The Impacts of Immigration

Immigration affects everyone’s lives and it can rapidly become a toxic issue.  It is driven by economic pressures or by humanitarian concerns: to take in refugees fleeing conflict or persecution.  In destination countries, the arrival of strangers for either reason is a sensitive matter but politicians should be concerned with managing the effects rather than trying to exploit people’s fears in order to win votes and gain power.  It warrants careful discussion of its economic, political, moral, legal and security aspects so that it can be appropriately managed to avoid practical problems and social tensions.

Some people from other countries are recruited by employers who need specific skills, but other economic migrants are job-seekers desiring a better life.  Refugees also need jobs.  If the economy can absorb all the immigrants without creating unemployment, as has been the case in both the UK and the US, the result is economic growth.  UK unemployment in May 2016 was the lowest for a decade, as a proportion of the working-age population, suggesting that immigrants hadn’t taken people’s jobs.

People’s other economic concerns about immigration include the perceptions that immigrants drive down wages and that they impose a financial burden on the economy.  These fears are rarely justified, since the minimum wage protects the lowest-paid and economic migrants have to go home if they fail to find work.  Free movement of labour, as with the flexibility within the EU or the US, enables large diverse economies to develop naturally and respond to changes in circumstances; it is an economic benefit, and constraints on immigration choke economic growth.

Politicians’ responsibilities include ensuring that housing, education and health services are all capable of accommodating the immigrants; they are equally accountable to both the immigrants and the native population.  If politicians complain about immigrants, they are acknowledging their own failures.  If they are not personally responsible for solving the problems, or don’t have control over the relevant agencies, it is worth asking why they are employed at all.  It is an admission of incompetence to complain about problems that they are paid to solve.

There may be moral and social concerns about immigrants – especially if they have different values – as is often the case with asylum-seekers; this is less of an issue with the economic migration within Europe, though, where all the member countries have signed up to the European Charter of Human Rights.  Immigrants change the character of the areas they live in.  Provided that they speak the language, behave in a socially acceptable fashion and obey the law, they don’t present a tangible threat to their neighbours.  They are entitled to freedom of belief, and should not be required to change their religion, but they may need to change some practices in order to comply with the host society’s laws, human rights and conceptions of how people should behave.  What may have been acceptable in their countries of origin might not be acceptable in the societies they have arrived in, but minorities can resolve contradictions in values and avoid giving offence.

There are moral reasons for people to behave well towards immigrants: all religions and common decency enjoin acceptable behaviour towards others.  People have only to ask themselves how they would act if they were in the same situation as the immigrants and how they would like to be treated.  Cultural pluralism is inevitable in today’s world and, for people of different cultures to live in harmony with each other, it is necessary to show respect towards those of different race, religion, ideology, gender, sexuality and nationality.  Some cultural groups, though, form tight clusters which diverge from the wider society and create tensions; the Cantle Report on Social Cohesion, which examined this problem, identified some remedies.  Needless to say, it is in immigrants’ own interests to try to fit into the host society.

Immigration has legal and security aspects, which differ between refugees and economic migrants.  Strictly speaking, refugees who are at risk in their native countries have no legal right to claim asylum in the country of their choice, although there is a collective international commitment to protect them; if their reasons for fleeing are found to be genuine, they cannot legally be returned to their countries of origin if they would be at risk of persecution.

With regard to economic migrants, countries in the European Economic Area have signed treaties that accept the free movement of labour as being a necessary feature of a single market, but sections 10 and 16 of the relevant EU directive prevent such migrants from being a drain on the benefit system of the destination country and section 22 of that directive allows restrictions “on grounds of public policy, public security or public health”.  Countries outside the EU are not legally committed to take in economic migrants.

Some immigrants are security threats, but so are some of the native population; a country’s security services have to be geared to protect the population against anyone who is a threat to others.  Background checks are needed on everyone who is entering a non-Schengen country, or is entering the Schengen zone from outside it; intelligence sharing is necessary to facilitate such checks.  Countries have the legal right to expel any immigrant who is a security threat, provided that the person concerned would not be placed in danger by repatriation.

