A heavily damaged street in the eastern Syrian town of Deir Ezzor on 26 August 2013. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on Syria: There are too many bodies buried on Britain’s moral high ground

This isn't about Syria. This is, for better or worse, about us - on the left and on the right.

Let’s be perfectly clear on one point: this was never about Syria. After David Cameron’s government suffered its most humiliating defeat to date, with rebel MPs from every part of the political consensus uniting to prevent Britain charging into another interventionist war in the Middle East, here's what the Chancellor had to say: "I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I'd like us to be or whether we turn our back on that...I hope this doesn't become the moment where we turn our back on the world's problems."

Not “this will mean more bloodshed.” Not “the use of chemical nerve agents as a weapon of war is utterly unacceptable.” No, what concerns George Osborne and the government he represents is what this means for Britain. How will ‘our’ refusal to join the United States in a proposed military assault on Syria with or without UN backing will look to the rest of the world. Are we still going to feel big and important? Will our exports be affected?

Somewhere in the suburbs of Syria, the bodies of the latest victims of Sarin nerve gas are only lately cooled, stiff beyond rigor mortis from inhaling a poison that causes every muscle in the body to clench up in death, suffocating the soul in its own flesh. And George Osborne is thinking about Britain’s trading prospects.

This was never about Syria. This was about us.

Much to the chagrin of the cabinet, the British public has remained doggedly against any prospect of war in Syria - over two thirds are opposed to military intervention - and for once, every scrapping faction of the commentariat has taken up that consensus. Peter Hitchens agrees with Polly Toynbee. Norman Tebbit is briefly on the same side as Caroline Lucas. Osborne and Cameron find themselves part of a dwindling neocon consensus, just them, their whipped ministerial colleagues and Assad’s former chum Tony Blair, popping up in the papers like the Ghost of Christmas Past to explain why bombing Damascus is absolutely the right thing to do.

If Cameron was following the advice of Vyacheslav von Plehve, the Russian minister who wrote in 1905 that what was needed to stem the tide of social unrest was “a short, victorious war”, he could not have been more wrong. We’ve seen where that goes. The American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been short, and they have not been victorious. The United States still has the military muscle and auto-delusory capacity to believe itself a capable world policeman. Britain is no longer labouring under that delusion. We have spent the past five years being told that the nation is too broke to afford basic welfare provision, let alone another drawn-out campaign to protect US interests in the Gulf. Very few of us want a war; very few of us believe that a war will help the Syrian people. It turns out that the British public doesn’t always have the collective recall of a damselfly in a gale. Something about a decade of war tends to jog the memory.

The situation in Syria is bloody and frightening. In two and a half years tens of thousands of lives have been lost, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country, and the war between Assad’s supporters and the disjointed forces of the Free Syrian army will not be over quickly, with or without Anglo-American intervention. The impulse, the imprecation, is that “we have to do something,” and somehow that something almost always involves cluster bombs and not, for example, sending in shedloads of aid and medical supplies, or opening our borders to refugees. That’s the sort of something that doesn’t make a satisfying thwack when we unzip it on the table of the cabinet war rooms.

For the hawkish minority, the main line of reasoning - masterfully dissected by Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb today- has been that the Assad regime ‘must be punished,’ and that the British ought to be the ones doing the punishing, six of the best, trousers down. The old cliches are lifted out and polished for the mantlepiece of modern military hypocrisy: we’re a plucky little island, punching above our weight on the world stage, standing up to bullies. We sort out “the world's problems.” “Our country,” wrote Conservative MP Robert Halfon in a plea for intervention, “has over many centuries, stood tall against tyranny. Britain gave the world modern democracy and the rule of law.

Well, no, it hasn’t, and no, it didn’t. Britain did, over many centuries, impose its own version of the rule of law on hundreds of millions of individuals in the Global South, many of whom were massacred or functionally enslaved. Nor, over the decades that followed the disintegration of the British Empire - two little words that have faltered on the tongues of every Tory statesman in a fortnight of anxious warmongering - have the British been consistent in our opposition to ‘tyranny.’ We did not intervene during the Rwandan genocide. Margaret Thatcher took tea with Pinochet. The list of dictators with whom Britain has maintained cordial relations is long, and it is damning to anyone with the gall to argue that the people of Great Britain were ever cartographers of the moral high ground.

This isn't about Syria. This is, for better or worse, about us - on the left and on the right. The generation that grew up watching the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has done a lot of “soul-searching” in ten years. We have walked across the moral high-ground that our leaders mapped out for us. We have discovered that it is a graveyard. The bodies buried on the Anglo-American moral high ground are beyond number, and the flowers that grow there are dank and reek of corruption. But not this time. Not again. Not in our name.


Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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.