm opposition to the third strain of thinking about foreign affairs in the party: those who wanted a “Popular Front” against fascism, bringing in all the crackpots of the far left, communists and radicals.

Attlee believed that the tendency to see every foreign policy issue as a left-right matter, or to become the mouthpiece for tyrants, betrayed the traditions of the Labour Party and British democracy. Apologists for Stalinist Russia were treated with contempt. In his view, the most important distinction was not between capitalists and anti-capitalists but between democratic and totalitarian systems of thought. Republican Spain was to be supported because it was a democratic and legitimate government – not because there were communists fighting on one side and fascists on the other. For all its flaws, he believed that the western alliance was the key to world order.

Now, for the first time in its history, it looks like the Labour Party may be led by an odd composite between a special pleader and a Little Englander. What chance will it have of articulating a serious alternative foreign policy, as opposed to “hawking its conscience around” (as Bevin said of Lansbury) from issue to issue? One thing that could at least be said for Lansbury’s pacifism was that it was consistent. He saw the mote in the eye of others, as well as our own.


The problem with British foreign policy runs deeper than the ructions in the Labour Party. General Sir David Richards, the former chief of the defence staff, is reported to have offered some severe criticisms of the approaches towards both Libya and Syria. He is not the only one to express concern about a current lack of both “strategy” and “statecraft”.

More broadly, British foreign policy has yet to come to terms with the passing of the phase known as “the end of history”. This notion, coined by Francis Fukuyama in 1989, which held that the western liberal-democratic model had triumphed, has been much critiqued. But the truth is that many of those who mock it are still stuck within its parameters. Our response to Syria has been conditioned by the assumption that sooner rather than later the main participants will come to their senses and seek compromise and agreement. Even today, despite many indications of the coming storm, we still struggle to get to grips with the ferocity and barbarity of Islamic State. Sectarianism, ethnic rage and ideology are things we find difficult to comprehend.

Syria has exploded anything that remained of the post-Srebrenica norms. The figures involved alone prove that. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 people have been killed, with four million refugees and seven million displaced inside the country. The nature of the violence must also be taken into account. In Assad’s treatment of his own citizens, every taboo of the post-cold-war era has been violated. At the same time, the killing rage of IS has outstripped anything the most seasoned jihadis managed during the war in Afghanistan or the Iraqi insurgency. The unthinkable has been normalised.

The yearly ritual of outrage, stern condemnation and expressions of solidarity is repeating itself once again, leading towards another parliamentary debate. We are very fast to climb the podium. Yet the ligaments that link ends and means – the sinews of any viable foreign policy – have been badly torn, if not quite shredded.

Policy on Syria has been largely regurgitated from elsewhere. The most obvious instance of this was the airlifting of the Libya model to the Syrian case. This was the assumption that, once protests against the Assad regime turned into an uprising, Damascus would fall in a wave of democratic protest. This prompted the west to assume the absolutist position that “Assad must go”.

Such moral clarity can be a laudable thing. It is not to be forgotten that Assad has been the chief aggressor in this war, and he, more than anyone, has created the conditions for the rise of IS. But the truth is that this was a posture rather than policy. It was based on the expectation that Assad would follow the fate of Muammar al-Gaddafi, rather than any sense of how this might be brought about. The consequences were twofold.

First, it hardened the resolve of Assad’s sponsors, who were much more willing to take action than the prophets of collapse. Second, it boxed the west into an unrealistic stance from which it could find no firm foundation to exert any leverage.

When it became clear that the situation was not so easily solvable, and that Assad was stronger than presumed, attention should have turned to the humbler aim of trying to manage the conflict down. Instead, the response was to shrug shoulders and give up. In a shift to a putatively more “realist” position, Assad was offered certain “red lines” from within which he would be allowed to conduct his campaign unmolested from outside. When he flouted those red lines, the authority of the west was diluted further still.

Another flaw in the Syria discussion was to have the wrong debate. A conventional intervention was a non-starter from the outset. It was as politically impossible as it was forbidding in practical terms. But under the obsession with “troops on the ground” and “exit strategies” – a rerun of Iraq this time – insufficient consideration was given to other options such as the establishment of a humanitarian corridor, or a “no-fly zone”. Once again, containment, rather than intervention, should have been the overall watchword for the policy.

