Britain fights the fallout of the Libyan intervention in Mali

The rebellion against the Malian government has its roots in the fall of Gaddafi.

Britain is to assist French military operations in Mali, Downing Street confirmed today. The help was agreed between the Prime Minister and President Hollande, and follows French intervention to support the Malian government's efforts to halt an advance by rebels.

A Downing Street spokesperson said:

The Prime Minister spoke to President Hollande this evening to discuss the deteriorating situation in Mali and how the UK can support French military assistance provided to the Malian Government to contain rebel and extremist groups in the north of the country.

The Prime Minister has agreed that the UK will provide logistical military assistance to help transport foreign troops and equipment quickly to Mali.

We will not be deploying any British personnel in a combat role. They also agreed that the peacekeeping mission from West African countries needs to be strongly supported by countries in the region and deployed as quickly as possible.

Both leaders agreed that the situation in Mali poses a real threat to international security given terrorist activity there.

Britain's role in the intervention is planned to be minor – no troops will be on the ground, and current air support is limited to two transport planes, expected to be deployed in the next day or two – but it is already involved in the broader picture. There is a direct line from our intervention in Libya to the current explosion of violence in Mali.

The uprising in Northern Mali was the result of an alliance between the traditionally secular Tuaregs, a group who have their roots in Mali but also lived in large numbers in Libya, and Jihadist groups who were mainly expelled from Algeria. That alliance was enabled by the conditions left after Western intervention.

Dr Berny Sèbe, a lecturer in colonial and post-colonial studies at the University of Birmingham, explained:

From a military point of view, it offered to both groups a fresh source of modern and effective weaponry and ammunition which they could steal or buy cheaply, and drive home across the Sahara. In particular, it gave their flying columns a level of firepower they could only have dreamt of before Gaddafi's fall.

That military effect was exacerbated by the fact that many Turaegs had been working as mercenaries in the Gaddafi army. When that army fell, it created a surplus of well-trained unemployed soldiers – who returned to Mali.

The power-vacuum that Gaddafi left didn't just create a pool of armed, workless mercenaries returning to Libya. It also meant that "a major political counter-weight to Islamist terrorism disappeared", Dr Sèbe said.

"Gaddafi was powerful in the Sahel region and used his influence to counter the development of militant Islamism in his country and in West Africa. His fall accelerated the deterioration of political and military conditions, first in Northern Mali and then in the whole country," he added.

Whether or not that line of causality imposes on Britain a moral obligation to aid the Malian government against the Tuareg rebels is doubtless something which came under discussion between Cameron and Hollande. But if Britain does have an obligation, it cannot just stop at fighting back the immediate threat to the Republic of Mali, Dr Sèbe argued:

Mali has been one of very few functioning democracies in Africa over the last two decades, but it has had a tradition of neglecting its vast, and ethnically marginalised, northern half — where the rebellion started. Eliminating terrorist groups in the inhospitable and guerrilla-prone terrain of the Malian Sahara, with its complex make up of Tuareg confederacies, will become possible only if a viable political and economic alternative is offered by the central government.

More than pounding training camps and flying columns of pick-up trucks, this will be the real challenge that Bamako and its African and Western allies will have to face in the coming months.

The path of further British engagement in Mali will be decided on Tuesday when the Government's National Security Council meets.

Malian police patrol in Bamako. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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