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9 December 2015

In this week’s magazine | The clash of empires

A first look at this week's issue.

By New Statesman

11-17 December 2015
The clash of empires



Cover Story      The Clash of Empires
John Bew
on the long war in Syria and the return of great power rivalry.

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Mary Creagh: the hard left is now operating within the Labour Party.

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George Eaton: even Tory MPs are troubled by their party’s blatant attempts to rewrite the rules in its favour.

From Stephen Bush on how Jeremy Corbyn stunned Labour’s Christmas party by quoting a brutal Albanian dictator “in jest”.

Harry Leslie Smith: how the Calais camp reminded me of Europe’s last refugee crisis. 

Charles Bremner on the surge of Marine Le Pen and the rise of the Front National. 

Julian Baggini on Hilary Benn and the lost art of rhetoric: if this was the House of Commons at its best, its best was not good enough.

Roger Mosey: Alan Yentob has left the building, but Broadcasting House will survive.

TV critic Rachel Cooke: Newsnight is a sinking ship – here’s how it can be saved.


Cover Story      The Clash of Empires
The sparks of conflict: John Bew on the long war in Syria and the return of great power rivalry

In a forceful essay for this week’s cover and following last week’s Commons vote on air strikes in Syria, the historian and New Statesman contributing writer John Bew sets out the realpolitik of the present geopolitical situation. He warns that Britain “cannot afford to go through a traumatic process of introspection every time we need to make a decision about the world outside, as happened in parliament this month”:

A mistake we are apt to make in the West is to think that the road to war is paved with machismo, or masochism, or naked ambition and greed. This is only one side of the equation. Of at least equal importance are wilful relativism, neglect of problems and postponement of difficult decisions; and following that, the rush to repair the damage when it becomes clear that things have been left too late.

[. . .]

Britain has now signalled its intention to re-enter the domain of those nations that take risks to deal with problems in which it has a share of responsibility. Having done so, it will confront a crisis that is immeasurably worse than the one from which it stepped away in the summer of 2013. The existing policy of the Obama administration is likely to be adjusted over the coming months, because of the recognition that air strikes alone are not enough to deal with Isis or the conditions in which it thrives. More efforts will be made on the diplomatic front but there are already signs of a further escalation of military operations. Now, at the very least, is the most opportune moment to whisper into the driver’s ear.

Since the Commons vote on air strikes on 2 December, the RAF has made sorties into Syrian airspace and has made a significant dent in Isis’s infrastructure by bombing oilfields under its control. It is clear that these missions, combined with an already significant intelligence oversight, are more than symbolic. Nonetheless, the symbolism alone should not be sniffed at, as it speaks to a fundamental cornerstone of the British grand strategy.

The recent Strategic Defence and Security Review, published on 23 November, argued for the crucial importance for Britain of a “rule-based international order”. Two days earlier, a UN Security Council resolution called upon “member states that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures . . . on the territory under the control” of Isis. It was the UK’s willingness to pay the price necessary for that rule-based international order, in close co-operation with its most important allies, that was at stake in the Commons debate.

[. . .]

What is certain is that the attacks on Isis will do damage to the group and its aspirations to statehood but any gains will be temporary without a strategy to deal with the Syrian Civil War as a whole.

As a result of the parliamentary vote on air strikes, the UK can now be a serious participant in that discussion. But ultimately we cannot expect a world tuned to our genteel sensibilities to emerge by itself, while others expend their blood and treasure.


Mary Creagh: the hard left is now operating within the Labour Party

In a guest column for this week’s issue, Mary Creagh, the shadow secretary of state for international development, reflects on last week’s vote on air strikes in Syria (she voted in support, along with 66 other Labour MPs) and concludes, “The message is simple: if Labour is divided, the Tories rule.” Creagh warns that Labour has now been infiltrated by hard-left elements whose values are at odds with both those of the party and of the general public:

The Syria vote was a bruising, divisive debate for Labour. No single wing of the party has a monopoly on values, principles, or passionately held beliefs. Every MP I know entered politics to commit their lives to public service and the public good. MPs must be free to use their conscience to vote in the best interests of their constituents. In doing so, they should not have to face intimidation, bullying and death threats.

Individuals from smaller, hard-left parties with no loyalty to Labour are now operating in the party. Hilary Benn’s speech was rooted in the bedrock of Labour’s values: solidarity, internationalism and a desire for justice and peace. Yet a Stop the War blogger argued that Isis is “far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity of the International Brigades” than Hilary. These people do not reflect the values of Labour voters or the British public in general.


The Politics Column: George Eaton

In his column this week, the New Statesman‘s political editor, George Eaton, speaks to Tories who are alarmed by their party’s attempts to rewrite the political rules in its favour:

The defeat of tax credit cuts in the House of Lords provided George Osborne with the political cover he needed to retreat. Peers fulfilled their constitutional duty to act as a check on the heavily whipped Commons (just two Tory MPs, David Davis and Stephen McPartland, voted against the plans). Yet, in revenge, the government is expected to propose banning the Lords from vetoing secondary legislation, such as the tax credit cuts. “To respond to government difficulties by reducing the power of parliament is not where I have stood all my political life and certainly not where we stood in opposition,” the Conservative peer Ralph Lucas told me. “The executive has quite enough power.” When I spoke to Davis, a former shadow home secretary, he warned: “If Labour have got an ounce of sense it will be very difficult for the government to get that through. I would think at least a dozen people on my side would be against that.”

