Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The world goes on despite Scotland

Brutal conflict. Borders in dispute. Break-up. History. Sovereignty.

It’s all happening.

Now, I don’t mean Scotland. I’m thinking of Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and the Middle East.

Yes, the world goes on despite the sudden total preoccupation with Scotland. (It is serious, I know, but it will be all right. A fifth of registered electors have a postal vote – they will make up between a quarter and a fifth of votes cast, and will be overwhelmingly ‘No’. In addition, the party have finally unleashed Gordon Brown. I punched the air when he said that if Alex Salmond kept telling lies about the NHS then he would run for the Scottish parliament).

Anyway, while the good fight is being fought to save the union, MPs – from all parties – are trying to keep the coalition honest and principled on foreign policy. On Wednesday there was a debate on Ukraine, Middle East, North Africa and security. It was an excellent discussion – the Commons at its best – and you should take the time to read it in full.

Progress readers, though, will be interested in the contribution of some of our favourites and below are extracts from speeches by John Woodcock, Pat McFadden, Liz Kendall and Phil Wilson.

The only choice will not be whether we intervene, but when and how. The longer we delay, the greater the threat will become and the more we will ultimately have to sacrifice to defeat it. The next 9/11 – or worse ­– will come, and it will happen with us knowing that, had we acted sooner, we could in all likelihood have prevented it. That would be the real betrayal of those who have lost their lives fighting for their country. It would also be an abdication of our responsibility to lead.

Britain should therefore be at the forefront of efforts to engage in an international coalition to prevent Isil from creating a permanent state intent on jihad against the west. We should be planning not only for the military action that is needed to beat back the immediate threat but for a concerted international effort to create the environment that moderate forces in the region need to bring greater stability to the middle east, and we should be helping them to eliminate the social, economic and political conditions that allow the extremists to thrive. Isil’s twisted ideology is the greatest threat to global security and to our values since Nazi Germany and, as happened at the time of the rise of the Nazis, we will all ultimately be held to account for what we did, or did not do, to confront the threat when we had the chance.

– John Woodcock

 There is an imperialist conceit that suggests that foreign policy is divided into a world of adults, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, and other countries or forces, which are children. It is not true, and it absolves others of responsibility for their actions. We live in a world of adults and adults. No one forces anyone to bomb a marketplace or behead an innocent journalist on video. Those actions are the responsibility of those who carry them out, and it is important that we are clear about that.

The issue is not whether we have to respond but how. Withdrawal from the world’s problems has become quite fashionable – ‘Nothing to do with us,’ ‘All too difficult,’ or even, at its worst, ‘Let them kill one another.’ That is not only morally bankrupt but against our own interests, because in an interconnected world we cannot opt out of facing threats. Violent jihadism has already taken innocent lives in this country and indeed this city, and it can do so again in the future.

The prime minister is right to define this as a generational struggle, but definition takes us only half way. We also have to will the means to respond. President Obama will set out his strategy on the response to Isis later today, and in all likelihood it will include an element of military response. At some point, we will be asked whether we want to join in and support that action. It is good that we debate that and learn the lessons from the past, but we must not be imprisoned by the past. If we are to set out conditions for joining in action, let us do so, but let us not have an ever-lengthening list of conditions that are designed not as a means of reaching a decision, but rather as a means of never having to take one.

 – Pat McFadden

I want to make three brief points. First, the challenges we face today and the nature of global risk and conflict mean that Britain will achieve security for its citizens only if we seek to influence and engage with the world, not retreat from it. Those fighting for Isil who want to come back and attack this country, and the tragedy of flight MH17, in which one of my constituents lost his life, show that what happens in other parts of the world can and does affect us here in the United Kingdom. We must not and cannot pull up the drawbridge, cut ourselves off from others and hope that the rest of the world leaves us alone, because that approach will never deliver security for people in Britain. Instead, we must use our position and international influence – in Nato, on the United Nations Security Council and, yes, in the European Union too – to provide greater leadership in the world in addressing the challenges and risks that we face.

Secondly – this point has been made by several honourable members – although we should always learn lessons from the past, we must not be paralysed by it. Iraq understandably casts a long shadow over this House and the country as a whole, but we must focus on the threats and risks we face today and deal with the world as we find it now, not as we might wish it would be. That means taking head on the argument, to which my right honourable friend the member for Wolverhampton South East (Pat McFadden) referred, that somehow our past actions have caused or created Isil and other forms of Islamic extremism. That is just false. Dealing with the world as we find it also means being clear that although the consequences of action must be fully and seriously considered, so too must the consequences of inaction.

