Monday 20 November 2023

Human Resources

The term "human shield" is en vogue at the moment because of the claim by supporters of Israel's military action in Gaza that Hamas are using the civilian population to hide behind. A number of people have pointed out that this makes no sense given that meat-based shields aren't very good at stopping bullets or shells. A human shield, properly speaking, is a hostage whose life is threatened by the person being shielded. But given the way in which the IDF is pounding Gaza regardless of the safety of the civilian population, it clearly does not regard Palestinians as hostages whose lives are to be cherished and it clearly has not prioritised the safety of the Jewish and other hostages seized on the 7th of October either, to judge by its indiscriminate bombing and the slow progress towards a ceasefire and hostage-exchange. The IDF's ostensible target is Hamas who, we have been repeatedly assured, are hidden in underground bunkers. But Israeli forces aren't using "bunker-busting" ordinance but simply flattening the buildings above ground, and so far they have provided little verified evidence of Hamas's network of tunnels or substantiated their claims to have killed "thousands" of Hamas fighters. Israel's goal appears to be to destroy the shield, i.e. the urban fabric of Gaza and its civilian population. 

This appears to be an example of the Dahiya doctrine, developed by the IDF in Lebanon in 2006 and later employed in Gaza during the 2008-09 war, which treated civilians and their homes not simply as collateral damage but as an asset to be denied to their opponents: "We will wield disproportionate power against [them] and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases. [...] Harming the population is the only means of restraining [Hezbollah]". This doctrine is a classic counter-insurgency approach whose roots lie in the repressive policing of the European empires from their heyday in the 1880s through to their dismantling in the 1950s. The genocidal free-for-alls of earlier centuries were replaced by a more systematic policy in which native peoples were seen as a valuable resource. Not necessarily one to be preserved, but as one to be denied to the insurgents, both as a source of supplies and funding and as a protective environment within which they could find shelter. One form in which civilians are treated as a resource is through internment. 

In Northern Ireland, this was justified on the grounds of a plausible suspicion of the internees' involvement in terrorism, but the reality - notably in the case of Operation Demetrius in 1971 - was that many innocent people were caught up in the sweep, which inflamed tensions and led to a rise in violence, while the partiality of the Stormont authorities (no Loyalists were interned in the operation) contributed to the decision to suspend the Northern Ireland Parliament and introduce direct rule from London. Internment in Israel/Palestine takes two forms. There is the classic detention without trial, not only of those suspected of being active in the armed resistance but of ordinary civilians, notably women and children, guilty of no more than throwing stones or haranguing IDF soldiers. It's no secret that Israel seeks to always have a large stock of Palestinians in prison as a contingency for its own troops or Jewish civilians being taken hostage: so that it has sufficient resource to agree a hostage exchange without the need to release actual Hamas or Hizbollah fighters. The second form that internment takes is Gaza itself, and increasingly areas of the West Bank, where barriers and blockades create what are in effect open prisons.

A notable early example of mass-internment was the British action in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The British commander, Lord Kitchener, employed a traditional scorched earth policy to stop the rebels living off the land, burning crops and slaughtering or confiscating cattle, but this was combined with an innovative approach to civilians. Where previously these would be left to fend for themselves, which essentially meant condemning them to a forced march to less hostile territory, or allowing them to die through famine, the British decided to incarcerate them in "concentration camps". In effect, to take the families hostage and deny the rebels their material and emotional support. Though not death camps in the sense we would come to know during the Second World War, these places were characterised by malnutrition and disease due to systematic neglect. Of an interned population of some 100,000 Boers, roughly a quarter died, mostly women and children. 

Since then, wars have typically been fought less between armies than between the military and civilians. Even the First World War, which is emblematically remembered in the trenches of the Western Front, saw more civilian than military deaths. The Second World War was a notable example of this with the  destruction of urban populations through mass bombing (and finally nuclear weapons) being as distinctive as the industrial-scale extermination of the Jewish population of Germany and occupied Europe. One war where military deaths did exceed civilian, though not by much, was the Vietnam War, from 1955 to 1975. This was similar to the Boer War in the use of a scorched earth policy (specifically the use of defoliants like Agent Orange) and of civilian relocation (the Stragetic Hamlet Program). It ultimately failed because of the contradictions between a military counterinsurgency strategy centred on "search and destroy" and a pacification strategy that required territory to be held and services provided to the civilian population to win "hearts and minds". What Vietnam (and indeed Northern Ireland in the 1970s) proved was that counterinsurgency is usually more anti-civilian than anti-insurgent, something that is only too apparent in Gaza right now.