Laying blame on peaceful immigrants is a risky tactic.  It can cause hostility towards minorities who have lived in the country for generations, potentially leading to uncontrollable violence.  Intolerance should be swiftly condemned, because it is all too easy to foment ethnic strife.  Politicians who complain about immigration are creating problems instead of solving them; they certainly shouldn’t be rewarded at the ballot box.

Lies, statistics and self-interest

Some politicians routinely use lies, misleading statistics and exaggeration to make arguments that suit their cause.  The campaign leading up to the 2016 British referendum, on whether or not to leave the EU (a so-called ‘Brexit’), is providing many examples; as AOL reported, “Both sides in the Brexit battle are playing fast and loose with the truth”.

Lies were told.  The Vote Leave campaign’s battle bus was emblazoned with the eye-catching claim that “We send the EU £350 million a week”; its statement for the 2016 EU Referendum Voting Guide (published by the Electoral Commission) made the same claim four times in fewer than 400 words.   That claim is an exaggeration, amounting to a lie – as explained by FullFact.org, which revealed that “the UK actually pays just under £250 million a week” (less than 1% of its GDP).  And the EU gives some of that money back in grants, so the net cash cost of the EU was £163 million a week in 2015.

Among the many smaller lies and misleading statements, Boris Johnson, for example, said that it was “absolutely crazy that the EU is telling us how powerful our vacuum cleaners have got to be, what shape our bananas have got to be, and all that kind of thing”.  Jon Henley, in The Guardian, fact-checked Johnson’s statements.  The claim about bananas was a lie; the EU does not control their shape; it has standardised the classification of shapes on product labels, so that retailers know what they are buying from the producers.  There is a plan to limit the power of vacuum cleaners, but Johnson failed to explain that “the UK government actively supported the measures and, like every member state, could have blocked them if it wanted to”; his implication that the EU was imposing such measures on the UK was misleading (but wasn’t strictly a lie); he just wanted to arouse indignation in his audience (and he didn’t bother to explain that the reason for the measure was the likely benefit to the environment).

Statistics almost always contain assumptions and interpretations, and they can be selectively quoted.  A UCL study, The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK, was quoted by the pro-EU Guardian, Independent and Financial Times to say that EU migrants contribute £20bn to Britain – but the anti-EU Telegraph and Mail used a different part of the study, in a way that its authors described as “misleading”, to report that migrants as a whole had cost the economy £118bn.  The organisation Migration Watch UK challenged some of the UCL study’s assumptions to produce its own report, which was used by the Sun newspaper to claim in its headline on 16 May 2016 that “EU Migration costs Britain £3m every day, shock report warns”.

The future is unforeseeable, so forecasts are always conjectures.  Nonetheless, the pro-EU Britain Stronger in Europe campaign saw fit to publish a leaflet saying, among other claims, that the UK economy “would be hit to the tune of £4,300 a year for each UK household” (quoting one of the figures from an official Treasury Report).  It described its claims as “the facts from independent experts”, but in no sense of the word can such projections be described as facts.

Exaggeration has also featured strongly in the campaign.  Boris Johnson (repeating a similar claim made earlier by Dominic Cummings) grossly exaggerated when he said that “The European Union is pursuing a similar goal to Hitler in trying to create a powerful superstate”.   The EU carries out almost none of the functions associated with a State; its job is only to maintain collective rules on trade, joint policing and the environment; its total spending, covering all member States, is less than one sixth of what the UK government spends.  Nor is it a dictatorship: it is under the collective democratic control of the EU’s members; British Ministers, Prime Ministers and elected MEPs have agreed to its rules and to the UK’s membership contribution; and Britain has a right of veto on some decisions.

The many conflicting details, proffered as ‘facts’ by both sides, are misleading and confusing.  It is more honest and more understandable to present a high-level vision when making an argument; supporting statements from influential individuals and organisations should be presented as opinions, not facts.  The public can then make up its own mind, based upon which vision it prefers and which supporting statements it trusts.  The lies told by the Leave campaign undermine the trustworthiness of those who are leading it.  Its slogan, “Vote Leave, take back control”, is a cause for concern – given that its leaders want that “control” to be given to those who are deliberately misleading the public.

