BACKGROUND: On Friday, October 15th, Member of the UK Parliament, Sir David Ames was holding his regular surgery (opportunity to bring cases to their MP by the public) in Leigh-on-Sea, within his Southend West constituency when he was stabbed and killed by Ali Harbi Ali, a 25-year-old of Somali heritage, who had made an appointment to see him and traveled 50 miles from London to commit the act. He is now in police custody. The MP Jo Cox was assaulted and killed in similar circumstances in 2016 and the weekend UK media is full of debate how to prevent further occurrences.
Surgeries in Public
I was outraged to hear of the murder of Sir David Ames MP as he held a public surgery in his constituency. Many across the political spectrum have been fulsome in praise of his assiduous availability to hear issues raised by his constituents.
Coming within five years of the murder of Jo Cox MP and of abusive trolling on social media, I hear a rising clamour to increase security, vet attendees and even suspend face-to-face meetings to avoide firther such tragedies. I believe any such actions to be misplaced, as they would damage the democracy upon which society depends.
As well as 59 MPs, Scotland elects 129 MSPs, and ten times that number of councillors, all of whom hold public surgeries. In my own eighteen years as councillor representing North Berwick, I held over 800 surgeries. To make sure people knew they were public, I held them on two chairs at the foot of steps leading to the Council Chambers in Quality Street, with a plaque on the wall saying “The Councillor is IN”, visible to all passing. Half the resulting chats were social, not ward issues. I found this delightful, as I believe the best representation comes through interaction. In this, I hope I was following Sir David’s superb example.
Retiring indoors, only to discuss private matters, I did experience heated exchanges that rose to abuse on two occasions. But only one required a half-nelson and bum’s rush to resolve. In my old-fashioned view, exposure to risk 0.1% of the time was part of doing the job properly.
I appreciate not all elected feel as safe, much less up for robust self-defence. But it would be a sad day when they could not mingle with local residents, or be isolated by security or pre-booking systems.
Today (Sunday, October 10th) Business Secretary Kwarsi Kwarteng was doing the rounds of the politics talk shows, trying to pour renewables (rather than oil) on the troubled waters of the badly overheated natural gas market. Wholesale prices, which started at 60p a Therm in January recently rocketed as high as £4.00, before settling back at £2.40.
Households are, to some extent, protected from immediate rises in their bills by a “cap” that is adjusted each October and April, above which suppliers may not raise their prices to consumers. As the cap is set two months in advance, the true impact on consumers will only be revealed in February.
“I am convinced the UK will not suffer gas shortages in the coming months and that the price cap on consumers’ energy bills will not be moved this winter.”
—Business Secretary Kwarsi Kwarteng, Trevor Phillips On Sunday Show
Of more immediate concern is the fact that industrial users have no such protection. Ceramics, glass, fertiliser, brickworks and steel mills are only a few of the many industries that may be forced to stop production as uneconomic, or pass on price rises that will hit consumers other than in their energy bills. But even the “Big Six” gas retailers will be unable to absorb much of such rises as they will be tasked with supplying customers of a dozen smaller energy retailers who have collapsed.
Other than putting out soothing words that supply is not an issue and homes will continue to be heated, Secretary Kwarteng made it clear there would be neither adjustment of the consumer cap process, nor extension of it to business, nor any government bale-out of gas retailers who went to the wall. Unlike many other issues besetting the UK economy like trade impediments, shortages in key workers and erratic supply chains, it would be wrong to assign the blame for this to Brexit.
What it does, however, have in common with the repercussions of Brexit is that both can be ascribed to the lack of long-term thinking and strategic planning on the part of the government, especially the department of which Secretary Kwarteng is the minister.
Reduced North Sea Production. While the gas once seemed plentiful, 40 years of relying on it has depleted stocks; but 2019 only 40% of UK gas consumption was coming from territorial waters, with another 33% coming from Norway. The rest arrived indirectly from Russia or LPG ships.
Control of Production went out the window early with the sale of BNOC. But even British companies now account for barely one quarter (BP 12%; Shell 12%). The two largest are US-owner Harbour (23%) and French-owned Total (17%).But all are private international operations outside UK government control. But all these companies (and a half-dozen smaller competitors) are about to pocket a serious windfall in profits, made at our expense in UK territorial waters.
Overoptimistic Projections. For the last decades, Tory governments have consistently projected that fracking, nuclear and renewables would reduce UK dependency on the North Sea in general and gas in particular.