The popular historiography of Israel focuses on the relatively brief military campaigns against the Arab states: the 1948 War, the Six-Day War of 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This focus is as partial as calling the Israeli military, the most powerful in the region and one that has overseen significant territorial expansion beyond the post-1948 Green Line, a defence force. The other perspective, that of the Palestinians, has focused on the forced expropriation of land and the displacement of the population, starting in 1948, along with the routine harrassment and eviction of the civilian population by both the IDF and settler groups since then. What the current war in Gaza has made plain is that the conflict is at heart between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people. It isn't really a military contest at all, despite Hamas's attempts to cast it as such. This has been reinforced by the opportunistic attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinians in the West Bank, as much as by the Arab states sitting on their hands under the watchful eye of the United States. 

The defence of Israel's actions has included the conflation of all Palestinians with Hamas and the suggestion that civilian Palestinians are no more innocent than "Nazi civilians". Inevitably, criticism of the state of Israel in its aggressive policy has been interpreted as antisemitic, not just by Israeli politicians or Jewish groups in the diaspora, but also by non-Jewish politicians in countries like the US, UK, France and Germany. In some cases, voicing the common line - that Israel has the right to defend itself as it sees fit, that Hamas have brought this on the Palestinians of Gaza, and that calls for a ceasefire are pointless until Hamas is destroyed - is simply a way of indicating fealty to Washington. This, rather than a desire to further stomp on the left, is undoubtedly the main consideration for Keir Starmer and the Labour Party hierarchy, though the opportunity to do a bit of stomping will naturally be taken anyway. Opportunism also underpins the willingness of the National Rally in France and the AfD in Germany to align themselves with the political establishment.

It's worth at this point returning to the history of the Second Boer War. The British government's claim of "military necessity" for its concentration camp policy and its domestic opponents' charge of a "policy of extermination" have obvious echoes today, though it's important to note that no modern politician is willing to use that latter phrase as Lloyd George once did. It isn't hyperbole to talk of Israel pursuing a "policy of extermination", particularly when senior Israeli politicians and military personnel are employing exterminationist language themselves. In fact, the evidence is more compelling this time round. The avoidable civilian deaths of the Second Boer War could be attributed largely to incompetence rather than design, and it was true that improvements made after the public outcry significantly reduced the mortality rate. While Israeli ministers are cicumspect enough not to chant "Death to the Arabs" at every opportunity, they are openly advocating the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza. That such rhetoric is tolerated by Western states, however uneasily, shows that the problem is not the human shield of Palestinians but the political shield provided by Washington and its allies for genocide.

Sunday 12 November 2023

A VARcical Start to the Season

There is an air of familiarity at the top of the English Premier League, with Manchester City leading Liverpool and Arsenal and the usual suspects close behind, though Tottenham Hotspur appear to have replaced Manchester United as the seasonal anomaly: a team that aren't as good as the pundits claim but who have certainly been lucky. The good fortune that saw Erik ten Hag's team of misfits finish third last season (their goal difference was a paltry 15, which should have consigned them to sixth or seventh) appears to have run out, and luck may be about to do a flit from Ange Postecoglou's refashioned Spurs as well. What Tottenham's recent stumble indicates is that they remain a shallow squad who will probably struggle against teams in the top third of the table on most matchdays, despite the relatively good results achieved against Liverpool at home (that notoriously disallowed Diaz goal) and Arsenal away (a game in which Jesus missed a sitter and Jorginho uncharacteristically gave the ball away). 

The other familiar feature, beyond Chelsea stuck in mid-table, is the interminable chuntering over VAR. For all the obvious errors and angry managerial reactions, this has been a strange debate because it scrupulously avoids the central issue, namely that the obvious incompetence is because the system is controlled by PGMOL. As the Spurs-Liverpool fiasco made clear, the interaction of the match officials lacks process discipline and suffers from over-familiarity ("That's wrong that, Daz"). The obvious flaw is that the official's discussions aren't broadcast. Where that happens, such as in rugby, public exposure encourages both a clear protocol - explicitly state the on-field decision and what is being checked - and militates against ambiguous, blokeish idioms. The whole idea of referees checking their own homework and, as Mike Dean cheerfully admitted, consequently seeking to protect their "mates", was obviously flawed from the start. That said, there was never much likelihood of the technology being introduced without PGMOL being in control of it. 

