James Gurd: The deadly attacks in Israel as three great religious celebrations meet – Passover, Easter and Ramadan.

15 Apr

James Gurd is Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.

News of the brutal terror attack at a busy bar in the heart of Tel Aviv broke during CFI’s first parliamentary delegation since the pandemic. The attack was the fourth such incident in little over a week – the deadliest in 15 years. Our week had been shaped by an inescapable question – was this the beginning of a Third Intifada?

Israelis have an inbuilt resilience to these sorts of tragic incidents. You will be hard pressed to find an Israeli that wasn’t affected in some way by the hundreds of Palestinian terror attacks during the Second Intifada of 2000-2005 which killed over a thousand. There is a growing feeling that something is again brewing.

The night of the Tel Aviv attack I was out and about along Jerusalem’s main Jaffa Street. The security presence was palpable and the city felt unusually quiet – a far cry from previous visits. Police cars patrolled the streets methodically at short intervals and armed police and soldiers were ever present.

The scene will have been similar across much of the country and is likely to continue for another few weeks yet as Israel experiences a rare confluence of three major religious festivals – Passover, Ramadan and Easter.

Ramadan has historically been a time of increased tensions and attacks, and the overlap with Passover and Easter has certainly added to the combustibility of this period. The approaching one-year anniversary of Israel’s latest conflict with the Hamas terror group, as well as Israel’s Independence Day (5th May), will likely serve as additional flashpoints down the line. This period of tension will not be abating any time soon.

The threat of attacks had been anticipated. Jordan – custodian of the holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem – had publicly hosted senior Israeli ministers ahead of the holidays and the two countries had been closely and publicly coordinating.

Israel, for its part, has waived permit restrictions for tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers to visit the al-Aqsa Mosque on Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount throughout Ramadan. Israeli officials made no change to this policy in the wake of the attacks, perhaps mindful of Hamas’s long history of presenting any perceived Israeli restriction on access to al-Aqsa Mosque as a call to arms.

Hamas has chosen to dial up its rhetoric over Jerusalem regardless but it still seems unlikely that the group will initiate another round of conflict from the Gaza Strip. Less than a year ago, Gaza was the centre of the world’s attention as Israelis sheltered from thousands of rockets and Gazans endured another tragic conflict inflicted by their Hamas overseers. Today, there is relative calm.

In our recent briefing with the Israel Defense Forces on the border with Gaza, it was noted that Hamas was not ready for a major escalation as it was busy rebuilding after Israel delivered a heavy blow to its military capabilities. Hamas is even understood to be preventing rival terror groups – including Palestinian Islamic Jihad – from launching rockets into Israel. This threat level, as always, can change rapidly though.

For now, Hamas appears to be far more willing to unleash its extensive network of cells across the West Bank. A strategy of arms length violence works well for the group as it looks to jointly deliver fatal blows across Israel and threaten the rule of its fierce rival, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority which governs the West Bank. As ever in the Middle East, Iran is usually no more than one-degree of separation away from any instability and as one of the Islamic Republic’s premier terror franchises it is likely that Hamas is being encouraged to agitate again now.

The PA is vehemently opposed to Hamas strengthening its position in the West Bank through a campaign of violence. 17 years into his four-year term, President Mahmoud Abbas and his PA old-guard are deeply unpopular among Palestinians for their well-documented corruption and there is a growing sense of malaise exacerbated by high-unemployment and stalled peace process. Polls indicate a worrying growth in support for violent acts, especially among younger Palestinians who now make up the majority of the population.

President Abbas may have been applauded by some commentators for his condemnation of two recent terror attacks – albeit under pressure from Jordan and the U.S. – but his Fatah party hasn’t hesitated to celebrate the attacks and their perpetrators. The families of the ‘martyrs’ are even set to be honoured with financial support; one of the deplorable practices which may have led the UK to recently freeze its aid to the PA.

Despite this, Israel is working with the PA’s UK-trained security services to stamp out the shared threat posed by Hamas-driven violence but appear to be having mixed success.

Much of the focus has been on the northern Palestinian city of Jenin where the perpetrators of two recent attacks came from. Regarded as the “capital of resistance” by Palestinians during the Second Intifada due to the many suicide bombers who came from the town, it has again become a hotbed for Hamas and PIJ fighters after the PA appeared to lose control of the area in recent years – although it remains unclear how orchestrated they have been. Israeli security services have reportedly foiled further terror attacks originating in the area but its ongoing security operations in Jenin have led to a series of fatal clashes and firefights which are likely to escalate further.

It is a combustible situation, and will likely spread elsewhere in the West Bank and into Jerusalem. Religious fervour has already seen the desecration of Joseph’s Tomb – a holy Jewish and Muslim site – by Palestinian protestors.

Israel seems to have been less prepared for another dynamic – the possibility of attacks claimed by so-called Islamic State. The Jewish state hasn’t been a major focus of the group and yet two of the recent attacks were undertaken by Arabs living within Israel that had pledged allegiance to the group. It remains to be seen whether IS will seek further attacks in Israel, but Hamas and PIJ are certainly committed to doing so.