Insufficient Storage. It is good practice not to live hand-to-mouth and have reservesto buffereither interruption in supply or price hikes, such as we are now experiencing. As examples, Germany stores 250 Terawatts; Italy 195 Tw and most other European countries have more than the UK’s 20 Tw. If this seems low, that’s because in 2017 the government chose not to replace 70 Tw in Centrica’s offshore storage, cutting the UK’s buffer down to less than a week’s of demand.
The Wholesale Market. While the government largely blames this for the price paid in the UK, they are being disingenuous. What they are referring to is the spot market, where price fluctuations are a way of life. The way to avoid this is by “hedging”, which is negotiating a price for future delivery at an agreed fixed price. Most of the “Big Six” are hedged into 2023. Russian suppliers recommend this approach and countries like Germany use hedging as a matter of course. Which is why they are paying €137 per unit while Britain is averaging €245.
Global Demand. Gas storage was emptied last winter due to strong demand, exacerbated by relatively weak renewables generation and strong underlying power demand. Power and gas demand has also been strong in Asia which pulls LNG away from Europe. This has combined with a global supply crunch and limited injections this summer, resulting in record-low stocks as we enter the heating season.
The Impact of Covid. Dealing with lockdown caused delays to new projects and maintenance, notably to maintenance of the Forties Pipeline System in the UK central North Sea, which was postponed from 2020 This resulted in the shutdown of supply from all connected 67 offshore fields, while further work on other parts of the system throughout the year meant field clusters such as Elgin/Franklin, Shearwater, and ETAP were all offline for longer.
Departmental Musical Chairs. The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, created in 2008 to focus on this sector. It was the latest of five incarnations since 1964. It was replaced in 2016 by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has a much wider brief, and therefore less focus. There have been four different Secretaries since 2019. Secretary Kwarteng has clocked jut 9 months in the post.
None of the above points lead directly to the present untenable situation. Even taken all together, they need not have led to this situation. But what is clear is that none of them were unknowns several months ago, and that a plan to anticipate rocketing demand should have been a priority. The idea of Secretary Kwarteng meekly following Boris Johnson’s wheeze of “letting industry tough it out” and hoping the cap will hold down consumer discontent until the Spring, when it will all have blown over seems optimistic at best and irresponsible at worst.
We have been gas-umped and there is little we can do about it. But that makes it all the more urgent that a coherent plan of transition to renewables for the long term and more sensible management of energy for the medium term to avoid getting gas-umped again.
“… to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
—US Declaration of Independence
It is hard for anyone who believes in democracy to fault this fine statement of principle. Americans are justly proud of both the spirit and the letter of it, having had it dinned into them at school.
While I commend and support its sentiment, even as an outsider with many friends and 16 years of residence in the States, I am compelled to make comment on how far Americans have drifted from its core premise, while they still believe their democratic credentials remain the envy of the world.
The prime flaw is simply the document’s age and that of the Constitution founded upon it. Brilliant as both were, the context in which they were formulated was late 18th century colonial America, where 13 states with barely a million inhabitants, occupying a barely civilised strip of land between the forested Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean communicated by horse and wagon. Other than that, they differed considerably—from the puritan North, the slave-owning South, with nascent metropolises of Philadelphia and New York in between.
This week, Republicans in the Senate blocked Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill and vetoed a Democrat attempt to raise the debt ceiling. Together, this may shut down the US government by mid-November. This would not be the first time, as similar tactics blocked both Clinton and Obama and paralysed the federal government. This is just one, albeit massive, example of how the US political system, for all its meritorious origins and high regard in which many Americans hold it, is no longer fit for purpose. Trump’s antics have brought it to breaking point. And if it does break, it is not just the USA that will come down with a crash. Here are some thoughts on salient issues:
“All men are created equal”. This sounds great and, in freeing them from the shackles of a class system, omce served its purpose. But it did not apply to non-whites or females, and certainly not to slaves. Women had to wait until 1919 and Native Americans until 1924 to become full citizens African Americans made progress in 1865 but it was a century later that those in Southern States gained equality. Though it tool two centuries, US society did catch up with its founding principles in the end.
Office of the President Trump played fast and loose with this, showing how weak the “separation of powers” clause had become. The office was made powerful when the country was small. The powers available were little abused by 43 presidents who respected the office. Trump, with no such morals, showed how far they could be abused. Hamilton’s clause about impeachment is a bent reed, when the Senate colluded in running any such effort into the sane. A solution to this is too complex for a blog, but this imbalance and potential for abuse must be addressed.