Osborne’s recent Spending Review included a measure so politically motivated that he thought it unfit to mention in his statement. The Treasury green book revealed that “Short money”, the public funding provided to opposition parties to employ staff and meet office costs, would be cut by 19 per cent. The saving to the state is trivial (0.001 per cent of government spending in 2015-16) but the cost to Labour and others is severe. Jeremy Corbyn’s party will lose £1.2m a year, approximately 3 per cent of its annual income.

The Tory MP Jeremy Lefroy told me that the move “should be challenged”, given that “the executive obviously has extremely large resources at its disposal in terms of advice from civil servants and Short funding was always there in order to provide some measure of balance for the opposition parties”. Davis called the measure “foolish” and “arbitrary”.


PLUS from Jeremy Corbyn quotes Enver Hoxha at Labour’s Christmas party

Read the Staggers editor Stephen Bush on how the Labour leader stunned attendees at the party’s Christmas bash by quoting the Albanian dictator, whom he dubbed “a tough leader”. Hoxha is believed to have imprisoned, tortured or executed at least 100,000 Albanians. 


Julian Baggini on Hilary Benn and rhetoric in the House

In this week’s NS essay, the philosopher Julian Baggini argues that MPs’ self-congratulatory backslapping over the fine rhetoric of the Syria debate in the Commons last week was seriously misplaced. The speeches made by Hilary Benn and others should rather be noted for their “cheap claims”, false dichotomies and flawed logic:

If that was the House at its best, then its best is not nearly good enough. There were a few good interventions but, on the whole, the standard of debate was low, with some of the highest praise reserved for the especially poor performances.

The word “forensic” was used a lot by commentators and MPs but if you take an intellectual scalpel to [Hilary] Benn’s speech, for instance – the supposed highlight of the day – little stands up to scrutiny. Its impact owed more to its bold and direct challenge to Benn’s party leader than to its intellectual content. It serves as a case study on how weak arguments and misleading rhetoric can move and persuade a rationally illiterate parliament and people.

[. . .]

Every other point that Benn made . . . somehow missed the point or distorted it. Others made an even bigger mess of it. David Cameron’s low point came when he ruled out the use of ground troops because their presence “can be a radicalising force and can be counterproductive”. If this is true of ground troops, it is simply implausible that it is not also true of air strikes. In both cases, people know exactly who is firing the weapons. By what strange principle does he think that they bear grudges against infantry but not pilots? Cameron’s logic could so obviously and easily have been turned against him and yet no one in the chamber picked him up on this.

Aristotle argued that however an argument is constructed, it is “persuasive because there is somebody whom it persuades”. Our problem today is that too many arguments that ought not to be persuasive nonetheless are. The only antidote to this is to strengthen our powers of reasoning, and rhetoric should be put back on the curriculum.


Harry Leslie Smith: how the Calais camp reminded me of Europe’s last refugee crisis

As a young British soldier in 1945, Harry Leslie Smith witnessed Europe’s last great refugee crisis. Now, aged 92, he visits the “Jungle” in Calais to meet a new generation of refugees:

In January 1946, a famine known as the grosse Hunger (“great hunger”) descended on Germany. The British government, the army, civilians and the Red Cross tried to limit the suffering with aid and donations of food and clothing. Over time, displaced persons’ camps were erected as an interim solution before people could return to their homelands or, if that was not possible, be resettled in the US, the Commonwealth, Britain, or other European countries. Some had to wait for years to find a safe place
to call home but the camps provided care, sanitation, educational services and vocational training.

There is no doubt that these camps set up by Britain and the Allies alleviated the refugee crisis that my generation faced. Indeed, I remember a friend of mine who was a refugee from Serbia telling me in the 1950s how grateful he was for the Red Cross food parcels that he and his brother received in a camp on the outskirts of Vienna. To him, the food represented more than nutrients – it made him believe that the outside world wanted him to live.

As my train emerged from the tunnel and entered France, I thought again of my long-dead Serbian friend – a beneficiary of the proactive, generous and prudent refugee policy instituted by western democracies after the war – and wondered what he would make of the current crisis.

Most of today’s politicians in Britain seem to have a different opinion of immigration, refugees, the consequences of war and the responsibility for peace. Nothing illustrates this better than the fencing at the port in Calais and the nearby Channel Tunnel terminal in Coquelles – built at the cost of £7m to British taxpayers, on the orders of the Cameron government. Its purpose is to keep refugees from riding the rails or hiding in the holds of ships as they seek sanctuary and a better life in Britain.