Thirdly, the scale of the challenge presented by Isil and the threat that its activities and vile ideology pose to the world and to the values that we all hold dear – and which define who we are as a country and as a people – mean that we must keep our options open as to how we respond. That includes the options of who we work with, as well as what we do. We must have a clear objective and strategy and build strong international support, particularly from those in the region, as the right honourable member for North East Bedfordshire said. However, we should be clear: Isil must be defeated, ideologically, financially and militarily. That will be achieved not by hope and good intentions alone, but by carefully considered, hard-headed realism. Sometimes leadership means leading by example. We will not convince our allies to do more against the common threats we face if we refuse or fail to act ourselves.

In conclusion, Britain is at a crossroads, and not just in our foreign policy. One path – attempting to protect ourselves from the changes that are sweeping the world by rejecting them and isolating ourselves from our allies and partners –will lead to a diminished country. The other path understands that we will succeed only if we seek to influence and shape the changes that are taking place around us, including by working with others. In a world that is increasingly interconnected – economically, technically and in terms of security – I believe we should take the second path, because that is the key to our future security and prosperity.

– Liz Kendall

The lesson for me from Iraq over the past quarter of a century, and from Syria and Libya more recently, is that intervention brings its problems, but so does non-intervention. If it was thought a year ago that the Syrian situation was difficult to unpick and resolve, it is surely worse today. The humanitarian situation in and around Syria is dire. Seven million Syrians have been displaced within Syria, and a further three million are now displaced outside Syria’s borders, which is causing instability in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

Some have said that we should work with Assad to help to defeat Isil. I am not sure whether I agree with that. I think that we should tread carefully as far as the Assad regime is concerned, especially when we consider the fact that his regime has funded al-Qaida and Isil to destabilise Iraq, Syria’s neighbour to the south, and to divide his internal opponents. His sense of self-preservation is acute, and I am very concerned about playing his game.

Isil is like fog: like the fog, it will only evaporate if heat is applied, but if left alone, it will continue to spread. We must degrade its military assets and leadership, but remain aware that its operation is now embedded in many communities, many of which it wants to destroy, and where civilians could become casualties by our own actions.

It was reassuring to see the Nato communiqué from last week that said:

‘We condemn in the strongest terms Isil’s violent and cowardly acts. If the security of any ally is threatened, we will not hesitate to take all necessary steps to ensure our collective defence.

– Phil Wilson

 I don’t know about you, but I’m proud to have these strong, principled progressive voices in the Commons.

We are not Belgium, we’re Britain and we should act accordingly.


Clement Attlee’s modest and sober persona persisted long after he was prime minister. One day he was travelling on public transport in London. ‘Good Lord!’ said a fellow passenger, ‘Do people ever tell you that you are the spitting image of Clement Attlee?’ ‘Frequently,’ Attlee replied.

This anecdote, from Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister by Michael Jago, published by the ever-excellent Biteback, concludes RW Johnson’s magisterial review in the London Review of Books.

There are other fantastic anecdotes. Canvassed by Labour Students in the 1966 election Attlee simply said ‘Already a member.’

And in a magnificent interview Attlee summed up his legacy in six words:

Q: What was the greatest achievement of the Labour government?

A: Indian independence.

Q: What was the greatest problem you faced?

A: Russia.

Q: What was the west’s most important operation in the face of that problem?

A: The Berlin airlift.

There’s much, much more. Read the review, buy the book.


John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @johnmcternan


Photo: BiblioArchives

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John McTernan

is former chief of staff to the leader of the Scottish Labour party. He is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He tweets @johnmcternan


  • Thank heaven for Gordon Brown – wee Eck should be running for the hills. Nice to see Labour chieftans [can] come together in a crisis. Now extrapolate rUK and 2015 will be a walk in the park.
    Unity is Strength [anon]

  • SNP 65000 and rising. Labour a dreary 13500 and spiralling downward. Your hate of a better political party with more honesty has come home to roost. Keep patting yourselves on the back and very soon there will be none of you left to pat. My next target is the CWU a union that even fails its members at the grass roots level in the workplace because it is filled with all you “back of the bus and shut up” career activists who live in a world of cronyism and jobs for the boys through the back door.

  • You’ve got a cheek calling yourselves progressive. Your party is simply the red tories, as was well demonstrated by the campaign run up here.

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