EU Accountability

Michael Gove emotively argued that the EU lacks democratic accountability and that Britain should therefore leave it: a ‘Brexit’.  This argument would only be valid if the EU were in some way governing Britain, but the reality is that Britain and other members have only agreed to allocate some aspects of governance to the EU.  For example, the EU has no jurisdiction over most aspects of tax, government spending or going to war.  It affects only those aspects of British governance which have an impact on other European countries.  Some ambitious and over-confident politicians, though, find it irksome to yield to any external regulation.  They would prefer to negotiate multiple bilateral agreements, despite the time and cost of doing this with every country in the world.

If an agreement is negotiated between several countries, the accountability for it is shared.  No single country’s electorate can dismiss the appointed administrators, or reverse collective decisions, but all the countries involved have oversight of the decision-making process.  The EU provides a collective framework for regulating trade within a large and diverse geographical area, with some implications for human rights and the environment.  Multiple regulations are required, springing largely from the desire for a single market.

The Great Depression in the 1930s was largely caused by protectionism: countries put up trade barriers against each other and thereby restricted economic growth for all of them.  That experience illustrated the benefit of collectively removing the barriers to trade, requiring trading partners to agree standards and regulation.  Europe’s diverse cultures and tendencies towards conflict present a very difficult arena in which to take collective decisions but the benefits of free trade are well-known.  Britain, with its history of being a trading nation, eventually joined the Common Market to reap those benefits and its economy improved dramatically as a result.

Free trade can, if unregulated, adversely affect workers.  It is possible to have a race to the bottom: for companies to try to cut costs by exploiting people.  Workers want to be protected but commercial companies chafe against the resulting regulations.  It doesn’t help the workers if a company is driven out of business, but it can be too easy for companies to exploit people’s need for work and their reluctance to move far away from their family and friends.  Those politicians whose parties receive large company donations have a conflict of interest in such matters.

The free movement of labour within the single market is an essential safety valve for both employers and workers.  Successful companies need more workers, who may not be available locally.  Some workers want to be able to move if they have inadequate employment prospects where they live.  Given that technical change is happening increasingly rapidly, and that globalisation is resulting in some industries becoming uncompetitive, employment prospects are constantly shifting; the free movement of labour within the EU is therefore essential and there is no reason why its members would agree to Britain having an exemption.

Freedom of movement requires agreements on some aspects of human rights across Europe: people would be effectively prevented from moving if they had inadequate socio-economic rights in the destination country.  The overall scope of European Human Rights is, however, much wider and is not directly linked to EU membership.  Russia, for example, has signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights and submits to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights; those rights were agreed after the Second World War, as a safety mechanism against fascism, to prevent governments from oppressing minorities.

The environment also needs some collective regulation within Europe to make the single market work properly.  Without regulation, companies could start a race to the bottom on environmental standards in order to compete with each other.  A company might save money by dumping effluent into a nearby stream, for example; that would adversely affect the people living nearby, or in adjoining countries, whilst the company concerned would undercut the costs of more tightly-regulated competitors.

Some politicians and some companies want to have the benefits of free trade with Europe without submitting themselves to the associated collective regulation.  This is unrealistic.  Certainly, trade would continue if Britain leaves the EU – but not on such favourable terms.  If, like Norway, Britain agreed to the regulations without participating in defining them, it would then pay a slightly reduced subscription.  The various trading options have been published.

Michael Gove’s characterisation of the EU, as democratically unaccountable, is misleading; its accountability is not solely to the British electorate because it is dealing with matters which have to be collectively decided.  It only deals with matters that affect more than one country.  Britain has as much control over the EU as any other member, and could play a leading role if it chose to be a good team player rather than behaving like a spoilt child.

Populism

Widespread public discontent is seen as an opportunity by populist politicians; they can amplify people’s concerns and promise change as a means of gaining support (and the power that goes with it in democracies).  Dissatisfied people can be tempted to follow anyone who offers change, but the tragedy of hopeful voters is that they can be led in directions that seriously damage their future prospects.  There is a real risk of this happening in both Britain and America this year.

