Pilger’s Root Causes of Terrorism – Part II

Part I of this post discussed Iraq. He fingers the invasion of that country as the root cause of ISIL and hence the atrocities in Paris:

‘ISIS is the progeny of those in Washington, London and Paris who, in conspiring to destroy Iraq, Syria and Libya, committed an epic crime against humanity. Like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ISIS are the mutations of a western state terror dispensed by a venal imperial elite undeterred by the consequences of actions taken at great remove in distance and culture. Their culpability is unmentionable in “our” societies, making accomplices of those who suppress this critical truth.’

The invasion created these forces and thus ISIS. He downplays that sectarianism was a force in Iraq before the invasion. The sectarian fanaticism that drives the movement is a novel phenomenon, of recent provenance. But we found no plausible reason for accepting his claims. ISIS’s anti-Shia fanaticism cannot be explained if we make no reference to sectarianism in Iraq as a fact of life in the country before 2003. Indeed, Pilger’s refusal to accept the power of sectarianism in Iraq mirrors that of the US invaders, who likewise ignored this reality, to their cost. The invasion unleashed these forces rather than created them but that is not an argument Pilger wants to accept as it leads to the inevitable conclusion that only dictator can keep these forces in check. But since Pilger condemned the US and UK for backing Saddam in the 1980s, he cannot bring himself to accept that.

Iraq and Syria are linked. In the first, we overthrew a dictator and many Muslims died. In the second, we have not overthrown a dictator. But many Muslims are dying. But we are responsible for that, too, citing a ‘leaked’ UK-US intelligence file, the chaos is down to our making:

“In order to facilitate the action of liberative [sic] forces… a special effort should be made to eliminate certain key individuals [and] to proceed with internal disturbances in Syria. CIA is prepared, and SIS (MI6) will attempt to mount minor sabotage and coup de main [sic] incidents within Syria, working through contacts with individuals… a necessary degree of fear… frontier and [staged] border clashes [will] provide a pretext for intervention… the CIA and SIS should use… capabilities in both psychological and action fields to augment tension.”

Never mind the alleged document was written in 1957 (!), according to Pilger, ‘it could have been written yesterday. In the imperial world, nothing essentially changes. In 2013, the former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas revealed that “two years before the Arab spring”, he was told in London that a war on Syria was planned. “I am going to tell you something,” he said in an interview with the French TV channel LPC, “I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business. I met top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria… Britain was organising an invasion of rebels into Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer Minister for Foreign Affairs, if I would like to participate… This operation goes way back. It was prepared, preconceived and planned.”’

This is a strange claim. Why would senior British officials have asked Dumas ‘to participate’ in an organised rebel invasion of the country? Him personally? He’s no spring chicken (he’s 93). Pilger gives the impression that Dumas had power and authority. That is what one is lead to believe if he was asked ‘to participate.’ But, in 2009, he was a political nobody. He had nothing to offer. He had neither men nor money to hand to support such a scheme. He was last Foreign Minister in 1993 and left the French government in 1999. What resources did he have which the British would have wanted him to contribute in 2009? Apart from that, Dumas doesn’t name the senior officials concerned and gives no explanation for why it took him four years to go public (and two years after the civil war in Syria broke out). Pilger, a veteran investigative reporter, seems remarkably credulous when repeating Dumas’ claims.

The claim that the Syrian civil war is nothing of the kind but an invasion of terrorists has met widespread acceptance on the left. Assad brands all his opponents as terrorists and Pilger agrees.

‘The only effective opponents of ISIS are accredited demons of the west – Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and now Russia. The obstacle is Turkey, an “ally” and a member of Nato, which has conspired with the CIA, MI6 and the Gulf medievalists to channel support to the Syrian “rebels”, including those now calling themselves ISIS.’

Why would they do that? Because: ‘Supporting Turkey in its long-held ambition for regional dominance by overthrowing the Assad government beckons a major conventional war and the horrific dismemberment of the most ethnically diverse state in the Middle East.’

There has indeed been western interference in Syria’s civil war. The Americans admitted they had spent $500 million dollars training ‘moderate’ Assad rebels only to have them melt away in their first fire fight with ISIS, leaving their expensive American kit behind for good measure. How many rebels are we talking about? Fifty – not exactly the sort of numbers to raise hell. Against that, ISIS has some 30,000 fighters. There is no doubt foreign interference has added fuel to the fire but it did not necessarily light the fire in the first place. Pilger doesn’t agree all foreign interference is bad. We are told that Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are the only ‘effective’ opponents of ISIL. So, presumably, some foreign interference is a good thing. Pilger is not only inconsistent here but just plain wrong in downplaying the role of these powers play in making the war worse. But we will deal with this in our final post.

But Pilger misses the point. There is massive evidence that what started as a peaceful uprising in Syria in 2011 swiftly degenerated into a civil war. It may be that some of these protests were violent but Assad meted out violent relation against peaceful and violent dissidents alike. Assad is not besieged by foreign terrorists but many of his own people. Outside powers have interfered. Foreign fighters/terrorists have flocked to the anti-Assad cause. But they have taken advantage of a situation Assad created – namely, his merciless attempt to crush all opposition, peaceful or otherwise.

Before 2011, Syria’s repressive reputation and its intolerance of any form of dissident was notorious. It’s not difficult to imagine that the slide in to civil war was a lot down to the regime’s failure to contain internal dissent, despite its fearsome security apparatus. Pilger would have us believe that sectarianism in Iraq was irrelevant or marginal before the 2003 invasion. In Syria, he would have us believe that the regime presided over a placid, contented population before 2011. If that is so, then that means that outsiders can whip up Iraqis and Syrians into a murderous rage against their fellows, in the absence of any real grievance or divisions to exploit.

Any theory, including Pilger’s own, needs to explain what’s going on. If there is some master plan to overthrow Assad, then how come the American military effort in Syria has mostly been directed against ISIS, one of the rebels which it allegedly has been ‘conspired’ to ‘channel’ support? Thousands of sorties have been flown and not one Syrian government or military target has been hit. This leaves a hole in Pilger’s theory. Not he seems to notice. It’s not the only one.

As for the conspiracy to aid and abet Turkey in its alleged drive for regional dominance? Then how come the greatest US effort in Syria made so far was in defending the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, an effort Erdogan refused to support, clearly preferring the town to fall to ISIL rather than the Syrian Kurds, refusing even to allow US planes to use Turkish airbases.

Pilger and Assad claim that NATO backs ‘terrorists’, the catch-all term for Assad’s opponents. But NATO is not a homogenous entity. In Kobane, the US and Turkey, nominally part of the same alliance, were at loggerheads with one another. The US bombed ISIS (Assad’s opponents) to support the Kurds (also Assad’s opponents). ‘NATO’ here was simultaneously backing and opposing the Kurds, the Americans by bombing ISIL and the Turks by refusing to throw a lifeline. ISIS and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia are both enemies of Assad but in Kobane were the deadliest of foes.

The complexities don’t end there. Pilger overlooks that Turkey’s relationship with Assad was cordial and it was Assad’s violent crackdown which estranged Erdogan from the Assad regime. To speak of Turkey seeking regional dominance overlooks its tendency to pursue good relationships with western rivals like Iran and its refusal to participate in the American invasion of Iraq.

None of these nuances receive the proper attention they deserve. The simple, binary ‘Assad v terrorists’ narrative simply does not capture the myriad complexities of an intractable conflict. In any conflict, especially in the midst of a civil war, especially this civil war, it is impossible to draw a neat partition between the good guys and the bad guys. Many Syrians are prepared to fight and die for Assad, after all. But Pilger seems to make no effort to think the issues through and instead constructs a narrative where the black hats, like a good old fashioned western film, are worn by the West and its allies and the white ones perched unconvincingly on the heads of Assad and Putin.

Pilger’s blind spot is his failure to acknowledge that actors like Turkey and ISIS are local actors with local motives. He doubtless accepts that description of Assad (as I do) not but not of his opponents. This depends on the fallacy that allies of the West are puppets of the West. We saw in the second post how Turkey has not toed the Americans’ line. The same goes for puppets like Israel and Saudi Arabia.  For years the left postulated the inevitability of a US led war against Iran. This had some plausibility under the Bush administration but precious little under Obama, who has made strenuous efforts to broker a settlement regarding that country’s nuclear programme. This was in the teeth of opposition from Israel and Saudi Arabia, to the extent that Israeli premier Netanyahu lobbied the US Congress and Senate to undermine the agreement Obama brokered.

How does Pilger account for this? He doesn’t. He ignores it, presumably in the interests of creating a Manichean analysis. Instead, he posits the existence of a cabal of imperial plotters working in ruthless, coordinated unison, ignoring contrary evidence of real and serious divisions among the West and its allies which are not just tactical but principled.

Nonetheless, it is true that we nearly did bomb Assad in 2013. But that doesn’t actually do much for Pilger’s case. When we consider the matter, using the logic Pilger uses, then we will see that perhaps by failing to bomb Assad, we made a massive mistake. We’ll discuss that in the final post.









Pilger’s Root Causes of Terrorism – Part I


There is a lot of argument about the root causes of what happened in Paris on Friday 13 November. John Pilger, writing an opinion piece on the Stop the War website, thinks he knows. To say that the man attracts a lot of dislike is to put it mildly. Still, he makes claims and arguments and these need to be discussed, and not simply dismissed with a brusque epithet. So this post is going to be long, and divided into three parts. It’s not a critique of Pilger personally but of his ideas, ideas which are widely shared. I am not interested in hatchet jobs. I am interested in taking the axe to bad ideas. That is the reason that drives me to write this piece. Part I will discuss the role of Iraq and the US-UK. Part II will discuss Syria. Part III will discuss what Pilger thinks should done about it. The use of his surname should be seen as a reference to the ideas he expresses; bad ideas, bad because poorly thought out, bad because pernicious, all the more so because the people who hold them think they have the moral high ground. But they don’t.

Naturally, the roots go back to Iraq. Writing on the Stop the War website (which the website presents as an op-ed, though it probably reflects what a lot of its staff and supporters think), he lays the blame for the rise of the Islamic State (and by extension responsibility for all its crimes) on Bush and Blair:

‘By most scholarly measure, Bush and Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the deaths of at least 700,000 people – in a country that had no history of jihadism. The Kurds had done territorial and political deals; Sunni and Shia had class and sectarian differences, but they were at peace; intermarriage was common … Bush and Blair blew all this to bits. Iraq is now a nest of jihadism… ISIS is the progeny of those in Washington, London and Paris who, in conspiring to destroy Iraq, Syria and Libya, committed an epic crime against humanity … [a] horrific dismemberment of the most ethnically diverse state in the Middle East.’

France, of course, opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the invasion of Iraq unleashed a hurricane of violence as the country tore itself apart on sectarian lines. Why? Why did the invasion set off not just one but several wars, with Sunni and Shia fighting the Americans as well as each other – savagely? If it was an insignificant fact of Iraqi life before 2003, then the subsequent intercommunal savagery we saw post-2003 simply cannot be explained.

However, not all on the anti-war left duck the issue. Patrick Cockburn, in his book ‘The Occupation, War and Resistance in Iraq’ details how exiled Iraqi opposition, in their efforts to entice the Americans to finish the job they started in 1991, deliberately downplayed sectarianism in the country. They talked in the same way that some of the war’s critics do. Cockburn says:

‘Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein were inclined to underestimate the extent to which their country was divided by deep sectarian or ethnic fault lines’. Iraqi exiles, drawn from the ranks of the secular middle class, had lost touch with realities in the country since their departure. But, Cockburn goes on, there was a further compelling motive for exiles to downplay sectarianism:

‘The Shia leaders knew that a reason why the US-led coalition had not overthrown Saddam Hussein in 1991 was the fear that he would be replaced by a Shia regime allied to Iran … After the crushing of the uprising of 1991 opponents of Saddam by and large came to realise that the only certain way to get rid of the regime in Iraq was for the US to launch a second war against it – and this time go all the way to Baghdad. The Americans were not likely to do this if they knew that the main beneficiary of Saddam’s overthrow was going to be the Shia allies of the Iranian regime’. (pp. 93-94) Relying on Iraqi exiles for their intelligence meant that the Americans ‘did not understand in 2003 the extent to which Iraq – and this was true of both Shia and Sunni – was a highly religious country …’ It took them a while to wake up:

‘Exaggerating the influence of secular Iraqi leaders and underestimating that of religious leaders was to be a recurrent theme of the US occupation. When it supposedly handed over sovereignty in June 2004, Washington backed Iyad Allawi, the former Baathist and leader of the Iraqi National Accord, as interim Prime Minister. It was only after Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi [an Iraqi exile who did much to downplay the sectarian divide] did so badly in the election December 15 2005 … that the US seems to have appreciated the weakness of the secular anti-Saddam leadership which it had cultivated for so long’ (pp. 95-96) Episodes like the American siege of Fallujah forged temporary solidarities – which did not last. The Shia sent a convoy loaded with supplies to the besieged Sunni city only to have seven Shia drivers executed by the very insurgents they had come to help (pp. 144).

Pilger shares the same blind-spot as the Americans did. He still does. But no one can write off Cockburn as an apologist for the invasion and occupation; he is a fierce critic of the war. But he has a greater sense of political realities than Pilger and most of Stop the War’s activists, including Jeremy Corbyn.

The invasion did not create the Jihadi forces we see running amok today. They unleashed them. If that is so, then a disturbing conclusion follows. They can only be reined in by the firm hand of a dictator. That is not a conclusion that, I suspect, Pilger can stomach. He was fiercely critical of British and US support for the Iraqi dictator in the 1980s (as were other critics like Harold Pinter). They were outraged we backed Saddam in the 1980s and outraged when we overthrew him in 2003.

Their inconsistency on this point is easy to understand if we accept that the source of their outrage was on account that doing both things forestalled the emergence of a progressive democracy in the country, founded on Enlightenment values, secular and non-sectarian. That was not a possibility in the 1980s and it’s even less likely now. Might it have been? There is no doubt that the wars (two out of three of them started by Saddam) and sanctions weakened the secular middle class in the country. Perhaps the decimation and impoverishment of this class in the 80s and 90s left Iraq ripe for the Jihadists’ picking in the 2000s.

It seems unlikely. Truly secular, democratic and liberal forces of any kind have never been strong in the Middle East. Over the last 40 years, the steady rise of political Islam has been felt everywhere in the region with polling showing a region-wide drift to the conservative right. Socialist and other secular ideologies were long discredited with their association with both unbelief and political repression. Even so-called secular leaders like Saddam and the Assads in Syria, father and son, have had to cloak themselves in Islamic garb and credentials to cement legitimacy in the eyes of their subject populations.

The much touted ‘multiculturalism’ of countries like Syria is not akin to its western practice. Syria ‘tolerated’ its minorities because of their political quiescence and because there were not many of them. They had no right to claim a share of power or representation in the state. The Egyptian dictator, Mubarak, presided over a steady Islamicisation of society but did little to counteract this, so long as Islamists made no concerted effort to challenge the power of the state. Christian Copts, 10 per cent of the population, found little in the way of protection from the supposedly secular state. Bomb attacks on Coptic places of worship met with calls for unity from Mubarak but not much else.

If the invasion had never happened, and we had kept Saddam in place as a kind of safety-catch on the Jihadi pressure cooker, would that have been better? Perhaps not. In Syria, a dictator finds himself beleaguered by Jihadists. In this case, repression has failed to keep the lid on. Indeed, it’s pretty certain that repression has added fuel to the fire. But Pilger does not think so. It’s to Syria we now turn.


The Paris Attacks


When Islamist gunmen murdered 18 people at the offices of a French satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January this year, some people were tempted to blame the victims. The Pope, who has become something of a darling of the liberal-left, said that if ‘you swear at my mother – or Islam – expect a punch.’ A snivelling cartoon by the (otherwise excellent )political cartoonist Joe Sacco seemed to flirt with the same notion. Both men – and some apologists who reasoned on the same lines as they did – overlooked the attack on the Jewish supermarket, which could not remotely have been construed as retaliation for a hateful cartoon. That was a sectarian, racially-motivated attack and the victims were singled out because they were Jewish.

Yes, Israel oppresses the Palestinians but this can hardly be a sufficient explanation, let alone justification. Islamist grievance against Jews and Judaism runs deep, not just limited to Israel but against Jews generally. The popularity of holocaust denial or hate screeds like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion among many parts of the Islamic world attests to this. And it’s not just Jews – Shia and other minorities are subject to vilification from rabble-rousers, much of it sponsored by Saudi money.

I am not saying that the popularity of these tracts are down to the gullibility of the Muslim masses. It’s down to the circumscribing of free speech in much of the Muslim world, making such hate speech difficult to combat. Note what I am saying here. The peddlers of hate are committing speech acts. They can only be combated by speech acts in turn but to do that, the state needs to uphold the right to free speech. But few states presiding over Muslim-majority populations do (perhaps Turkey is partial exception).

Nor am I saying that Western societies are absolute paragons of virtue in this respect. I am saying is that Western societies are better at doing this. To the intellectually lazy, who fall back on relativism, because they flinch from anything that might actually mean that West is indeed the best, this is abhorrent.

The fact is, the right to free speech is well-protected in the West, as it is France. So, to answer to Joe Sacco’s question – what if Muslims didn’t find the cartoons funny? Apart from the obvious answer that they could have ignored it, given that the cartoons appeared in an obscure underground publication that till the attacks practically no one had heard of, there is the even more blindingly obvious answer: they could have protested against it.

Of course, France does not always uphold its own self-declared principles when it comes to freedom of expression (like passing laws against holocaust denial) but that does not make the point I am making here false: those offended by the cartoons could have protested using speech. The complaint of French double-standards fails against this observation. France would have allowed and does allow those offended by ideas expressed by others to talk back.

But, for the gunmen, the offence could not be answered by speech but only by the gun. It’s a mistake to assume that the men concerned were unhinged. They acted according to their convictions, convictions that overrode everything else– such as respect for the state’s laws. They did what they did because their sense of the sacred was offended and it was not enough merely to talk back to the offenders. Those who had given offence had to die. Those who say that it had nothing to do with religion have fallen into wishful thinking. It had everything to do with religion – or, at least, the killers’ interpretation of it.

Furthermore, the conviction that the victims were blasphemers and hence contributed to their fate probably extends to many in the law-abiding Muslim mainstream. If people like Joe Sacco can think it, then I am sure many otherwise moderate Muslims can think it. Yes, it’s true that a Muslim policeman was murdered doing his duty, trying to protect the staff of Charlie Hebdo. Muslims’ allegiances cut many ways. We are talking about millions of people and we want to avoid the sort of trap that Sacco and the Pope made when they talk of Muslims as an undifferentiated mass of ‘they’.

Having said that, the question remains as to how far the violent act of extremists find a degree of acceptance and even encouragement from within the mainstream. It’s not a question that can be ducked and it is too easy, as President Hollande has just done, to blame an undifferentiated, external other in the shape of the Islamic State, and refuse to ask questions about how far the values of the extremists grow from tacit approval from within the mainstream.

Sacco and the Pope seem to assume that the problem of ideological conflict between secular host and devout immigrant communities living in liberal societies is a matter of the hosts minding their manners and their speech – a matter of respect. This is too complacent an assumption. It goes a lot deeper than that. The latest attacks in Paris demonstrate this emphatically. This time, there appeared to be no obvious provocation. The victims were blown up or mowed down indiscriminately while they were out enjoying themselves and having fun. They did not insult the Pope’s mother, Islam or the Prophet.

We can of course reach for the standard rationalisations. Perhaps we can blame Iraq or Western foreign policy but the French opposed the US-UK led invasion of that country in 2003 and during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, Mitterrand was a champion of Bosnian Muslims in the face of Anglo-Saxon indifference. France gets little credit for this – instead Islamists complain about the banning headscarves in French public schools. If this is oppression, it is mild compared to that meted out to non-Muslim minorities in places like Iraq and Pakistan who don’t have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights to seek redress (as French Muslims do). Perhaps we can blame French colonial history in Algeria which was indeed exceptionally brutal but this explanation cannot account for similar conflicts we see in countries like Denmark and Sweden, with no comparable historical baggage.

Or we can stop flailing around for implausible explanations and take the Islamic State’s own justification seriously, that this was an attack aimed at ‘the capital of perversion and abomination’. The choice of targets adds weight to these words: a football match, a rock concert, pavement cafes; doubtless, all manner of perversions and abominations were underway until the brothers in their righteous zeal turned up with their explosive vests and Kalashnikovs. The French air force could stop bombing Syria tomorrow but Paris is unlikely to lose its status in Islamists’ eyes as today’s Sodom unless it closes down nightclubs, stadiums and pavement cafes, segregates the sexes, prohibits alcohol and forbids all smoking. Since the French are unlikely to do any of this anytime soon they, and the rest of us, similarly living lives of perversion and abomination, terms which the Islamists define very broadly, are going to have to live with the murderous indignation of Islamists for the foreseeable future.

So do we surrender to the clarion calls of the radical right, close our borders and step up police repression of minorities? Of course not. What is the answer then? The answer is that there is no obvious answer but I can suggest how to start thinking about the issue. The first is to stop denying that there is a genuine ideological conflict between host and immigrant communities. The second is to stop pretending that a major fault line of this conflict has nothing to do with religion. There are real conflicts over the definition of values, sacred and secular; these conflicts cannot be dismissed as a coded expression of other, secular disputes like the conduct of foreign policy. Third, and most importantly, it’s not a case of us v them. The fault lines run within immigrant communities and throughout the wider Islamic world. Extremists hate western values partially because of their godless content but also because of a fear that these values may actually appeal to the believers.

This is a war of ideas. How will it be won? By the slow diffusion of western values among Muslim communities, not just those living in the West. What values do I mean? I mean tolerance, agreeing to disagree, living with each other despite not having agreement on fundamental foundations for morality respecting unorthodox lifestyles like homosexuality, the relegating of religion to the private sphere and the whole host of values we call ‘liberal values’. These are, after all, the values the host communities are expected – rightly – to show toward their guests, whether they be refugees or immigrants. It stands to reason then that this expectation should cut both ways.

In the wider world, among Muslim communities at large, these values cannot be imposed by force. They have to be accepted by Muslims themselves. That will mean Muslims rejecting those who offer Islam as the ‘solution’ to the sorts of challenges that modernity presents. It will mean coming to terms with moral pluralism – not just the existence of other belief systems, secular and sacred, but accepting questioning from within the ranks of the faithful themselves. In everyday terms, that means accepting the right of Muslims to set up atheist blogs, or to become apostates without fear of reprisal. When a blogger like Saudi Raif Badawi is able to do what I do – and critics of the West living in the West do – without fear of the lash, then that will be a sign of progress.

Is it possible? The West’s own historical experience suggests that it is. In the 17th Century, Protestants and Catholics murdered each other in their hundreds and thousands. Germany in the 17th century, with its religious turf wars between Catholics and Protestants, was akin to today’s Iraq and Syria, with their own Sunni-Shia divides. In time, the religious wars of Europe burned themselves out. The Protestant and Catholic divide still exists today in Germany but no one is killing each other over it anymore. They have agreed to live and let live. How that happened is another story, too long and complicated to get into any detail here. Its contemporary significance is to show that a salvation-based religion, such as Christianity, can adapt to a world of secular pluralism. There is no reason why Islam itself could not do likewise. But it is going to take a long time.

Post script, 21 Feb 2017. Some brief reflections on the left-liberal criticism on the symbols of solidarity shown with France in the aftermath of the attacks in January and November 2015. It was interesting to consider how people like Brian Klug and Salon magazine stigmatised gestures like the colouring of Facebook profiles in the tricolour in the aftermath of the November attacks or the mass rally in the wake of Charlie Hebdo murders in January. Such collective expressions were entirely praiseworthy. In the wake of the attacks, enraged mobs did not descend on the Banlieues and murder its Muslim residents. In all too many places in the world, one reprisal follows another but not so in France. Not that the critics on the left were prepared to credit France and the French with such dignified, restrained responses. Instead, the gestures were considered on par with the acts they designed to rebuke. Curious days indeed. More on this in a future post.



Three Cheers for the House of Lords

Here in the UK we have a deficit and the Tories thought they had won the argument about how to reduce it. Until last week that is, when George Osborn’s plans to cut tax credits for the working poor met defeat in the House of Lords.

Of course, though he has lost a battle, albeit a major one, he hasn’t lost the war. Predictably, he and his supporters have tried to define the issue as an uppity unelected chamber thwarting the democratic will of the Commons. Hence the tedious talk about whether the Lords’ move was constitutional. Given that the UK does not have a written constitution, this debate is bound to be a sterile one. And anyway Osborne and his apologists cannot see the wood for the trees. They are missing the wider issues of principle this defeat raises, issues that won’t cease to dog the Chancellor even if he manages to force through the cuts tomorrow.

For the government, it’s about legitimacy and the right to do what people elected them to do. Of course, not all people voted for them but the fact remains the Commons are elected and the Lords are not. This means that they are limits to what the Lords can do by way of blocking the will of Commons. This holds true even though the Tories’ Commons’ majority is based on winning around a third of popular vote (and a lesser share of the country as a whole) at last May’s General Election. Despite this, the Tories still have a mandate to govern. They can only be denied this carte blanche if it can be shown that the Tories’ victory in May 2015 was somehow stolen from the deserved winner and/or that the voters generally were not offered a genuine opportunity to throw them out. No, the Tories won fair and square in May 2015 so have a right to set the agenda and govern by it.

Having said that, a democracy, if it is to ensure competing interests are reconciled fairly, must reconcile the losers to the result. Just because the Tories won in May 2015, they do not have licence to do whatever they like. This observation is hardly new – it is expressed in the phrase ‘checks and balances’, and well-governed democratic systems allow mechanisms like an independent judiciary or a second chamber to prevent majoritarian – but democratic – tyrannies from developing. The House of Lords can indeed make just such an argument to justify why it did what it did. If the Tories cuts to tax credits are unfair, then the Lords can act to check them, even if they have been democratically endorsed by the first chamber.

Are the cuts unfair? Without doubt they are. They will make the working poor worse off. The highly respected Institute of Fiscal Studies calculates that 13 million families will lose an average of £260 a year as a result of just one measure, extending the freeze in working age benefits, tax credits and local housing till 2020. By 2017, this means that most benefit rates will have fallen back behind their 2008 levels, compared to price inflation and earnings growth. Cuts to Universal Credit will leave 3 million families £1,000 a year worse off. This is a big deal – the families affected are among the lowest paid, earning below the average national salary. The government has claimed that increases in the living wage will compensate for these losses. But the IFS has found that gross increase of £4 billion in the living wage will not cover for the fall of £12 billion in tax credit and other related cuts. ‘Unequivocally’, the IFS concludes, ‘tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the [July 2015] Budget on average’.

If that is not fair then I don’t know what is. The Lords, in rejecting Osborne’s proposed cuts as they currently stand, have done a great democratic service. They have spoken for the millions of people whose interests the government is simply riding over roughshod. It’s not just about the tax credit cuts. The whole burden of deficit-reduction is being imposed on the poor. Cameron once claimed that we were all in together, when it came to reducing the deficit. That’s simply nonsense. While the government tries to snatch tax credits from the working poor, it is handing out perks to the rich like cutting inheritance and corporation taxes.

This argument is not just about constitutional procedure but about the wider principles of fairness that democracy should protect and promote. The broader significance of the Lords’ vote is that it is an expression of deep unease about how the Tories are spreading the burden of reducing the deficit and this extends well beyond the Lords. This disquiet about the cuts is not just confined to the usual suspects on the liberal-left. The free market think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, opposes them. Discontent has spread to government ranks. Twenty Tory MPs, five of them from 2015’s intake, have spoken out against them. The Sun, usually a government cheerleader, has described the cuts as bonkers. No wonder the government wants the debate to focus on procedure, the form of democracy, but not the principles expressed, the content of democracy.

How will the Tories respond? I suspect that the Tories are not going to seek to embark on any major constitutional reform. They are not showing much appetite for that. Instead, ways will be found to overcome the Lords’ resistance. In doing this, the government will kill two birds with one stone: to make the House of Commons and de facto unicameral legislature but without having to undertake any major constitutional reform to do that.

Were it to succeed in doing this, then British democracy will be weaker because of it. Government power will be subjected to weaker checks on its powers. The Commons alone is too weak to do this. The contention that once legislation has cleared the Commons then no further argument is required because the necessary democratic safety-testing for fairness and moderation have already been made is a debatable one. It is also perfectly possible to pass legislation that meets a democratic test but fails on other considerations which are just as essential to the proper functioning of a democracy.

As it stands, we do not have a unicameral legislature; the second, unelected chamber, for all its faults, is not meant to rubber stamp the first, elected chamber. If we are to have a second chamber, then it must be allowed some power to check the first one. Not for nothing did the Lord Hailsham caution against a drift toward an ‘elected dictatorship’ and it was an overbearing executive with weak parliamentary checks he was thinking about when he said that. The Lords’ vote last week means that we have taken one step away from that grim outcome. That is good for democracy. Three cheers for the House of Lords.

Development: democracy or autocracy?


Brief one – this is a review of William Easterly’s Book, The Tyranny of Experts. It’s a fascinating discussion of whether development is best achieved under democratic or democratic auspices. I have not read Easterly’s book so cannot comment on how fair the criticisms are. I will comment when I do!