The uncertainty over what happens next is looming large. There is a great deal at stake for regional stability in the tense days ahead. While Israelis contend with that inescapable and fraught question over a possible Third Intifada, the world is rightly focused on the Russian onslaught in Ukraine. If events continue to escalate though it may not be long be another international crisis erupts. As ever in the Middle East, unpredictability is the only predictable thing.

Richard Holden: With Labour as the alternative, Conservatives cannot afford any more divisions

18 Jan

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

West Shield’s Farm, Satley, Co. Durham

There are fewer better reality checks than meeting a handful of County Durham farmers, on site, as the light fades and the temperature drops, in the bleak mid-winter. They had got in touch with me about small gangs of people trespassing on their land with dogs and guns, causing repeated criminal damage and leaving them in fear for their families, livestock and their own safety if confronted.

These aren’t the poachers you might find in a by-gone episode of The Archers or Jake from Withnail and I – with a brace of pheasant in his jacket and an eel down his trousers. They’re just thugs who often leave what they shoot in their late-night “sport” and cause lots of damage to farmland and property as they do it. My local farmers have come together in the worst hit areas to fight back, sharing descriptions and number plates caught on cameras with each other and the police.

Any farming community has long memories and lots of small, mostly friendly, local rivalries. Sometimes these are more serious with little schisms and long-running, low-level animosity between, and even within, farming families. But usually, like with this mutual interest to get these local thugs off their patches, they come together in mutual benefit, for their shared interest when they need to and for the benefit of all.

Seeing those farmers reminded me of a time before I was an MP, when I was working behind the scenes. In various roles at Conservative HQ and in different government departments there were tough times. The most challenging time I had wasn’t Boris Johnson or Theresa May’s leadership campaigns, or during the 2015/6 Lords V Commons (unprecedented war) on Universal Credit, or ISIS in Iraq/Syria when I was at the MoD, or DfE battles with The Treasury over funding. The toughest time I had working in politics was at the end of May’s time in No 10 when I was at the Department for Transport.

There were events – drones at Gatwick at Christmas – that caused chaos. This happened at the same time as the Department was facing relentless attacks, trying to undermine our negotiating position with the EU and our ability to withstand a no-deal Brexit, which anyone interested in delivering the best deal with the EU needed to keep on the cards. The cabinet minister I worked for at the time eventually became the only Brexiteer left in cabinet. Others were picked off or left and we were very vulnerable to attacks, mostly motivated by other parts of government and the Conservative Party at the time, egged on by the media and the Opposition, who basically said that Brexit would never work and that they didn’t want it in the first place.

It was horrible. It was nasty, internecine warfare played out daily in the press. It was a political civil war in the governing party and in the country. It could have ended in a Corbyn-led Labour government and at times it was a bloody close-run thing that it didn’t.

Out of that chaos, eventually, Johnson emerged. He faced down the Brexit deniers and eventually forced a General Election. That delivered the first big majority in over three decades and allowed him to deliver on the express mandate of the British people to “Get Brexit Done” – whatever side they’d been on in 2016. The world then got side-swiped with a pandemic. Initially, we didn’t know much about it except that there were bodies being piled in football stadiums in Italy and elsewhere. Even now it is evolving. The calls that our Prime Minister and senior members of the cabinet have made and make on this are massive and have had to be done with far less idea about the outcome than any Brexit negotiation.

But unlike Brexit, the decisions being taken, at pace, have also been potentially matter of life and death for people. They’re also about the survival of many jobs, businesses and education across the country. And we have the same armchair generals thinking their solution is the right one as we did during Brexit. I’m as much a freedom loving Conservative as the next. I joined the party well over 20 years ago when William Hague was our leader – even first term Blair/Brown was too much for that Northern teenager then who felt that London-centric Labour had nothing to offer and did not understand the towns and villages he was growing up in. I don’t have all the answers to what we should do now and I trust that my colleagues in government come from the issue from same starting point as me in their decision making about the future.

Just before Christmas, our party looked like it might eat itself up over the response to Covid-19 – and we’ve got further big decisions before my next column. The damage we do ourselves if we constantly second guess everything ministers do is deep, not just to ourselves but to public confidence. Starmer, Streeting and Co have already proved their instincts are not ours. They wanted to keep lockdown back in July when it wasn’t needed. They would have kept us in the European Medicines Agency for ideological reasons. They wanted more restrictions over Christmas. And they are licking their lips at the prospect of facing a divided party.

Sue Gray’s investigation, which we await the results of will be the short-term determinant of what comes next for our party’s leadership. Many colleagues in Parliament and Conservative supporters in North West Durham have reflected to me that it will determine their view in coming days. But wherever it goes and whatever its consequences, it needs to be a moment where we draw a line under the questions being faced by the Government – one way or the other.

