Tuesday, 29 December 2015

David Cameron's Britain is many things. Christian, it is not.

I don't pretend to be a Christian. But through my time, particularly at Primary School, I felt I had quite a Judeo-Christian upbringing. The Biblical stories and teachings that were read to us in assemblies. Though I did not grow up to be particularly religious (bar the celebration of some Jewish ceremonies such as Passover, which I still celebrate with my family to this day) many of my values and beliefs that I hold today owe at least some influence to those teachings.

These were then reaffirmed for me when I learned more about Christianity and its teachings in Religious Studies at Secondary School. For any faults, many of these values of Christianity that I learned in Primary School remained consistent with what I later learned. It is these values that I believe, at least in part, my sense of fair play, compassion, and good will to others stems from. Granted, I am more of an agnostic, and in many ways my parental upbringing was probably more humanist, but I do believe that the influence of hearing these biblical stories and teachings in primary school also contributed to shaping my values.

And it is my personal view, that based on this, Cameron's Britain is fundamentally NOT Christian.

This is not to say that I believe Christianity and Conservatism to be fundamentally incompatible. Indeed, I believe One Nation Conservatism (that's true One Nation Conservatism, not what Cameron and co. claim to be) can be very in tune with Christian values. An emphasis on social obligation, rather than selfish individualism. To look after those less fortunate than yourself. That the ruling classes should not be indifferent to the people's suffering, precisely because such indifference would bring about an unstable society and the possibility of revolution - the very last thing a conservative wants.

And yet, when I look at Christian Today writer Harry Farley's recent article in The Indepndent recently, I cannot help agreeing with one thing: that David Cameron's Christmas message is utter hypocrisy.

He references those in refugee camps in the Middle East - those same refugees who he flatly refused to admit into the country until the public outcry over the summer. Whom he reluctantly agreed we would take 20,000 of in 5 years - less than Germany takes in a month.

He says we should pay tribute to the doctors and nurses who work over the Christmas period to help the vulnerable - those same doctors and nurses whom he has given another pay freeze for the next four years, while large corporations get a tax cut. Those same doctors who are being forced to work more unsociable hours for no extra pay.

He refers to Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace, and that his birth representing peace is important for us to remember as a Christian country. This is without a hint of irony, having just referred to the UK's bombing of Iraq and Syria in the previous paragraph, and without even touching on his government's arming of violent, right-abusing regimes such as Saudi Arabia.

This is not about me claiming that my own ideological viewpoint can claim to be more fundamentally 'Christian' than David Cameron's (though Jeremy Corbyn makes a good argument for the links between Christianity and socialism here).

Indeed, as I have stated above, there are strands of conservatism I believe to be very much in tune with the values of Christianity that Cameron himself highlights.

But, as with Cameron and his party's claim to be governing 'in the spirit of One Nation', his claim to be governing a Christian country is, as far as I am concerned, just that; a claim. Nothing more.

Rhetoric does not always correspond to reality. You can apply this to much in today's society - the way a hostile media (and government) demonises benefit claimants to the point that the public believe nearly a quarter of all claimants are fraudulent (the reality is less than 1%), to the belief that immigrants come here to exploit the benefit system, or make up nearly a third of the population (the reality is immigrants pay in to the economy more than they take out and recent immigrants make up less than a quarter of the population).

Cameron's Britain is arguably many things. You could call it pragmatic. You could call it tough. You could call it socially liberal (though I believe that is more down to previous Labour governments and Liberal Democrat influence with the Conservative Party tailing behind, rather than active willingness on their part).

You could say that it encourages hard work (though I think the word to describe much of this government's efforts to get people into work would be 'punitive').

But for David Cameron and the Conservative Party to govern this country in the way that they have, and then claim to be governing a 'Christian' country, is both a disgraceful hypocrisy, and an insult to the values that Cameron, in his Christmas message, purports to represent.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

I respect those with different views. But bombing Syria was STILL the wrong call.

 The blog post I shared last night/in the early hours of this morning has caused a fair amount of discussion and debate, which I welcome. I should clarify one thing though:

While I like and respect many of the MPs - specifically Labour MPs - that voted in favour of air strikes - I profoundly disagree with them.

Joining the bombing campaign will not make us safer. Cameron's claim of there being 70,000 'moderate' Syrian fighters ready to seize ground that Daesh would lose as a result of the air strikes is deeply questionable, has been falling apart by the day, and looks set to be the equivalent to Tony Blair's '45 minutes' claim. As Tory MP Dr Julian Lewis put it, with Iraq we had a dodgy dossier - now there are 'bogus battalions'.

