Alec Cadzow: Global Britain must be prepared to intervene in the Middle East

15 Jan

Alec Cadzow is Researcher to ex-FCDO Middle East & North Africa Minister Dr Andrew Murrison MP. He previously worked for a consultancy in Jordan and specialised in Middle Eastern history at St Andrews University before that.

Parliament has returned from recess (third time lucky), now a fully sovereign entity and ready to forge a new future as a “Global Britain” – a subject which was aptly debated on Monday.

A catchy slogan, but what does it mean? Remainers have often assumed Brexit would usher in a foreign policy of not-so-splendid isolationism, at least in practice.

Conservatives must ensure the contrary, and while Monday’s debate was understandably trade-centric, a mixture of realpolitik and principle will demand that Britain does not neglect the Middle East – which has been conspicuously absent from our foreign policy discourse.

In terms of realpolitik, we have seen how 21st century military actions (or lack thereof) can have blowback on the UK’s influence.

This is particularly the case in Syria, where a pass has been granted to malign powers in our absence.

The failed 2013 vote to approve military action in the wake of Assad’s chemical weapons attack was largely down to mistrust on Middle Eastern intervention caused by the Iraq war, as Philip Hammond then Defence Secretary noted.

This event caused Obama to hesitate before outsourcing the dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile to Russia, despite such an attack infamously representing a “red line”. Obama (and the imminently incumbent Biden) was haunted by Iraq – having been elected on a pledge to bring troops home from “endless wars.”

Now, a looming pyrrhic military victory for Assad will bring a pax Russica (with the Iranian theocrats and neo-Ottoman Turks fighting for scraps). Putin sees himself as the Tsar-like protector of the Orthodox Christians and he used the war to eliminate the domestic blight of Chechen Islamists – doing so by opening up the Caucuses (a textbook authoritarian move which both Assad and Saddam employed).

So, Britain, as a result of its inertia – itself largely attributable to a hangover from Iraq – now finds itself without leverage (except for within the superficial – in this case – diplomatic channels of the UN) which has only empowered our enemies.

Indeed, such avoidance has not been atypical, as Tom Tugendhat MP chastised Britain’s abstention from an important UN vote on Iran – itself a symptom of our uneasy relationship with the EU. We can now diverge.

Realpolitik dictates that we must always be asking “if not us, then who?” As well as Russia, Iran and Turkey, there’s the threat from illiberal China extending its Middle Eastern nexus through Belt and Road. This is a power whose facilitators include the EU, and who many Conservatives – including my MP – want to restrain. Unshackled from the EU, one way to ensure we don’t facilitate Chinese hegemony is through not abstaining from the Middle East.

It’s also pragmatic to pay attention to the Middle East because of our security interconnectedness.

Destabilisation abroad, the proliferation of refugees, and extremism at home are interrelated. The statistic that more British Muslims fought for Da’esh than were in the British Army’s ranks at the peak of the former’s power hints at our problems with integrating – particularly Muslim – immigrants.

The 2015 vote to approve military action in Syria came directly after the Paris attacks, as we belatedly realised that non-intervention had empowered terrorists who brought the fight to us.

France understands these consequences, which is why they lead in the Sahel. Current Defence Secretary Ben Wallace MP says he sees them too. However, if it really matters, we can do more than to deploy 250 reconnaissance troops to the UN’s Mali peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA).

There are also principles – intangible values and a complex, interwoven history – which interlock Conservatives with the Middle East.

Edmund Burke, the oft-quoted “father of modern conservatism”, was a popular figure among key Iranian reformers during the 1905 Constitutional Revolution, out of which constitutional limits were applied to the despotic Qajar monarchy. Reformers preferred the stability of gradual change – aspiring to the inherent conservatism which had created British political systems and values – rather than the destructive nature of a French-style overhaul of the Ancien Régime.

At a time when American democracy looks fragile – something which has been made fun of by antithetical regional and global leaders – Britain’s stable constitutional monarchy can provide a blueprint to reformers, many of whom live in absolute monarchies.

We are, however, compelled to remember Britain’s legacy from another perspective.

We often failed to live up to our political principles through our actions. In the case of Iran, two years after the Revolution, the Anglo-Russia Pact divided the country into spheres of influence, granting Russia the revolutionary north where political gains were quickly reversed. We would later contrive a new dynasty – the Pahlavi – and engineer two coups to keep it in power.

Another case is the Levant. The multiple promises we made to Arabs, our French allies, and Zionists during World War One were mutually exclusive and we were unable to appease every party during the Paris peace process. Having lived in Jordan – where it’s estimated 60 per cent of the population is Palestinian – I experienced first-hand some of the animosity held towards Britain borne out of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and Balfour Declaration which reneged on promises to create an autonomous Greater Syria governed by an Arab monarch. Our actions famously tormented T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia” in his post-war years too.

This is not to say policy makers should be drawn to the region out of imperial guilt. Instead, Global Britain provides an opportunity to align our values with our actions, and due to our history with the Middle East, where better to demonstrate this?

Some might argue a manifestation of this policy means we must cut ties with Saudi Arabia, after human rights abuses at home and abroad. Others reply that they provide us with valuable intelligence, and fill Treasury coffers through defence spending. Nuance would be leveraging the latter to positively affect the former, an argument Crispin Blunt MP has convincingly made.

It’s clear that we are obliged by too many pragmatic factors and historical-ideological principles to retreat to isolationism regarding the Middle East. Backbenchers and policy-makers alike ought to realise this as the new era of a Global Britain begins.