In Britain, the EU referendum has allowed some politicians to capitalise on public concerns about immigration and low wages.  Those who advocate Britain leaving the EU, a ‘Brexit’, are offering a utopian vision of a proudly independent Britain somehow doing better than it does now.  The government, though, has described the four possible ways for Britain to trade with the EU if it were no longer a member, showing how each is inferior to current arrangements.  Iain Duncan Smith has airily dismissed this as a “dodgy dossier”; he asserted that Britain would develop new trade relationships that would transcend all existing ones.  He didn’t say how this could be done.

The British people need to be reminded how well they have done since they joined the EU.  Rather than running away, Britain should try to work more closely with its European neighbours for their mutual advantage.

In America, where there is public concern about jobs, Mexican immigration and Islamic terrorism, Donald Trump has become very popular; he advocates economic protectionism, which is the disastrous policy that led to the Great Depression in the 1930s; he has said that he would build a wall to keep out Mexicans, which sends a nasty message to anyone of Hispanic descent; and he is mobilising public opinion against all Muslims (not just ISIS), so he risks stirring up communal violence with America’s Muslim population.  Hopefully he would be soundly beaten when it comes to the presidential election, but that would not be the end of America’s problem.  If large swathes of the population are disaffected, other politicians may try to emulate his populist tactics and a hostile Congress could prevent the next President from doing anything constructive.

Populist politicians may truly believe that merely by seizing power they can benefit the people.  A Brexit, though, would do irreversible damage to Britain’s prospects and the American people would not be well served by another four years of political stalemate.

The campaign for a Brexit

Now that David Cameron has finished his negotiations on Britain’s place in the EU, the Vote Leave campaign is gathering momentum.  Eurosceptic Cabinet Ministers are free to make their case.  Michael Gove has made a very clear statement on why he thinks that Britain ought to leave the EU: a ‘Brexit’.  Boris Johnson, having talked to Gove and having made his own political calculations, is also campaigning to leave.  There are serious weaknesses in their arguments though, and they are ignoring Scotland’s likely demand for independence if Britain were to leave the EU.

Michael Gove argues that Britain should take control of all its own decisions; he accuses the EU of democratic unaccountability.  He criticises its policies on refugees.  He cites examples of what he sees as over-regulation.  He also argues that Britain would be more prosperous outside the EU.  These are persuasive arguments, each worthy of some attention, but he does not tell the whole story.

He puts a nationalist case, arguing that Britain should recover its sovereignty, despite the fact that we would continue to be affected by the decisions of other countries – as The Economist has pointed out.  He praises Britain’s democratic accountability and contrasts it with the appointed EU Commission.  What he does not say is that the 28 member States have only allowed the EU to have jurisdiction over matters of shared interest, which include protecting the environment and the human rights of all its citizens.  He also fails to mention that the European Commission is subject to the authority of elected politicians, albeit the collective political authority of all the countries affected.  The hidden sub-text of his stance is that he wants Britain’s political elite to have unfettered control over all aspects of our lives.  Britons would then have no right of appeal – even if a government were to legalise indefinite detention without trial, for example, and in 2004 it was only prevented from doing that by human-rights law.

When he states that “EU immigration policies have encouraged people traffickers and brought desperate refugee camps to our borders”, he doesn’t explain how Britain would be better protected by leaving the EU and having no influence on its policies.  The French are currently cooperating with Britain by holding back refugees at Calais.  He also notes that political tensions are rising within Europe, largely because of the refugee problem.  This is a legitimate cause for concern for Britain, whether or not it is an EU member; a Brexit would not help Europe to solve those problems.

It is easy to find examples of inappropriate regulation in any set of rules that has developed over many years.  There are anachronisms in both British law and EU regulations.  Michael Gove argues that the British economy outside the EU would no longer be held back by excessive regulation, but he does not say which regulations he would dispense with.  Workers’ rights perhaps?  Or environmental considerations?  Or financial regulations (a tricky subject, given what happened in 2008)?  Most EU regulations have been introduced to protect its citizens from what might otherwise be harmful actions by big companies (who might be donors to the Conservative party).