Viewed from my taxi, the fence stretched into the distance like the Cold War barriers that separated East and West Germany. I remembered another time and another group of people who clamoured to leave an unhealthy society. But then, unlike today, we tore down walls between people and nations. I can’t turn away from the heartache caused by this crisis, which is why, at the age of 92, I came to Calais.


Roger Mosey on Alan Yentob and the BBC’s talent for survival

Roger Mosey reflects on the end of Alan Yentob’s career as a BBC executive and the future of the corporation in a column for this week’s issue:

And so another BBC career ends in the way that is characteristic of the corporation: an executive barbecued by the outside world, then finding that there isn’t enough internal support to withstand the flames. Alan Yentob was one of the defining figures of late-20th-century television in Britain, an innovative channel controller and the commissioner of some of the BBC’s most celebrated programmes. But a long-term problem was created when his hands-on roles came to an end a decade ago. He had the chance to devote himself to appearing on-screen, yet he allowed himself to be given the more nebulous post of creative director – thus staying on well past his contemporaries and retaining a stonking staff salary at the age of 68.

Cynics have said that there were 183,000 reasons per annum why he wanted to stay in management but we now know that he made huge personal donations to the ill-fated Kids Company, of which he was chairman. What was almost certainly more alluring was a seat on the BBC boards and knowing what was going on. He adored being at the centre of things.

It must have been frustrating at times because other hands were on the levers of power and Yentob’s successors as directors of television guarded their territory. He made up for that by “being Alan”: a genial and loquacious presence at meetings, seldom failing to tell us which of his world-class contacts had been in touch and materialising at the important corporate moments, often with an apposite piece of advice. He was a sturdy advocate of the BBC on public platforms. But it was understandable that staff and outsiders questioned whether this was a proper job spec and they also got grumpy about the whiff of a television lifestyle that predated the age of austerity.

[. . .]

It is vital that the BBC comes through this in good shape. Maybe one day it will face the meltdown it fears but its history – now going back over almost a century – shows its talent for survival. It is thrashing ITV in the ratings, it has more than half the radio market, it is the dominant supplier of broadcast news and it is a global power online. Through the decades of reviews and commissions and scandals and competitive sniping, the BBC has always emerged intact: never quite as big as it would like to be but never laid low as its enemies want. It’s a safe bet, with or without Yentob, that this will happen again.


NS TV critic Rachel Cooke: how to save Newsnight

The NS‘s TV critic, Rachel Cooke, calls time on Newsnight in her column this week. The programme has, she argues, become a flimsy offering that lacks bite and expertise and is comprised largely of incestuous chats between “self-publicising newspaper columnists and B-list politicians”:

Not to sound too pompous or anything, but . . . whither Newsnight? Is it dying, or is it more throbbingly vital than ever in this, the age of extreme news? It should, of course, be the latter. Someone, somewhere, has to mediate the hue and cry. But as a once-loyal viewer who now frequently slopes off to bed to read at the appointed hour, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned for its future. First, Laura Kuenssberg, its most tenacious presenter, went off to fill Nick Robinson’s shoes as the BBC’s political editor; now Allegra Stratton, its excellently calm and pithy political editor, is to join ITV. One thinks, at this point, of sinking ships, if not of rats.

What it’s up against is perfectly obvious: the dizzying output of news elsewhere; the beefing up of the ten o’clock news shows; the increasing reluctance of serious politicians to submit to a grilling. But some of its problems are of its own devising. It’s clear by now that the patient and conciliatory style of Evan Davis, a presenter I very much enjoy elsewhere (on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line, for instance), doesn’t work on Newsnight. Oh, the times I’ve ended up yelling at the telly in frustration as he lets another evasive little worm off the hook. The show’s expertise also seems to be leaching away. Too often, its journalists end up telling me something I already know.

I want Newsnight to stand at an angle to the news cycle, with all the richness and depth that implies. But on a quiet day it feels to me like yet more wafer-thin bullshit. Sorry if this sounds a little blunt.

So what is to be done? Either it must be completely rethought, or it should be ditched, pronto, and sod the teeth gnashing that such a move would inevitably provoke among the 65 or so sad and self-important souls who sit at home in their pyjamas tweeting about it (bullshit clinging to the shirt tails of bullshit: it’s neither edifying nor very interesting).

Cooke’s prescription? Triple Newsnight‘s budget, second talent from elsewhere in the corporation and give the culture reporter Stephen Smith “more time and vastly more love”.


James Bloodworth in Venezuela: do the recent election results signal the end of “Chavismo”?

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire on how George Osborne is lining up a poisoned chalice for BoJo at the Department for Transport.

Peter Wilby: the night I was five Tube stops from terror, Tony Blair’s special pleading, and the age of floods.

Janice Turner reviews Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter. 

Frank Cottrell-Boyce is thrilled by Marilynne Robinson’s essays on faith and politics. 

Theatre: Mark Lawson joins the funeral party in Caryl Churchill’s new play Here We Go.

Will Self’s Real Meals: Nice lighting and a dash of Tabasco can’t bring the culinary treasures of the Sierra Madre any closer at Chipotle.


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