Monday 30 November 2015

Damask Looms

The announcement of a Labour free vote on Syria seems to mark appropriately today's seventieth birthday of Hilary Armstrong.

Since the organic Constitution evolved to include Commons votes before military interventions, then it has been inevitable that those would become free votes.

Will the Conservatives also be having one this time? If not, why not?

If Cameron had his own party squared, then no one would care what Labour thought.

There is a vast array of excellent material opposing this war. If you read only one piece of it, then let that be this.

Ulster Life

The DUP and Sylvia Hermon do not like David Cameron, or his party in general, but they are far more averse to Jeremy Corbyn. Today's court ruling in abortion in Northern Ireland presents Corbyn with an opportunity.

He has always voted in favour of abortion (although, like the Morning Star, he is opposed to assisted suicide, a cause to which his Blairite enemies are particularly attached), but the sections of the Labour Party that tend to be opposed to it are overwhelmingly supportive of him for other reasons.

It is not a cause to which his tendency attaches any especial importance, being a bit busy with issues of economic inequality and of peace. On those issues, it has a long history of working well with churches, not least including Catholic and Evangelical churches.

All that he has to say, therefore, is that he believes that the abortion law in Northern Ireland ought to be decided by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

As much as anything else, that would clarify his support for the SDLP, which is strongly opposed to abortion and austerity, over Sinn Féin, which has long supported the former, and which is now in favour of the latter, too.

As to the ruling itself, it establishes a right to abortion under two circumstances, one of which cannot be known, while the other cannot be proved, probably in the time available, and certainly by medical means.

Or will the fact of an abortion for sexual crime then be used as proof of that crime? In that case, mere allegation will have become proof.

Sunday 29 November 2015

The Lanchester Forum's Website

Yes, at least this side of Christmas, another of my blogs. We are being sent material, so we have to move immediately. Things will go up several gears in 2016.

The list of Founder Members is here.

Paul Bicknell makes the case for public works schemes.

And I set out a basis for One Nation Labour.

At This Very Point

Like Jeremy Corbyn, John Baron was right about Iraq and (as was far, far rarer) right about Libya. Listen to them both:

Amid all the debate and emotion expended over Syria last week, there remains a terrible sense of déjà vu pervading this most difficult of problems.

It is the sense of a government – and a nation – repeating previous errors by committing to air strikes without a comprehensive, long-term strategy involving regional powers and allies.

I have just returned from a visit to key capitals across the Middle East with the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, where we spoke to government, diplomatic and military officials in Tehran, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Those conversations confirmed to me that, in the absence of a proper strategy informed by better on-the-ground knowledge and intelligence, there is a real danger that any military intervention goes the same way of Iraq, Afghanistan post-2006, and Libya. It is a message we must heed.

In those previous military interventions, we vastly underestimated the complexities of local politics in the countries we were invading.

We took too little account of the difficulty of achieving our aims and the resources we would require.

Sadly, judging from what the Prime Minister said last week in advocating air strikes in Syria, there is little sign that he – or Ministers collectively – have learnt these painful and expensive lessons.

Of course, the UK was appalled by the butchery committed by Islamic State in Paris. What is now required is a sense of calm and clear thinking.

But the Prime Minister’s case for joining was long on emotion and short on strategy – there should have been more detail.

What is needed now is a comprehensive and realistic long-term strategy – both military and non-military – to respond to the IS strategy and the resources to see it through.

Everyone accepts that air strikes alone will not destroy IS. Coalition aircraft – and those of Russia – already crowd the skies.

Our Middle Eastern allies point out that far from a lack of allied aircraft above Syria, the problem is actually a shortage of viable targets on the ground.

Many of these mightily armed machines fly in aerial ‘roundabouts’ over Iraq and Syria but return to base with their weapons unused.

So the addition of British bombs would add little.

What is needed is what has always been needed: local troops to take and hold ground because land gives credibility and sustenance to IS’s cause.

Regrettably, the Prime Minister’s speech added little to identifying and bringing about such a force.

At best, the Government’s belief that 70,000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels will fill the void once bombing of IS intensifies should be treated with caution.

At worst, it might be wildly optimistic.

Even if that figure quoted by Mr Cameron last week is accurate, testimony suggests that after five years of conflict, precious few ‘moderates’ remain in Syria.

Indeed, a feature of this civil war has been the speed at which new extremist groups and organisations can spring from the shadows and stake a claim.

It is a bold assumption that the Government’s strategy would prevent this.

The grave risks of military intervention merely clearing the field for the next wave of jihadis should be obvious.

Furthermore, even if one believed sufficient ‘moderates’ existed, this group is riddled with rivalry, as the Americans have found to their cost.

The Prime Minister has sadly forgotten the lessons of Libya, where the anti-Gaddafi forces splintered into a thousand militia the moment the common enemy was defeated.

A fresh civil war has been a result. Syria could easily go the same way.

No 10 claims that air strikes are urgently needed to sit at the ‘top table’ and show solidarity with our key allies, such as France and the US, in their time of need.

Yet our place is guaranteed as a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council. China is not contemplating military action in Syria but is represented at the Vienna talks on the crisis.

But the Prime Minister’s strategy is sadly lacking in another respect.

His proposals do not adequately address the non-military elements to this anti-IS campaign, such as the group’s business and financial links.

Too little has been done to curtail this evil movement’s cashflow and reserves, which form its lifeblood.

More broadly, the Prime Minister said very little last week as to how the Coalition planned to neutralise the poisonous ideology and sectarianism which sustains the extremism of various terrorist groups across the region, including IS, and worldwide.

This is a long-term endeavour but we need to give it much greater impetus.

The short-term effect of British air strikes will be negligible. But as we intervene more, so we become more responsible for events on the ground.