It is wishful thinking to assert that Britain would somehow be more prosperous if it were outside the EU.  Most (but not all) British business leaders want to stay in the EU; their views should carry more weight than the assertions of self-interested politicians.  It is also interesting to consider how we would achieve this additional economic growth without more people; we would need immigration from somewhere and several employers have expressed frustration at the arbitrary limits set by the government.

Boris Johnson has made a political calculation, in which self-interest will have played a part.  The Economist article referred to above mentions his desire to replace David Cameron, for example.  He would have taken account of Michael Gove’s arguments and he almost certainly would have assessed the strong popular tide running for Brexit, particularly when so much of the national press is banging that drum.  Unfortunately, many people will not try to make up their own minds by closely examining the arguments for Brexit; they might be attracted by the nationalist sentiments expressed by Michael Gove and Nigel Farage, they might trust Boris Johnson as a politician, and many will unquestioningly accept the opinions expressed by those newspapers with whom they feel most comfortable.

There is a bigger picture, which is less sentimentally nationalistic and which puts real influence before the pipe-dream of complete autonomy.  Having close links with one’s neighbours is the best policy in a joined-up world.  Those who wish to put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain should reflect that the world was different when it had an Empire.  Then it was seen as an island protected by the world’s strongest navy; now it is more appropriate for the United Kingdom to cultivate its soft power and its economy –both of which depend upon it having close relationships with other countries.

Syrian Peace Process

On 12 February, after talks in Munich, world powers agreed a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria to begin a week later.  Much subsequent commentary is dismissive, for example the Telegraph’s remark that “The “nationwide ceasefire” supposedly agreed for Syria belongs in a special category of futility”, and has pointed out that the Syrian situation is still a grave risk to world peace. Although the civil war in Syria started as a local uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s government, its subsequent trajectory has been much worsened by the involvement of external powers.  Western foreign policy has been misguided and many of the other participants in the conflict are pursuing their own interests in wider political struggles.  The hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is an example of a tension that could erupt to widen the war-zone.

Misguided Western Foreign Policy

The Syrian civil war has been partly fuelled by a Western foreign policy of intervening in the Middle East to encourage the spread of democracy, whilst having no regard for whether it is yet viable in the countries concerned.  The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq made way for sectarian strife and identity politics.  The overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya had the same effect.  Encouragement for those who wished to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria would, if successful, have repeated the pattern.

The ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings seemed to be a clear expression of people’s wish for democracy in the Middle East.  Of course the population wanted democracy, because they thought it meant that they would have more say in how they were governed and that they would be able to overthrow the corrupt rulers who were looting their countries.  What they all failed to take into account, though, was that they couldn’t each have the government they wanted as they all have radically different ideas of what that might look like.  The fault lines within Islam, and between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, meant that the Middle East was a tinderbox even before the Western interventions in Iraq and Libya.  The flames of war are now well alight and Daesh (aka ISIS, ISIL or so-called Islamic State) has emerged as a new threat, as a global sponsor of terror as well as a fighting force in Iraq and Syria.

Combating Daesh in its global aspirations

Daesh preaches a warped variant of Islam as it tries to gain support for creating a caliphate across the whole of the Middle East, if not the whole world.  It is appropriate to use the name ‘Daesh’ for the organisation led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because its other names imply that it is Islamic.  It has been roundly condemned by Muslim leaders.  We need to avoid feeding the perception that all Muslims are terrorists because that is exactly what Daesh is wanting.  Its acts of terrorism are designed as propaganda to create hostility towards all Muslims, because treating them all badly will cause some to be radicalised and join the jihad.  This strategy has been very successful in recruiting Western Muslims, as Islamophobia is now rife in the West (as exemplified by attacks against Muslims in Britain, Donald Trump’s popularity in America and the rise of the Front National in France).  Western military involvement in Syria also helps Daesh by enabling it to argue that the whole of Islam is under attack, thereby making it a religious duty to oppose the non-Muslim West.

The Daesh-sponsored terrorist attacks need to be dealt with in the countries where they take place.  They reflect different social and political problems.

