Stephen Tall’s diary: liberal jottings on the week’s big events

Honest doubt

I wrote on Syria last week that I was “mystified by those who’ve already made their minds up with cast-iron certainty on either side”. That’s still the case despite, and probably because of, the eruption of passions leading up to and beyond Wednesday’s vote. The UK is, after all, already involved in military action against Isis in Iraq. Sure, extending those airstrikes to Syria represents an intensification and, like any bombing campaign, requires serious consideration. But that is a question not of basic morality (if it were there should have been an equally strenuous efforts to cease attacks in Iraq) but of likely effectiveness.

And that, of course, is the known unknown of this week’s debate. None of us truthfully knows what will be the consequences of extending the campaign to Syria; just as we don’t know what might have happened if MPs had voted against action. There is no possibility of a controlled experiment which allows us to pose the counterfactual. All we are left with is our own opinion: which of the options facing us is most likely to result in fewest deaths? Ultimately, it’s as utilitarian a decision as that.

Which is why I get fed up with simplistic shroud-wavers shouting “blood on your hands” at those who support intervention. Innocent people are dying every day in this conflict, and further deaths are plotted daily by Isis, so delaying further this supposed “rush to war” will also directly lead to fresh casualties. See, we can all indulge this moral blackmail arms-race — but it gets us nowhere. Decisions like these are shades-of-grey. I respect opinions on both sides of the divide on Syria, but most especially those honest enough to recognise they may be wrong.

The worm’s turned

Moderate, reasoned, polite discourse: that’s my kind of politics. But it’s not everyone’s, I know, so hey, let a thousand flowers bloom (as John McDonnell would say). Anger can have its place in politics. To be clear, no MP should be subjected to personal abuse, let alone intimidation or threats of violence. But I don’t like the vogue for bracketing that unacceptable nonsense with “threats of deselection”, itself an entirely legitimate form of accountability. Personally, I think those Labour members apparently wanting to get rid of Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy because she voted for action in Syria are bonkers. But it’s their perfect right to be bonkers. And the Labour moderates have scant moral authority on this one. After all, for two decades they mobilised against left-wingers, sometimes in quite shoddy fashion: Tony Blair successfully fixed Labour’s mayoral selection to deny Ken Livingstone from running on his party’s ticket; while Neil Kinnock got Coventry’s Dave Nellist expelled from the party on the flimsiest pretext. Now the shoe is on the other foot it’s not surprising if it’s still got a taste for kicking.

Still time for Tim

Tim Farron has had some stick from a few Lib Dem activists over his Syria stance. It impressed me, though. Not just his speech, praised by the Guardian as one of the ten best and credited by Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton with persuading many Labour MPs to vote to extend airstrikes, though it was certainly heartfelt and passionate. But also his evident willingness to take a decision he knew would be controversial with some of his most ardent supporters because he believed on the basis of the evidence he had seen that it was the right thing to do. There are still too many people who I think underestimate Tim, who reckon (perhaps because of his relentless chirpiness) that he lacks that certain something which denotes a leader. He’s proven some of those doubters wrong this week, for which much kudos.

* I loved the question Tim Farron was recently asked by a primary school pupil: “Have you met the Queen?” “Yes,” answers Tim. “Does she smell?” came back the supplementary. Apparently, says Tim, the only possible answer to that is “Fragrant”. That snippet from last night’s Russell Howard’s Good News (BBC3), available on iPlayer here (starts about 15:45 mins in).

What have the immigrants ever done for us?

‘Osborne reliant on rising immigration levels to achieve budget surplus’ it was revealed this week. I say revealed, but it’s long been known. In 2012, the Office for Budget Responsibility noted that ‘… if net inward migration were cut to zero over the next five decades, the scale of the public austerity facing Britain would need to be three times larger, at £46bn.’ The Tories often parade as the free market party, yet there is no surer guarantee of getting a Tory conference to cheer than to commit to state-imposed controls of the labour market. The reality is that not only do incoming migrant workers plug gaps in our own labour market, benefiting British businesses and helping offset the negative impact of the UK’s ageing population, but migrant entrepreneurs also create thousands of jobs. In short, they put in to this country far, far more than they take out.

That may be the reality, but too few voters believe it. It’s one reason I’m attracted to the idea, first proposed by the think-tank British Future, that we create an ‘Immigration Fund’, hypothecating the financial gains from increased migration to directly manage some of the pressures communities and their services face as a consequence of new arrivals. It is necessary, but not sufficient, simply to defend immigration from the scare-mongering of Ukip and the Tories. We need also to show we have fresh ideas which can respond directly to voters’ concerns.