Congress has become a plutocracy and doesn’t even hide this fact. Whereas Congress was once a collection of landowners and farmers with a smattering of industrialist and intellectuals, nobody gets elected to the House or Senate without serious funding of a professional campaign. Current estimates are that it takes $19.4 million to win a Senate seat. A House seat comes in relatively cheap at $1.6 million. This means nobody but billionaires get elected without being obliged to people and organisations, some of whom want the favour returned. (see: https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2016/11/the-price-of-winning-just-got-higher-especially-in-the-senate/)
The Senate is a gross anachronism and affront to democracy. Both House and Senate must agree to legislation. While the number of Representatives elected to the House is regularly revised to reflect the population in each state, only two Senators are elected per state. When there were only 13 roughly equal-sized states, this worked fine. However, these days, it takes the population of the 22 smallest states to equal the population of California. They get 44 Senators; California gets 2. In fact 51 Senators from the least populous states form a majority, having been elected by just 18% of the US population. The reason this outrage to democracy has not been corrected is that they are nearly all Republicans—turkeys reluctant to vote for Christmas.
Procedure in both House and Senate are arcane and archaic. The Speaker is powerful but partisan because they do not relinquish party loyalties when selected. Anyone can attach anything to any bill; it need not be relevant—even the threat of doing this is a bargaining chip. And the filibuster lives on as a nuclear option to block the passage of legislation. The place alienates and confuses those it should serve
The two-party system is institutionalised. Although it is legally possible for a third party to emerge, even populist Ralph Nader in the 1970s and billionaire Ross Perot in the 1980s failed. Voters must register as one or the other and the massive funding is controlled by the parties, so inertia is huge. Since the 1990s, both parties have been locked in barren hostility that has gone as far as closing down the government.
The Judiciary, the third leg of the “separation of powers” is political. All nine members of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President for life. Replacements are chosen for sympathies to those of the President and, by interpreting federal law, have impact long after the President who appointed them is long gone. Decisions momentous to ordinary lives, such as “Roe v. Wade” which legalised abortion, last for decades.
Checks and balances outside are almost non-existent, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Because of shared conviction that American democracy cannot be improved on, its actions and influence in the world must ipso facto be benign. Quite apart from the subsuming of the plains indians, the Mexican War of 1848 that stole most of the West from them and the Spanish War of 1898 that garnered Puerto Rico, Guam & the Philippines and made Cuba a vassal state, there was the Monroe Doctrine that forbade any other power to interfere in the Americas and the convenient hiving off of Panama from Colombia to exercise sovereignty over the canal that was then built. There was no challenge to any of this.
Anti-colonialism. Having sought freedom from colonial masters, American folklore is that it is a beacon for those seeking independence. For years, various presidents lectured the British and French on this. Yet their own record is poor, if not hypocritical. The US annexed Hawaii, ignoring a kingdom already there. They fought a brutal war against an independence movement in the Philippines. Puerto Rico is still a colony without democratic representation 123 years after being “liberated” from Spain. If given statehood, it would be bigger than 18 of the existing states, and entitled to at least five representatives in the House and two Senators.
This is not meant to disparage the United States. It is a fine, modern country—still offering the highest level of prosperity to its 330 million citizens. But its politics are neither modern, nor fit for purpose in an advanced society facing the 21st century. Any constitution, no matter how well conceived and crafted cannot still be 100% relevant 232 years later. The anachronistic 2nd Amendment about bearing arms is just the tip of the iceberg.
Influential Americans must start recognising just how far their country has drifted from the ideals of the founding fathers. Commentators and politicians seem unable to acknowledge this fact. The otherwise disastrous Trump presidency may actually have done thoughtful Americans a favour by demonstrating how fragile a system devised for a million ex-colonists could be abused by an unprincipled egotist with money two centuries later.
For the five years since the EU referendum result, there has ben an ever-increasing drum-beat of good news emanating from Downing Street and its environs in the shape of interviews, press releases, statements to the House and articles in loyal publications from the Telegraph to the Spectator. The invariable theme is how much better Britain is now doing—whether in trade opportunities, diplomatic standing, or generally “punching above our weight” as a country.
All this was achieved while fighting the Covid virus by rolling out a ‘world-beating” vaccine programme, at the same time the “levelling up” agenda blew great gaps in the “Red Wall” of Labour seats across Northern England. Such success was binding Scotland ever closer in the union, in contrast to Wales and Ulster, neither of whom were showing the least inclination towards leaving.