Without a comprehensive strategy, air strikes will simply reinforce the West’s failure in the region generally at a time when there are already too many aircraft chasing too few targets.

Just a few weeks ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee produced a very reasoned and thoughtful report arguing against air strikes in Syria, in the absence of the comprehensive long-term strategy.

I, and other colleagues, still hold to that view. I will oppose this military action in the forthcoming parliamentary vote.

We have stood at this very point before. We have no excuse for setting out on the same tragic, misguided path once more.

Another Cameron Photoshop

Robert Fisk writes:

Not since Hitler ordered General Walther Wenck to send his non-existent 12th Army to rescue him from the Red Army in Berlin has a European leader believed in military fantasies as PR Dave Cameron did last week.

Telling the House of Commons about the 70,000 “moderate” fighters deployed in Syria was not just lying in the sense that Tony Blair lied – because Blair persuaded himself to believe in his own dishonesty – but something approaching burlesque.

It was whimsy – ridiculous, comic, grotesque, ludicrous. It came close to a unique form of tragic pantomime. At one point last week, one of Cameron’s satraps was even referring to this phantom army as “ground troops”.

I doubt if there are 700 active “moderate” foot soldiers in Syria – and I am being very generous, for the figure may be nearer 70 – let alone 70,000.

And the Syrian Kurds are not going to conquer Isis for us; they’re too busy trying to survive the assaults of our Turkish allies.

Besides, aren’t the “moderates” supposed to be the folk who don’t carry weapons at all? Who’s ever heard before of a “moderate” with a Kalashnikov?  

The Syrian regime’s army – who really are ground troops and who never worried about the “moderate” rebels because they always ran away – are the only regular force deployed in Syria. And thanks to Vladimir Putin rather than PR Dave, they’re beginning to win back territory.

Yet after losing at least 60,000 soldiers – killed largely by Isis and the al-Nusra Front – the Syrian army would be hard put to fight off an assault on Damascus by Dave Cameron’s 70,000 “moderates”.

If this ghost army existed, it would already have captured Damascus and hurled Bashar al-Assad from power.

Yet in the Commons last week, we were supposed to believe this tomfoolery – all in the cause of launching two or three fighter bombers against Isis in Syria.

It wouldn’t make us more vulnerable, Dave told us. In fact we were already vulnerable because we were bombing Isis in Iraq.

Yet Dave knows – and we all know, don’t we? – that Isis will most assuredly try to commit an atrocity in Britain to revenge Dave’s latest schoolboy adventure. Then – à la Blair after 7/7 – Dave will insist that Isis are killing us because they hate our “values”.

Then will come the inevitable video of a suicide killer saying he killed our innocents because Dave sent his miniature air force to bomb Isis. 

The odd thing about all this is that most Brits I come across – and most Arabs I talk to in the Middle East – are well aware of the above. So is the Labour Party.

But the Blairite MPs in the Labour Party are going to vote with Dave because while they loathe the evil cult of Isis, they hate the evil cult of Corbyn even more. 

Do they too believe – as we are all supposed to believe – that the so-called “Joint Intelligence Committee” is telling the truth about the mythical 70,000 “moderates”? 

Is this unspeakably valiant committee so stupid that it does not tell Dave about the role of the Saudi Wahabi death cult, which is the direct religious and sectarian inspiration for Isis?  And if it did tell Dave, why didn’t he talk about the Saudis in the Commons last week?

No, we are not “at war”. Isis can massacre our innocents, but it is not invading us. Isis is not about to capture Paris or London – as we and the Americans captured Baghdad and Mosul in 2003. No. What Isis intends to do is to persuade us to destroy ourselves.

Isis wants us to hate our Muslim minorities. It wants civil war in France between the elite and its disenfranchised Muslims, most of them of Algerian origin. It wants the Belgians to hate their Muslims. It wants us Brits to hate our Muslims.

Isis must have been outraged by the thousands of fine Europeans who welcomed with love the million Muslim refugees who reached Germany.

The Muslims should have been heading towards the new Caliphate – not running away from it. So now it wishes to turn us against the refugees. 

To achieve this, it must implicate hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslim refugees in its atrocities. It must force our EU nations to introduce States of Emergency, suspend civil liberties, raid the homes of Muslims.

It wishes to destroy the European Union itself. It wishes to strike at the heart of the European ideal by liquidating the very foundation of the union: by persuading us to tear up the Schengen agreement and to close our frontiers.

And we are doing exactly that. Are we, in some auto-panic, actually working for Isis?

If that gruesome institution did not ban alcohol, their members would be toasting with champagne our political leaders for their vacuity, their sophistry, the abject fear with which they now regularly try to inject us under the dangerous old cry of “Unify the nation”. 

Vladimir Putin comprehends this. He knows that Turkey is helping Isis – this is why he is going to destroy the Isis oil smuggling route to Turkey – and, as a former serving KGB officer, he understands the cynicism of any crisis.

If an American aircraft had strayed into Turkish airspace, he asked at his Kremlin press conference with François Hollande last week, does anyone believe that Turkey would have shot down the US pilots? We all know the answer to that.

If Turkey wished to destroy Isis, why does it bombard Isis’ Kurdish enemies? Why does it imprison two of Turkey’s top journalists for reporting how the Turkish intelligence service smuggled weapons to Islamist fighters in Syria? And Putin is hardly going to object if the EU is bent on suicide-through-fear. 

Amid all this, PR Dave raves on. And why not?

Having Photoshopped a fake poppy on to his lapel to honour Britain’s war dead, why shouldn’t he get away with Photoshopping 70,000 fake “moderates” on to a map of Syria?

Saturday 28 November 2015

More In Common

Labour MPs now need to ask themselves with whom they have more in common.

Is it the activist base of the Labour Party (yes, including Momentum, although far larger than that)?