Radical: While political leaders hide from confrontation, activists are winning the war on self-identification

18 Aug

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and co-founder of Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate. She and Rebecca Lowe, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.

Regardless of commitments about a summer announcement, Parliament went into recess without any further clarity from Liz Truss on the Government’s plans for reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Nonetheless, there has been no let up in the debate.

It had been expected that the changes to the law that the May government had consulted on – which would have allowed people to change their legal sex without a medical diagnosis, or evidence of having lived for some time as a member of the opposite sex – would be abandoned by the current Westminster government.

In Scotland, reforms of the law to this effect in are still expected to proceed, after having been put on hold during the Covid crisis. But the signs had been pretty clear for months that Westminster had decided against so-called “self-ID” for England and Wales.

In the weeks before recess, however, trans rights activists became ever more vocal in their efforts to mobilise support for self-ID. Publications such as Pink News worked hard, misusing survey data (and misrepresenting the current law), to try to create the impression of a country in which the vast majority of people favoured self-ID, and with it the ability for male-bodied transwomen to use women-only facilities. As ever, mainstream-media reporting too often went along with this false narrative.

Perhaps the influence of these activist groups is one reason for the Government’s delay in confirming its position formally, as promised. After all, government departments and quangos, from the Cabinet Office to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), have signed up to receive guidance and training from Stonewall, through its Diversity Champions programme – and Stonewall is a highly political organisation, which has been lobbying the Government particularly strongly on trans issues.

Transactivist talking points have also been adopted by representatives within the Conservative Party. Many common examples of transactivist misinformation can be found in this piece by Crispin Blunt and Sue Pascoe, for instance – ironically, in a section devoted to “myth-busting”. So it would not be surprising if the Minister for Equalities has faced the pressure of opposition from within the party over her rethink on pushing forward with self-ID.

The EHRC itself joined the fray last week. Not, however, as might have been hoped, to clarify and improve its guidance on the existing laws protecting women that have been the subject of widespread misunderstanding (as seen in the Blunt and Pascoe piece referred to above). But, rather, to publish another tendentious survey, and remonstrate with its respondents who didn’t support transwomen’s access to women-only spaces and services.

Whilst she acknowledged that a great majority of British people broadly support trans people’s rights to live free of discrimination, and do not consider themselves to be transphobic, Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, also noted that “people were found to be less supportive of trans people in specific situations”. The specific situations in question included women’s refuges and facilities such as public toilets.

Yet far from acknowledging that there are good reasons, and legal support, for such views, Hilsenrath seems to consider that the people holding them need to be helped to change their minds, by bringing about a better “level of understanding on the key facts surrounding the debate” by “both sides improving the level of discourse”.

This seems, again, rather ironic considering the poor guidance the EHRC has published on the legal facts of the matter. Indeed, although Hisenrath called for a constructive, tolerant, and fact-based dialogue on law and policy, it seems very clear what the EHRC considers to be the “right” outcome of any dialogue.

In a recent thoughtful piece for The Spectator, James Kirkup called for the Government to take the sting out of the issue by first publishing a “drily technical” announcement that: self-id would be dropped, tweaks made to existing processes regarding legal sex changes, to make them faster and cheaper; and, proper clarity provided in guidance on single-sex provisions. Then the “wider issues” of “reconciling conflicting rights and addressing the woefully poor evidence-base on trans issues, should be kicked even further into the long grass, with a proper fact-finding ‘further investigation’ that must report before any major change can come”.

Now, apart from the fact that what Kirkup considers would be an undramatic, “technical” announcement is, in effect, exactly what the trans lobby have been campaigning against – and publicly positing as a “rolling back” of trans rights – this calm approach seems sensible.

However, it comes with risks. Conservative governments have not traditionally been good at making conservative appointments, and trans lobbyists and activists have excelled at capturing public bodies. There is surely a serious risk, therefore, that any investigative commission, instead of fearlessly finding and reporting on the truth in medical and legal matters, would be susceptible to the same forces that have caused scientific papers to be withdrawn, and legal “guidance” to distort the law.

Certainly, however, there is no reason for Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, or Keir Starmer for that matter, to get personally involved in the unedifying social-media gender wars. But, it is also the case that they should not allow themselves to get caught up in the “both sides are equal” fallacy that the EHRC and others have been perpetuating.

Legal rights associated with sex have become a political matter, whether we like it or not, and a Conservative government should not hide from making necessary political decisions to acknowledge the reality of sex, and the legal and policy considerations that flow from that. In real life, public bodies continue to adopt policies that are in conflict with current law. Yet these decisions seem to undergo little or no consultation or scrutiny – until, as seen with the spate of legal action against guidance to schools, brave individuals stand up and challenge them.

NHS Lanarkshire recently announced an HR protocol , which effectively makes staff changing rooms mixed sex, included people who dress as the opposite gender for “erotic pleasure” under the umbrella of “trans”, and by claims that staff could be discriminating against trans colleagues by “not thinking” of them as the gender they present.  A Labour MSP who tried to hold NHS Lanarkshire to account over this, and who questioned how a medical organisation could propagate the idea of a baby having its gender “assigned at birth”, was met with calls that she should be disciplined by her party.

These are the consequences of political leaders leaving the field. Hiding behind a commission of experts, therefore, in order to avoid offending the groups of highly engaged and influential activists who have occupied that field, would itself be a political decision, and one that seems unlikely to improve the quality of the debate.