To Tory faithful—amd a goodly number who had never voted Tory before—this was soothing reassurance in difficult times. Brexit had bred much uncertainty, adding to the strain and constraints of life under lockdown. But Boris Johnson’s blonde mop top bounced with irrepressible vision of Churchillian sunlit uplands we would all inhabit.
Unfortunately, too many of these rosy projections—from “pandemic over by Christmas” to “oven-ready” solutions to social care turned out to be founded on groundless optimism. Only a weak parliamentary opposition allowed the UK government to posit a stream of spurious assertions to reassure business and punters alike through a pliant media.
This was exacerbated by a virtual blackout of any comparisons with abroad—either in dealing with Covid or sustaining the economy. The mantra was:
“Brexit is finally letting Britain stand tall, without bureaucratic interference from Brussels. It would only be a matter of time before the UK regained its rightful leading place in the world, basking in the special relationship we always had with the USA.”
While visiting the UN in New York, Boris took credit for America easing 18 months of travel restrictions for Britons the country and asserted his government were clearly ahead in creating jobs and prosperity because “the OECD have projected that Britain now has the fastest GDP growth rate for this year in the G7”.
This correct but, like most Johnsonian pronouncements, misleading.
How so, if this is factually correct? Well, during the worst of the pandemic, government statements, via a pliant media, carried the story that the UK was dealing with Covid better than anyone. That Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and many other places suffered few cases and far fewer deaths, was under-reported. The UK did hear of Italy’s terrible outbreak at the start and how slow vaccine roll-out was in the EU. But when the EU performance overtook the UK, reporting went dark.
Now, in the run-up to COP-26, the focus has moved to economic recovery. To hear the UK government tell it, nobody is recovering better than Britain. Looking at OECD projections for this year only appears to validate this (Table 1).
That might look conclusive. But haud oan jist a wee mnnit: isn’t this view rather narrow, taking in just one year? And where are China, Russia and India, not to mention a host of dynamic Asian tigers? Looking at full OECD stats might not change relative order, but it does put world ranking in perspective, as shown in Table 2.
Britain is doing fairly well in fifth place. China and Spain both have higher projected growth than the UK. But neither are G7 members. More importantly, this is just a one year snapshot; taken out of context. Looking back to the Brexit decision, when Britain started to plan its unimpeded future should show the growth potential beginning, Even with recession in economies caused by Covid, if Britain truly achieved a better response than elsewhere, this should show up as less of a ‘hit’ to UK prosperity. Comparisons over the five years to date should show how well economies had been managed through these difficult times. OECD data, ranged by change over that time are shown in Table 3.
That paints a poorer picture of UK economic achievement by this present Conservative government. But it gets worse. Their insistence that Britain would prosper if freed from the shackles of the EU does not apply to parts of the UK. Indeed they are at pains to stress benefits to Scotland staying in a union with England and painted a picture of dire economic consequences, were it to leave. Scotland often compares itself to nearby countries of similar size enjoying close ties to Europe and comes to a much different conclusion. Who is right?.
Table 4 replaces other G7 members with such nearby countries, again ranking by GDP growth over the same five years as above in Table 3.
Here, the UK clearly comes of worst of all, for three reasons:
Sluggish growth for three years after the Brexit decision—UK economy was not at the races even before Covid hit.
Larger-than-anyone-expected drop in UK GDP, due to poorer and more erratic manner of Covid lockdowns
Rebound growth this year comparable to others, but due to having lost so much ground in the first place.
By making a more expansive discussion of OECD statistics, as illustrated above, it is clear to see why the present UK government would do all it can to suppress detailed comparisons with other countries—whether G7 members or even small neighbours. Gullible Britain is buying false goods from a government keener on offering obfuscation than serious progress reports
But the day of reckoning cannot be far off. Exports and imports are both down, due to much increased red tape. The only trade deals struck replace those we had as part of the EU. Far from being dynamic, UK post-Brexit performance has been sluggish, making us the worst in the developed world.
Which perhaps explains why Boris Johnson has been “economic with the veracity”.
Standing less than 2m tall, Boeing’s ScanEagle looks more like something you would find at the local model aero club than anything threatening. But this unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—also known as a drone—has become a front-line weapon in the War on Terror. And, increasingly, the weapon of choice for the US military. Originally developed in the early 21st century for reconnaissance purposes, its armed variant represents the bulk of those in existence.