Combating the Daesh military presence in Iraq and Syria

The world’s most complicated involvement with Daesh is where it started, in Iraq and Syria (whose borders were arbitrarily established by the British and the French in 1916, under the Sykes-Picot agreement).  In that region Daesh has a constantly growing army that has shown itself to be capable of seizing and maintaining control over large swathes of territory.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Syrian government, the Kurds, the West and Russia are all opposing Daesh in its home territory, but there are also conflicts between these actors.  It will not be possible to reach a peace agreement there until order has been restored.  Bashar al-Assad’s authority will probably be re-established with Russian support, at least temporarily, even though that is unpalatable to the Western governments and their allies – who are recklessly still trying to encourage the spread of democracy in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia, for example, has threatened to remove Assad by force.

Any visible Western military involvement in Iraq and Syria is likely to strengthen Daesh’s global aspirations by enabling it to depict the West as anti-Islam.  The Syrian government invited Russia to help it to restore order, but Western countries have no mandate to operate there and they are effectively helping Daesh propaganda by doing so.  Britain’s decision to bomb Syria was politically and legally unsound, described by James Meek as an attempt “to turn to purpose the inarticulate emotions of hate, rage and fear”.  Daesh must have been delighted with the result of the Parliamentary vote.

Although it would be possible to crush Daesh by using military force in Iraq and Syria, that alone would not bring peace (and Daesh would continue as a promoter of international terrorism).

A possible peace process

Peace negotiations in Syria would have to offer something tangible to the Sunni Muslim groups, who have genuine political grievances arising from their mistreatment by the Iraqi and Syrian governments.  The Russians have made it quite clear that the ceasefire that was proposed on 12 February will not become effective whilst there is any resistance to Bashar al-Assad, but those groups whom the Americans describe as ‘moderate’ opposition will not stop fighting merely to return to the pre-war situation.

Perhaps Assad’s opponents could be persuaded to have a cease-fire and negotiate if they were offered an enforceable process with clear parameters for reaching a new constitutional settlement for the region, possibly redrawing the borders (but it is much too soon to make specific proposals on what the outcome of the process might look like).  It would have to include all the participants, including neighbouring countries – and that has previously been recognised in earlier attempts to start peace negotiations; it is likely that Daesh would be refused a seat at the table, but it could be involved by proxy.  All the parties need to accept that the process almost certainly would include the restoration of Bashar al-Assad’s control, at least temporarily, and that it could not rule out giving him a continued role in at least part of the territory – because that decision is not for external powers to make; his future should be an outcome of the process, not a precondition for launching it.

Combating ISIS

French President Francois Hollande reportedly described the recent attacks in Paris as an “act of war” by the organisation calling itself Islamic State (ISIS) – which has claimed responsibility for the killing of at least 128 civilians.  But ISIS is not just an army that can be defeated militarily.  France and other Western countries are facing three distinct but connected problems of which ISIS forms a part: ISIS aims to establish a religious caliphate; it co-ordinates acts of terrorism in several countries; and it is active in Syria’s civil war.

ISIS (which is also known as ISIL, Islamic State or Daesh) has been described as being a descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Osama bin Laden claimed that Al Qaeda was engaged in a ‘just war’ and he also claimed religious legitimacy.  Both of these claims are rejected by authoritative figures in Islam and by most moderate Muslims; and in practice ISIS is predominantly fighting other Muslims.  Western political leaders are naturally encouraging moderate Muslims to preach against ISIS and reduce its allure.  Islamic leaders have to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds.

It is attractive to disaffected Muslims to believe that they are fighting against Western oppression in the name of their religion.  Terrorism has long been part of the Islamist strategy, intended to provoke the West into sending troops to the Middle East so that other Muslims could then be persuaded to join the struggle in what would be seen as a holy war.  The Paris attacks are the latest in a long line of provocations dating back to before 9/11 – and the latter was successful in its aim of provoking George W Bush into declaring a ‘war on terror’ and sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The provocations are also helping right-wing political parties in Europe.  It has been reported that Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, has experienced a surge of support as a result of the combination of the immigrant crisis and the acts of terrorism.  Anti-Muslim feeling benefits Europe’s far right as much as it benefits the ISIS strategy.  Ultimately the revulsion of most people will be the safety valve that prevents either ISIS or Europe’s far right from gaining permanent power.