Whereas the bombing campaign in Iraq has the Kurdish fighters who were able to seize ground and we were able to plausibly treat as allied ground troops to take the ISIS territories that were bombed, with Syria we have nowhere near that kind of guarantee.

Many of the 70,000 Cameron has referred to are more interested in fighting the Syrian dictator, President Assad, than fighting ISIS. Assad however, is also fighting ISIS, and Vladimir Putin is a key ally of Assad. Both are opposed to ISIS.

Two years ago, the House Of Commons voted against action in Syria to remove Assad, because despite him being a brutal dictator that has killed more Syrians than Daesh, there was no guarantee that taking him out and destabilising the region wouldn't hand much of it to Daesh, in much the same way as happened in Libya with Gaddaffi.

By bombing IS in Syria, are we now by proxy helping Assad, who is still arguably the enemy?

If we do take the fight to Assad instead, are we helping IS? And one thing is certain - whether we are or not, getting rid of Assad at this stage could leave us in a proxy war with Russia.

Boots on the ground of some description are arguably needed, but putting British or other types of Western troops directly on the ground further feeds Daesh's narrative against the West.

So this would suggest we should be using boots on the ground of countries from the surrounding region, as with Iraq. Again, with Syria, there is much more uncertainty in that regard.

So, what is the remaining solution left?

As Jeremy Corbyn​ and Yannis Varoufakis have highlighted, a political solution (which is making signficant progress thaks to the Vienna talks), and to economically starve ISIS. Where are they getting their money from? Who buys oil from them? Where do they get their arms from?

Countries that are found to be funding IS should be sanctioned. We should not sell arms to them. We should cut off as much means as possible of their funding.

Is it quick? No. Is it simple? No.

Will innocent Syrians still die if we don't bomb? Yes. IS and Assad will still be there in the meantime.

Is it better than bombing in the meantime? Clearly, the majority of the House of Commons thinks no. I respect the views of many who do, but I respectfully and profoundly disagree.

France deserves our solidarity and moral support, but as Gerald Kaufman MP (Labour) said, we should not be killing innocent civilians for the sake of a gesture. As Toby Perkins MP (Labour) said, one of the kindest things you can do for a friend in their moment of torment is ask if they're really sure the action they are taking is the right one.

Am I 100% confident in this view? No, of course not. The Middle East and the situation there is incredibly unpredicatable and the situation is constantly changing. But as things currently stand, it is my belief that Parliament got it wrong last night, and that many MPs who voted for will come to regret it.

That is not to say the decision not to bomb makes the 223 MPs who took that decision morally superior, or that they would not have to live with the consequences of such a decision. As Shabana Mahmood MP (Labour) said, "if only the world were that simple. There are consequences and innocent people will die through action and in-action. Whatever we do tonight we will all bear a measure of responsibility."

As Jess Phillips MP (Labour) said, she did not sleep any more soundly last night having voted against air strikes.

But I have a horrible feeling Parliament got it wrong, and that last night's decision will come back to haunt us.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Parliament Votes on Syria......

Tonight, MPs voted by 397 to 223 to authorise UK air strikes against so-called Islamic State in Syria.

I am of the opinion that this is the wrong decision, and I am grateful to my MP, Sadiq Khan​, for voting against, along with many MPs including the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn​.

There was significant division within Labour over this, in the shadow cabinet and much of the Parliamentary Labour Party as a whole, as to whether the party should or should not back air strikes. In the end, Corbyn granted his MPs a free vote.

Many Labour MPs who I have a great deal of time and respect for voted with the government tonight. Among them are people such as Stella Creasy​, Tom Watson​ (The Deputy Leader, whom I voted for), and Hilary Benn​, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, and son of the great Tony Benn​, who many will have seen in recent weeks in a recent speech circulating, showing him opposing a government motion to bomb Iraq in 1998.

I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed in them having made the decision that they made. But I also appreciate that the decision as to whether or not to take military action is one of the toughest choices Members of Parliament ever have to make, and NO-ONE - whether on the Labour or Tory benches - took this decision lightly. They will have weighed up the pros and cons, they will have consulted party members, their constituents, experts on Daesh and the region, migrants and refugees who hail from Syria - all sorts. And yes, some of them will have come to a different decision than myself, most of the Labour Party, and a plurality of people in the country at large.

 Stella Creasy agonised over this decision, and was rewarded for it by people protesting ouside her actual house late last night in Walthamstow. By people phoning her office in Parliament and verbally abusing her staff - earlier in the day she had to duck in and out of the House of Commons Chamber because of it.
I don't agree with the decision she in the end took, but that is disgusting behaviour. MPs expect to be lobbied on issues such as this, but people should not be conducting themselves in that manner. THAT is intimidating, and it's wrong.