Like my North West Durham farmers facing the anti-social behaviour of the new breed of poachers, we Conservatives need to come together as we face our own anti-Conservative vote poachers in the opposition. Labour would love to see our freedom curtailed permanently for ideological reasons. In government we Conservatives have had to for short-term practical reasons. We are not the same and need to show the public we’re ready to move towards an endemic, rather than pandemic health response.

We have a common enemy as a nation in Covid. As Conservatives we have a common opposition in those whose instincts are not ours on how to deal with it in Labour. Labour would pursue a different path for ideological reasons – they’ve pushed for a different response throughout. I know that Conservatives in government want the same thing as backbenchers and the people who voted for me: freedom returned, Brexit delivered, levelling up in action, crime fought and borders secure, long-term fiscal stability with sound money and fairer, lower taxes, where work is always rewarded and our public services sustainably funded. Let’s allow Sue Gray get on with her job then get on with ours.

Sarah Ingham: Social inequality cannot be fixed by erasing Britain’s history

15 Oct

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Along with Jon Bon Govey, thanks to the Prime Minister another hero burst into our collective consciousness last week: Hereward the Woke.

The PM’s Conference speech might have skirted around the many challenges facing the United Kingdom, but he was clear whose side he was on in the country’s culture wars, highlighting a key battleground: history.

Hereward the Wake (or Watchful) led a five-year insurgency against William I’s all-conquering Normans around 1070. They were fighting in what by then was recognisably England, even if it seemed more like Game of Thrones’ Westeros. The frequent descriptions of the legendary Hereward as one of the ‘greatest Englishmen’ might, however, be pushing it: the resistance leader could well have been as much Danish as Anglo-Saxon.

If only there were more 11th century texts to view through the post-modernist lens of critical theory, Hereward might be the subject of numerous academic papers on identity and colonisation. Wake or Woke; structure or agency.

Voted the greatest Briton in a 2002 BBC poll in which more than one million took part, it is Winston Churchill rather than Hereward who has come to embody the current cultural conflict within history – and indeed within wider society.

As the author of History of the English-Speaking Peoples, our most illustrious Prime Minister also joins the fight as participant, as well as prize, in today’s history wars. His style is less the drums and trumpets school and more Land of Hope and Glory: ‘… on that little Anglo-Saxon island there was kindled the flame of freedom and equality for the individual … This idea grew and was spread over the earth by the English-speaking peoples, and has now brought democracy to the whole free world …’

If Prime Ministers Johnson and Churchill are battling for history in the metaphorical blue corner, in the red is the seemingly self-hating Churchill College, Cambridge. In July, it announced it was disbanding its Churchill, Race and Empire Working Group.

This follows a panel discussion ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’ – still available on YouTube – in which various publicity-hungry academics denounce the British Empire, which is given moral equivalence with Nazi Germany, while among other howlers, apparently mixing up Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin. Historical accuracy; so yesterday, right?

Last week’s report from the Office for Students stated that universities were ignoring poor spelling, punctuation and grammar. ‘To achieve or promote inclusivity’ some institutions are turning a blind eye to the rules of basic written English. Not only is this jaw-droppingly patronising, but harming students’ career prospects. But who cares about the future of £9,250 a year fee fodder, when there is decolonising the curriculum to get stuck into?

‘They Kant be Serious’ was The Daily Mail’s Johnson-esque response to reports that students at School of Oriental and African Studies wanted to side-line various philosophers, including Plato, as part of its Decolonising Our Minds campaign. Across Britain, universities are following suit, treating the canon by dead white men as if it were radioactive.

Exeter University’s History Department declares that it is ‘working to decolonise the way we teach, research and work with one another’. Its counterpart in Durham is not only committed to decolonisation but to creating an ‘all-inclusive culture and environment’.

With about one-third of their students privately educated, Exeter and Durham aren’t too far off the top of the posh list. Are we quite sure that this current fad for new narratives, which was given fresh momentum with the Black Lives Matter movement, is nothing more than Britain’s academic leaders appeasing their noisier students? After all, they are happy to pander to student-led, mind-closing gestures like no-platforming.

It is ironic that so many of the country’s higher education institutions are making a virtue of decolonisation while structural inequality is obvious in many lecture theatres. It must be questioned how far the cause of social justice is served by ensuring Josh and Jemima, whose schooling cost £40,000 + a year, have more non-white radicals on their reading list than Frantz Fanon.

Last week the Prime Minister warned that our national story is being rewritten. Just as Trotsky came to be air-brushed out of the Stalin-era Soviet picture, whole periods of our collective past are being re-interpreted to fit in with today’s orthodoxies. Statues must fall, links – however tenuous – with the slave trade denounced, street names changed. Supposed guardians of Britain’s history, including the Church of England, art galleries, museums and the National Trust, pander to present mood of iconoclasm.

