In this week’s magazine | The Syrian Tragedy

A first look at this week’s issue.

The Syrian tragedy and the crumbling of world order
11-16 September 2015

Featuring

George Osborne on Labour in crisis, the Corbyn danger, UK intervention in Syria, David Cameron, and why the Chancellor wants to capture and reshape the centre ground of British politics.

John Bew on how the Syrian tragedy has destroyed the old world order.

Adam LeBor on the refugee crisis in Europe.

Leader: Mr Cameron and the refugees.

George Eaton: Will Labour's hawks allow Cameron to overcome the Tory doves in a vote on intervention in Syria?

 

Jason Cowley talks to George Osborne

The NS editor, Jason Cowley, speaks to the Chancellor, George Osborne, about Labour in crisis, Jeremy Corbyn, foreign wars and whether he will stand for Conservative leader.

On the EU referendum and why Britain needs treaty change:

[For] me, perhaps the single most important issue is the relationship between the non-Euros and the Euros.

[. . .]

If we don't resolve this issue, it's going to cause more and more problems for Britain's economic national interest. So we need to resolve it. These are the sorts of things that are going to require changes to the treaty.

[It] is going to require, in my view, things that are legally binding and irreversible and, therefore, almost certainly treaty change, certainly on this issue around the relationship between the Euros and the non-Euros. Even the most ardent pro-European - and I would, by the way, describe myself as a Eurosceptic - would say, should say, that this is a problem that needs resolving, because otherwise British membership is going to become increasingly difficult.

On Labour's left turn:

The whole of the Labour Party moves leftwards, abandoning the centre and, I think, therefore abandoning the working people of this country.

[. . .]

I don't think that's particularly good for the country that you have an opposition heading off to the wilderness.

[. . .]

I can't help noticing that, for most of my childhood and early adult life, a succession of Labour Party leaders reformed the constitution of the Labour Party. Neil Kinnock did, John Smith did, Tony Blair did, to make sure that it was more rooted in what the British people wanted. And it does seem, as an external observer, that a generation's work has been unravelled in the space of 12 months.

On what he learned from Blair and Brown:

You're very much shaped by the political world in which you become an MP: just like Blair and Brown were shaped by Margaret Thatcher's Britain, so [David Cameron and I] were shaped by what happened to the Conservative Party as we became MPs, and by the Tony Blair premiership, the rows between Blair and Brown - the lessons you learn about what happens if you don't work together.

On Jeremy Corbyn: a danger to national security:

Well, I'm tempted to say that Jeremy Corbyn sees everything as a neoliberal conspiracy . . .

[. . .]

There's no doubt ideas like abandoning Britain's nuclear deterrent at a time when, frankly, more and more countries are trying to acquire nuclear weapons, or some of the things that have been said about terrorist organisations like Hamas, are deeply unpalatable. I don't think they represent the views of the British people. But we don't regard what is being said in the Labour leadership contest as a joke. We take it deadly seriously. I regard these things as a real risk to Britain's security were they ever to have the chance to be put into practice . . .

On Liz Kendall and who he fears in Labour:

There's no doubt that Liz Kendall's ideas would have caused [the Conservative Party] the greatest problems.

Some of the arguments Tristram Hunt makes, or Chuka Umunna - those ideas are clearly the ones that would most challenge the Conservative Party, because they attempt to occupy the centre of politics. Corbyn wants to vacate the centre and ignore those voices.

On the Lib Dems:

In the end, the Liberal Democrats' "all things to all people" approach caught up with them and then they were no things to no people. That potpourri of centre-right liberals, Iraq war rebels, Celtic fringe Methodists [and] local populists turned out not to be very coherent.

On his welfare reforms and their "victims":

What I think is the victims are people who are victims of when an economy fails. When you get these decisions wrong about your national economy, it is not the richest in the country who suffer. It is the very poorest: they are the people who lose their jobs, they are the people who have their opportunities snatched from them.

[. . .]

I'm not someone who wants to abolish the welfare state. I would argue quite the reverse: that we are actually re-establishing trust in our country in the welfare state.

On his leadership ambitions:

I have never looked at David and thought, 'That should be me.' [. . .] In fact, I'm nothing other than delighted in [Cameron's] success.

[. . .]

I'm just mentally able to say, 'I'm not addressing that now. I'm not thinking about that now.'

