The world looks complicated, our politics looks small

by Stephen Tall on August 28, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. Apologies in advance: it’s mostly a depressing read (unusually – I’m generally an optimist). My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

I’m writing this on a damp, dank, grey, grim August bank holiday, a too-obvious metaphor for the current state of British politics. The summer began with reflections on a century-old international conflict the origins of which few of us today consider comprehensible. It was an apt scene-setter.

A succession of crises have flared before our eyes. The shooting down of flight MH17 with its 298 passengers and crew, almost certainly a tragic mistake by Putin-backed Russian forces aiming, bit by bit, to re-create the Russian empire. The latest senselessness in the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which each side believes itself to be righteous and peace achievable if only the other lot will capitulate. And the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, the ‘too extreme for al-Qaeda’ group which has taken brutal control of swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Such horrors could have galvanised us. Instead they seem to have paralysed us. The world looks all just a bit too complicated now.

We’ve grown used to thinking of Russia as the plucky underdog, far removed from its sinister John Le Carre-esque machinations. Nigel Farage even named Vladimir Putin as the politician he most admired (though he did at least caveat this was “as an operator, but not as a human being”). Yet it’s becoming clearer by the month that Russia is an ever-growing threat to the former Soviet states’ independence and freedom. The West’s, and in particular the European Union’s, sluggish response to its aggression has been appallingly complacent.

Meanwhile Israel, once seen as democracy’s safeguard amidst Middle East tumult, has become increasingly regarded as a belligerent, pariah state, as its right-wing government rains rockets on Gaza in retaliation for Hamas’s terrorism. In Northern Ireland it took the rapprochement of the two most ultra parties on each side – the unionist DUP and the republican Sinn Féin – to bring about peace. Yet the leadership opposites which attracted in that seemingly irreconcilable conflict appear to repel in the Levant’s sui generis version. Despite the fact there is an achievable peace, there’s little sign of a peace process by which it can be achieved. Or as Shimon Peres put it, “the good news is there is light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there is no tunnel.”

And then there’s Iraq. There is always, it seems, Iraq. I was one of the million-or-so who marched with thousands of fellow Lib Dems in London in 2003 to protest against a rush to war. I didn’t do so as some kind of conchy refusenik. I belong to a party whose then leader, Paddy Ashdown, was among the first to urge the case for liberal intervention in the former Yugoslavia; and whose successor, Charles Kennedy, backed the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. But, like Robin Cook, I was “troubled by the suspicion that if the hanging chads in Florida had gone the other way and Al Gore had been elected, we would not now be about to commit British troops.” We – and, more importantly, the Iraqi people – are still reaping what we sowed more than a decade ago.

So, too, are the Syrians from whom we turned away 12 months ago as its leader gassed them, with the House of Commons (pusillanimously reflecting the tired wishes of the public) voting for pre-emptive inaction. Some, even now, think Bashir Assad is a man with whom we have no choice but to do business to check the advance of Islamic State. No. That might be the Putin approach – amorally to deal with whoever best suits your own selfish interest – but it should not be what we in the West do. The enemy of our enemy should remain just that: we should not extend the hand of Realpolitik to clasp that of a man who bears responsibility for the deaths of 190,000 of his country’s citizens.

Against this backdrop, the UK’s domestic politics seem small. Even for August, the row over who should be the next clerk of the House of Commons is perhaps the most boringly insignificant SW1 event yet. Meanwhile the Conservatives are busy obsessing about Europe (what else?), Labour is mounting a silent summer offensive (the only offensive thing so far has been Austin Mitchell’s dinosaur views on women candidates), and the Lib Dems are still struggling, 18 months on, to deal with the allegations of sexual impropriety against Lord Rennard with any semblance of competence.

True, the debate on Scottish independence is a big, meaty issue, even if the SNP’s Alex Salmond seems determined to assert that virtually everything will remain the same if his nation secedes: same currency, same Head of State, same BBC. Apparently the only thing he would change is the Coalition’s NHS record, yet his own government already has devolved responsibility for health and social care policy and funding. Mind you, it is rather deliciously ironic to hear Labour politicians express outrage at the “scandalous deceit” of another party scare-mongering over NHS privatisation.

Beyond Caledonia, though, politics sleeps, lulled by its own ennui. We’re approaching the seventh anniversary of Northern Rock’s collapse, presaging the start of the great financial crisis. Austerity continues to stretch ahead for years to come, a fact admitted by the three main parties yet which none of them are facing up to with any real honesty. The plain fact is there’s virtually no room for manoeuvre: the deficit is stubbornly high, yet the harshest public spending cuts are still to come. Ambitious politicians, yearning to cut taxes or indulge in giveaways, find themselves boxed in by their own fiscal prudence. The supposed highlight of last year’s conference season was Ed Miliband’s plan to freeze energy prices for 20 months, saving households £120. To put that in its true perspective, I could get £100 right now just by switching bank accounts. This is bargain basement retail politics: it’s all we can afford.

Summer ends, autumn beckons. Another series of X-Factor and Downton, then party conferences, Christmas ads, and an election still to come. I’ve just looked outside again. It’s still raining.

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