Or is it David Cameron, Philip Hammond and Michael Fallon?

Over to the Labour MPs.

Friday 27 November 2015

That Black Friday Feeling

The Americans think that Thanksgiving is religious, while the British think that Christmas is not.

The Puritans despised harvest festivals, and ruthlessly suppressed them. The association of Thanksgiving with the Pilgrim Fathers is also a fiction. A pious fiction, but a fiction all the same.

Unlike the holding up of the Puritans as apostles and prophets of religious liberty. That is an outright lie, and downright pernicious. Every year, I give thanks that they left England.

But if we must have Black Friday, then we ought at least to precede it with Thanksgiving.

As it is, our cultural relationship with the United States is perfectly encapsulated by the fact that we have managed to adopt Black Friday but not any form of Thanksgiving.

We only ever take the bad from America, never the good.

I wish that the American bishops would declare a day of fasting, abstinence and penance on this "Black Friday".

The supermarket chains claim that one in six people in Britain now keeps Thanksgiving. Utter bilge, of course.

It is kept only by expatriate Americans and by the members of their households, a tiny proportion of the population. The major Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Sikh festivals are all bigger, and they are all small minority interests.

But our commercial overlords obviously see both Thanksgiving and Black Friday as enormous opportunities, to be made part of the cultural mainstream by the old trick of pretending that they already were, so as to make everyone else feel abnormal and as if we were missing out.

I honestly do not think that half of these corporations even know that Thanksgiving and Black Friday do not, or at least did not, exist outside the United States.

They keep them without even thinking about it, and such is their power that, as a result, those days do now exist in more and more of the world.

Within 10 years, and possibly five, the media will refer to them as "traditional", and the run-up to Thanksgiving will see it taught as such in primary schools.

But the world turns. Which Chinese festivals will we all be keeping another 10 years again after that?

Right now, I would make all four of St George's Day, St Andrew's Day, St David's Day and St Patrick's Day public holidays throughout the United Kingdom, rather than pointless celebrations of the mere fact that the banks are on holiday.

Three of those are in these Islands' incomparable spring and early summer, while the fourth, being 30th November, would mark the last day on which nothing, absolutely nothing, Christmas-related would be allowed.

Remained Unconvinced

Stewart Wood writes:

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.

Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”.

And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world. 

But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option.

Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding. And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil.

But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?

David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan.

He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”. 

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.

Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan.

And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures.

Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters.

And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  

Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. 

It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t. 

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed. But what of the plan for peace?

David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand  to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.

But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated.

Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War. 

If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.

Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control.

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran.

We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil.

No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil.

But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today.

Thursday 26 November 2015

"Keep Out"

Anyone can break the Whip, as Jeremy Corbyn did many times. But it is not possible to do so and retain a frontbench position (which the Deputy Leadership, in itself, is not).

Nor does the right to break the Whip necessarily make it right to do so on a particular occasion.

The 1945 Coalition that was the post-War Labour Party finally fell apart when just enough Labour MPs voted to take Britain into the EU to offset the number of Conservative votes against it.

By all accounts, it was never the same again after that. We all know what happened as a result.

But that would pale into insignificance if a military intervention in Syria were to be approved by just enough Labour votes to offset the Conservative votes against it.

Buyback, Payback

I was once sacked by the Telegraph. So I am looking for investors to buy it now that it is up for sale.

A business plan is available on request. I just need the readies.

The Barclays paid £665 million, but they would probably settle for half a billion in the absence of a highly unlikely better offer.

Do please get in touch.

Osborne's Northern Poorhouse

Anne Perkins writes:

Around the time the Queen was born, when Britain was facing its worst depression in living memory and the Wall Street crash was about to make it much, much worse, it dawned on the people in Whitehall that many local councils were trying to weave services out of thin air.

In areas where jobs were scarce as hen’s teeth and every other working man was unemployed, some places simply couldn’t afford to provide the most basic services.

In response, Whitehall devised a system of sharing local taxes between rich boroughs and poor boroughs.

It was an ingenious idea that reflected and supported a sense of national solidarity that was deepened by the southward tramp of the hunger marches and compounded by the wartime experience of conscription, when the officer class encountered, often for the first time, the face of poverty.

Yesterday, George Osborne sounded its death knell.

Osborne wants a leaner, meaner state, and he wants leaner, meaner local government too. The message in the autumn statement was about devolution and autonomy.

But in the language of the Treasury Red Book, that means cuts: cuts twice as deep as those that have already left town halls excising soft tissue, closing swimming pools and libraries and selling off assets left by the city fathers, such as the endowment of rare ceramics that Croydon flogged to the Chinese a couple of years ago to raise £8m.

On city treasurers’ own analysis, there will be a black hole in local finances so big that even closing every single children’s centre, library, museum and park would not fill it.

Cuts are not invariably catastrophic. Every organisation has a tendency to grow fat and set in its ways; change is usually painful, and sometimes it needs a forceful external event to make it happen.

It’s a little bit like catching sight of yourself in a window and realising that, yes, 7lbs extra does actually show.

Only this is about something that actually matters to thousands of people.

The Osborne argument would go something like this: look at how well councils have handled the cuts so far, confirming that a) they were flabby and b) they just needed a bit of a kicking to become more innovative and efficient.

Then, he would add, councils will be able to keep the money they raise from their business rates, and they will have the right to raise an extra 2% on their council tax to help with the soaring bill for social care.

They will be able to stand on their own feet, autonomous.

This will be fine in Westminster, and probably in Knutsford, the town at the heart of George Osborne’s constituency; it will probably not be fine in Liverpool or Gateshead or Barrow or Stoke, or almost anywhere where Labour clings to power.

There, councils’ income from business rates – which they will want to keep low or at least to discount in order to encourage more business – will be inadequate, and their council tax base will not generate enough to cover a shortfall in social care funding that is reckoned at £6bn.