On whether he would call for further attacks in Syria:

For me, a low moment in the last parliament was the decision of the House of Commons not to intervene [in 2013] when [Bashar] al-Assad had used chemical weapons. [. . .] And I felt at that moment that the House of Commons was saying, "Britain doesn't want to be part of it any more." I think that's a mistake.

On the £9 minimum wage:

Nine pounds is something we can sustain. I think it's important.

On holding the centre ground in British politics:

I think now there's a big responsibility for the Conservative Party to hold to the centre, to represent working people, to continue these reforms that previously have had cross-party support. And you know what? I can say it's the Conservative Party that is looking forward, not back.

 

Syria and the crisis of world order

John Bew writes that 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.

Bew then explores the problems with Britain's current foreign policy:

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.

He concludes:

[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.

 

Adam LeBor on the refugee crisis in Hungary

Adam LeBor reports from Keleti railway station in Budapest, where thousands of refugees have camped and from where they are being evacuated:

Smartly dressed commuters pick a path through crowds of sleeping families. A forest of satellite dishes, mounted on television vans, points skywards. Rows of refugees sit quietly as a squad of Hungarian riot police watches over the morning scene.

Welcome to Budapest's Keleti railway station. It is the first day of September and the ochre-coloured, 19th-century terminal has become a main pressure point in Europe's refugee crisis. More than 170,000 people have arrived in Hungary so far this year. Most cross the country's border with Serbia to the south, entering the Schengen area of visa-free travel within the European Union.

Keleti has become a temporary home for Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Africans and others fleeing war-torn countries. It is the primary rail route out of Budapest to the west, and the people here are hungry and exhausted. But they are also connected and media-savvy. They use WhatsApp to exchange information; Google Maps to plot their routes. Each time a TV camera swings round, a boy sits up straight holding a sign reading: "Syria ♥ Germany". A ripple runs through the crowd: "Germany, Germany," the chant fires up.

LeBor argues that Hungary "is missing an opportunity":

Hundreds of thousands of educated, entrepreneurial young Hungarians have left to forge new lives in western Europe. The country lacks doctors, engineers, craftsmen and technicians: precisely the kind of people waiting at Keleti for the next train out.

He concludes:

For now, the crisis at Keleti has eased. Thousands of refugees set off on foot on 4 September, accompanied by television crews. After a few hours the government buckled, sending a fleet of buses to transport them to the Austrian border. But more refugees are on the way. On the same day, more than 2,000 migrants crossed into Hungary. A thousand more arrived on 5 September and more than 2,000 on 6 September, according to Hungarian police. The government is planning a further crackdown. New laws make it a crime to cross the border illegally. Transit zones will be set up so that migrants and refugees can be processed there. Hungarian police said on 8 September that they have detained 169,000 people for crossing the border illegally.

"Europe is now engaged in a struggle for its existence," Orbán wrote in an op-ed column for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 2 September. "We must acknowledge that the European Union's misguided immigration policy is responsible for this situation. If Europe does not return to the path of common sense, it will find itself laid low in a battle for its fate."

 

Leader: Mr Cameron and the refugees

The NS Leader this week turns to the question of British intervention in Syria and the European refugee crisis:

Since his premiership began, David Cameron has often proved to be a man for turning. Yet, even by his flexible standards, his volte-face over Syrian refugees was remarkably swift. Days after declaring that taking "more and more" was not the answer (having accepted a mere 216 under the UK's relocation scheme), he agreed to do just that. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, deserves much credit for leading the political opposition to Mr Cameron. For the first time since the Labour leadership contest began, one of its participants can credibly claim to have influenced government policy.

The Prime Minister's pledge to accept up to 20,000 refugees over the next five years, a higher figure than initially briefed, was a welcome shift. He is also right to point to the significant foreign aid provided by the UK as part of its commitment to the target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income. The government's response, however, remains inadequate. The figure of 4,000 a year is meagre compared to the 68,500 accepted by France last year and the 800,000 that Germany is prepared to accept this year. It also contrasts unfavourably with Britain's past generosity. As Ms Cooper noted: "In the 1930s, Britain took 10,000 children in just nine months. If counties and cities each took ten refugee families we could help 10,000 people in the next few months." More than 40 local authorities have signalled their willingness to take more. Were it not for the government's absurd and discredited net migration target of "tens of thousands" a year (which includes refugees), Mr Cameron would doubtless be less restrictive.

[. . .]