George W. Bush first used them experimentally in 2004. Since then, US presidents and their military have placed increasing reliance on these unmanned weapons that spared lives in executing strikes on elusive and hidden targets, such as terrorists and their camps.
When he took office, Barack Obama followed the trend toward drone strikes, dramatically increasing their use in the war on terror. Some 1,878 drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia during Obama’s tenure included 154 strikes in Yemen alone.
That said, Obama did limit the use of drones. Strikes were to be permitted only:
Against terrorist targets that posed a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.”
Absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action against an identified high-value terrorist be taken only when there is near certainty that the individual being targeted is in fact the lawful target
If the lawful target is known to be located at the place where the action will occur
Absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action will be taken only if there is near certainty that the action can be taken without injuring or killing non-combatants.
When Trump took office, all such niceties went out the window. His administration wrote new rules to allow strikes where there was scant or no threat. These could be made against anyone regarded as a terrorist, even by a local military commander. The use of drones and reporting the number of civilians killed by drone strikes ceased. Trump launched 2,243 drone strikes in he first two years alone.
The most notorious Trump strike was in 2020 against Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, killing him and nine others. This violated international law because the U.S. had not provided evidence that Soleimani presented an imminent threat to justify the attack. Trump’s response? “That’s giving a pass to terrorists.
Biden suspended Trump’s rules immediately, and began to review how the policies of both Obama and Trump had worked. In its plan to end “forever wars,” the Biden administration brought drone use to an all-time low. Unfortunately, an August 29 drone strike on a supposed Al Qaeda cell only killed 10 civilians.
Even if Biden does curtail usage, this does not auger well. For the last century, America has shown an increasing tendency to act in its own interests globally. And ‘act’ has increasingly come to equate to military intervention. (See “The Two Trillion Dollar Tragedy”). Despite repeated setbacks, it is the US military that has repeatedly intervened in execution of foreign policy—and this is likely to continue into future
But because Americans are particularly squeamish about their “boys” coming home in body bags, the use of drones to attack terrorists and other awkward targets without risking any number of soldiers as “boots on the ground” that ground operations require. Despite the appeal to US politicians and military alike, there are significant disadvantages to this approach:
Drones are not cheap. At $800,000 each, they are a bargain, as compared to an F-35, but they require significant technical support and carry expensive stand-off munitions
They have a very limited payload—ideal for surgical strikes against human targets in a very small area, but trivial compared to artillery bombardment.
They lower the bar for military engagement, enabling the US to insert itself into other countries at a much lower cost than in the past.
Like other munitions, drones are indiscriminate who they kill. The ratio of military to civilian deaths is not known, but dozens of civilians at an Afghan wedding were killed by a drone strike in 2008.
This penchant for using force and reluctance to risk American lives to do so does not auger well for discontinuing the use of drones as (in von Clausewitz’s phrase) “diplomacy by other means”. As America continues to lose economic ground to the Chinese, it will be interesting to see whether, in global dominance, the ”Belt and Road” turns out to be mightier than the drone.
(Research material derived from Heather Cox Richardson’s Letter from America)
“And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to your destruction; but do good; for Allah loves those who do good.”
But the spider that sits at the centre—politically; geographically; morally—of this Middle Eastern web that is a vortex of enmity and warfare—is the Saud family, their on-going absolute control of Arabia and the severe Wahabi branch of Islam they espouse. The fact that Wahabis are still a minority is ignored. The fact that the religious extremism of their clerics has spawned extremist terrorists is denied. The denial that the ruling Crown Prince Muhammad bin Saud (a.k.a. MBS) had anything to do with the virtual kidnapping of Lebanese premier Harare, or condoned killing and dismembering journalist Khashoggi by a 15-man hit squad inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey fails all standards of credibility.
It is undoubtedly true that the Saudis would like nothing better than their domination of a peaceful Middle East. But, despite all their money and unquestioned backing of the USA, they have made a pig’s ear of it so far. They are running a cold war with most of their neighbours, especially Iran and even with tiny Qatar, whose free-speech Al Jazeera broadcast network drives than crazy.