There are several aspects of government policy that are truly puzzling, such as giving up on going green. But its approach to social care is mad, or bad, or both.

It ignores the findings of the report it commissioned; it piles on new obligations; it mandates the national living wage and then it pulls out the already threadbare carpet of funding that supports them.

The most generous interpretation is that Osborne believes there will be a resurgence of Edwardian philanthropy to go with Edwardian levels of income inequality.

Maybe that was why he found £5m for the Burrell collection in Glasgow, that enormous assembly of cultural artefacts donated by the eponymous shipping magnate in the first part of the 20th century.

Perhaps he pictures footballers endowing retirement homes and Big Brother winners underwriting children’s centres.

Or maybe he just wants everyone to pay more out of their own pockets. Or maybe, just maybe, he really doesn’t understand what his scheme means in real life.

The way David Cameron doesn’t, as he revealed in his long and bemused complaint to his own Oxfordshire county council leader, Ian Hudspeth.

People used to wonder whether Osborne was talking about a northern powerhouse or a northern poorhouse.

Now we know.

A New Vision Is Needed

Mariana Mazzucato writes:

Let’s start with the good news.

In today’s spending review, George Osborne was forced to backtrack on his grossly unfair plans to cut working tax credits, a plan that would have left many worse off.

This is a victory for anyone who believes that it is wrong to make the poor pay for the faults of the private banking system – a system that caused the public budget to rise following the crisis.

But as Labour supporters congratulate themselves on the chancellor’s U-turn, and Conservatives cheer on the chancellor’s latest bit of political escapology, we shouldn’t lose sight of the bad news.

Let’s face it, there are still £12bn in cuts to welfare spending to come in this parliament. This remains not only unfair, but unnecessary.

As expected, Osborne’s economically illiterate goal of generating a budget surplus by 2020 has provided cover for another round of cuts and sell-offs, reducing the size of the state still further to 36.5%.

But what question is 36.5% the answer to? The question the government should be asking is what we want the state to do.

From that starting point it should then try to establish what size and what form is required for the state to deliver this objective. Instead, the chancellor is relentlessly pushing his own agenda.

With huge cuts in central departmental budgets, a garage sale of government assets and an ongoing threat to organisations such as the BBC, it is not clear what strategic capacity the state will have left once all the cuts have fallen. Osborne claims to act in the interests of Britain’s long-term economic security.

But rather than fixing the roof when the sun is shining, he is introducing structural weaknesses in the economy that are likely to cause serious subsidence in the years ahead.

Even the IMF has woken up to the fact that cuts do not cause growth.

Growth is determined by strategic spending on areas that increase productivity, which in the UK is still below the OECD average.

This includes investing in training, education, research and development, and state-of-the-art infrastructure.

So while there has been a boost to some infrastructure spending, the lack of vision on what kind of economy we need for sustainable long-term growth means there has been little discussion about the direction of growth.

Not long ago the Conservatives wanted to be the “greenest” government ever – and claimed today to have delivered this in the last parliament.

But by subscribing to a false dichotomy where more green industry means fewer jobs, and allowing many energy-intensive industries to remain exempt from tax, they have drifted a long way from that goal – so far, in fact, that Al Gore recently paid the UK a special visit to reprimand the government.

Short-term thinking is having devastating consequences for the science budget in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The chancellor says thatscience spending will be protected in real terms – but while inflation remains at 0%, all this means is that Britain’s investment in science would remain nominal.

The actual increase from the last review is no more than £9m, while countries ranked high on global innovation scales are increasing it by double-digit percentages.

Indeed, placing Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, inside the research councils will result in a real cut, and the department’s eagerness to accept its 17% reduction is part of the “low tax, low regulation” view of competitiveness held by Sajid Javid, the business secretary – a far cry from the more serious attempts at reviving industrial strategy of his predecessor, Vince Cable.

This leads us to the fundamental problem with Osborne’s economic plan. His short-term work to patch up the roof is eroding the foundations.

The deficit – in the short term – is not going to determine the UK’s long-term economic stability and growth. After all, many countries with low deficits have had a high level of debt as a proportion of GDP (including Italy, Portugal and Spain).

And, vice versa, many countries with high deficits have also had a high level of growth, and hence have kept debt as a proportion of GDP in check (such as the US after the financial crisis in 2008).

The key issue is not whether a country runs a modest deficit, but what it is actually spending the money on.

It is a strategic composition of spending that will affect the denominator of the debt-to-GDP ratio, and hence better enable the debt to be paid back in the future.

It is this focus on the deficit that has also caused a wave of state asset sell-offs, including the privatisation of the Green Investment Bank and the business investment bank – two sources of patient finance that could have become pillars of a serious investment-led recovery.

But where is the scrutiny of these decisions?

While in the short run privatising Eurostar, Royal Mail, RBS or the Green Investment Bank might reduce government assets, and hence expenditure (making the deficit look artificially low), there have been no proper studies showing the long-term costs of such sales.

The effect of the latest Eurostar sale may be to increase public debt as the state loses out on future dividends.

Paradoxically, because the UK is so allergic to industrial strategy, it has started outsourcing strategy to other states – hence the recent decision to sell off public assets to long-termist China.

It’s almost as if the anti-state ideology only applies to the UK’s public sector.

The chancellor loves to talk about Tech City, yet he forgets that the key to the IT revolution was an ecosystem of public institutions making strategic public investments across the innovation chain – and much patient long-term finance to lead the way.

Long-run investment-led growth requires the same kind of vision that led to the IT revolution – a point recently made by no one more statist than Bill Gates.

But this kind of smart, innovation-led and inclusive growth requires vision and a belief in public value. The government has neither.

And the Labour party seems to have lost its confidence and ability to talk about investment-led growth in a way that enables both business and the public sector to think big again. We cannot keep having the same old debates.