In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed the giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyam province, smashing 2,000 years of history. A decade later, not content with burning alive or beheading opponents, ISIS obliterated artifacts and ruins of the Greek and Roman empires across an arc from Libya to Iraq. In trying to wipe out any trace of a pre-Islamic past, these cultural nihilists decimated a common global heritage for future generations. They could not, however, change the immutable past.

In the context of today, Britain’s history is a litany of uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Most of it is problematic, some of it heart-stirringly glorious. The current canyons in social equality in this country are not going be bridged by obsessing over what happened hundreds of years ago.

In the current rush to re-write and re-interpret it, what is overlooked is how little history many know. This mass ignorance was reflected last year, when Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, called for a disclaimer on the Netflix series The Crown. Viewers needed reminding that the events depicted were fiction, not historical fact.

As Black History Month continues, it is apt to reflect on the words of Marcus Garvey: ‘A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.’ Last week, the Prime Minister declared that ‘we Conservatives will defend our history and cultural inheritance’.

To the barricades.

Robert Halfon: America has abandoned the Afghans. But we must stick with the Kurds.

8 Sep

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has jangled nerves in allied nations. One such place is the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

The situation in Kurdistan and Iraq is quite different from Afghanistan. American armed forces
 in Iraq and Kurdistan will end combat operations by the end of the year. But Iraq and America 
have recently agreed that 2,500 American troops will stay to assist, advise, and train.

The Americans stress the continuing importance of their strategic relationship with Iraq and are
 building the single biggest consulate in the world in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.

The UK
 supports a strong Kurdistan Region in Iraq and also has a sizeable diplomatic presence in Erbil.
The presence of American troops and bases in the Kurdistan Region is certainly desired by its
 people and government. American, British, and German soldiers are providing invaluable training to the Peshmerga, and
 are seeking to unify it under the authority of the government rather than the two main parties – a
 legacy of the past.

A strong Peshmerga is ever more necessary, as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban will embolden 
what Tony Blair calls Radical Islam elsewhere. The Peshmerga have proved a dedicated and capable ally in resisting such extremism. They held
 out almost alone for several years after ISIS took Mosul, and then attacked Kurdistan in 2014.
 Eventually, the Peshmerga and the revived Iraqi Army dislodged Daesh from its genocidal
 caliphate. RAF jets were essential to this achievement.

But it is not complete. Isis is smaller, but regrouping in the gaps between the Iraqi Army and the
 Peshmerga. Erbil and Baghdad are building better relationships, but judicious American and 
British engagement can help them to do so more quickly.

Of course, we should carefully examine the experience of Afghanistan, but my great fear is that 
isolationism on the left and right could take root.

Friends of the Kurds can say that there are times when there’s one thing worse than a Western 
intervention – and that’s no Western intervention.

Not all interventions have been disastrous, let alone about imposing our values. John Major’s
 no-fly zone and safe haven for the Kurds in 1991 averted certain genocide, and helped the Kurds
 create an autonomous region that increased health, education, living standards, stability, and
 opportunity. Our jets saved Kurds from ISIS in the last decade.

Such interventions are the baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater amid any
 isolationist backlash. They go with the grain of change desired by our partners and enable their self-defence, with
urgent and direct aid in existential emergencies, and self-improvement.

The need to deploy military muscle in extremis is on the spectrum of liberal intervention, and
 provides the solid assurances without which other engagements are more difficult.

Our wider range of cultural, commercial, and political engagements clearly say that the fate of the
 Kurds remains important to the West. It also gives them the confidence and stability to further
reform their institutions.

The Kurds are an ancient people, but they have only had a coherent and recognised near-state in
 Iraq for a generation. They have come far in that time but have much further to go. From my visits over many years, I can testify that they welcome our involvement in ventures as
varied as training MPs and judges, measures to advance transparency and tackle corruption,
boosting agriculture, and film, for example. I suspect many films about Afghanistan could be 
produced in Kurdistan.

A major imperative close to my heart is their desire to modernise their education system and
 encourage new thinking in a more vibrant civil society as they reduce their reliance on oil and
 state employment while designing new futures in technology, tourism, and light industry.
One of our country’s great soft power offers in higher education. My predecessor as MP for 
Harlow, Bill Rammell has recently become Vice-Chancellor of one of their prestigious English 
language universities.

Another such university in Kurdistan has just taken in female students from Afghanistan. It
illustrates the deep generosity of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, so often exiles and refugees from 
injustice themselves.

Iraqi Kurdistan also continues to host nearly a million refugees and displaced people from Syria 
and from the areas once occupied by Isis to which they cannot yet return. That has been an
 enduring and willingly given duty for them.

Their respect for religious and national minorities as well as improved women’s rights powerfully 
defy Radical Islam. All countries act in their own national interests and not just for altruistic reasons. American and
 British engagement is both. The fall of Kabul highlights how much more we need Iraqi Kurds as 
allies and partners, and vice-versa.

Daniel Kawczynski: Libya needs a political solution taken from its recent history

8 Jul

Daniel Kawczynski is MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham.

Libya has not recently featured prominently on the government’s agenda – a perfectly understandable fact, given the priority the government has given to handling the more immediate issues of Brexit and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

But two recent high level ministerial visits to Libya by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Minister for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly, offer hope for increased British engagement with an area of the world where Britain can, and should, have an impact.

As the only non-French speaking country in the Maghreb, Libya is indeed a place where our post-Brexit Britain is uniquely poised to play a significant role in shaping the country’s future. Yet more importantly, it is in our interest to lend a helping hand to Libyans in shaping their future.

The opportunities range from helping Britain meet its energy consumption needs through oil imports, 10%-15% of which already come from North Africa; to stemming the flow of refugees to the shores of our European neighbours; to keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean, preventing it from placing anti-air and anti-ship missiles on Libya’s Northern coast in a move that would hamper NATO’s ability to defend Europe; to shutting down a human trafficking route that has been the source of untold suffering for thousands, including hundreds of Libyans, every year.

Beyond interests, Britain further has a moral responsibility to do something in Libya, having played such a key role in creating the dangerous vacuum that is swallowing Libya today.

As many will remember, the UK and its French allies played an integral role in spearheading the 2011 humanitarian intervention, undoubtedly stemming the tremendous humanitarian cost of what has been North Africa’s most protracted conflict of the millennium.

To our significant consternation, the same leadership was missing in 2015, when in an open letter to Prime Minster David Cameron I stated that, “We simply cannot stand by and let this humanitarian tragedy escalate day by day without any retaliation against ISIS and the other Islamist terrorist groups”. The decision was made not to not heed this call— despite the 2015 YouGov polling, which indicated that 59% would have supported British involvement in airstrikes on ISIS targets in Libya, more than double the 25% who would have opposed action.

Worse still, after conducting the airstrikes, Britain absconded from following through: 13 times more of our budget was allocated to conducting airstrikes than with the subsequent development of Libya. Despite this squandered opportunity and moral travesty, however, all is not yet lost.

The UK is still able to help Libya secure a democratic future. The government must be certain, however, that any role that it attempts to play in the war-torn country indeed has the potential to improve, rather than exacerbate the situation on the ground.

It is no secret that I have been a long-time supporter of the restoration of Libya’s 1951 constitution and British-style constitutional monarchy along with it. I remain convinced that the 1951 constitution, and the monarchy, can and should play a role in building Libya the future it deserves.

Libya has a presidential election scheduled for December 24, one which, according to Minister Cleverly, could provide Libyans with “a real opportunity to write the next chapter in the history of their country”. Yet Libya is racked by factionalism, like many other countries emerging from civil war.

Despite claims to the contrary, which were addressed in my 2015 New Statesman piece, tribalism is but one of many other fissures between Libya’s cities, regions, ideologies, and ethnic groups. These fissures are all the more evident today, and those divides have the potential to tear Libya apart not just physically, but as an idea.

To mend those divides, Libya needs a legitimate, durable, and widely-accepted constitution, all long before it needs an election. Because the task of drafting a constitution is so fraught, the international community has decided to kick the proverbial can down the road, and is instead rushing to have an election.

The absence of any foundational document means the election has little political or intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of Libyans; this is one reason— among others— that many Libya experts doubt that an election will go ahead at all. Voter turnout will doubtlessly be unprecedentedly low, and will fail to capture Libya’s ethnically, politically and geographically diverse range of interest groups.

Without a historic national vision, such as that of the 1951 constitution guiding us, foreign actors will continue to pursue their own interests at the expense of Libyans, plunging the country further into chaos on the heels of the discord which will surely emerge as we get closer to December.

Yet even if the election is a success, the constitutional questions at the heart of the Libyan conflict will be no closer to a resolution. Instead of starting from scratch then, what Libya needs is a starting point grounded in history and legitimacy. The 1951 constitution offers just that.

Working with a construct based on Libya’s own history, which in the recent past has proved its ability to generate national consensus, it has significantly greater potential to facilitate the emergence of much needed national institutions than any new concoction.

Among the many good ideas contained in the 1951 constitution are a non-politicised police force and army, capable of upholding the integrity of political decisions and representing the will of the people.

While the constitution would no doubt require an update to account for the social, cultural, and demographic changes that have taken place in the last 50 years, Libya would benefit from an idea that in the past worked and provided the country with a significant degree of political freedom until it was overturned by Colonel Gadhaffi’s undemocratic military coup in 1969.

The key lesson is that it is imperative to understand the intricate role that historical experience plays in building sustainable political futures. The tendency of the West, as tragically showcased in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been to resort to a “one size fits all” approach to democracy.

It is high time we learnt from these lessons of the more recent past, and that we in the West cease trying to export our domestic political animals to foreign climes. After all, democracy at its most basic level is, “government of, by and for the people”.

While the UK should embrace whatever democratic solution is chosen and embraced by the Libyan people, we should consider putting on the table the 1951 constitution, a constitutional document formulated by the UN with that same tailored-fit approach in mind.

If the UK seeks genuinely to contribute to a solution that has a chance of addressing the myriad of needs faced by Libyan society today— chief among those being unity— the 1951 option has a historic track record, and stands a solid chance of creating a real source of authority and trust in the future.

Those of us who have been following events in Libya for the past decade know that its current unity government is transient; it is not the first to try its hand at assuaging the country’s domestic tensions. Sadly, it is unlikely to be the last in the medium-term. There is however, no real reason to assume that this time things will end differently. This alone, if nothing else, is a reason to consider a fresh, yet historic take that the 1951 constitution would offer.

I have many times before made the argument for looking to the past as a way to shape the future. I will make it again here: There may be no more solid and sensible basis for a transition to peace available than the 1951 Constitution. While it is for Libyans to decide on the nature and text of the constitution that binds them, the UK can play a truly creative and constructive role by advocating for putting this solution on the table.

If, however, the UK is to play a serious and comprehensive role in shaping the future of Libya, it must look back before it looks forward. Lessons of the past are indeed integral for shaping our vision for the future.

John Healey: Ministers have a democratic duty to explain the role of British combat troops in Mali

3 Dec

John Healey is Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, and MP for Wentworth and Dearne.

This month more than 250 British troops will begin a three-year deployment with the UN peacekeeping force in Mali. This is described by the UN as its ‘most dangerous mission’, with 227 personnel killed since 2013.

With the growth of Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, the Sahel is now one of the most unstable regions of the world. The UK will be filling a ‘capability gap’ in the UN force by providing soldiers who are specialist in long-range reconnaissance. Combat and casualties can be expected.

Since 2018 the UK has provided RAF logistical support to the French counter-terrorism operation Barkhane, with three Chinook helicopters and non-combat ground crew, though the MoD stress the new UN deployment is separate from the French mission.

Despite committing British combat troops into a conflict zone, the Defence Secretary has felt no duty to report on this directly to Parliament. The deployment this month was confirmed in an MoD press release during the summer recess.

Labour strongly support this commitment of UK troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, and we do so with eyes wide open to the risks they face. The public have a right to expect Ministers to be more open too.

As a UN P5 Security Council member, Britain has an overdue duty to support the 15,000-strong UN mission in Mali, which was first established in 2013, and which the UN Secretary General says plays “a fundamental political and security role”.

There is significant humanitarian interest in Mali, with the UN estimating 6.8 million in need of humanitarian assistance, and over a quarter of a million people internally displaced.

There is significant development interest in Mali, with 78 per cent of the population living in poverty, 39 per cent of primary age children not in school and the country ranking 184 out of 188 on the UN human development index.

Above all, there is significant security interest in Mali, with al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups active in the region which the Government say have a terrorist reach beyond Africa into Europe.

In these circumstances, the questions about British troops in Mali abound. What role will they play? How will they contribute to the UN mandate? What risks do they face? How does this deployment contribute to the UK’s new strategic approach to sub-Saharan Africa? What are the criteria for a successful mission and bringing Britain’s troops home again?

The practice of accountability to the public via Parliament is decaying under this Government but it should remain a basic principle that no Defence Secretary commits British troops into a conflict zone before a full statement in the Commons so that MPs can secure answers to concerns about the mission and the service personnel.

The case for a new treason offence

27 Jul

The Government is preparing to overhaul Britain’s security laws, utilising work done on them by Sajid Javid when he was Home Secretary, which in turn drew on research by Policy Exchange.

We wait to see what the legislation contains, but the plans seem to fall into three parts.  First, an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act.  Second, an updating of the espionage laws, which will be carried out largely with state actors, such as China and Russia, in mind.  Third, a new treason offence.

Its origins lie in the return to Britain of Islamist terrorists who fought abroad with ISIS.  Ministers believe that the present legal framework isn’t fit for purpose if prosecutions are to be successful.  The recent Court of Appeal judgement on Shamima Begum’s case doubtless explains why we are reading about revised laws now.

At any rate, the original Policy Exchange proposal was supported by a former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd; a former head of MI5, Lord Evans; a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Judge, and former head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard, Richard Walton.

Tom Tugendhat, one of the authors of that report, Aiding the Enemy, was out and about in the Sunday Times yesterday, concentrating largely on espionage – and writing as he did so “pinstriped fixers, lawyers and silver-tongued svengalis are pocketing money” are doing the bidding of hostile foreign governments.

Meanwhile, Javid was busy in the Mail on Sunday, covering the same themes, and arguing that we need to repurpose “our ancient treason laws to cover Britons who operate on behalf of a hostile nation or go abroad to fight alongside terrorist groups”.

That would cover Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as ISIS and Al Qaeda.  It will doubtless be argued that Britain shouldn’t be in the business of legislating for loyalty oaths, or giving terror groups the same status as foreign governments.

But if you think about it, the loyalty oath claim is a red herring, since what would be required is not a pledge of allegiance to Britain, but the shunning of terror aimed at our troops or civilians.  (The form of words that Javid used would appear to cover fighting alongside terror groups, period – whether against British citizens or not.)

We expect that it will also be claimed that a new treason offence will be “bad for community relations” – i.e: that British Muslims will be opposed to it, though it will certainly go down well among others in Blue Wall seats, as we must now call them, and elsewhere.

A modernised treason offence would certainly be to the point.  Islamist extremism has no room within it for attachment to nation states – what matters is the worldwide community of Muslims, led from its present ignorance, as the extremists see it, to the politicised and ideological version of Islam which they themselves propagate.

(This use of religion rather than nationality as a catch-all definer explains why they identify Jews with Israel, by the way – despite the fact that not all Jews live there and many aren’t Zionists at all.  Hence the Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege in Paris in 2015, and the 2008 massacre at a Jewish outreach centre in Mumbai.)

We anticipate, too, that forcing lobbyists who work for foreign governments to register; toughening up rules on registering interests in the Lords or work undertaken by former Ministers, and slowing, say, the flow of Chinese money into our universities and civil society will also be resisted.  A sign of how much new measures are needed.

Where is the Conservatives’ Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission?

17 Jul

The Shamima Begum legal proceedings are a culture clash and a timely warning.

The clash lies in the gulf between metropolitan and provincial Britain.  The former’s take is audible, sophisticated and always liable find a sympathetic audience at some point in the courts.

At its core is the conviction that Begum is British – and that she should be tried here for any crimes she is alleged to have committed.

Those who hold it tend also to say that she was a child when she left the country to join ISIS; that she has renounced it, and that she is not a security risk.

The provincial view is less openly expressed, instinctively and reflexively held – and one to which the courts would resist.

It is that Begum betrayed her country when she travelled to support a terrorist group that seeks to destroy our way of life.  She therefore has no human or other right to the citizenship that the Government removed.

That’s not to say that the Supreme Court will necessarily find in her favour when it considers Ministers’ appeal against yesterday’s ruling by the Court of Appeal.

Sajid Javid argued when as Home Secretary he removed Begum’s citizenship that she would not be left stateless because would not be stateless because she could claim Bangladeshi nationality through her parents.

The Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that she should not be sent to Bangladesh or Iraq, where she was involved with ISIS, because she might face ill treatment.  You can imagine how that will go down in the Red Wall and elsewhere.

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission took a different view, and we will now have to see what the Supreme Court has to say.

Javid suggested yesterday that Begum is a threat to national security; that she is unlikely to be prosecuted in the courts if she is allowed back into Britain; that she will become a poster girl for Islamist extremism if this happens.

He also said that “the judgements and precedents set in this case could bind the hands of the Government in managing past and future cases”.

That some British citizens and others who also went to join ISIS have already returned here doesn’t mean that Javid is wrong.  It isn’t hard to see how yesterday’s judgement has wider implications.

It’s claimed that appeals are now likely to be lauched on behalf of 30 British women and 60 British children detained by the Kurdish authorities in Syria.

All of which raises the question of what is happening to the former ISIS terrorists who have already re-entered the country.

Some will be subject to Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (Tpims) – one of which may be slapped on Begum if she returns here.

These haven’t been proved to be watertight: readers may remember the case of Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed, who while disguised in a burka escaped the police tasked with monitoring him.

It’s tempting to believe that were the Human Rights Act to be recast and Britain’s membership of the ECHR revoked, judgements like yesterday’s wouldn’t be made.

The point can’t be proven one way or the other, but we suspect that any British court would be capable of making it whether we were signed up to the ECHR or not.

None the less, reforms to ensure that there is “a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government” would doubtless have an effect on the courts.

The words in quotes are from the Conservative general election manifesto.  We hope that they are acted upon.  Where is the Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission it promised “in our first year”?

At any rate, it is far from certain that Begum will actually return, whatever the Supreme Court decides.  So her story has more chapters to come.

The timely warning is bound up with a point we made only two days ago: today’s papers cover not only Begum’s court case, but Russian espionage claims – that it tried to hack into our Coronavirus vaccine research.

The timing is doubtless connected with the impending publication of the report next week into claims that Russia interfered with the 2016 general election and the 2017 EU referendum.

Our argument was that government shouldn’t focus on the threat to our security from China to the exclusion of those from Russia and Islamist extremists – who, as Gerry Adams once said of the IRA, “haven’t gone away, you know”.

Robert Halfon: Helping our friends and allies the Kurds – beacons of pluralism and democracy in the Middle East

15 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.  He is also is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Solidarity articles usually focus on why the world should help others, but this column starts with how our friends and allies in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq help the world.

Against considerable odds, Kurdistanis proudly promote religious pluralism and liberal democracy.

The Kurds were, and still are, decisive in opposing ISIS, which detests everything they stand for.  It is an extraordinary nation, that was a victim of Saddam Hussein’s genocide and now, is literally now holding the line against ISIS barbarism, is surrounded by enemies and is a vital ally of the free world. These are just a few reasons why I care so deeply about this region’s future.