This on-going instability helps no-one, except insurgents, like Al Quaeda. But neither the regime, nor its US backers seem ready to admit the extent to which insurgents derive from Saudi Arabia and its fearsome Wahabi cleric-driven religion. Almost all of the plotters behind 9/11 turned out to be Saudi. By far the largest contingent of foreign fighters captured by NATO forces in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo for questioning, were Saudi. The immature autocracy practiced by MBS is alienating many in the ruling family. The 40% of the population who are Shia are tired of neglect. The 8 million foreign workers resent being treated like slaves. The Saudis rely on them and almost a million Western technicians to run the country’s infrastructure. But unrest may drive enough away to curtail cheap petrol, water and other ways to keep those outside the blessed 15,000 quiet.
Though they may wish for peace and stability, the Saudi royal family are riding the Wahabi tiger. Its strict Islam may not directly preach unrest, let alone terrorism. But that has been the growing effect, one that neither the kingdom, nor its US patrons admit to. This wilful blindness means more than overlooking MBS’ clumsy actions and blaming Iran for all Arab terrorism. It means admitting that 9/11 and similar random acts of terrorism can be laid indirectly at the door of the Saudi royal family who have unwittingly spawned a generation of jihadists by the manner in which they have led their country since its inception.
“I want a better Saudi Arabia. I don’t see myself as an opposition. I’m not calling for the overthrow of the regime, because I know it’s not possible and is too risky, and there is no one to overthrow the regime. I’m just calling for reform of the regime.”
“You may fight in the cause of Allah against those who attack you, but do not aggress. Allah does not love the aggressors.”
That complacency changed in September 11th 2001 when in a well prepared and coordinated effort, four commercial airliners were hijacked in the North-East of the USA. One was flown to crash into the Pentagon; a second heading for Washington crashed short, apparently because passengers had tried to take back control; the two others deliberately crashed into upper floors of both towers of New York’s World Trade Centre, killing 3,000 people.
Understandably, outraged America wanted to find and bring the culprits to justice. As soon as it was established that the Taliban government in Afghanistan had provided shelter for those who had planned, a massive military operation swept them from power, to be replaced by a more western-democratic government, and the search for the leader Bin Laden continued.
Poor though relations between the West and the muslim world at this point, antipathy escalated. Suspicion that the “unfinished business” of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had resulted in them also harbouring terrorists, as well as ill-defined “weapons of mass destruction” being developed, the Second Gulf War in 2003. Although the main action was soon ended with the fall of Baghdad and the death of Hussein, unrest and guerrilla action continued over the next decade, despite massive investment into both Iraq and Afghanistan and the presence of Western, mostly American, troops.
Many, again mostly American, companies profited from the trillions of dollars spent, but little understanding of the fragmented tribal nature of both countries, let alone the sensitivities of strict muslims meant what were effectively alien occupations, resented by the bulk of a population resentful of their continued poverty, which contrasted with the relative wealth of collaborators, especially the corruption, from which many of them profited.
None of these interventions brought peace. The continued presence of major US forces, practicing their western ways in Saudi Arabia duelled resentment among extremists. This fuelled the short-lived Islamic State straddling Iraq and Syria, eventually overrun with help from the Kurds. Meanwhile, revolution had broken out against the Assad regime broke out in Syria in 2011. Because the Saudis had driven the Hashemites like Assad, the Saudis supported the rebels, only to be countered by support for Assad from Iran and Russia, following the old adage that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Not content with this mess, the Saudis also supported the Yemeni government on their southern border against Houthi rebels, because they were Shia “unbelievers” and also because the Saudis had annexed some of their provinces during their rush to dominate Arabia.
Gentle reader, if you are tiring of the relentless complexity, not to mention brutality, of all this, the real dilemma is that there is no simple cure, nor any single villain. We could blame the clumsiness of the US in seeing the world in terms of enemies and those who want to live like Americans. We could blame young muslim extremists for using brutal methods to display their contempt for Western culture. Both are true—to an extent.
“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.”
—US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002
“Feed the needy wretch, the orphan and the prisoner, for love of Allah, saying: We feed you, for the sake of Allah only, for we wish for no reward nor thanks from you.”
Clashes with infidels has long been part of Arab history since the 6th century. Relations were not improved by El Cid, several brutal crusades and the fall of Constantinople to Seljuk Turks in 1454. But only in the latter part of the 20th century had substantial numbers of muslims made their homes in the West—Turks moving to Germany; Algerians to France, Pakistanis to Britain, and so on. Here, opposing cultures were seldom separated as in Arabia. Most integrated peacefully, but a minority resented domination by infidel. Saudi Arabia, true to its origins, supported Wahabi missions outside Arabia. They were religious centres, not terrorist cells. But they were catalysts in bringing younger, more radical muslims together.
While the Saudis stood aloof from efforts towards pan-Arab unions (such as Nasser’s UAR with Syria in the 1950’s), young Saudis, not needing to focus on making a living, looked for places to express their passion for their religion in a world they saw as increasingly dominated by infidels.
This came to a head when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and were soon embroiled in dealing with a fierce and unconventional resistance to the puppet republic they had set up. The Mujahideen proved to be doughty and creative guerrillas, adept at using terrain to raid and harass conventional forces, whom modern weaponry proved ineffectual.
The Pentagon crowed how the Russians had “found their Vietnam” but clearly took no lessons from it, as they made the same mistakes themselves twenty years later. Among those doughty Mujahadeen were a number of volunteers from other muslim countries, like neighbouring Pakistan. But the largest contingent came from Saudi Arabia, one of whose leaders came from the Saudi royal family: Osama Bin Laden.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russians withdrew in 1989, they left thousands of fighters experienced in unconventional warfare with their tails up. Almost immediately, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and looked like he was poised to take the Saudi oilfields next. Bin Laden offered King Fahd the services of his trained, tough fighters, but was rejected in favour of George Bush’s intervention of Operation Desert Shield. For over six months, a massive build-up of US and allied forces flooded Saudi Arabia with Western soldiers and technicians, may of them female and none sensitive to how they were treading on the cultural toes of orthodox muslims.
While this temporary inundation was bad enough, 1991’s successful execution of the subsequent Desert Storm only cleared Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Substantial US forces remained as security during the 1990s. This was with Saudi approval but sat badly with Wahabi clerics, the young men who followed them and the tough guerrillas who had cut their teeth in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Several bloody attacks on training camps and US military facilities resulted. These were largely swept under the carpet by both the US and Saudis as isolated incidents.
“The Taliban are good fighters and great negotiators.”
“By the brightness of the noonday sun, and in the night when all is still, your Lord has not forsaken you, nor is He displeased. Soon your Lord will be bountiful to you and you be satisfied.”
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it is less than a month since the West’s resulting long military involvement in Afghanistan ended abruptly as a car crash. There is a school of thought that, as the original goal of preventing the country being used as a base for terrorism had been achieved by 2002, troops could all have been withdrawn This would have avoided two decades of casualties on all sides as well as a failed “nation-building” programme.
What was never properly discussed—certainly not in public—was the background to that conflict, nor the likely consequences in a region that holds 55% of the world’s oil reserves and supplies one in three litres of its daily consumption. By far the bulk of this is supplied by Saudi Arabia, whose history, development and politics are never brought under scrutiny. This underlies the deeper story of 9/11.
From being essentially a British protectorate a century ago, this new country passed under American influence as Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) began wholesale exploitation of its riches. It being in no-one’s interest to rock the rich boat of wealth that ensued, the serious culture clash between the materialistic West in a country that officially adheres to the strict Wahabi strain of Islam was studiously ignored by all concerned.
The origins of this unusual and unusually influential country lie two centuries ago in a small tribe led by Ibn Saud, who set up a successful trading post deep in the Nefud. The tribe developed a strong religious bent when it adopted the Wahabi faith of Sunni Islam, which granted successive Saud rulers with absolute authority, in exchange for adhere to Wahabi tenets and to spread them abroad. After a chequered century or so fighting the Ottoman Empire, the Saudis, by siding with the Allies, emerged victorious after WW1 and proceeded to extend their power across Arabia during the 1920s. This was accelerated by the expedient method of King Ibn Saud marrying daughters of rival tribal leaders and so securing control over most of the peninsula. Today’s extensive Saudi royal family numbers some 15,000 members, around 1,500 of whom are regarded as “senior”, and therefore influential.
The extent of the kingdom now meant that they controlled the holiest shrines of their religion in Mecca and Medina, The Saudis were therefore seen as curators of the heart of the muslim religion. For decades, the disruptive intrusion of Western culture in the shape of oil engineers and technicians was accommodated by strict segregation, especially socially. The import of unskilled labour from other muslim countries released Saudis from menial tasks. To date, a swollen population of 34 million includes 2 million Bangladeshis, 1.5 million Filipinos, 1 million Pakistanis, 250,000 Lebanese and large contingents from many other muslim countries.
