Consequences for the UK if Scotland leaves the union
As we have got closer to the vote, and the polls narrowed, I have found myself becoming excited at the possible changes for the rest of the UK that Scottish independence would mean. Towards the end of my time in Parliament, after a debate on Iraq, Alex Salmond invited me to come to Scotland and support the case for independence. I answered that I was not Scottish and didn’t really like nationalism. He said but imagine, if the nuclear weapons were gone and Britain was diminished in size, it would shake things up so that the post-imperial delusions of grandeur would drop away and Britain could settle down as a middle-ranking power playing a useful role in the world.
I have thought about this conversation since. Debate has focused on the likely effect of independence on the economy of Scotland. This is a judgement to be made by the Scots, and we will soon know the outcome. But there has been very little discussion of the way Scottish independence would reshape the rest of the UK. I know the thought is heretical but I would love the UK to drop its post-imperial delusions, which, strangely enough, make us into an American poodle, as we try to prove how important we are by being best friends of the biggest power in the world. I find this humiliating and it means we are constantly reactionary in our international influence. I am certain that Britain could be a much more useful country supporting a just and equitable world order and upholding international law. These values would make the world safer and more secure for all and give us a British foreign policy we can be proud of.
But even if the outcome is a narrow defeat for Scottish independence, this will bring big changes to the UK. The promise of greater devolution to Scotland will lead to a demand for devolution of powers to the north of England, the Midlands, Cornwall etc. Britain is a far too centralised state, this changed to a federal settlement will I think improve the quality of government in the country.
The trouble with foreign policy made by a headline-grabbing phrases, or one short prime ministerial interview, is that it cannot handle complexity. I have had a few requests for interviews on Iraq. Should Britain provide weapons, should we be willing to put troops on the ground, is it all a consequence of the 2003 invasion?
There is a new habit of the researcher on the story ringing you up beforehand, asking your view and then inviting you or dropping you depending whether you are going to articulate the side of the argument they have already arranged. So I am taking this opportunity to try to set out my views of the current crisis in Iraq, Syria, Gaza and indeed in Ukraine.
The growth of the power of Isis, now increasingly known as IS (which stands for Islamic State), which now controls almost a third of Iraq and a third of Syria, is a massive advance on anything achieved by Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden never controlled such a vast piece of territory. He had some training camps in Afghanistan with the permission of the Taliban government which was the reason for the invasion in 2001. But despite all the loss of blood and treasure, Al Qaeda has been overtaken by IS which now controls a large piece of territory including the oil rich east of Syria and has enhanced its military capacity with the weapons provided to the Iraqi army by the US, but left behind by the corrupt and inefficient Iraqi army which ran away as IS advanced. There was of course no Al Qaeda in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, now a more powerful and equally ugly movement controls one third of the country.
It is important to be clear that the extremist and hate-filled views of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State originate in the version of Islam which is supported and taught by the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, who in turn use their oil money to build Mosques and Madrassas across the Muslim world, spreading this ugly, intolerant, distorted version of Islam, which is then taken up by angry and often unemployed young men who are easily persuaded that the world is unfair to Moslems and that they should fight to reinstate the old Empire or Caliphate when Muslim authorities ruled a large part of the world.
Saudi Arabia is of course a major ally of the West, controlling as it does such a large proportion of the oil resources of the world, and for this reason there’s been a deep hypocrisy at the root of Western policy. Most of the men who participated in the attack on the Twin Towers were Saudis, Osama bin Laden grew up in Saudi Arabia and came from a wealthy Saudi-based family. US policy encouraged Osama bin Laden and many like him to go to Afghanistan and use their religious teaching (and money and weapons) to stir up opposition to the then government which was backed by the Soviet Union, which at that timeshared a border with Afghanistan.
Isis and its various jihadist components and predecessors have been provided with arms and support from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as they fight to overthrow the regime in Syria. It is only recently that the Saudi government has realised that it is incubating a monster that could turn around and threaten the authority of the Saudi regime.
So what is to be done? Of course humanitarian aid should be provided to those fleeing the fighting in Syria and Iraq. It should be provided through the United Nations which has the authority and competence to do this better than any other body. And it is reasonable to provide enhanced weaponry to the authorities in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq to stop the spread of Isis power. Iraq already has a well supplied and American-trained army which disgraced itself in the recent flight from Mosul, so the problem there is more complicated than military supplies or American bombing. Local and international pressure has forced the Prime Minister Maliki to step down and be replaced because he governed in a way which encourage sectarianism and so alienated the Sunni minority in Iraq that many of them were willing to support the Isis takeover of the Sunni majority area of the country. But clearly if he is an improvement on the previous prime minister, it will take some time before this has any significant effect.