File this under ‘surprising, not surprising’. A survey for the National Audit Office, conducted earlier this year but published this week, shows just 37 per cent of parents have heard of the Pupil Premium, the Lib Dem policy which targeted extra money to the poorest pupils to help schools close the attainment gap. I mentioned on Twitter my disappointment that a policy I view as one of the most progressive government policies in the last decade doesn’t have greater awareness, and the general response was “We’re surprised it’s that high”. A fair point, it seems. My consolation is that the Pupil Premium — which this year will provide the average primary school with an extra £91,000 and secondaries with an additional £214,000 — has been safeguarded by education secretary Nicky Morgan for this parliament. Hopefully, over the next five years we’ll see it translate into better educational prospects for disadvantaged children and young people. And if parents notice why that’s happening, that’s a bonus.

Last word…

Kudos to Labour’s new MP for Oldham West, Jim McMahon, elected on an increased share of the vote. I’m not sure how much it tells us about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, though. Especially in a week when I’ve discovered I am, after all, a Bennite.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Tim was impressive on Howard and the clip is well worth watching. On HIGNFY I thought he appeared cautious and very wary of getting stuck in, in case he got it wrong. On Howard he came across as relaxed, humorous and sincere. And nowadays I suspect Howard has the larger audience, HIGNFY now being a tired format.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Dec '15 - 10:11am

    Stephen Tall | Fri 4th December 2015 – 9:09 am Diane James MEP, said that UKIP’s party policy was to vote against bombing Syria. She accepted that Douglas Carswell had voted in favour, which was also reported by the BBC and The Times. She did not know whether their members had been consulted “perhaps via twitter”.

  • Jayne Mansfield 4th Dec '15 - 1:33pm

    I am reminded of a sound piece of advice given to me by veterans at a Pegasus Bridge commemoration- Never go to war, Never.

    I am not a pacifist or a soldier. I agree that the issue is whether the escalation of our involvement is likely to effective. However, we don’t need a controlled experiment to reach a conclusion as to whether it will be more effective to go to war or otherwise. What we do need is rather more certainty of the outcome than is currently available to us. We owe this to the young men and women of our military who will be risking their lives and to the people of Syria who will suffer the consequences of our actions.

    I realise that the media selects the information that reaches us, but those who say that more bombing will be welcomed by the Syrians, should listen to the stories of the refugees interviewed. People like the refugee who had his village bombed by the Russians , causing him and others to leave as ISIS took advantage and moved in. What I am hearing doesn’t accord at all with those who are telling us that our added intervention will be welcomed.

  • Regarding…..The worm’s turned

    It’s worth reading the organiser’s (Sophie Bolt, the Rev Steven Saxby and Sue Wheat) response on the ‘red pepper’ blog…

    It starts, “We marched for peace – not to ‘bully’ Stella Creasy…..Sue Wheat gives the truth behind media reports of an ‘intimidating’ anti-war protest in MP Stella Creasy’s Walthamstow constituency…..

  • Jayne Mansfield 4th Dec '15 - 9:00pm

    @ Stephen Tall,
    How did you reach your conclusion on utilitarian grounds., Stephen? Assad is killing more people than ISil. If we take a utilitarian approach shouldn’t we be bombing his military forces?

    Medium and long term, we do not know the outcome or our military intervention and whether it will ultimately lead to the greatest good for the greatest number. I wish I had your confidence.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 5th Dec '15 - 1:07am

    Sorry Jayne Mansfield, but you parrot nonsense when claiming ‘Assad is Killing more people than ISIS’- A highly manipulative confection based on calculating the number of deaths in Syria since the Civil War kicked off 4 years ago, -250k -then saying that because Assad is the head of state in Syria, he’s personally responsible for all these deaths.

    I expect you’ll also be part of the chorus continuing to claim as fact that the Sarin gas attacks in the Damascus countryside in August 2013 was carried out by Assad’s forces, despite this never being verified. During this year Turkish opposition legislators have shown evidence that Sarin was transported from Turkish government facilities to particular opposition groups in August 2013…just as NATO countries were debating whether to attack Assad’s forces.

    You will doubtless be convinced that Syrians universally yearn to be liberated from the yolk of an evil monstrous tyrant, hell-bent on killing his people. But perhaps you’re unaware of the journalist reports that in the govt areas, there is substantial support from all sections of society, even grudgingly by many who heavily criticize Assad.

    Heck, an American pollster this year somehow even managed to poll Syrians in territories held by ISIS and other “rebel”-held areas, and overall, just under 30% STILL think that Assad is doing a GOOD job! Think how that compares with our own political leaders over the last decade. The poll didn’t record how many more thought he was doing a bad job but wanted him to stay!

    You may be unaware that the govt controlled areas contain more internally displaced refugees than the 4 million refugees outside the country, with the remaining Syrian population in the country largely within the govt areas despite the relatively smaller territory held.

  • Jayne Mansfield 5th Dec '15 - 8:58am

    @ Tomas Howard – Jones.
    Tomas, the comment that I am most likely to parrott is that the first casualty of war is truth. The one fact of which I am in no doubt, is that that we have entered a proxy war.