ISIS is fighting alongside other groups in Syria and Iraq which also espouse Sunni Islam but which don’t necessarily share its vision of a caliphate.  The ISIS army in Syria can be fought with conventional weapons, including ‘boots on the ground’, but Western military assistance – even in the form of airstrikes – helps to feed the ISIS narrative of Islam as a whole being threatened by the West.  Russia has been invited to help the Syrian government to restore order and that seems to be the most viable strategy for resolving what should be seen as a local military conflict.  It is not yet clear what the solution might look like; changing the government in Syria, and even redrawing regional borders, might be negotiated once peace has been restored.

The French response to the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 has taken the form of increased airstrikes in Syria.  That may be politically popular because it looks like doing something, but Francois Hollande would be wiser to attend to France’s own problem: the need to coexist peacefully with its own Muslim population. David Cameron is now reported as wanting to make the same mistake: to obtain Parliamentary approval for airstrikes in Syria, even though that is exactly what ISIS wants.  Doubtless the airstrikes would inflict some military damage on ISIS in Syria, but they would also provide powerful propaganda to help it recruit more followers in the wider jihad against Western liberal democracies.

Time for realism in Syria

William Hague’s thoughtful article in Tuesday’s Telegraph (13 Oct 2015) is based on the mistaken assumption that a Western military intervention in Syria could be helpful.  When you have a hammer it is tempting to treat every problem as a nail, but when you meet a screw it is better to use a screwdriver – which is slower, and involves many twists and turns, but ultimately leads to a secure solution.  Whereas military interventions have sometimes worked in the past, in this case they are a dangerous delusion. The narrative of a holy war to protect Islam against a Western attack is used by the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL) to recruit more followers.  Air-strikes alone will not defeat it but past conflicts have illustrated how the locals will tend to join in any struggle against foreign ‘boots on the ground’ – even if that means making alliances with groups they would otherwise disagree with.  Now is the time to develop a better strategy.

Freedom and democracy are desirable goals, but survival of the civilian population is the highest priority.  The West should remember that the Christians in Syria are fighting alongside Assad, not against him, because they understand the overriding need for stability.

The Syrian government has killed many of its people.  War crimes have been committed, and not only by the government, but those responsible cannot be held to account until security has been restored.

Russia is self-interested but nonetheless wears the fig-leaf of having been invited by the Syrian government to operate in its country to help to restore law and order.

William Hague’s suggestion of “assistance from the West to the more responsible opposition groups” and his proposal for “the UK to join the military effort against Isil in Syria” would merely prolong the war and more people would die as a result.  There are grave risks of escalation in proxy wars, not just between different factions of Islam but between Saudi Arabia and Iran as regional powers and even between America and Russia.  Now is the time for realism.  Since Russia’s escalation of its support for Assad it is now next to impossible for freedom and democracy in Syria to be established by the use of force against the government.

William Hague rightly makes the point that ‘safe havens’ are an unrealistic option, partly because Russia would veto their authorisation by the UN and partly because they are difficult to defend by force unless they are reinforced by troops who are prepared to put their lives at risk – unlike the position in Srebrenica in 1995.

The refugee crisis has made the world aware of the scale of the Syrian problem, but only people who have enough money are reaching Europe.  The refugee camps in neighbouring countries are the only sanctuary for those who are less wealthy.  People cannot return home until there is a credible ceasefire.  William Hague makes a very sound point that these refugee camps are receiving insufficient aid.

A ceasefire has to be negotiated between all the combatants.  The American strategy seems to be to eliminate both ISIS and the Assad government, so that neither would be invited to peace talks, but this is totally unrealistic.  ISIS is thriving in the power vacuum of Syrian instability and is still gaining adherents.  The Assad government has Russian support and is unlikely to be overthrown in the short term.

For the West, working with the Russians in the UN Security Council would be a better plan.  Support for international law would give the West some dignity in a difficult situation.  Although this gives Putin a diplomatic coup, it might also leave him with the ensuing problem of developing a viable peace plan – which would mean finding some way of dealing with ISIS.