A new vision is needed.

This Homicidal Cauldron

Kapil Komireddi writes:

David Cameron's case for military intervention in Syria is like that old Groucho Marx joke: “We have to have a war. I've already paid a month's rent on the battlefield”.

Cameron wants us urgently to sign up to his war effort.

But on the basis of what?

He claimed this morning that he had "a credible military strategy" to defeat Islamic State.

The more he spoke, the more apparent it became that he has nothing of the kind.

Worse, he has learned nothing from the mistakes that led us into Iraq more than a decade ago. Syria exists as a united entity only on the maps.

On the ground, it is fractured between competing interests.

Syria's Russia-backed secular dictator, Bashar Assad, controls a significantly shrunken territory. The Kurds, who are bravely fighting Islamic State, dream of self-rule in the north.

Then there is ISIS itself, and an ensemble of overlapping opposition groupings whose ideological leanings are virtually impossible for us to determine.

Cameron wants to enter this mix. He wants to bomb ISIS from the skies and hopes to use "moderate" rebels as ground forces.

Simultaneously, he wants to rid Syria of Assad and install a representative government that can finish off his fight against ISIS.

This is an ambitious plan. It is also fantastic.

First, Cameron's claim that there are 70,000 "moderate" rebels is extremely dubious.

The source of this claim is the joint intelligence committee - the same source which warned us that Saddam Hussein could bomb British bases in 45 minutes.

Western governments have been struggling to vet the identities of refugees who have been flooding Europe over the last several months.

Can we seriously believe that it is possible for us to vet the ideological complexion of 70,000 rebels in a war zone?

What was the methodology used to arrive at this number? Did intelligence officials collate this figure from the estimates given to them by commanders of local rebel units? If so, how reliable are those commanders and what was the criteria used to assess the fighters?

We could benefit from the experience of the United States, which spent more than half a million dollars training rebel forces – only to lose control of them later.

As General Lloyd Austin told a Congressional hearing earlier this year, out of the hundreds of rebels it trained, the US could track down only “four or five” fighters. The rest either bolted or defected to other factions.

Cameron offends the intelligence of his colleagues, and the British public, when he bandies this figure: "70,000 moderate rebels" is the new 45 minutes.

Second, Cameron let loose his belief that "the best ground troops" against ISIS "should be the Syrian army". This demonstrates a worrying ignorance of Syrian realities on Cameron's part.

For nearly half a decade, western experts have been predicting Assad's demise. Yet he remains in power. Tens of thousands of Syrian Arab Army troops have laid down their lives in his defence.

It is absurd for Cameron to believe that they will switch their loyalty to a Western-backed government once Assad is deposed from power.

When I reported from Syria in 2012, non-Western diplomats were openly scornful of what they saw as Western naivety - even after the experience of Iraq - about Syria.

As the ambassador of a major Asian country told me, "the French, British and Americans have no understanding of what's happening here".

Many decent people are justly appalled by Assad. But outrage is not policy.

There exists no force in Syria capable of reconstituting the country if Assad goes. And as we have seen in Libya, actions driven by good intentions can produce deadly results.

Cameron has no workable plan. Instead, he is attempting what the French call on s'engage, puis on voit: first engage, then figure out.

But there is no reason to believe that Syria's miseries will be relieved - or Europe's security enhanced - if Britain started bombing a country that's already being pounded daily by multiple powers.

It would be inexcusable to enable Cameron to ignore history and plunge Britain head first into this homicidal cauldron.

Failed To Make A Convincing Case

Peter Oborne writes:

It’s more than 12 years since I watched Tony Blair deliver his notorious speech to the House of Commons on 18 March 2003, making the case for war a few days ahead of the invasion of Iraq.

The prime minister was fluent and persuasive. As we all know today, he won in the House of Commons. And as we all know today, his case was fatally flawed.

David Cameron also made a very well-received speech today.

Though no date has been announced, it is now likely that parliament will vote on airstrikes next week, in which case Britain’s warplanes could be in action over Syria early next month.

The stakes are much lower than in 2003. Britain’s contribution to the war effort will be confined to a handful of tornado bombers, with no more than two aircraft in the air at any one time.

We are talking about a gesture of support to allies, rather than a decisive intervention that will change the course of the war.

Even so, the British prime minister failed to make a convincing case for British military involvement.

Is the intervention legal? The prime minister says yes, but (in an echo of 2003) he will not publish the official advice from his Attorney General.

The prime minister accepts that airstrikes will not eradicate IS without the support of ground troops.

He claims, however, that there are some 70,000 ground troops on Syrian soil ready to wage war on IS.

These are apparently made up of Free Syrian Army "moderates" along with Kurds.

I understand this figure corresponds with Saudi estimates, but many well-informed observers are dubious.

It is suspicious that Cameron did not go into further detail about the identity of these "moderates".

The history of the civil war in Syria suggests that some of the "moderates" may not exist, that others may be working closely with jihadist groups, and yet others may not be "moderate" at all.

As for the Kurds, they will fight courageously against IS – but their record suggests only in defence of Kurdish territory.

The British prime minister made clear that he was relying on the chairman of the UK's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for his figure of 70,000 fighters.

Yet he provided no information about the basis for the JIC calculations, for instance what reservations and caveats were expressed.

It cannot be forgotten or forgiven that 12 years ago the information provided by the JIC chairman Sir John Scarlett concerning Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction turned out to be worthless.

Cameron claimed that new procedures are now in place. It remains to be seen whether they can be relied upon.

At times, the British prime minister appeared not to know what he was talking about.

He spoke of Syrian Sunni Muslims as if they were a monolithic block, all opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is not the case.

A fair number of Sunnis support the Assad regime - for instance many of the president’s cabinet are Sunni, and the most prominent Sunni religious leaders speak out in favour of Assad.

