Archive | July, 2016

After Nice

15 Jul

How can you deal with an enemy that is truly incorrigible? That is the problem facing western European states (notably France and Belgium) in the face of mass casualty attacks by Islamic State and their affiliates. The playbook that many western states have been using is based on a set of premises that simply do not apply to Islamic State and the lone attackers they inspire. The playbook goes something like this: alongside robust security responses to attacks, we can very probably negotiate with our foes. These negotiations are not about finding some sort of perfect peace. Instead, they are about lowering the costs of violence, seeing if there can be negotiated outcomes on some issues and – cynically – exhausting foes and encouraging splits within their ranks.

The basic premise is one of negotiation. There are, of course, my varieties of negotiation (face-to-face, shuttle, leveraged, pre-conditioned etc.) but the notion of exchanging ideas is constant. But what do states do in the case of opponents that seem to want only one thing: your life? These opponents live in a zero sum world in which there is no prospect of harmonious co-existence between groups.

The obvious response is a security one: if the other party is not open to listening then there is no point in speaking. Yet, security responses have been the default. Britain, France, the US and many other states are engaged in permanent war (with airstrikes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere) and permanent securitization of travel, infrastructure and key events. Doubtless this has averted many attacks, but events in Paris, Nice, Brussels and elsewhere show that security is less than total and that civilians are likely to be the main victims.

But looking at the profile of the attackers, they seem disaffected individuals and small groups of individuals who feel no stake in the society they live in. This, it strikes me, is more fruitful territory to try to stave off further attacks. This strategy would not please Captain Kneejerk or Colonel Bomb Them Back to the Stone Age. It does not have any immediate pay-off and does not bring a sense of ‘striking back’. There is no guarantee that it will not stop lone actors. As the Anders Brevik case showed, even a society with good social provision can produce disaffected individuals capable of extreme violence.

But minimising disaffection seems to be the best long-term strategy. This would involve multiple measures and be something more than the empty rhetoric of a ‘360 degree response’ (copyright David Cameron’s speechwriter) that delivers the same old nonsense. Minimising disaffection would involve addressing the legacy of colonialism, avoiding pointless and unwinnable wars, an ethical foreign policy (that disassociates western states with serial human rights abusers like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Israel), a political rhetoric based on understanding the other and – fundamentally – domestic policies of social inclusion that regard ghettoes as unacceptable.

All of this might sound like pie in the sky. But consider, for a moment, the level of disaffection required to make an individual drive a truck through a crowded street – crushing children along the way. This level of indiscrimination came from somewhere. Surely it deserves serious investigation.

Otherwise yet another set of European politicians can don on black clothes, come up with the usual statements, and continue along the same path.


The implications of Brexit for UK universities:

5 Jul

1. Once freedom of movement comes to an end there will be the immediate expulsion of all UK universities from European funding streams (happened to Switzerland). So: Less research and collaboration.
2. EU students – who are brave enough to come to the UK after the message Brexit sends out – will need visas and will probably decide it’s not worth the bother. So: declining class sizes and redundancies, and a massive boost for German and Dutch universities.
3. Staff from EU countries (and there are very, very many) will need a visa. Many will calculate that they would be more welcome in the EU and leave. So: a brain-drain.
4. Potential research collaborators from the EU will think twice about including UK partners in research projects. So: less cutting edge research, and much less collaboration.
5. Spending cuts (already promised by Osborne). So: less money to teach and do research.

But at least an internal Tory party row has been sorted out.

A very affecting commemoration

1 Jul



There was a very affecting piece of commemorative theatre at Manchester Piccadilly station today to commemorate the centenary the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916). A group of sallow-faced, subdued and somewhat scruffy young men were dressed as WWI soldiers. They were unarmed and silent. They simply stood around, disconnected from the hurly burly of a busy train station on a Friday afternoon. They did not interact with the ‘audience’, instead they had a ghostly presence (accentuated by make-up to make them pale), as others ran for trains clutching coffee or barking into their phones.

I went to speak with one to ask him what he was doing he looked at me silently and sullenly and handed me a card (pictured above). Presumably Private Makin (from a local Manchester regiment) had left from or traveled through Manchester Piccadilly station before being killed on the Somme.

On the first day of the battle, some 19,000 British soldiers were killed – along with large numbers of French and Germans. To put that into perspective, the British Army today has just under 90,000 regular soldiers.

The station theatre was in marked contrast to the stiff formalism of a lot of commemorative activity. It was impossible to see these young men and not think of another group of young men 100 years ago. Indeed the youth of the participants was striking – all in their late teens and early twenties. And their sullen disposition seemed to say: “I was robbed. I was killed but you are lucky. You are alive.” Whoever put this together deserves praise.