Several events, such as the storming of the holy mosque by dissidents in 1979 resulted in ever stricter practice of Islam, reinforced by recruitment of clerics into the education system. Strict interpretation of the Qur’an and application of Sharia law sat increasingly badly with Western ideas of democracy, personal freedoms and emancipation. But because business was so profitable to both cultures, Western workers obeyed the rules as required, yet younger Saudis grew resentful of their presence and their status.
“Ibn al-Wahhab was not the godfather of contemporary terrorist movements. Rather, he was a voice of reform, reflecting mainstream eighteenth-century Islamic thought. His vision of Islamic society was based upon monotheism in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews were to enjoy peaceful co-existence and cooperative commercial treaty relations.”
A haughty British indifference to the world outside the Empire applied as much to Lancashire mill workers as to victims of the Irish potato famine in Connemara. As long as mastery of global wealth and of a rigid social hierarchy applied, Britain could continue to be run by the same, small, English elite through their aura of permanent, unruffled sang froid. The institutions that underpinned this—the Etons & Harrows; Oxbridge Bullingdon-esque and St James gentlemen’s clubs; the shooting estates—continue to the present day. One needed neither masonic handshake, nor membership for identification by fellow nomenklatura: your accent and your attitude were passport enough.
Though still extant, effortless superiority suffered erosion from financial earthquakes of both world wars and voter emancipation giving political powers to workers. Stripped of an accepted social certainty, they found themselves forced to operate out of the tabloid reach of the public eye, to whom they appeared a shadow of their former selves—much like Great Britain itself.
Formerly reserved careers were whittled away—RAF pilots were swamped by massed bomber crews in WW2; cavalry regiments degraded by rude mechanicals; pin-stripe management by business school upstarts. Even the douce “Something in the City” patrons of the Waterloo & City line found themselves jostled by loud Loadsamoneys in bright braces after 1987’s “Big Bang”. Post-Thatcher society in the South (meaning south of the Cambridge and East of the Cotswolds) modernised, finding affluence and social flexibility still exploited by the few, but now in a less obvious, if no less important, way.
But outside the South, elsewhere in England was drifting. Devon and Cornwall were growing ever more resentful of depopulation by holiday home. Eastern village farm worker cottages filled with retirees and commuters. The once-industrial Midlands and North drifted through denial that their great cities had lost their purpose and drive.
What areas of England did share was a wistfulness at their triple loss: empire; industry; influence. Since the 1970s, Britain had been chided as “The Sick Man of Europe”. So, it is unsurprising what came from UKIP—that greatness could be had if we only repelled an invasion of foreigners and threw off shackles forged by the bureaucrats of Brussels. This cheap slogan is as old as politics: garner support by creating a foreign enemy you will deal with. This ploy scared the bejasus out of the Conservatives, whose base in the South was especially vulnerable to such positioning.
So the Tories saw no choice but to out-xenophobe the UKIP xenophobes. It mattered not that the rest of Britain did not share the panic. Not only did Brexit become the obvious counter to outflank UKIP before being outflanked, but the money salted away behind front companies in various tax havens were about to be revealed through EU legislation against such convenient anonymity. An added bonus of northern job losses stirring up resentment to “blame the foreigners” carried Brexit over the line. In turn, this led to the 2019 crumbling of the Red Wall, with Boris Johnson trying to look like John Bull glaring defiantly out over the beetling cliffs of Dover.
It might have looked like unity, but not as we know it. Outside a mile radius from London’s Pall Mall and a few outliers in places like Farnham, Cheltenham and Great Walsingham, it would be hard to gather significant numbers of English people who agreed on what their country wanted to do upon leaving the EU, much less a clear future ambition for itself, or what role in the world. Purposeful Victorian clarity of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” it is not.
Though many couch it in terms of “Britain”, it is, in fact, an English dilemma. What’s more regional cultures that make up England don’t share the same dilemma, ever since ever since the Nazis disintegrated and the Empire went the same way. Though far from achieving the relaxed sense of identity found in Denmark or Norway, the Scots, Welsh and (aside from a dying anachronism called unionism in Ulster) the Irish are all growing comfortable in their own skins. None of them have much interest in this on-going elite-driven Southern English throwback delusion of global greatness. Nor are they likely to hang around to see what happens when realpolitik presents the truth to their benighted English cousins who share these pleasant, but (let’s face it) geographically marginal islands.
Until the elite stop thinking it self-evident that they are and the South stops encouraging them, the decline of the last century will continue, the Celts will adopt the more modest, socially cohesive Scandinavian model. Outlying English regions may get lucky and—for once—London will leave them to forge their own future.