A long-standing bleat by well-paid pundits is that former players should be encouraged to become referees, which has always struck me as evidence of those pundits' unworldliness. Getting ex-pros to work their way up the ranks as referees isn't going to happen. They don't need the money these days and certainly not the aggro. But there is a good case for them being fast-tracked in as specialist VAR assistants, not simply because of their experience playing the game but in order to maintain some emotional distance between the VAR booth and the officials on the pitch. Of course, this would be akin to putting potential pundits in charge of VAR, and you can imagine the reaction of PGMOL to that, but then if all pundits had to serve an apprenticeship as VAR assistants, would that actually be a bad thing? It might even improve the quality of punditry by encouraging match commentators to be less willing to rush to judgement (though probably not Garry Neville).

The international football break - aka the interlull - has come at the thirdway point of the season, with all teams now having played 12 games. At 27 points and third behind Manchester City on 28 and Liverpool also on 27, Arsenal are slightly worse off than at the same stage last season, when they has 31 points and were 2 ahead of Guardiola's team. The rationalisation among fans is that our dash to the front in 2022 was ultimately undone by conceding too many goals and thus points in the final third of the season, largely due to injuries to key players such as William Saliba and Takehiro Tomiyasu. City paced themselves better, as they usually do, finishing strongly after beating us home and away in February and April. It is widely assumed that Arteta has decided to sacrifice some of the goal-scoring verve that marked the opening third of last season in order to make us more secure at the back. Controlling games better, in the manner of City, and increasing the depth of the squad, should not only make the team more efficient but more durable. Beating City at the Emirates in October might be a taste of that.

However, though our goals scored has dropped from 30 to 26, our goals conceded has only improved from 11 to 10. But an average of a little under a goal a game is probably is as good as it will get: City have now conceded 12 (albeit 4 of those were in today's game at Stamford Bridge). What matters is whether that rate can be sustained through to the end of the season. The last time Arsenal conceded fewer in the opening third, 9 in the 2015-16 season, they finished second behind Leicester City after conceding 13 and 14 in the middle and last thirds (and also losing their shooting boots in that middle third, scoring only 17). With injuries beginning to mount up, Arsenal face a key set of games after the interlull, running through to New Year's Eve, that could go a long way to determining whether Aretea's strategy has a chance of working. The coincidence of games against Liverpool and West Ham United either side of Chrismas, back-to-back fixtures that essentially ended our title tilt last April, offers the chance of psychological redemption.

In terms of the balance of the team, the key issue remains our limited options up front. Though Leandro Trossard and Kai Havertz have clearly given Arteta more variety, we just as clearly need another specialist forward who can lead the line as effectively as Jesus but with more reliable end-product. Eddie Nketiah remains a useful backup, as he proved against Sheffield United, but he isn't the sort of dominant striker that Arsenal require. If the team can keep on City's coat-tails until the end of the year, then they may well make a move in the January transfer window. At the other end of the pitch, the demotion of Aaron Ramsdale in favour of David Raya has divided fans, not least because the Spaniard doesn't appear to be that much of an upgrade on the popular English stopper. Time will tell whether this proves an astute tactical move by Arteta, but it is the first test of the much-vaunted "connection" that the club has established with the fanbase over the last couple of years.

In midfield, Thomas Partey's time at the club increasingly looks like it will come to an end this season, his persistent injury problems meaning that he can't be considered a key cog in the team in the way that Declan Rice has quickly become, despite his occasional dominant performances. Rice hasn't been a revelation exactly - he was propping up West Ham for years and always looked comfortable for England - but it's noticeable how much better he looks in a more technical team. If Arteta's endurance strategy is to pay off, it will depend to a large degree on Rice providing drive and defensive security in the middle of the park consistently until May. Jorginho looks like what he is: an experienced pro who can fill-in, but that simply makes him an upgrade on Mohammed Elneny. For all his popularity, the Egyptian is likely to leave by the end of the season while the Italo-Brazilian is unlikely to play more than twenty games. In brief, Arsenal will probably need to bring in another defensive midfielder next summer. 