Another false notion that proved hard to shake was that there was only one of two options available – sticking with the Assad regime as the lesser of two evils, or helping it topple and dealing with the consequences, including IS, later. To have allowed for limited air strikes against the regime’s chemical weapons installations was not to hand the keys of Damascus to IS: it was not, in fact, the leading player in the opposition at that point. A relatively limited, largely symbolic response would probably have prevented the repeated use of the weapons.

These pendulum swings of sentiment have left us with no coherent strategy at all. What we now have is a hotchpotch of different tactics, designed to serve different ends, and some in contradiction to others. The investment in training and supporting more moderate members of the anti-Assad opposition – of whom there were undoubtedly significant numbers – came two years too late to make any difference. The embedding of military advisers with the Iraqi army and some Kurdish forces has been a pinprick exercise that, it is largely agreed, has been under-resourced. The US has struck a deal with Turkey to use its airbases to launch attacks on IS, but Turkey’s contribution to the aerial war has been targeted mostly at Kurdish forces in Syria, rather than IS. Until recently, the Syrian Kurds were the most effective ground force against IS. Their weakening is likely to be costly.


The most nonsensical of all the strategies at play is the one now promoted by the UK. This has led it to partake in coalition air strikes in Iraq – at the invitation of the Iraqi government – but not Syria, where IS is far more embedded. This was the result of a messy parliamentary compromise made last September, against the backdrop of IS attacks on the Yazidis. It reflected the government’s desire not to be seen to be straying too far from the US; and perhaps the last embers of Labour Party internationalism.

It had been the Prime Minister’s intention to bring the matter back before parliament this month. The Corbyn factor (if he is elected leader) may lead to the postponement of that in the short term. Yet the migrant crisis obliges the government to articulate a new strategy for Syria, sooner rather than later. David Cameron will not permit the Labour Party time to settle in to a new parliament for long, particularly if he continues to take all the heat on the refugee crisis.

The inadequacy of the existing strategy on Syria is clear for all to see. Britain cannot fix the country, and no one is pretending it can. Any escalation of proposed British involvement is likely to be highly limited. It will be mostly symbolic, an effort to show more willing to share the burden with allies such as France and America.

In the US, away from the circus of the Republican presidential contest, there have been more measured criticisms of existing policy. An indication of a potential change of direction was given in a report issued last month by the Centre for a New American Security, a left-of-centre think tank close to the Democratic Party establishment. One of the report’s co-authors was Michèle Flournoy, who was touted as a possible secretary of state under Obama, and who will probably be a favourite for that position if the Democrats retain the White House.

A year after Obama’s offensive began, Flournoy argues that the “current efforts to counter Isis are not adequate to the task” and makes 11 recommendations for a change of policy. Among the most arresting of her proposals are: to give arms to Sunni tribes and the Kurdish Peshmerga; to increase attacks on IS, making more use of advisers embedded with the Iraqi military; and ending restrictions on aid to the Syrian opposition. This is to feed in to what she describes as a “tourniquet strategy” – containing the situation and tightening the grip on the regime as a prelude to fresh efforts to seek a political settlement on the ground. Some uncomfortable moral dilemmas would arise from this. It is likely, for one thing, that the west would become more involved in the proxy game. Neat moral choices are rarely available in such circumstances.

On the refugee crisis, a wider European approach is needed. When it comes to dealing with the Syrian conflict at source, the truth is that any involvement will fall within parameters defined by changes in US strategy. Britain does not have the means or the wherewithal to do anything transformative. The fundamental question that parliament will soon be asked to face is a lesser one: whether it wants to become more involved in shared efforts to manage the crisis and to mitigate its worst aspects (understanding that this might also involve the use of lethal force). The alternative is to hope that others will continue to take care of Britain’s immediate interests.

Of course, one option is for Britain to decide, as Corbyn has suggested, that it is a small island on the north-west coast of Europe and to behave accordingly. This position will certainly find advocates on the far left and far right of British politics. Another option is to accept that Britain has a stake, and an interest, in some sort of world order, and that leaving others to prop it up has not worked out well in the past.

John Bew is reader in history and foreign policy in the war studies department at King’s College London and a contributing writer for the New Statesman

His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, will be published by Oxford University Press in November. He is completing a biography of Clement Attlee

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles