What is Britain’s place in the world?

Nik Darlington 12.45pm

The world is a dangerous place and it is only going to become more dangerous still, said William Hague over the weekend.

While sometimes it does not seem it, David Cameron’s tenure in Downing Street has been riven with foreign conflict. The mission in Afghanistan continues, though is winding down. Our resident foreign policy expert Aaron Ellis has blogged on several occasions about the difficult situation there and elsewhere.

The latest contentious involvement is in Mali, which Aaron contrasted with Afghanistan recently for the Spectator (they all grow up so fast these days).

Meanwhile, we witnessed from afar the Arab Spring; and we watch on uncomfortably (yet ultimately powerless?) as Syria plumbs the depths of despair.

Unpicking these and other issues tonight is Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border and a past contributor to these pages, at the Tory Reform Group’s International Lecture.

Rory Stewart will be speaking about Britain’s role in the world at 7.00pm in Parliament. For more details, please see the event page.

Do the Left have a better claim to the tenets of Western culture than the Right?

Alexander Pannett 8.40am 

For the modern Western human we often appear to hurtle through our combustious, modern lives, inoculated from niggling doubts of banality through the adulation of mass entertainment.

In such a precociously unsettling realm do concepts of higher culture still find meaning.

Can we still be cultivated to appreciate so-called higher values when post-modernism appears to ground down all sensibilities to an osmosis of the lowest common denominator.

What role does art, music, literature and comedy play these days to develop enlightenment notions of civilisation. Is culture merely a mutable plaything of socio-economic matrices or an educational vehicle of tradition and accumulated wisdom.

These were the queries that were bandied around at a debate I attended yesterday between respective darlings of the Left and Right; Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton.

Despite coming from opposing political opinions, both thinkers appeared to agree that the maintenance of critique was vital for a defined sense of culture.

For Eagleton, critique, that was un-molested and un-hindered by the vagaries of late capitalism, was both progressive and historical in its development of a shared sense of society.

For Scruton, critique allowed individuals to understand and affirm their interaction with their community and derive values from their surroundings.

For these academic luminaries, the importance of questioning was deemed to be the bedrock of Western culture. Its perceived entropy in modern society was lamented as a disastrous set-back for both the progressive ambitions of the Left and the traditional values of the Right.

However, both thinkers had missed the fundamental shift in the ownership of culture that has arisen from the revolution of the digital age.

The internet has allowed all sections of society to have instant access to multiple truths. Questioning is no longer a laborious exercise reserved for the upper echelons of an academic or social elite but a freedom available to all at the click of a button.

Critique is therefore no longer framed by socialist or privileged hierarchy but by a liberalisation that has both cheapened and expanded its horizons. For many today, the subtle complexities of Big Brother say more about the human condition than any reading of Montaigne.

Facebook, World of Warcraft or Wikipedia have done more to develop a sense of community and values amongst today’s youth than any previous forms of high culture, such as Mozart or Pinter. As for an establishment of abstract critique, it is well documented that social media, powered by the internet, lay behind the emancipatory success of the Arab Spring.

The access to instant information has ensured that a plurality of critique is now a fecund product of the masses rather than a dictate from above. Once intractable value-systems have been split open and new depths of the human imagination probed as humans have re-framed their social imperatives. Culture has become both proletarian and metaphorically polyglot in its usurpation of the elite’s previous monopoly of critique.

Where once Right and Left polemically held sway along socio-economic lines, now all culture is both ontologically possible and impossible. Humans become Elf heroes in mystical virtual lands, whilst others gain cult followings due to ironic self-publicity on Youtube.

In such a world, previous concepts of culture are redundant. Fears that critique has been lost due to perceived postmodern nihilism are deeply unfounded.

As humans have retreated from the material certainties that once shackled them, they have found new virtual domains to explore and question both themselves and the prevailing social truths they left behind.

Far from a retreat from culture, the isle is full of noises.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

We cannot intervene in Syria

Giles Marshall 9.16am

I hate to say it, but Vladimir Putin has something of a point about Syria. We could do worse than simply wring our hands and leave things to the once and future Russian President.

Our problem is our outraged liberal values. Yet if we were able to take a step back from moral emotionalism, we would also have to acknowledge that not a single western intervention in the Middle East has resulted in a safer and more stable regime. Usually the reverse - utter chaos, anarchy and extremism, where innocents still die in large numbers.

Peter Oborne has a revealing account from ‘free’ Libya in this week’s Spectator (not yet online). In it he offers a vision of street fighting as a spectator sport, the kidnapping of hotel managers, and the descent of society into a murderous, corrupt abyss. There may not have been sweetness nor light under Colonel Gadaffi, no more than Iraq was a blissful democracy under Saddam Hussein, but what the West has orchestrated in its place is arguably much worse.

There are few things more damaging to a society, or more inimical to the pursuit of worldly peace, than countries without functioning governments. We might rail in our foolishness against governments and politicians here in the liberal West, but that is because we have them.

Governments are absolute prerequisites for stable, functioning and prosperous societies. That is why in 1787 the American Founding Fathers decided it was so important to have strong central government rather than merely a loose confederation of states. And that is why western nations today should err on the side of caution before conniving to overthrow yet another ghastly regime.

It could be that President Assad will fall in time as a result of internal revolt. On the other hand, it could be that we have greatly underestimated the support he still receives in much of Syria, and the fear that Syrians have of being overrun by Islamic militia of the type now ruling the roost in Iraq and Libya.

Whatever the true state of affairs, it would be madness now to propose action on the basis of emotional news reportage, regardless of how imperative and moral such an intervention might seem to us.

In this instance, it is the morally neutral President Putin who could in fact understand the value of realpolitik more than we do. We do not have to like Putin or the Syrian regime to realise that there is far more to Syria than we could ever hope to comprehend. That of course was the case in both Iraq and Libya, but this time, perhaps, we should resist the temptations of our better nature in favour of realism, however unpleasant it may seem to us. It is profoundly conservative, and reflects that clear understanding of man’s flawed nature.

It is not heroic, but international affairs rarely are.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

The most sensational result in British by-election history?

Nik Darlington 10.22am

George Galloway has completed an astonishing return to Parliament with a runaway win in the Bradford West by-election.

With typical understatement, Mr Galloway described it as a “Bradford Spring” and “the most sensational victory in British political history”. Here he is, in his inimitable - and it would be churlish not to say captivating - style.

Comparing this win with the Arab Spring - a passionate mass movement that swept the breadth of an entire continent and has claimed thousands of lives in the name of giving the unvoiced a voice - is the type of unbounded arrogance few can rival, and a hallmark of Mr Galloway’s political career.

Yet in pushing Labour into second place by ten thousand votes, in a seat that Ed Miliband and his party fully expected to win, Mr Galloway has provided a bitter bookend to a week in which the Labour leader’s star had begun to shine so brightly.

It is a frightful result for the Tories too, considering how well the party performed here in 2010 (though we should be thankful the rumours of falling behind Ukip did not materialise). And the Lib Dems lost their deposit, though these days that is hardly surprising.

But David Cameron et al will surely be smiling this morning after a torrid ten days. This was never a seat the party truly expected to win, and Mr Galloway’s stunning triumph poses more questions for his former colleagues in the Labour party than the Tories upon which he wished nothing but “perdition”.

All things considered, this is potentially a great moment for Bradford West. Few fates are more dispiriting than being one of those desperately safe urban Labour seats, taken for granted by the party’s machine. The constituencies that vote in Labour candidates with a resigned shrug year after year after year, candidates who pledge social justice, urban renewal, progressive politics and fair chances, yet deliver little.

If Mr Galloway can change the habit of a lifetime and put Bradford West before his own vanity, he could be precisely what the people there need. Someone to stand up for them as a community, not a fiefdom. Someone to shout stirringly on their behalf, instead of condemning them to suffer under a failed party line.

If Mr Galloway can manage to do this, and few have the charisma to manage it better, then he deserves our (very much qualified) support.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Demonstrate for human rights in Syria

Alexander Pannett 6.45am

What can you do without freedom? When the world seems silent to your prevails?

The people of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, are currently suffering the seventh day of a brutal and criminal assault from President Assad’s un-repentant thugs.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed by indiscriminate artillery and mortar fire.  This is on top of the 11-month crackdown against protestors who are campaigning for democracy and human rights in Syria that has left thousands dead.

The UN Security Council has shown itself to be impotent in the face of Russia’s machiavellian veto of any resolution condemning the Syrian violence.  The Arab League has so far been unable to pressure the regime into stopping the atrocities.

Whilst many observers believe that Assad’s support is melting away it is clear he will not go until he has trailed his bloody claws across the Syrian people.  Unlike in Libya, the Syrian people cannot expect Western intervention without backing from the international community.  The disaster of Iraq is too fresh in everyone’s memories to countenance unilateral Western action. For now.

The best peaceful alternative to direct intervention is to apply increasing diplomatic and economic coercion on Syria until the regime breaks.

The European Union has just declared that it will impose harsher sanctions against Assad to encourage his fall.  The Arab League ministers are also meeting this weekend to discuss what further actions they can take against Assad.  It will be a further opportunity to build international pressure on the Syrian government and other governments who are supporting it.

In the UK, human rights organisations have been mobilising to raise awareness. Amnesty International are urging authorities across the Middle East and North Africa to:

“Uphold the right to peaceful protest and to freedom of expression, association, assembly and information.

Investigate deaths, injuries, and detentions ensuring those responsible are brought to account.

Immediately begin human rights reforms including giving people the right to participate fully in the political process.”

You too can play your part this weekend in expressing your support for the voiceless.  Amnesty International are holding a demonstration in Trafalgar Square on Saturday from 12 noon until 2pm to raise awareness of the human rights abuses. See here for further details.

Attend and show your anger at those who would suppress the fight against injustice and the human rights revolution.

Hannah Arendt, the political theorist, once said that “the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil.”

Well. It is time to make up our minds. And shout about it.

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Russia’s Syrian hypocrisy

Alexander Pannett 10.38am

Yesterday, diplomats at the UN Security Council were engaged in a concerted attempt to pass a resolution calling for President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power, which is a key part of an Arab League plan.

This is a welcome move as bloody government reprisals against the protesters have led to more than 7,000 civilian deaths as Syria slides into civil war.

The text, however, had to be dropped due to Russian objections that it amounted to “regime change”, which was a threat to the principles of national sovereignty as protected under the UN charter.

This is contrary to the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, which was recognised as a concept by all countries (Russia and China included) at the UN World Leader’s Summit in 2005.

Responsibility to Protect is a concept for intervention in a state by the international community for the prevention of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass killings and human rights violations taking place, in a country which is unwilling (or unable) to stop it. In the event of any such acts occurring, the wider international community has a collective responsibility to take whatever action is necessary to prevent it.

Both the Russians and the Chinese, whose modern history has been dominated by bloody foreign interventions, are understandably reticent about any development of liberal interventionism that protects a people from the violent abuses of its government.  Considering the poor human rights records in both these countries, it is unsurprising that they will be wary of a liberal doctrine that legitimises external interference along the grounds of human rights.

However, it is callous in the extreme for the Russians to cite the UN charter’s protection of national sovereignty as the rationale for its support for the Assad government.  Or for the Russians to justify their current intransigence with a resolution against Syria by suggesting that the UN resolution that allowed for “all necessary means” to protect the Libyan people went too far in toppling the brutal dictatorship of Gaddafi.

The Russians were quite happy to cite the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine with their invasion of Georgia in 2008 or use interventionism with their ongoing suppression of “terrorist” separatist groups in the Northern Caucuses or recent use of energy blackmail to interfere with Ukrainian elections.

The real hypocrisy of Russia lies however with the realpolitik of their global strategic ambitions.

At Tartus, Syria’s second largest port city, lies one of only two Russian naval bases outside Russia that Russian capital ships can dock at for re-supply. With the other naval base outside Russia at Sevastopol only on a 25-year lease and subject to the whims of a Ukrainian government with lukewarm relations towards Russia, Tartus is crucial to the Russians’ plans to re-establish themselves as a world military power.

The Syrian government recently agreed to transfer the naval base permanently into Russian hands and the Russians have since been pouring billions into the base to allow it to host a new Mediterranean fleet. To re-affirm Russia’s interests in Syria and its support for the Assad regime, a flotilla of Russian ships, including the Russian flagship, were deployed to the Tartus naval base in November 2011.

Without Tartus, Russia’s plans to project its power around the globe would be severely curtailed, especially in the nearby oil-rich Middle East, an area of vital strategic importance.  It is this concern that is dictating Russia’s morally bankrupt actions at the UN rather than any simulacrum of UN protections of national sovereignty.

As Aaron Ellis has pointed out on these pages, the West is currently undergoing a crisis of confidence about what it stands for in the world. While hard questions are rightly being asked about the Western economic model, we must not forget that our political and liberal values helped shape the present structure of international relations.

Our voice is needed to help prevent the oppression of the weak and dispossessed and to uphold the goals of the UN which sought to prevent massacres such as those that are occurring in Syria.

The West has certainly made terrible foreign policy errors that have resulted in the deaths of innocents. But we should not forget the far worse, dystopian machinations of those to whom our current angst would cede the leadership of the world.

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Egremont’s review of 2011

Nik Darlington and Alexander Pannett 10.30am

This time last year there was no such thing as Egremont, yet in September, thanks to you, our readers, we were voted the 5th best Conservative blog in Britain in the Total Politics Blog Awards 2011.

We have been pleasantly and quietly stunned at this ascent, proof that there is room in the blogosphere, amid the shouting and name-calling, for pragmatic, centre-right commentary.

Herein a review of our year: an account of where we have come from, how we have done it and what we have covered.

Twitter. A few words on that. All our posts are automatically tweeted via the Tory Reform Group and those of us on Twitter post and share articles and comments. These are in turn shared by followers (thank you). Since February, direct referrals from Twitter have comprised 13 per cent of our page hits, slightly behind the highest, Facebook, which gives 19 per cent of our referral traffic.

These figures have fluctuated (Twitter has on occasions provided up to one-third of referral traffic) but Facebook is usually ahead. This comes as something of a surprise because it feels that Facebook’s reign as the pre-eminent social media sharing platform is over and Twitter is in the ascendancy. But there you have it. We have a Facebook page too, on which all our articles are linked, and it seems to be working by sending nearly one-fifth of readers our way. Particular thanks go to Aaron Ellis for his assistance with its running.

The power of referral traffic is very clear. Guido Fawkes provided one-tenth of that traffic - or 1,538 hits - but most of it came from one article and in a single day. Saying that, fully one-third of traffic was from search engines, a vindication of our SEO strategy and a comforting sign that readers are actively looking for us (or stumbling across us!) rather than just being told to look at us. Eighteen per cent came direct.

Paul Abbott has achieved a lot this year in his full-time guise as Robert Halfon’s more-than-capable parliamentary confrere, not least setting up the brilliant Parliamentary Academy and being a driving force behind the FairFuelUK campaign that prompted the Chancellor to cancel a planned rise in fuel duty.

But we are sure that Paul would agree with us that his most noteworthy achievement of 2011 was to cause a one-thousand-strong stampede to Egremont on 23rd November. 'Why the Left should love Margaret Thatcher' has had more than 2,000 unique page views and been syndicated elsewhere thanks in part to Paul’s incisive prose and winning analysis but also the mighty sway of Mr Fawkes, who kindly referred to us as ‘the Wets’ blog’ (thank you, Harry).

Generally, readership has been consistent throughout the year, with the occasional noticeable peak. The ‘big bang’ arrived shortly before the Barnsley by-election, 3rd March, as Craig Barrett's article 'Liberal Democrats are looking down the barrel in Barnsley' won positive reviews (one half of the editorial team is gracious enough to concede that his learned-if-not-sensationalist commentary on Oxbridge dons was not the principal cause of attention that day).

Then on 3rd May, Stuart Baldock wrote an insightful piece about the Libyan rebels and there was poignant coverage of UN World Press Freedom Day; but the draw was Cllr Rene Kinzett’s presentation of 'the Conservative argument in favour of the Alternative Vote'. It was a brave and well-argued article deserving of publication. Perhaps not our most ‘popular’ feature of the year if the outcome of the AV referendum was anything to judge by, but it received plenty of attention.

August is usually the sleepy month of politics but this year we had riots. On 9th August, Nik Darlington's in-the-moment reflection ('We know nothing, except we are all to blame for this') attracted Egremont's highest traffic thus far. It was syndicated on the front page of the Huffington Post and received interest from TV station Al-Jazeera.

Media website Journalisted listed the biggest three news stories of 2011 as the Arab Spring, phone hacking and the Eurozone debt crisis. All three topics received plenty of comment on these pages, humble though we would say it was. We would not pretend to be major actors in these debates, let alone lead them. We try to focus on our columnists’ areas of expertise and on less well covered issues. But we always try to ensure our coverage matches the import of events.

Our columnists this year have come from far and wide. We have been honoured to feature blogs from the former foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, from John Lamont MSP, and from current Conservative MPs, Robin Walker, Robert Buckland and Rory Stewart.

And to name just a few of our more regular commentators: we have had economic and political analysis from David Cowan, who also won a Spectator economics blogging prize in October. Former TRG chairman, Giles Marshall, always offers a thought-provoking take on the shape of the modern Tory party. Aaron Ellis brings hard work and dedication to the foreign affairs brief. Sara Benwell gives us an edge in the finer details of finance. Meanwhile Craig Barrett’s pithy and profound musings about everything from electoral politics to taxation have been consistently among our highest read articles.

For some months, Jack Blackburn, as well as being our resident expert on film, culture and theology, has been turning his hand to weekly reviews of PMQs. Jack’s 'letter to Mrs Miliband' in November was utterly inspired and as good a PMQs review as you will read on any national broadsheet.

Naturally, most of our readers come from the English-speaking world and as much as 80 per cent from Britain (79 per cent) and the United States (11 per cent). Canada, France, Australia, India and Germany also have sizeable followings and our readers are spread as far and wide as Sierra Leone, the Seychelles, Haiti, the Palestinian Territories, Iran, Mongolia, Peru, Latvia, Israel, Vietnam, Japan, South Africa, Sweden and even, dare I say it, Uzbekistan.

And that, as they say, is that. The end.

Merry Christmas and see you in 2012.

The Iraq war may have ended but its disastrous legacy lives on

Alexander Pannett 8.00am

Yesterday, President Obama marked the final end of the Iraq war.  It has been nearly nine years since the US and its allies, including the UK, invaded the Middle Eastern nation on the pretence of removing Saddam Hussein and ending his perceived involvement in Islamist terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

While the war was trumpeted a success by President Obama - the man who once opposed it as “dumb” - its legacy has been one of instability and continued conflict across the strategically important region.

Over one trillion dollars have been spent by Amercian taxpayers and 4,500 American soldiers have lost their lives.  This is paltry compared with the alleged hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died due to the invasion and ensuing bloody insurgency.  In its wake Iraq simmers with sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias.  Terrorism has increased and the government of Iraq clings on to power through backroom deal making and shaky coalitions with pro-Iranian factions.

The untamed use of American hard power may have eventually pacified Iraq but if its objective was to wrest the Middle East away from extremism towards a democratic future based on enlightened Western thinking then the invasion of Iraq must count as an unmitigated disaster.

Further evidence of the decline of American hard power as an effective foreign policy tool is the gradual withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan, having failed to pacify the Taliban, and the increasing friction between the US and their most dangerous ally, Pakistan.

Pakistan’s support has soured due to the repeated incursions into Pakistani sovereign territory by US military forces, most prominently the death of Osama Bin Laden. The Americans, for their part, are furious that Bin Laden was being sheltered in Pakistan and they hold deep suspicions that the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence organisation, is providing significant military and logistical assistance to the Taliban.

On Tuesday, the US Congress unveiled plans to cut $700 million of aid to Pakistan and yesterday, Pakistan responded with plans to tax Nato supply trucks that pass through Pakistani territory on their way to Afghanistan.

The armoured fist of American military might has exacerbated sectarian tensions in the Middle East and has increased the standing of Iran by making it the natural pole for anti-Western forces to align themselves with.  Iran’s rise has opened a Sunni-Shia fault line in Iraq and within neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, causing further instability as Shia minorities have looked to Iran for support and leadership.

American disregard for the UN prior to the invasion of Iraq has also undermined the ability of international organisations to quell Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which will further destabilise the region as other countries seek a nuclear deterrent of their own.

The most dramatic expansion of democracy and removal of autocratic power in the Middle East has not come from America’s use of hard power in Iraq and Afghanistan but from the burgeoning Arab Spring movement whose source of momentum has come from the repressed democratic ambitions of the ‘Arab street’.  It is telling that in Egypt, where the second round of parliamentary elections were held today, the parties predicted to win are not those with Western secular values but Islamic ideals.

President Obama may echo George W Bush by publicly claiming the invasion of Iraq was a success but the legacy of Iraq is far from secure and the disastrous consequences for the West’s standing in the region and the concomitant rise of Iran expose the invasion as one of the worst US strategic errors since Vietnam.

Only the most determined of Manichean acolytes would see the removal of one dictator in a largely contained country as worth all the blood and treasure that Iraq has drained.  As the drumbeats for war with Iran are starting to sound, Western policy makers should take Iraq as an example of how poorly deployed hard power can exacerbate tensions and end in tragedy rather than the lofty and enlightened goals Western policy makers had sought to achieve.

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