Tom Watson is by no means a Blairite (despite what some party members, and even newspaper commentators, have recently claimed). He was in fact partly responsible for ending Tony Blair's career as Prime Minister.
However he did vote for the Iraq War, and he has had to live with the consequences of that decision. If he did not do so before, he will especially now, take any decision with regard to military action any time it is proposed incredibly seriously, and weigh it up very, very carefully. Especially as the elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, he has a responsibility to do so, not just as an appointed, but elected member of the shadow cabinet.
Despite his support for military action in this case, he has stood by and supported Jeremy Corbyn throughout his leadership, asked for a two-day debate (which may well have caused support among MPs and the wider public to fall, given more time to weigh up the decision), and questioned the Prime Minister's assertion that there are 70,000 'moderate' Syrian fighters who could seize ISIS territory in the wake of air strikes.

And finally, comes Hilary Benn.

I am a great admirer of his father, Tony Benn. Although he was before my time, I have learned a lot about him over the past few years. I own a copy of the film 'Tony Benn: Will and Testament', that documents his life and interviewed him in his final days. Every single time I watch it, there are moments in that fim that move me to tears. Though many of some of Benn's followers and supporters in the 1980s probably contributed to some of the divisions in the Labour Party (which is not to say that the right of the Party were not also culpable), Benn himself was a man of honesty, principle, respect, kindness, and peace. He was always unfailingly kind, and it is my belief that Benn was one of the greatest parliamentarians there ever was.

Hilary Benn is not his father. He has never tried to pretend otherwise. He does not share all of his father's views, such as on military action or on the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. He has often said that he is a proud member of the Benn family, but he is note a Bennite.

But he is no trigger-happy militarist.

In 2013, when the House Of Commons voted decisively against bombing Syria, in order to remove President Assad, Hilary Benn was one of the key figures who persauded then-leader Ed Miliband NOT to back miliatry action.

Benn is not a Blairite, and though not to the same extent as his father, or Jeremy Corbyn, he is still on the left of the Labour Party.

Despite this, one of the greatest allies of, and one of the unifying forces in the Parliamentary Labour Party, since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, has been Hilary Benn.

Benn and Corbyn disagreed on this issue. And yes, that raises questions about what would have happned were they in government, but there is a very different dynamic between a Prime Minister disagreeing with his foreign secretary, and a Leader of the Opposition, who, as well as being elected partly because of his scepticism of Western Interventon, was also elected promising a kinder, gentler, more inclusive politics, had promised to put together an inclusive shadow cabinet, and prmosied a politcs which wasn't just top-down, with the leader issuing orders from above.

I do not think Corbyn handled the way in which he got to giving his MPs a free vote particularly well. But that is another matter entirely.

Despite these disagreements, Hilary Benn has remained loyal to Jeremy Corbyn, and when the Prime Minister referred to Corbyn, and other MPs who intended on voting agains air strikes, as 'terrorist-sympathisers', he joined the call on Cameron to apologise for such childish, insulting remarks, that demeaned his office.

Even in his speech in the Commons supporting taking military action, Benn praised Corbyn, and highlighted once again that he is a man of principle, and it is perfectly possible for people of principle to take a different view. He spoke of Labour values, of internationalism, of combatting fascism, of solidarity. He spoke of previous Labour leaders and governments that had taken part in that fight, against the Nazis, and in working together with other countries to found the United Nations.

By all accounts, regardless of what side of the debate you sat on, Hilary Benn made one of the most remarkable speeches ever given by a parliamentarian tonight. He spoke with passion, clarity, determination, and commitment. And while I am deeply uncomfortable with what it was Benn was actually arguing for, and the fact that the House Of Commons broke long-established tradition in applauding, there is no doubt that the power of such a speech deserved recognition. Even Hilary's father never quite managed applause from all sides of the House.

Now, here comes the criticism of Hilary. At the (completely justified) protest outside Parliament asking that we Don't Bomb Syria, one of the chants apparently heard was 'Hilary Benn, shame on you!'

Other people have said since the vote that Tony Benn would be turning in his grave, and would be ashamed of his son for what he has done tonight.

While I understand the strength of feeling of those that, like me, oppose air strikes in Syria, then on this point, I respectfully disagree.

Tony Benn was a great man. He was a devout believer in peace, in the power of politics. One of his greatest quotations was that 'If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people.'

I have no doubt that Tony would have disagreed ferociously with his son and the action that he chose to support tonight.

But he would not be ashamed.