As a people who know persecution and exile all too well, Kurdistan has generously hosted over a million refugees and displaced people in the last decade.

After decades of isolation, it craves connections to the developed world in trade, science, education and health. This small country of six million people, twice the size of Wales, has over 30 universities. I have had the privilege of visiting two of them, during my six visits to Kurdistan since 2010, and have seen the outstanding higher education they offer alongside the aspiration of students to get on the ladder of opportunity.

That is why the Kurdistan Region All-Party Parliamentary Group (which I chair) argues that the UK should recognise Kurdistani academic qualifications so students can pay to continue their education here and develop academic links. We are also encouraging UK aid for projects to alleviate mental illness, which is the bitter fruit of decades of genocide and war.

Kurdistanis are going to need great resilience for a painful reform process that needs tough-minded technical expertise from us and others as well as great efforts to overcome deep-seated internal divisions. Furthermore, they have to deal with Baghdad’s often hostile and hectoring stances. Baghdad leaders have regularly turned federal budgets on and off in centralist efforts to unconstitutionally constrain Kurdistan.

Many Iraqi Kurdistanis spent years in the UK, and John Major and Tony Blair are revered for helping save them from the genocides under Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) embraced parliamentary democracy after its 1991 uprising. KRG MPs tell me that they are anxious to develop a system of Select Committees, similar to the British House of Commons.

But Iraqi Kurdistan is still saddled with typical problems of the Middle East. That includes underdeveloped institutions and civil society, big state employment rolls, political patronage, and a small private sector.

I have seen their fortunes ebb and flow for myself on my visits.  Covid-19, however, is a huge game-changer. Decisive action initially limited deaths, but a second spike is sadly claiming even more lives.

The Coronavirus has also slashed oil prices and revenues that account for over 90 percent of Kurdistani and Iraqi incomes. This further widened Kurdistan’s spending deficit and deepened its debt. Public salaries have been reduced, more for higher than lower paid employees, but payments are now five months in arrears.

Oil prices may recover but their volatility is an enduring problem and highlights the need for radical economic diversification to boost light industry, agriculture, and mass tourism after Covid. There’s untapped potential in Kurdistan’s hills, mountains, ski resorts, and plains. It could become more self-sufficient in food.

Tourism from the Middle East was flourishing before the pandemic. However, the KRG would hugely benefit from many more western visitors to this safe and stable nation. Take my word for it: you will be bowled over by the stunning beauty of the countryside, its extraordinary heritage and the hospitality of the cities.

Solar power, wind power, and turning natural gas into electricity are feasible goals. Large Kurdistani gas reserves could eventually help both Iraq and Europe diversify their supplies, long a UK and EU policy goal. Kurdistani ministers are also developing a law on exploiting its minerals sector.

Baghdad has barely helped the Kurdistan Regional Government look after a million displaced Sunni Arabs from Mosul. An Iraqi parliamentary committee is mean-mindedly demanding the return of weaponry abandoned by the Iraqi Army when it fled from Daesh in Mosul in 2014. The Peshmerga used the kit against Daesh and much of it is spent.

The Kurdistanis are, however, yet again seeking to make Iraq work, with commendable imagination and pragmatism, and have senior positions in the new Iraqi government, whose Prime Minister seems to be keen on a deal.

Baghdad needs to adopt a Better Together approach so that it and Kurdistanis can build a reliable and institutionalised relationship based on the constitution rather than whim.

The historical reflex of kicking Kurdistanis for short-term popularity should be abandoned. It is high time Baghdad proved that it wants the Kurds to remain as equals or let them go their own way. It’s also high time that the UN used its good offices to broker agreements.

This matters to us all. The awkward relationship between Baghdad and Erbil means there is a swathe of ungoverned territory between their armies where Daesh is regrouping. Increasing military co-operation and using the competent Peshmerga can stop Daesh gaining footholds that will then cost more in lives and defence spending to regain.

A reliable compact between Erbil and Baghdad is vital to UK interests and our policy of supporting a strong KRG within a strong unified Iraq.

As if that’s not enough, a wave of Turkish bombings against the PKK has killed Kurdistani civilians, made many villages uninhabitable, and disrupted the economy. The KRG rightly says that neither Turkey nor the PKK should infringe its territorial integrity. But a political solution is the key.

The Kurdistan Region has been pummeled by multiple economic, political, security, and humanitarian crises in the last decade and suffered much more in the previous century. Geopolitical volatility, see-sawing oil revenues, and regional power-plays are the norm for a people at the heart of the Middle East vortex.

Our friends in Kurdistan deserve more attention in our developing foreign and security policy as the Middle East matters massively to global peace and economics as well as emerging rivalries between the democratic and authoritarian worlds.

The world needs Kurdistan to survive and thrive as a decent and progressive beacon of hope in the Middle East.