These facts cannot be brushed aside, as the British prime minister just did. 

Meanwhile, Cameron’s vision of a grand political settlement that would unite Syria against IS once Assad departs sounded like fantasy.

Judging by his record, Cameron is not much good at foreign policy.

His attack on Libya ended in disaster, and he has been wrong about Assad from the start of the civil conflict four and a half years ago.  

He said that Assad would go. He backed "moderate" forces who turned out to have little or no traction on the ground.

He appears to have been taken by surprise when jihadist forces emerged to dominate the opposition. He refused to talk to Iran for far too long.

Why should we suddenly trust the British prime minister now?

Of course, the world must confront IS. But a handful of extra bombers adding to the confusion over Syrian airspace will not help.

Fighting IS means creating a grand international coalition embracing all the states in the region - Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, the Gulf States - and Syria herself.

This is hard, especially since many of them (above all Turkey) have been guilty of tolerating, if not actively, helping IS. 

Cameron has made clear that he was not prepared to work with the one force that is fighting hardest against IS - the Syrian army. 

This is incoherent.

French President François Hollande has over-reacted to the atrocities in Paris in the same way that George W Bush over-reacted to the terrible events of 9/11.

He has lashed out domestically by declaring a state of emergency, and internationally with bombing raids.

Hollande’s reaction solves nothing and may well be counter-productive but it is at least understandable.

There is no excuse for Britain following suit.

There is one other point that most observers have overlooked. What about civilian casualties?

The British prime minister claims that British bombing technology is more accurate than the Americans. 

The United States claims that only half a dozen civilians have died since it launched its campaign of airstrikes against IS across Syria and Iraq 15 months ago.

Airwars, which compile lists of civilian deaths, asserts that the true figure is at least 680 and possibly as high as 975.

There would be a dark irony if Britain (and France) killed innocent people in our quest to hurt IS. Cameron’s strategy, as set out today, is to bomb and hope for the best.

We should not go ahead until we have a better idea of what we are doing.

Inner Circles

I have no idea whether or not Assad's and Putin's inner circles have been trading oil with IS. I doubt it, but I don't know.

The point is that those who are now seeking British and American military intervention against IS in Syria are apparently as anti-Assad and as anti-Putin as ever.

In which case, on whose side are they, exactly?

And why, exactly?

Pardoning The Turkey

In the wise words of Chesterton:

The Americans have established a Thanksgiving Day to celebrate the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers reached America. The English might very well establish another Thanksgiving Day; to celebrate the happy fact that the Pilgrim Fathers left England.

I know that this is still regarded as a historical heresy, by those who have long ceased to worry about a religious heresy. For while these persons still insist that the Pilgrim Fathers were champions of religious liberty, nothing is more certain than the fact that an ordinary modern liberal, sailing with them, would have found no liberty, and would have intensely disliked all that he found of religion.

Even Thanksgiving Day itself, though it is now kept in a most kindly and charming fashion by numbers of quite liberal and large-minded Americans, was originally intended, I believe, as a sort of iconoclastic expedient for destroying the celebration of Christmas. The Puritans everywhere had a curious and rabid dislike of Christmas; which does not encourage me, for one, to develop a special and spiritual fervour for Puritanism.

Oddly enough, however, the Puritan tradition in America has often celebrated Thanksgiving Day by often eliminating the Christmas Pudding, but preserving the Christmas Turkey. I do not know why, unless the name of Turkey reminded them of the Prophet of Islam, who was also the first Prophet of Prohibition.

The first two sentences make for a good line, and one with various truths in it. But the link between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrim Fathers is a piece of fiction. At root, it is a lie. Arguably, it is a harmless lie. But it is undeniably a lie.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

The End of the Long March?

Well, then, if UKIP did not win Oldham West and Royton after today's excuses for journalism, then it really would be finished.

Let's see.

A Lesson in the Emptiness of Appeasement

Ken Macdonald writes:

Of all the things the government might wish to encourage around the world, now more than ever, democracy and its accompanying dignities should be high on the list.

And certainly there was praise in Downing Street when four years ago, amid jubilation and a stunningly high turnout, the Arab spring brought free and fair elections to Egypt

This was a distant cry from the present-day horrors of Islamic State and its visitations of violence across borders: surely the polling booths were no threat to western city streets. 

The Muslim Brotherhood-inspired government that followed this festival of voting showed its inexperience and did too little to build broader support, particularly with liberals. 

Yet it easily avoided the criminal abuses of power and violence that have characterised military dictatorship in Egypt since Gamal Abdel Nasser – and it had the considerable merit of being elected, in a region where that was a remarkable distinction. 

So it was no surprise that senior members of the ruling Freedom and Justice party were lauded guests in London, even visiting Chequers to break bread with David Cameron in his country home. 

It wasn’t to last. 

The silence characterising London’s and Washington’s response to the military destruction of Egypt’s democracy in 2013 may have smelt more of complicity than disapproval, but worse was to follow.

The prime minister was not only disinclined to speak up for his former dinner guests in their time of need; he was about to turn on them himself.

Any examination of the thuggish new military government could wait. Executions, mass shootings and show trials were put to one side as Cameron ordered a hostile UK government review into the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in Britain, just months after tanks had forced its elected government from office.

Egyptian generals, saved only by state immunity from being prosecuted for crimes against humanity, might be honoured guests in London, but the deposed ministers of an overthrown democracy were not.

British policymakers, it seems, were not in the mood to indulge these inexperienced, even inept, new democrats. And we may be sure that other, less tenderly minded players in the region noticed.

Any lingering puzzlement at the prime minister’s behaviour was emphatically dispelled when the Guardian recently revealed documents exposing the price tag likely to have attached to any alternative British policy that stood for democracy or failed to demonise victims of the military violence that destroyed it.