In terms of the creative roles, niggles for Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli should prove transient, though there remains a concern about the load on the England player. There is also the now perennial hope that Emile Smith-Rowe will finally get a break on the injury front. But it doesn't look like Reiss Nelson or Fabio Vieira are going to make the grade, or secure Arteta's lasting confidence, which amounts to the same thing, so there's every chance the manager and Edu will be in the market for another wide player. Kai Havertz hasn't lived up to his billing, however I have a sneaking suspicion that he could yet be pivotal (I'm obviously just hoping he repeats the trick of scoring the winner in the Champions League final). He's overdue a spectacular goal; or even just an ugly one. His languid style of play has irritated some Arsenal fans, though the player he reminds me of (based on  limited exposure through old videos, it should be said), with his astute positional sense and heading ability, is one George "Stroller" Graham. 

Overall, it's been a fascinating start to the season, with no one team setting the pace in the way that Arsenal did this time last year, and with plenty of unpredictable results and some very good games featuring late drama, such as today's 4-4 draw between Chelsea and Manchester City. As ever, what will matter is consistency in the middle third of the season and then the ability to tighten the screw in the final third, which ultimately reflects the depth of squads as much as tactics. Arsenal look more capable of lasting the distance this time round, though it is going to take some luck - or at least the absence of bad luck - on the injury front, while City are unlikely to repeat their treble triumph of last season and might even prioritise defending the Champions League over another Premier League title. The biggest threat to last season's top two is likely to be Liverpool, who despite looking chaotic at times have crept into second and have the muscle memory of a consistent run to the title to call upon, not to mention the incentive of winning the title in front of their fans rather than a Covid-emptied stadium. It promises to be a vintage season. Let's hope it isn't decided by dodgy VAR.

Friday 3 November 2023

Time to Move

A dominant theme in the news at the moment is of people on the move, from the anxious queues at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt to the forced repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. From a UK perspective, the issue of migration has been a persistent theme since the media focus on "bogus" asylum-seekers in the 1990s, and obviously played a crucial role in the upswell of euroscepticism between the accession of Eastern European states in 2004 and the EU referendum in 2016. The most recent manifestation, the so-called small boats crisis - itself a relatively minor subset of the number of asylum claims, which is currently around 80,000 a year - obviously pales in comparison to the prospect of 1.7 million Afghanis moved against their will. Beyond the immediate horizon, the continuing flow of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean littoral, and the growing number of people displaced by environmental degradation arising from climate change, suggests that this century will be defined by the ebb and flow of populations.

Not everyone drawing our attention to the mass displacement of Afghan refugees by Pakistan is arguing for a more humane policy towards refugees generally. For some, it is simply an opportunity to insist that Israel should not be singled out for the crime of ethnic cleansing. But however callous the forced repatriation of refugees might be, it isn't the same as displacing people from their homeland. Of course, the issue becomes blurred over time. Some of those Afghanis were born and brought up in Pakistan, their parents having fled in the 1980s. As the Windrush scandal made clear, states are institutionally oblivious to how quickly people can put down roots, and how even within a single family the understanding of where "home" is can vary (a point well made in Horace OvĂ©'s recently reissued film Pressure). But it's also the case that public opinion tends to be sanguine about ethnic cleansing so long as there are no deaths involved, hence the minimal outcry over the Armenians who have fled Nagorno-Karabakh

Inasmuch as events in Pakistan have a parallel with those in Israel, it is in the leaked government discussion about the feasibility of expelling the Palestinians of Gaza into Sinai. There's certainly no parallel with the possibility of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan or Egypt being expelled back into the areas of Israel they left under duress in 1948. There are close to 110 million refugees in the world today, a majority of whom are internally displaced - i.e. they haven't crossed an international border. This figure has risen rapidly over the last decade, largely due to the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine. If we include migrants - that is people who have moved for a better life but do not yet enjoy the rights of citizenship in their host country - the global population of those living outside their country of origin is 184 million. Add the 62 million internally displaced and you have a global population of almost a quarter of a billion people who have been uprooted: approximately 3% of humankind.

What these figures don't include is the routine deracination that doesn't qualify as forced displacement. This is a combination of economic mobility (moving for work or education), precarious tenancy (a growing problem as homeownership and social renting both decline) and the forced evictions of slum clearances. In his 2006 book, Planet of Slums, Mike Davis noted that "Urban segregation is not a frozen status quo, but rather a ceaseless social war in which the state intervenes regularly ... to redraw spatial boundaries to the advantage of landowners, foreign investors, elite homeowners and middle-class commuters." The result is that "every year hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of poor people - legal tenants as well as squatters - are forcibly evicted from Third World neighborhoods". The point is that the displacement of people is a constant of capitalism and has been since the initial movement between countryside and town driven by the agrarian and industrial revolutions (the global population became predominantly urban in 2007).

