Given the nature and scale of the challenges facing the world, the financial crisis, global warming, the future of the EU, Russia and the crises in the Middle East, the need for courageous bold leadership and dynamic politics gets ever more desperate. Sadly the last twelve months in British politics have highlighted this glaring absence, the dearth of talent and ideas, a trend dangerously repeated across the globe.
Twelve months ago, the United Kingdom came desperately close to losing Scotland largely thanks to a negative and ill-thought out pro-union campaign that eventually has led to the crushing victory of the Scottish Nationalists at the general elections in May this year. These elections were similarly lackluster, highly negative and devoid of any compelling vision for the country let alone debate about events beyond its shores. The anti-Westminster sentiment has just grown and grown. May’s general elections did little to push back the tide.
The leadership elections for the Labour party, the main opposition, have so far been more akin to the sort of backbiting at a town council meeting not the election for the leadership of one of Britain’s largest parties.
Those in the Middle East may be best advised not to wait for Western states to help sort out their problemsChris Doyle
The Labour leadership election is a four horse race with no thoroughbreds. Many Labour party supporters appear dejected and disappointed clinging to the hope that any elected leader may be replaced before the 2020 election.
The policy debate is lame to non-existent. The modern politicians seems brilliant at saying as little as possible of real substance with the aim of offending the least number of people possible. Meaningless soundbites follow yet more bland proclamations.
So should this trouble those in the Middle East? Well yes. Uncertainty about Britain’s role in the world is not helpful. At its best Britain has driven EU foreign policy and tempered the extremes in Washington with thoughtful, informed policy decisions. At its worst…well sadly one is spoilt for choice.
Britain has been involved in wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan so far this century. As a U.N. Security Council member it was party to the Iran deal. It was one of the largest donors assisting the Syrians. It has a Prime Minister, David Cameron whose primary foreign policy focus at present is the defeat of ISIS and Islamic extremism. His efforts on this front are to put it generously, mixed.
And yet on all these issues not to mention the other crises besetting the Middle East, both at the General and Labour leadership elections no politicians have truly proposed any radical or even semi-thought out proposals for tackling these crises. For the most part candidates are wary of exposing their own ignorance of the region and foreign affairs in general. None of the four has articulated a serious strategy to take on ISIS for example.
Understanding Jeremy Corbyn
The exception is that of the hard left wing candidate, Jeremy Corbyn who has electrified up the race. Despite barely getting enough Labour Members of Parliament to back him to become a candidate, he is now according to the polls the clear favorite to win – the result to be announced on September 12. He appears to have attracted support because he is an atypical modern politician who speaks with clarity and conviction.
His policies hark back to the 1980s – he is anti-austerity Syriza-style, pro-nationalization, wants to exit NATO, get rid of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and is a diehard opponent of wars and arms sales. He opposed what he sees as the illegal Iraq war of 2003 and thinks former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, may have to answer charges of war crimes.
The Corbyn surge has happened to the sounds of severe cranium scratching in the Labour party's establishment whilst Conservative politicians are spending their summer holidays in total rapture a Corbyn-led Labour will leave them in power for one if not two more elections.
Understanding Corbyn’s success is instructive. His consistent anti-war stance and pro-Palestinian positions have served him well. The British public is tired of wars and remains largely appalled by Israeli actions. Many agree with him that the UK would be safer if it stopped following U.S. foreign policy. The Labour party won a large segment of the Muslim vote in May, perhaps an extra eight seats according to one study, not least because it had backed recognition for Palestine and had opposed Israel’s land invasion of Gaza. Other candidates are nervous of speaking out. Liz Kendall, the Blairite candidate, even regretted Labour voted for the recognition of Palestine.
Whilst there has been no serious debate on these issues, Corbyn’s campaign has had to fend off serious charges of associating with racists and anti-Semites, something he rejects. His suitability has boiled down to his comments about his “friends” from Hamas and Hizbollah, and what associations he had with someone who is now an open holocaust denier and anti-Semite.
But I have known Jeremy Corbyn for many years and although I disagree with him on many issues, I am sure he is not in the least bit anti-Semitic. Nevertheless greater care should have been taken over whom he met and some of the expressions used. Corbyn never expected to be in the limelight and was not surrounded with the usual coteries of political chaperones to protect him from upcoming landmines.
Sadly there are some in the Palestinian movement who are truly anti-Semitic. In fact historically, anti-Semites have done massive damage to the Palestinian cause (as well as Arthur Balfour, who first promised Palestine to the Zionist movement and the anti-Jewish Christian right in the US as well). There is insufficient criticism of the actions, policies and statements of both Hamas and Hezbollah. For example, too few have condemned Hezbollah’s actions in Syria and out and out support for the Assad regime.
Yet there is a woeful and dangerous double standard and some have argued, there is a whiff of McCarthyism to this. Corbyn rightly has to answer questions on his views and links. But in all these elections, rarely has such an intrusive examination given to those with links to disreputable organizations and people, not least Islamophobes, those who failed to condemn the bombing of Gaza, the illegal settlement in the West Bank or those who have denigrated and dehumanized refugees and asylum seekers. Hate speech and bigotry is on the rise but it is not only anti-Semitism.
The lessons from Britain’s elections are that politics is failing. Not just in Britain but also across the EU and the United States, our political systems are not fit for purpose. They no longer attract the best strategists and brightest minds. (Donald Trump anyone?). The media is designed to advance petty, trivial, negative campaigning that chews over the minutiae of personal lives including what are their favorite biscuits, with little focus on political vision and strategy. Nowhere is this more painfully felt in international relations. Parochial politics simply cannot work for a globalized world.
Those in the Middle East may be best advised not to wait for Western states to help sort out their problems.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has traveled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.