The plight of the refugees, however, has been superseded in the headlines by the revelation that the government approved an unprecedented drone strike against two British jihadists in Syria. It was careless and inappropriate for Mr Cameron to address the two subjects in the same announcement, aware that the latter would dominate media coverage. The stated justification for the drone strikes was clear: intelligence showed that the Isis fighters represented a substantial threat to national security and there were no means for them to be brought to justice. But to maintain public trust and cross-party support, the government should publish the Attorney General's legal advice.

[. . .]

If the Prime Minister wishes to avoid a second defeat on a matter so grave, he must do what he failed to do in 2013 and make a clear and persuasive case for military action. He must demonstrate above all that he recognises that the use of force, even if deemed necessary, is not sufficient. The US, Turkey and the Gulf states are already carrying out strikes against Isis in Syria. No one should pretend that the addition of the UK would tilt the balance. Without moves towards a political settlement, the cycle of violence will continue. Too often in recent history, military action has been used merely to satisfy the liberal impulse that "something must be done". If he is truly committed to helping Syria, Mr Cameron must offer more than chimerical solutions.

 

George Eaton: Will Labour's hawks allow Cameron to overcome the Tory doves in a vote on Syria?

In the Politics Column, George Eaton writes that the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the extent of the refugee crisis increases the possibility of UK intervention in Syria:

For decades, British foreign policy has been underpinned by a bipartisan consensus. Both the Labour and the Conservative leaderships jointly supported intervention in the Falklands, Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Syria was the exception, when Ed Miliband and Tory rebels joined forces to defeat the government motion proposing military action in 2013. Yet this was an accidental victory. Senior Labour figures told me afterwards that they never expected David Cameron to rule out intervention
in response.

With the likely election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition on 12 September, the division between the two parties will become far sharper. As chair of the Stop the War Coalition, Corbyn opposed all of the above interventions and, when asked at a recent hustings whether there were any circumstances in which he would support military force, replied: "Any? I am sure there are some. But I can't think of them at the moment." Having voted against the air strikes on Isis in Iraq, he has unambiguously rejected Cameron's proposal to extend the operation to Syria.

This poses a problem for the Prime Minister, who has signalled his desire to win Commons approval for further intervention.

He continues:

When the Commons voted on air strikes in Iraq last year, 24 Labour MPs rebelled and opposed the intervention. Although the Tories recognise that Syria will be a harder case to prove, the hope is that enough of Corbyn's MPs would reject his position for them to prevail. The government has sought to win them over by holding confidential briefings at the Foreign Office.

[. . .]

Although many MPs are waiting until a specific proposal is tabled before breaking cover, Labour sources estimate that as many as 30 would vote for military action. One told me: "Absolutely I'll support it and many others will, too. They feel completely ashamed by what we did two years ago." Some were uncomfortable with how [Ed] Miliband's unintended victory was subsequently spun as a landmark decision to halt a "rush to war".

Eaton concludes:

Tory sources suggest that a vote will now be held in early October. As well as Corbyn's stance, the obstacles include the opposition of the 56 SNP MPs and perhaps 20 Tory doves. The former cabinet minister John Redwood told me: "I'm extremely cautious about it all . . . I don't think any of these military things can provide a solution without a political strategy as well." The DUP and the Liberal Democrats, with eight MPs each, are also sceptical. Cameron's decision to ­approve the unprecedented targeted killing of British jihadists in Syria has increased his vulnerability.

Should a vote be held this autumn, the symbolism would be rich. If Jeremy Corbyn is elected, Labour backbenchers and their leader could find themselves in opposing division lobbies within weeks. More splits, most notably over Trident, would follow.

The Conservatives will miss few opportunities to divide and rule. But if they wish to win parliamentary approval for military action against Isis in Syria, they must avoid any appearance of gamesmanship. Should Cameron display any pleasure at the disunity in Labour, the party's hawks could soon swoop on him

 

Plus

Laurie Penny: Title yourself "Mx" on your gas bill - because small acts of linguistic rebellion can change the world.

Barbara Speed talks to Joyce Carol Oates.

Peter Wilby: Call-Me-Deity Cameron, terror by royal appointment, incompetent Isis and the shrinking arts.

Leo Robson on new novels by Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk.

Margaret Drabble: What kind of a feminist is Elena Ferrante?

For more press information, please contact Anna Leszkiewicz at: anna.leszkiewicz@newstatesman.co.uk