Viewed in this larger context, the struggle for a Jewish homeland during the twentieth century appears like a quixotic act of defiance against capitalism. This was one reason for the emergence of the kibbutz movement's combination of Zionism and socialism, in contrast to the universalist Jewish Bund that prioritised class solidarity across ethnic boundaries. But leftist kibbutzim, despite their presence among the victims of the Hamas attack, are atypical in Israel today, at least in comparsion to the West Bank settlements. While the Palestinian villages they displace are usually agricultural, those villages exist within a geographical hierarchy of small towns and cities housing industry and commercial services (however weak the Palestinian economy may be). In contrast, the Jewish settlements of the West Bank are typically isolated and reliant on communication with towns and cities within the pre-1967 borders. Approximately 60% of the employed population in the settlements works in Israel proper. In other words, the settlements are gated communities made up of commuters and privileged religious groups, the latter of whom are as detached from Israeli society as from Palestinian.

The only way that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank can be functionally incorporated into Israel is if the Palestinians are expelled from Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron so that these and other cities and towns become fully Jewish components of Israel's society and economy. This in turn means that a two-state solution is only viable on the basis of the 1967 borders, which would mean Jews being expelled from all of the settlements constructed in the West Bank since then, just as they were forcibly removed, by the Isreali government, from within the territory of the Gaza Strip in 2005. Liberals who advocate for a two-state solution are usually vague on these practical details, despite the very obvious "facts on the ground", preferring to deride "extremism" on both sides. For example, Jonathan Freedland thinks "the contest that matters most is the battle of hardliners v moderates, or, to be more specific, maximalists v partitionists: those who insist on having the whole land for themselves v those who are ready to share it". 

Freedland's predictably nebulous solution would see "an end to the settlement project in the West Bank and the concession of territory", but an end is not the same as a dismantling. It's clear than many hope the existing settlements can be preserved, even if there is a moratorium on further expansion, and that the major territorial concession will therefore be by the Palestinians, not Israel. But this will leave a dysfunctional West Bank, crippling both a Palestinian state (the current weakness of the Palestinian National Authority isn't solely down to corruption or incompetence) and acting as a fiscal drain on Israel. The territory needs to have integrity. If that cannot be achieved through a single-state solution, then the two states need to be cleanly disentangled. In other words, the best hope is for a bloodless ethnic cleansing. And the only practical way that could be implemented would be for Israel to withdraw all of its citizens from the West Bank (and the Golan Heights) to within its 1967 borders. 

Clearly there isn't much prospect of that happening, and the likes of Freedland would no doubt consider it "extreme", even though it was the original logic of the two-state solution. Likewise, there is little chance of a single-state solution in the foreseeable future, particularly a unitary democracy in which the Palestinian disapora would have the right of return and possible repossession of property, so raising the prospect of Israel neither being a formally Jewish state nor having a Jewish majority population. The outcome that currently appears to have the greatest chance of being realised is the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from the West Bank, whose incremental progress has stepped up in recent weeks. When Western politicians talk about it not being the right time to consider a ceasefire in Gaza, insisting that the IDF should have the chance to wipe out Hamas first, we should bear in mind that this is consistent with their refusal to consider BDS as an appropriate response to the encroachment of settlements and outposts in the West Bank. Our politicians and media have been endorsing a slow-motion ethnic cleansing for decades.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Against History

As the violence grinds on in Gaza, attention has inevitably turned to the wider context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Israel's defenders, the desire to place Hamas's attack in its historic setting is an insult to the memory of the victims. This refusal to historicize has ironically been prominent among some historians. You might expect this from those who make a good living writing for the Tory press, but it has been salutary to see such impeccable liberal grandees as Simon Schama, who was famously scathing about the "rhetorical adrenaline" of the French Revolution, riding the wave of hysteria. One reason for the hyperbole is that any broadening of the discourse immediately reveals the asymmetry of the historic relationship. It also reveals the bankruptcy of the official position of the US and other Western states, obliged to back to the hilt an Israeli government that they despise and a two-state "solution" that has been revealed as nothing more than a fig-leaf for the continuing ethnic cleansing of the West Bank and now Gaza. This has raised the rhetorical stakes, requiring the "war" to be presented in Manichean terms and the murder of Palestinian civilians to be marginalised by quibbling about whose ordinance did what damage and whether casualty numbers are trustworthy.