These documents made clear that suggestions from its detractors that the Muslim Brotherhood review was just a cynical device to ingratiate Downing Street with nervous allies in the Gulf weren’t just paranoia, as the government repeatedly claimed.

In fact, the truth was cruder: principles, the sheikhs had made clear, would cost money.

Senior UAE figures explicitly threatened that, unless the British turned decisively against the Muslim Brotherhood during its period in government billions of pounds worth of arms deals would be lost.

And, as Paddy Ashdown told the BBC yesterday, it took just a phone call from the Saudis to persuade the prime minister to launch his review “almost off the top of his head”. 

It would be naive to dispute that an argument exists for Britain’s arms industry, as an export asset, to be protected and sustained. 

Morality and international comity are not always easy companions and our alliances in the Gulf have real strategic value. 

But in allowing himself to be bundled into quite such an ugly corner Cameron may have confused the wider national interest with the passing satisfaction of bank transfers. 

He may have passed too much control over our Middle East policy to despots addicted to cruelty.

Certainly, in the light of the unspeakable horrors in Paris, for Britain to have selected for special treatment and condemnation the only mass political movement in the Arab world to have sought legitimacy through suffrage seems a singularly tragic error. 

In making it, the prime minister may have rubbed up against parts of the British state possessed of much finer instincts than his own. 

Sir John Jenkins, the former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who led the review, is not so supine in the face of oil-rich tantrums. 

He has reportedly declined to find that the Muslim Brotherhood represents a serious security threat in the UK at least – and he will not be bullied into tempering his view. 

Most probably it is this unwelcome conclusion that has caused repeated postponements to a prime ministerial announcement railing against Islamists in our midst, so keenly anticipated by securocrats, to follow hard on the review. 

Instead, having foolishly agreed to humour Britain’s friends in the Gulf by traducing participants in a democratic experiment that the oil kingdoms were certainly right to fear, Cameron may now be reluctant to announce substantial measures against the Muslim Brotherhood for fear of provoking their lawyers into bringing a judicial review to force the publication of a report whose unhelpful conclusions he would prefer to keep hidden.

It would be damning irony indeed if the prime minister’s sole achievement in this demeaning affair was to give Whitehall a lesson in the emptiness of appeasement.

Little Read

I doubt that Shanghai George has read The Little Red Book. He has read almost as little as Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher ever had. In any case, people have been punning on its title since time immemorial. Why, I myself have just kept up that tradition.

But John McDonnell was right. If he had not given the source of his quotation, then the man who believes in state control of British industry only if that state is not Britain, and preferably if it is China, would have agreed with every word of it. As phrased, he does agree with every word of it.

We trust that there will be no ridicule of John in tomorrow's Telegraph, which is desperately hawking itself around China, India, Russia and Arabia in search of a new proprietor. I still say that the trade unions ought to buy it.

None Due

Almost all of the tax credit cuts are built into Universal Credit. They are still coming.

And imagine if a male comedian had joked on television that the tampon tax ought to be used to fund women's refuges, rape crisis centres, and so on. Yet that is actually going to happen.

And Stands To Lose Everything

Ed West writes:

Actress Frances Barber has complained about her taxi driver after a night out in town, tweeting: Just had a sharia Uber driver, first time in London. Shocked. Reported.

The man had allegedly told her she was ‘disgustingly dressed’ and that ‘women should not be out at night’. This was after she had remarked about the weather being cold. 

That’s the problem with liberalising the taxi market to let any random person drive you around – it reduces the level of trust. 

As Rory Sutherland explained in this magazine a couple of years ago, trust is extremely important to capitalism and that’s why having hurdles such as the Knowledge is necessary:

‘Reciprocation, reputation and pre-commitment are the three big mechanisms which add to trust. You can use a small local firm which needs your loyalty. You can use someone larger with a brand reputation. Or you can trust someone who has made a big investment in getting a badge, and stands to lose everything if caught cheating.’ 

On the other hand perhaps technology, and the universal system of rating each other online, has changed all that, and we should just accept that Uber is the future. 

But, and I know I’m a hopeless reactionary who’s on the wrong side of history, and it’s 2015 and everything, but if people want a fully-trained driver who knows what he’s doing, has invested both his time and money in his career, and is licensed, then get a black cab. 

Uber is not a taxi service; it’s merely a mechanism to hire some random guy to drive you around for a pittance – don’t be surprised if he’s not quite possessed of a Morgan Freeman level of repartee and diligence. 

There is also the ethical question. Janice Turner recently pointed out  in The Times that her friends ‘wouldn’t grind an unfairly traded coffee beam, they champion the living wage and want to tax global evaders like Starbucks and yet Uber leaves such principles squished in the road’. 

Like all Silicon Valley companies, Uber promotes fashionable social justice causes while in practice doing the most un-left-wing thing possible: doing skilled working-class people out of jobs. 

So why isn’t there wider sympathy for cabbies? Is it that middle-class preference for having more deferential and undemanding foreign workers serving them? If it is, then that’s pretty short-sighted. 

Black cab drivers have always been the butt of humour because of their supposedly lower-middle-class right-wing views, although in my experience I can only remember one cabbie being very political and it was to express his disgust for the royal family. 

English lower-middle-class bigotry is a legitimate target for humour, but has anyone engaged in political debate with mini cab drivers from the second world? 

I’ve had some interesting chats – most recently there was a lovely Iranian guy who hated the religious authorities and wanted to restore the Shah, which I’m totally down with – but I’ve also spoken to people who believe the Mossad were behind 9/11. 

Imported prejudices are not so much a target for Radio 4 comedy, but as Europe is finding out, these days they are much more extreme and dangerous.

Anyway, I had that al-Baghdadi in the back of my cab recently – lovely bloke.