    In answer to your second paragraph, I am aware that doubt has been cast on whether Sarin gas was used by Assad or ‘rebel forces’. I refuse to join any chorus, including that of the polemicists of Global Research in attributing blame for that.

    I am aware that there were concerns raised by MSF this year that some casualties including children might have been displaying the symptoms of mustard gas poisoning but they resolutely refused to attribute blame on any source.

    I am not sure what your penultimate and ultimate paragraph add to the argument that ISIS have killed more people than Assad. have thought that barrel bombs . I I have no doubt that life in an Isis held stronghold is something any right minded person would wish to escape from. (Unfortunately ISIS are not allowing civilians to escape from Raqqa which is currently under bombardment from the Russians and the French). There are many estimates on which side has killed the most civilians and one listens to voices that one most respects as the most authoritative, so I stand by what I say.

    It is difficult keeping ones passions in check when the subject is as emotive as this one and the consequences of one’s chosen actions are so grave, but it you wish to challenge my arguments further, please try to do so in a manner that is less rude.

  • Richard Underhill 5th Dec '15 - 11:43am

    Tony Benn spent a lot of time living down the fact that his father had accepted an hereditary peerage.
    When his son was elected to the Commons there was natural parental pride,
    but the young MP said that he was “a Benn, but not a Bennite”.

  • Tomas Howard Jones

    The one thing Jayne does NOT do is “parrot nonesense” . She is a long-standing poster on here and her posts are always considered and insightful and full of wisdom and humanity.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 6th Dec '15 - 2:13am

    Jayne Mansfield and Phyllis:
    There are ‘received truths’ regularly repeated as consensus from media commentators and mediocre politicians with a tone of moral righteousness – Guardian editors, David Aaronovitch, Mary Creagh MP, Stephen Kinnock MP etc- and many on this Forum- who imply or state that Assad:
    – Killed 250k Syrians,
    – Ordered Sarin gas attacks in August 2013
    – Is equal or worse than IS
    – Is the root of the Syrian civil war that must ultimately be exorcised.
    Perhaps Jayne unintentionally wrote on some of these comments about Assad as ‘received wisdom’ – but that doesn’t stop it from being nonsense for the reasons that I set out.

    Unfortunately, you’ve just used another political device of demonisation by parroting the even more common media trope of talking about ‘Barrel Bombs’. This is a manipulative linguistic device to denote some new and evil technology from Assad that has hitherto been unknown in warfare.
    But it’s a crude bomb that’s dropped out of an airplane- The syrian airforce simply doesn’t have advanced military technology for pinpoint accuracy of targeting to exercise a prolonged war! The cheap, primitive bomb gives no pretence of accuracy, like our video-gaming military adventures elsewhere like to portray the killing only of baddies.
    All bombs are horrible devices designed to kill all by where they land.
    Assad and the Syrian govt are part of the only way to prevent far greater killings, refugees and social collapse from occurring in Syria.

    On the main item of discussion, I’ve no issue with the position that our parliament’s decision, and that of our Leader and 6 of the 8 MPs was the wrong one. I share that view as think ISIS won’t be hurt by the bombs, but civilians under their rule will all too easily be killed.

    I believe that the real problem about the Syrian civil war isn’t actually about Assad, or even the Saudis- we know their game and should start doing something about it, if we have political will.

    The real conundrum where political thought should be focused is what to do about Erdogan.

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Dec '15 - 9:00am

    @ Tomas,
    I cannot claim to understand all the different , often conflicting analyses I have read. The reason being that we are entering into a snake pit of deviousness, double dealing and hypocrisy where there are long standing divisions that pre-dated our invasion of Iraq.

    There are a group of Syrians who are more unfortunate than the refugees, these are the internally displaced refugees which you mentioned. According to the Syrian human Rights Watch, there is no longer any safer haven for them. whether it be in areas controlled by Assad or ISIS.

    What matters to me, is the safety of our military personnel, the safety and conditions of the internally and externally refugees, the recruitment propaganda we are offering iSIS and any so called ‘blowback’.

    In my opinion, our military personnel are being put at risk for what is simply a symbolic gesture, the safety of the IDP and civilians are at risk because of ‘collateral damage’, more refugees will be created, as the luckier civilians escape, and we have offered ISIS exactly what they want and need, to feed their narrative.

    Last night I watched the man at Leytonstone underground being tasered ( Sky News). He shouted this is for Syria and shouted that he was a Muslim. Muslim bystanders, standing in the hall shouted back, ‘You are no Muslim, you bring shame on our religion’.

    In my view, the most valuable thing we can do now as ordinary citizens, probably the only thing we can do at the moment, is refuse to be divided, demonstrating that non -Muslims and Muslims can live happily together in peace and goodwill.

    I agree with you that 6 out of 8 Liberal Democrat MPs were wrong in the recent vote.

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