It has also resulted in liberals dismissing the history of the conflict with what amounts to "It's complicated", insisting that the struggle between indigenous and colonist cannot be resolved because no people has a better claim to a land than another so we might as well accept the status quo. But the very idea that indigenous and colonist are distinct, like the idea that these categories map neatly onto "racial groups", is nonsense. The complexity of history is in the makeup of peoples. In contrast, states are cleanly delineated because they are legal fictions: a line drawn on a map. The problem arises when states claim to be congruent with an ethnicity, either because this demotes some citizens to a second class status or because it prompts attempts to expand the borders. Ukraine offers a good example of both. The fall of Yanukovych after the pro-Western Euromaidan protests led to an upsurge of Ukrainian nationalism and consequently the disaffection of the pro-Russian east of the country. That in turn provided the pretext for the Russian annexation of Crimea and later the full-scale invasion and annexation of the east.

What genetics shows us is that ethnicity is a cultural identification, not an intrinsic biological reality, and one that reflects the tides of history. Consider, for example, the genetic overlap between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. To talk of Palestinian Muslims as Arabs is actually a little misleading. While the Arab conquest of the 7th century did result in some migration out of the Arabian peninsula to Palestine, it also resulted in the conversion to Islam of many indigenous Jews and Samaritans (and indeed of Christians who had previously converted from Judaism). That is a common pattern. Most conquests in history have involved a political takeover by an elite stratum (e.g. the Norman conquest of England or the later Ottoman conquest of Palestine), with the people (particularly the lower orders) changing little at the time. The reason for this was the mobility of warrior castes relative to sedentary agriculturalists in the pre-capitalist era. Such conquests could lead to new trading relationships that stimulated immigration, while foreign military garrisons could also be absorbed into the population (as was the case in the Roman Empire), but changes in the ethnic makeup of conquered territories tended to be gradual and rarely planned, driven mostly by religious conversion, cultural assimilation and career self-interest. 

In contrast, conquest by genocide and settlement by planned mass immigration, as occured in the United States, is the historical exception, despite its scale and impact being such that it affected two continents - America and Australasia - and made significant inroads into a third - Southern Africa. It's worth noting here that the Spanish and Portuguese of the early-16th century considered the indigneous population of Latin America as a resource to be exploited in the search for precious metals, hence the early concern with laws governing that exploitation and the conversion of the population to Catholicism. By the mid-17th century, English and French colonists in North America saw the land itself, and its flora and fauna, as the resource and the natives as an impediment to access and exploitation. This change reflected the emergence of agrarian capitalism, first in England, and the development of a race-based ideology of land improvement and natural ownership, as theorised by John Locke. There are echoes of Locke's idea that ownership arises from mixing labour with the soil in the conventional history of Israel's land improvement after centuries of supposed waste and mismanagement by the Arabs (see this example of that narrative from 1960).

Outside of the Americas and Australasia, colonial societies in which settlers outnumbered the indigenous were rare and of very limited scope (the plantations of Ulster were in some respects dry-runs for the colonies of North America). This was because of the practical difficulty of carrying out an effective genocide or mass expulsion of the indigenous on a wider scale when that population had not been severely reduced by disease, as occured in the Americas, and where it already practised sedentary agriculture. In this respect Israel is a historical oddity because it is clearly emulating an American model of colonial settlement and (if only at the rheorical extremes) advocating a genocide of the indigenous population in an area marked by centuries of ethnic diversity and cohabitation, not to mention densely-populated cities and neighbouring states that not only have no intention of accommodating.more refugees but earnestly hope for the day when the existing post-1948 diaspora of the Palestinians can return home.

Ireland is a useful lens through which to view Israel as it experienced both colonial models: the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in the South (an elite stratum whose imposed agrarian capitalism led to famine in the 1840s) and the Ulster Plantation in the North (an aggressive settler society). The former was dismantled by a national revolution, triggered by a bloody insurrection in 1916, which followed a century of intermittent murders and bombings. That in turn led to a furious war of independence between British and Irish forces that saw war crimes committed by both sides. The creation of the Northern Ireland state was not simply a defensive reflex to protect the Protestant settlers of the six counties, as the deliberate drawing of the border to maximise the territory while ensuring a permanent Unionist majority at Stormont showed. This was a continuation of the rationale of plantation. In the event, demography - the changing makeup of the population and its reflection in elections - has put that domination into question, with the result that the main unionist party is now refusing to allow the Stormont government to function.

The conflict in Northern Ireland after partition was clearly rooted in religion, culture and the deliberate political exclusion of one community by the other, and not in any nonsense such as "race". As such, it has obvious parallels with Israel (that the communities in the North so easily map their sympathies to pro-Israel and pro-Palestine should make this obvious, as should the behaviour of the Irish Catholic diaspora in Glasgow). It is also commonly understood that the final resolution of the conflict must be political: that neither community is going to disappear, either by exile or absorption, so there can be no zero-sum outcome. Power-sharing may currently be in abeyance, but it is clearly the only avenue available after the failure of both the exclusionary Protestant state and the nationalist armed struggle. There is a widespread expectation that this resolution will ultimately entail a unitary state, hence the provision in the Good Friday Agreement for a plebiscite on a united Ireland (the "border poll"). 

What the latest round of killing has made clear is that the Western defenders of Israel do not accept that the same is true for Palestine - i.e. that the only realistic way forward that isn't a zero-sum outcome is a single state solution and that formal power-sharing must be part of that state's constitution. This explains why some are sympathetic to the Israeli claim that the Palestinian people are a modern invention without any historic right to self-determination while paradoxically insisting that the two-state solution, which presumes an equivalent claim to self-determination and thus statehood, remains a viable goal. The wide reporting of Netanyahu's comment that Israel must promote Hamas in order to keep the Palestinians politically divided, so enabling the progressive annexation of land in the West Bank by new settlements, has surely removed the scales from even these people's eyes, so the conclusion has to be that they share the Israeli government's desire for the Palestinian people to simply disappear. 

Friday 20 October 2023

All Change

The twin by-election defeats in Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth have led to much chin-stroking about the parlous state of the Conservative Party. Can it adapt to the evident shift in public opinion in time for the general election? Does it have a future in the face of a potentially hegemonic New Labour 2.0? How bloody will the internecine struggle unleashed by Rishi Sunak's inevitable resignation as party leader be? A lot of this is just the froth of by-election coverage but there is a more serious aspect to it, and that is the media representation of the Conservative Party and its dynamics. In a nutshell, this boils down to two ideas. The first is that the Tories have a chameleon-like ability to change themselves in order to retain, or regain, power. The second is that the electorate appreciates this responsiveness and will reward it at the polls so long as the change is deemed credible and sincere. Before analysing what these ideas really mean - i.e. what are their ideological underpinnings - it's worth taking a look at the results from last night.

The first observation to make is that it's not easy to find the actual vote numbers in the media. Instead the focus is on the swing between the parties and the size of the Tory majority that has been overturned. Both were very large, and in both Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire, but this doesn't tell us all that much. Swings in by-elections are rarely useful pointers unless the swing is small in a tight contest, indicating a decisive shift that may be repeated at a general election, or the turnout is high, in which case a large swing may presage a landslide (not so much because of the size of the swing but because of the way it will be amplified due to the first-past-the-post voting system). Predictably, the turnout in both of the contests was low, which means the large swings will almost certainly be the result of differential turnout between the parties. In other words, this is about who stayed away from the polls and that was predominantly Conservative Party supporters. You can understand the hyperbole about "political earthquakes" and "redrawing the map", but if there is one constant in British political history it is that the significance of by-elections is exaggerated.

Labour managed to secure much the same number of votes in both constituencies that it did in 2019, supposedly it's worst result since the 1930s (in fact, its vote was slightly down in Mid-Bedfordshire). This suggests that it may be at or near to its maximum vote in those constituencies, which doesn't suggest that it will manage to retain either seat come the general election, particularly as it can't rely on the tactical voting that is nowadays a feature of by-elections. The party can expect a further boost in the general election with the prospect of booting out the government, but it can also expect some normally Conservative-voting electors, who wished to "send the government a message" yesterday by voting for the red team, to desert it and return to their usual allegiance. Labour's chief hope for the general election is that the pattern of disheartened Tory voters that has characterised by-elections in this parliament will be replicated on the national stage, as was the case in 1997 when turnout was down by over 6% and the Tory vote declined by 11% of the total.