Continue To Press

John Healey MP, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Member for Housing and Planning, has released new analysis showing the Chancellor’s housing announcements are already starting to unravel.

An ‘increase’ in housing investment that is still a cut

The Chancellor said that “I am doubling the housing budget”, but new analysis shows that it has almost halved compared to the investment plans that he inherited from Labour. 

‘New’ homes that are not new 

The Chancellor promised “400,000 affordable new homes”, but he’s double-counting 250,000 which have been previously committed.

‘Affordable’ homes that will not be affordable

The Chancellor promised that his investment would build homes that are “affordable” but so-called ‘starter homes’ could require first time buyer incomes of £100,000 a year, and new analysis from Shelter suggests that shared ownership properties could be unaffordable to more than half of all households across the country.

Commenting, John Healey said: 

“The bluster of George Osborne’s statement masks the reality that his housing pledges are actually a huge cut in investment compared to the plans he inherited from Labour and that most of the so-called ‘new homes’ he has announced today have already been committed.

“After five years of failure from the Tories, with home-ownership having fallen each and every year since 2010 and house-building down to its lowest level since the 1920s during George Osborne’s time at the Treasury, we needed much better from the Chancellor.

“Labour will continue to press the government to build more homes that are genuinely affordable to young people and families on ordinary incomes, to rent and to buy.


I do not yet know, but I strongly suspect and I intend to find out, exactly what marker was being put down by the six Labour MPs who voted for the SNP's motion against Trident.

Only half of them were uncomplicatedly, if at all, of the Left, and the most striking thing about all them was the sheer length of their service.

Kelvin Hopkins and Graham Stringer were first elected in 1997, an electoral generation ago now. Roger Godsiff in 1992. Ronnie Campbell in 1987. Geoffrey Robinson at a by-election in 1976, before four of the 14 pro-Trident rebels were born.

And Dennis Skinner as long ago as the General Election of 1970, when Liz Kendall and Chris Leslie were likewise not even glints in the milkman's eye.

Yet ask yourself this: when have you ever seen on television, or heard on the radio, or read in a newspaper or magazine, anything by or about Kelvin Hopkins, or Graham Stringer, or Roger Godsiff, or Ronnie Campbell?

Or anything other than snide and baseless financial innuendo, and even that quite a long time ago, about Geoffrey Robinson? Or anything relating to Dennis Skinner, other than class-based ridicule?

Six is the right number for a weekly column each on a national daily newspaper. I do not know whether they would all want one, and Skinner has turned down such offers in the past because he believes in a certain distance between politicians and the press. But even so.

Credible and Radical

Stella Creasy writes:

With the spending review looming there is one budget cut we should all get behind. Britain is paying out £10billion a year on PFI loans taken out to build schools and hospitals.

With so many public institutions in financial difficulty, tomorrow Labour needs to offer both an expose of Osbourne's fiscal callousness and credible and radical alternatives for securing value for money for the British public.

Renegotiating repayment of these debts could not only save money - it could also be an opportunity to protect public services from privatisation.

Just as we took on the payday lending companies, so now Labour should lead the fight against those bleeding our public sector dry.

The sums involved are eye-watering.

Currently UK PFI projects are worth £57billion, for which the Government is committed to paying back £232billion by 2049/50.

The Treasury Select Committee concluded borrowing in this way was double the cost of the long term government gilt rate.

And it is not just the interest that is extortionate. Once these companies have a contract, most squeeze more money out of the public sector in overpriced service charges and maintenance.

One hospital was charged £52,000 to demolish a £750 shelter for smokers. Another school had to pay £302 for a new plug socket, five times the cost of the equipment it wanted to plug in.

In total PFI will cost every household £4,000 a year for the next eighteen years - equivalent to the entire school refurbishment programme budget, or the gap between local and national government spending itself.

Barts Health Trust in East London has the largest UK PFI deal made at £1.1billion. By 2049 the amount paid back will total £7billion.

Last year alone the Trust shelled out £148million - equivalent to the salaries for 6,000 nurses - of which half paid for interest accrued on the loan alone.

Barts has a deficit of £90million which lead managers to downgrade nursing posts - little wonder the CQC placed my local hospital into special measures as the quality of care has declined and it struggles to fill vacancies.

But whilst Barts faces an uncertain future, its creditors do not.

Innisfree owns 50% of the Barts deal and expects to make £18billion from eighteen different PFI projects across Britain.

It has just twenty five staff, one of whom earned £2million last year alone.

If Labour can be fairly criticised for using PFI, the sight of hospitals struggling with such debts make the lack of the current Government's action all the more galling.

Their own review failed to secure any savings in 82% of deals.

Little wonder some are taking matters into their own hands - Northumbria Council took out a loan to buy out Hexham hospital's PFI, and in doing so has saved £3.5million every year over the remaining 19-year term.

Some argue for these deals to be written off altogether - risking the chance no one would ever lend to the public sector again lest it defaults or higher rates of interest in future to compensate.

Instead, we need to give local communities the tools - and money - to renegotiate these debts in the best way for them.

This means exploring how and if we could convert the Public Sector Works Board into a credit union for the public sector.

This could then offer PFI stricken institutions loans at lower rates of interest.

Turning these into Cooperative trusts as a condition of such a bailout could give local residents the power to borrow and buy out services directly and own them - thus also putting them in the hands of their users and beyond any possible future threat of privatisation.

The experience of the cooperative finance sector shows renegotiation of debt is both possible and effective.

If the Chancellor is serious about sorting out public finances he would pilot a scheme to enable this in the public sector to demonstrate the wider potential of such models.

Reforming PFI to make it better value for money and people led is just one of many examples where applying insights from the co-operative movement offers a way forward.

When it comes to slashing public spending, tackling these loans is one change we can all sign off.