Continued Political Cynicism

The British government is continuing to pursue economic policies which benefit the old and wealthy whilst inflicting severe cuts on young working families, yet it is trumpeting a narrative which tries to persuade working people that it is on their side.  This is flagrantly dishonest.  The following chart shows how a young working couple might experience a drop in net income in the next few years:

Embedded image permalinkThis fall in income is the result of what was described in the Economist as

“a budget whose slick politics hid economics that were often wrong and sometimes dangerous. The flagship substitution of tax credits for wage floors is a bad mistake; cutting benefits to the very poor while reducing inheritance tax for the wealthy is indefensible.”

George Osborne’s speech at the Conservative Party conference on 5 October 2015 has confirmed his intention to continue with these policies, pursuing a path which has reflected a political cynicism that has been evident ever since he took the job of Chancellor in May 2010.

When he first took office, he skilfully persuaded the British people that the previous Labour government had been responsible for the financial crisis in 2008 – but its real cause was reckless behaviour by banks and financial institutions, especially in America, leading to a credit crisis when the housing bubble finally burst.  He then persuaded everyone that austerity was a necessary medicine to correct the fiscal deficit, which was less than 1% at the time of the crash.  His policy of cutting government spending worsened the depression caused by the credit crisis, as unemployment increased and the welfare budget predictably ballooned.  He succeeded in increasing the fiscal deficit at the same time as trumpeting policies which he said would reduce it.  His measures were criticised by prominent economists, and the economic recovery in Britain was much slower than in America, but the British public believed (wrongly) that cuts were necessary – and that belief enabled his party to emerge triumphant in the 2015 General Election.

If the public were better educated, people would be able to see his cynicism for what it is: a focus on winning elections rather than benefiting the population as a whole.  He has ensured that the cuts fall on young working people whilst protecting wealthy pensioners.  And pensions are the largest item in the welfare budget.

It is perhaps hopelessly idealistic to expect wealthy pensioners to vote against a government which so blatantly protects their interests at the expense of the next generation, yet if those with a social conscience were to join with the numerous victims of his economic policies they might yet demonstrate that a bad government can be replaced in a democracy.

Hopes for a UN relaunch in Syria

Yesterday President Obama made a speech to the UN in which he endorsed the aims of the organisation and offered his support to it as the best hope for achieving a more stable world order.  Then President Putin made his speech, also supporting the UN.  If they put these words into practice the Security Council can function as it should, in contrast to its failures in recent decades.

Their speeches also indicated that they disagreed with each other on a number of fundamental issues.  Whilst President Obama admitted the error made in invading Iraq in 2003, he still advanced the notions that democracy is the only form of government and that the UN should intervene in the affairs of countries where governments behave badly towards their people.  But President Putin endorsed the position taken by both Russia and China that what happens within a country is not the business of the UN.

The Syrian situation is an immediate test of whether the fine speeches made by Presidents Putin and Obama can lead to the practical resolution of a complex problem.  Both Britain and America have argued that Syria’s President Assad should be overthrown because he has killed so many of his people.  Russia, though, has acted to support Assad’s regime as the “legitimate” government of Syria and is working with it to combat the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL).  Although Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine is open to criticism, and President Putin’s behaviour as Russia’s leader has not been in the best interests of its people, the West should work with him in Syria.  Replacement of the Syrian leadership is probably desirable, but that will have to wait until the region has been re-stabilised.

It is doubtful whether solving Syria’s internal problems is really within the scope of the UN, though the International Criminal Court might play a role at a later date.  In the meantime, a peaceful political solution will necessitate compromises by Assad to respond to concerns of the Sunni majority, or the war will continue without foreseeable end; the UN can and should play a role in facilitating peace talks.

Such an approach in Syria offers a chance of resolving its crisis and would be an important step forward in establishing international law.  Although the West passionately believes in democracy, it is not a panacea.  A country’s lack of democracy is not a valid reason for interfering in its affairs.  Wars can be avoided if countries comply with international law and if the only interference in the affairs of other countries is with the UN’s permission, to enforce that law.