The Conservative Party's chief hope for the general election is that the government can convince voters that it has changed sufficiently to be worthy of fresh consideration. The problem is that it clearly hasn't changed since Rishi Sunak took over as Prime Minister and there is no sign that he personally has a strategy for change. He is tied to the legacy of austerity, under-investment and graft, while the attempt to divert politics towards the trivialities of a "culture war" has failed abjectly, despite the best efforts of the Tory press. His elevation was all about putting the "adults back in charge", hence it was welcomed by centrists, but that in turn implied stabilisation and predictablity, not a radical new programme. Ironically, the Conservatives would probably have stood a better chance at the next election by sticking with Liz Truss, for all her faults, because she was credibly offering a departure from the preceding consensus. Her renewed vigour on display at the recent party conference was telling, not least because her argument for stimulatory tax cuts will be central to the inevitable post-mortem after a general election defeat.

The history of the Conservative Party's mutability is one of smoke and mirrors. The willingness to change, and the associated assumption of ruthless pragmatism, is more apparent than real. The Tories haven't significantly altered in their outlook since their embrace of empire under Disraeli, which reflected material changes in the value of land (the onset of the great depression in agriculture in the last quarter of the nineteenth century) and the consequent shift of aristocratic wealth to mature industries and the growing service economy. Even the oscillation between free trade and protectionism, of which Brexit is the latest turn, has been an expression of the persistent internal tensions arising from the material base rather than a "struggle over the party's soul". Margaret Thatcher is often presented as a radical departure, but she herself was always clear that she was simply reverting to traditional Tory values that had been marginalised by Butskellism. The marrying of classical liberal economics with traditional social conservatism had been pioneered a century before she entered Number 10.

The claims of Tory flexibility, which have been a feature of political discourse since the 1920s, invariably come from centrist commentators keen to discipline the Labour Party. The idea of Tory reinvention, along with the idea that their secret weapon is loyalty (obviously risible when you consider the last few years), is meant to paint Labour as politically regressive and fractious. Specifically, that it is wedded to a backward-looking class politics that has been superseded by liberal modernity (hence the influence of the trade unions must be reduced if not eliminated) and that it is impeded in becoming the natural party of government by an irresponsible and potentially traitorous left that elevates heart over head and cares more for foreigners than natives. One consequence of this is that the Tories' historic recklessness tends to be played down or transmuted into a debate about the state of the nation rather than the party's competence. Obvious examples are the return to the gold standard in 1925, the Suez debacle of 1956 and the monetarist experiment of the early-1980s. In contrast, Labour has an undeserved reputation for financial mismanagement that really reflects unlucky timing (1929, 1974, 2008) rather than profligacy.

The second idea, that the electorate appreciates change in response to its concerns is no less a myth. Indeed it only exists as a logical corollary of the first myth: if the Tories regularly change and regain power then this must be what the electorate wants. In fact, the dynamic is the other way round: public opinion changes over time and all the parties, not just the Conservatives, attempt to channel this in ways that support, or at least don't conflict with, their persistent interests. Thus the Tory volte-face on empire, reflected in Macmillan's famous "winds of change speech", came after public opinion had turned decisively against imperial delusions after Suez but also reflected British industry's desire to shift focus to the dynamic market of Europe. Similarly, the party's subsequent relationship with the European Union tracked public opinion, with the growth of euroscepticism from the late-80s onwards driven by newspaper owners rather than by politicians. Boris Johnson's ambivalence on the matter was emblematic of the party as whole, not just his own lack of principle. Likewise, the party's recent tacking on issues such as gender recognition and the green transition reflects the latest demands of the Tory press, not some cunning ploy to outflank Labour.

The prime objective of the party of the people is to restrain the people's enthusiasm, hence Labour's response to public opinion is a mixture of careful curation - for example, using focus groups to steer the media framing of that opinion - and straightforward gaslighting - for example, the insistence that public support for the nationalisation of utilities is naive, or that the NHS cannot be improved by more money alone. The media myth of the Tories is that they are constantly changing to meet the demands of the moment. Paradoxically, that this quintessentially regressive party, whose only persistent concern is the defence of private wealth, is mercurial and volatile. The contrasting paradox of Labour is that it is the party of change (even if only a change in management) but that its progressivism is limited to the retooling of the state and that it can thus be relied upon to minimise or divert the often radical changes demanded by the public. Is the Conservative Party about to change? No. It is simply going to hand the baton of fiscal responsibility and caution to an establishment-endorsed Labour Party. At some point, Labour's authoritarianism will alienate voters and the Tories will reappear offering the prospect of personal freedom. Nothing will change.