The other popular media-driven demand (supported by Hillary Clinton who is likely to be the next president of the US) is to provide arms to the moderate opposition in Syria. But in fact there are no significant forces of this kind and any such attempt to supply arms would not have much effect and would end up providing arms to Isis-type fighters. It is worth remembering that 200 or so active fighters for the provisional IRA ,with the support of a significant part of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, could not be defeated by the whole weight of the British Armed Forces even though Northern Ireland is a very short distance from the UK mainland.
Short-term decisions need to be made to try to stem the spread of IS but it will not be easy. We should begin by shoring up the forces that can prevent the spread of IS-controlled territory and we should make greater efforts to deal with the humanitarian crisis affecting all the refugees from Syria, Gaza and of course recent developments in Iraq. We should then focus on reaching agreement with Iran on the nuclear question since they have considerable influence in Iraq and an interest in stopping IS because of its sectarian hatred of Shia Muslims. We need to talk honestly to the Saudis and the Gulf states to persuade them to stop supplying arms and money to the jihadi forces and after that we should be willing to change the whole basis of our relationship with these countries including reconsidering our massive arms sales.
On Syria we need to look to halt the arming of both sides in order to shorten the war. If we can improve our relationship with Iran and adopt a more realistic policy towards Syria then Iran would potentially influence the regime and the support they get from Hezbollah. But here of course we need to work with Russia which is arming the Assad regime, and deteriorating relationships over Ukraine makes this more difficult.
The West has a long history of supporting dictators in the Middle East and this needs to change in relation to the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and of course the new regime in Egypt.
In addition,of course, we need to reconsider our policy towards Israel and simply require Israel to comply with international law. If we did this and ceased to support Israel with vetoes in the Security Council, arms supplies, privileged access to the European market etc. etc. then one of the underlying forces recruiting angry young Muslims to support groups such as IS would be reversed.
But instead of course we have President Obama promising more bombing and no discussion of the need to change our wider policy stance in the Middle East.
The ceasefire in Ukraine is of course very welcome but I am still mystified by what the US and the EU thought there were trying to achieve in Ukraine. They keep promising Ukrainian links to the European Union and dangling potential membership. Others hold out the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO. It is hardly surprisingly this has massively concerned Russia which is feeling increasingly surrounded by countries signed up to NATO. Any Russian government would find these moves provocative. It is difficult to imagine what the US and EU thought the endgame would be? Obviously they didn’t want a war with nuclear-armed Russia. I find it all very perplexing. It feels like the old neocons that surrounded Bush on the march again trying to provoke new antagonisms with Russia. On this I strongly recommend the article in Foreign Affairs by Professor John Mearsheimer, who is a leading exponent of the “realist” school of foreign policy.
Blair’s management of the Labour Party
I have recently read the fine book The Blair Supremacy – a study in the politics of Labour Party management by my friend Lewis Minkin. It is very interesting that it shows so clearly, that quite apart from Iraq, the Blair management style was one of manipulation, lack of truthfulness and control freakery. I’m afraid it has done lasting damage to the Labour Party and people’s trust in the Party.
I have recently read the novel And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson, which sets out the background to the current situation in Scotland. And The Battle for Scotland by Andrew Marr is a very good account of the roots of the Scottish demand for Home Rule that has led on to the call for independence.
I think Patrick Cockburn who writes on Iraq and the wider Middle East in the Independent is one of the best journalists covering the region. His new book The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising is a short but valuable read.
- Insects, worms and other small animals that carry out vital functions for life on Earth have declined by 45% on average over 35 years. The fall in the number of invertebrates is having a severe impact on systems such as pollination of crops, water treatment and waste recycling (Independent 25/7/14 quoting the International Union for the Conservation of Nature).
- A Gallup poll in the US taken on 25 July showed that among Americans 65 and over 55% supported Israel’s action in Gaza. Among 18- to 29-year-olds 51% said Israel’s behaviour was unjustified and only 23% supported (FT 26/27 July 2014).
- In 2009/10 545,830 people were admitted to accident and emergency hospital treatment in the UK due to abuse of alcohol. 10,819 were under 18 and this figure had fallen to 7982 in 2012/13.
- According to the National Academy of Sciences 35% of Americans who married between 2005 and 2012, met online (FT Christopher Caldwell 2/8/14)