Tony Benn had the utmost respect for his fellow human beings. He respected that others - including in his own family - held different points of view to his own. But he loved them, and loved other people in the Labour family, all the same. One of his greatest friendships towards the end of his life was with one of his political rivals on the right of the party, Denis Healey.

Though he would not have agreed with the reasoning, or most of the content, of his son's speech tonight, then he would have been immensely proud.

Proud that his son is an MP at all. Proud that his son is an MP for the same party as him - one that they both love. Proud that he has progressed so much over the years that he has been in Parliament. Proud that he is now the Shadow Foreign Secretary and that he therefore, may one day, be the Foreign Secretary for Great Britain.

And proud that he made one of the greatest speeches of any parliamentarian in history tonight, whatever your politics. You may disagree with what it was arguing for. Believe me, I do, and seeing MPs applaud it knowing what it was for makes me deeply uncomfortable.

But conversely, I am also very, very proud to be a part of the same political party, the same great British institution, as Hilary Benn, after that speech. He may not want the job, but that was the speech of a leader. And though I utterly disagree with him on this on this individual issue, I think he is still doing a fantastic job.

And do you know what? So does Jeremy Corbyn. Because despite that fierce disagreement, he has not gotten rid of Benn, he has not replaced him, nor asked him to resign, and he has not been rude or unkind to his best friend's son - and indeed, his friend - in any way, shape or form.

MPs voted by 397 to 223 to authorise air strikes tonight. Just 67 (out of a possible 232) Labour MPs voted with the government tonight, with significant Tory rebellions (otherwise the motion would not have needed cross-party support anyway).

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: even if EVERY single Labour MP had marched through the 'No' lobby tonight, we would still be going to war. The government had a majority of over 170 for this vote, so the vast majority of votes in favour came from Tory, Lib Dem, and DUP MPs (all of which were whipped in favour of military action). And remember that it was a Conservative government that pur forward this proposal, not the Labour Party.

Hilary Benn, Tom Watson, Stella Creasy, and many other Labour MPs that I deeply like and respect will have to live with the consequences of their actions tonight.

As I have said elsewhere, and could highlight in an entirely separate blog post, I do not believe that bombing Syria will make us any safer from a terrorist attack by Daesh. I do not believe that we will make things much better by joining the bombing campaign in Syria, and I do not believe we should be joining it just out of solidarity with our allies in France - as Gerald Kaufman MP highlighted, it is not worth putting the lives of innocent people at risk for the sake of a gesture.

But I utterly respect that MPs like Hilary Benn have come to a different conclusion with this very difficult decision.

And as Shabana Mahmood, Labour MP and Sunni Muslim (who voted against air strikes) pointed out:

"There has been some suggestion in the last day or so that when the time for apportioning blame comes, those who have voted in favour will have to step forward and there will be nowhere to hide. If you vote against, as I will, the implication is that you can avoid the blame. To those who think this way, let me say this: if only the world were that simple. There are consequences and innocent people will die through action and in-action. Whatever we do tonight we will all bear a measure of responsibility."

Simply saying #NotInMyName isn't good enough. Innocent people in Syria will still have died no matter what decision Parliament took tonight. And if it transpired that there were Syrian people who could have been saved from Daesh had Britain taken action but who died because we did not, then those MPs that voted against would also have to live with the consequences of that.

It is often said that 'the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.'

Does that mean that I agree with what Parliament has done tonight? No, of course not. And I do not believe that every time there is a terrorist attack somewhere, the West should continue to take the knee-jerk reaction of just bombing what they believe to be the source of said attack. Such attempts have not met with great success over the last 14 years of the war on terror, and I do not expect them to now.

But this was not clear-cut. MPs thought long and hard, and gave very, very careful consideration to the decision they made tonight, on all sides of the political spectrum, and while I profoundly disagree with them, I will not hold it against them.

Regardless, the language on social media, and through other forms of communication, referring to MPs as warmongers, Tories, sending them pictures of dead children, and verbally abusing them or their friends or staff, is simply unacceptable.

Especially to those on the Labour side, let me say this: we are ALL Labour. The decision that 67 MPs made tonight does not make them any less Labour, or any less morally good, or respectable, than they were before. Whether Blairite, Brownite, Old Right, Left or Soft Left, they have all spent their lives opposing the Tories and have always strived to do what they believe is right.

I believe history will look back and judge that this was a night that Parliament - not the Labour Party, but Parliament - got it very wrong. But if that is to happen, then that is something for MPs and Parliament to reckon with for themselves. They nevertheless took the decision in good faith, and with the intention of keeping us, their constituents, the people of this country, safe.

That is not a reason to condemn, abuse, insult, threaten, or even deselect - ANY of the MPs that made that choice.