DH cropDuncan Hothersall, Editor of Labour Hame, says the situation in Syria deserves an acknowledgement of complexity and shared challenge, not glib soundbites from a conference stage.


Fans of The West Wing – and if you aren’t you should be – will know that ten word answers will kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword.

Let’s allow President Bartlet to explain:

As Bartlet says:

“Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? … How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now.”

It could be argued that, in her conference speech on Saturday, Nicola Sturgeon’s declaration that the SNP will oppose UK air strikes on Syria was expressed in more than ten words. She spoke at some length about what hadn’t helped solve problems. She threw out the lazy line that the UN should fix things with an “intensive diplomatic initiative”, as if ISIS was in the least bit interested in finding common ground. But it was essentially a glib line to please an audience which knows war is bad and would very much prefer not to have to think about it.

“Complexity isn’t a vice” says CJ Cregg later in the above clip. But of course, The West Wing is fiction. Few politicians would ever engage with nuance – a hungry press and an angry social media would distort their words and polarise their view within minutes. Sturgeon is a skilled politician, but she isn’t an honest one. An honest politician would stand up and say you know what? There are arguments on both sides. I’m not going to rule out support for UK air strikes. Sometimes us not engaging kills more children, destroys more lives, than us joining the fight.

Nicola is of course in the enviable position of leading a devolved government with no responsibility for defence. So she can take dogmatic decisions and give the appearance of principle without any risk of causing – or failing to prevent – real harm. And she knows too that this is a policy which will help with her single long-term aim – to make Scotland look different enough to the rest of the UK to make independence winnable.

The SNP have good reason to believe this approach will work. After all, Nicola’s predecessor scored a huge popular hit with his declaration that “the rocks will melt with the sun” before he would introduce university tuition fees. And the reality that the SNP’s broader higher education policy is failing to deliver hasn’t dented the popularity of this statement. Populism sells. Complexity doesn’t.

On fracking too, the SNP (and, I’m afraid, Scottish Labour) have plumped for a policy of “Scary Thing Is Bad” and failed to acknowledge the reality that the aim of carbon reduction could be best served by a carefully balanced set of energy policies including some new methods of extraction coupled with investment in carbon capture. At least Labour hasn’t closed the door on new nuclear. Yet.

Back to Syria. I wholeheartedly agree with Nicola Sturgeon when she says we must all “seek a lasting resolution of the conflict and defeat the horror that is ISIS”. But I fundamentally disagree with her and anyone else who thinks we can achieve that by ruling out involvement in air strikes or any other military action. I want to see an end to war, but I am not prepared to buy the fairy tale that says declining to get involved means less suffering.

Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn deserves credit for this statement, agreed between himself and Jeremy Corbyn:

“We have a responsibility to protect people, but in Syria no one has taken responsibility and no one has been protected. It is the great humanitarian crisis of our age and one of our greatest tests too.

The way we take any decision will matter a great deal. MPs and others may disagree about what the right thing to do is, but we must never forget that we have a responsibility both to help the Syrian people and protect British citizens. Deciding to intervene militarily in another country is one of the most serious decisions parliament can make, but equally, nobody should be in any doubt that inaction is also a decision that will have consequences in Syria.”

Too often we forget that peace must be fought for and won; it is not achieved by a glib soundbite on a conference stage. That may not matter to the SNP, focused on an entirely different prize. It may not matter to some voters, who understandably seek the comfort of simple answers and clear principles. But it matters to the millions suffering in Syria and far beyond. And it should matter to us all.

Related Posts

45 thoughts on “Ten word answers

  1. Just think, if Scotland were an independent country we’d be sending Salmond to the UN to broker peace in Syria… look at the harmony he has achieved in Scotland! We’d also have a government in Edinburgh that would actually have to say how many refugees Scotland could take, rather than “we’ll take 10% of what Dave takes”.

    The reality is that diplomacy or air strikes will not solve Syria’s problems. We need UN “boots on the ground”. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have said they’ll lead the way, and the Syrians I work with back them.

  2. Just to be clear are you promoting UK military intervention in Syria?

    Do you have any evidence to suggest this will do any good, can you give an example of recent UK military involvement anywhere in the Middle East that has left a secure, stable & peaceful country behind?

    BTW, what type of military intervention are you proposing, joining the list of nations taking turns at bombing anything left standing in Syria to rubble or do you want troops marching in & bodybags flying out?

    1. I think ruling out the option of military intervention is misguided and dangerous. I want to end the killing. You are a prima facie example of the glibness I abhor. There are body bags by the hundred thousand right now. We have a moral duty to try to end this.

      1. I don’t see any logic in endangering our troops or inflicting even more misery on Syrians by dropping even more bombs on them, just to be seen to be doing something.

        So I’ll ask my question again. Do you have any evidence to suggest this will do any good, can you give an example of recent UK military involvement anywhere in the Middle East that has left a secure, stable & peaceful country behind?

        1. There are very few secure, stable and peaceful countries in the Middle East. We have plenty of evidence of interventions that have worked across the globe. The fact that the Middle East is even more of a mess does not strike me as an argument against engagement – rather the opposite.

          1. We’re heading into Einstein’s definition of insanity territory here.

            The fact that every other Middle Eastern country the UK military have went into has become more unstable, dangerous & chaotic is the reason you believe our attacking Syria is the way to bring a peaceful resolution?

          2. I don’t believe that is a fact. I think it’s a convenient trope for those who don’t want to really think about what’s happening to hundreds of thousands of people across the region. If you talk to the marsh arabs of Iraq for example, who lobbied the UK government to intercede against Saddam’s torture and killing of their people, they will tell you their lives are now better. But there are those for whom life is worse, I entirely agree. Complexity, you see. There is no simple answer, no black and white judgement. Your suggestion that all interventions in the Middle East have failed and none should be attempted in future is glib, ignores reality and helps not a single child at risk of homelessness, injury or death today.

          3. So you are an advocate of perverting the old adage “when you find yourself in a hole, KEEP digging”.

          4. It’s almost as if you have taken my admonition of glibness as a challenge to be as glib as possible. For the avoidance of doubt, it was not.

          5. If you talk to the marsh arabs of Iraq for example, who lobbied the UK government to intercede against Saddam’s torture and killing of their people, they will tell you their lives are now better. But there are those for whom life is worse, I entirely agree. Complexity, you see. There is no simple answer, no black and white judgement.
            So the fact that some people might have benefited from the invasion of Iraq somehow justifies it???? God help us if some foreign power decides to subject Scotland to this kind of invasion lottery. “We may have killed hundreds of thousands but some people in Stenhousemuir ended up better off!” Blair lives!

          6. Where “better off” means not dead, yes. Take your hysterics elsewhere. This topic deserves serious discussion.

          7. Like the “not dead” of Iraq where the West used Sunni fundamentalists to overthrow their former secular puppet? The premise of your article is based on the same delusion that created weapons of mass destruction. If anyone thought Corbyn’s Labour was going to be “different” they should have asked for the next ten words.

      2. My reply to your very own glibness and self righteousness is to take yourself down to the nearest BritForces induction office and volunteer for active Peacekeeping in blood soaked overseas areas.You can find the address advertised to young people somewhere in between episodes of The West Wing, or is it between the Great British Bake Off and the Spitfire Roadshow. That’s 61 words. Abhor away to your heart’s content.

      3. You say you’re motivated by the desire to end the killing and yet you promote a proposal which has proven time and time again to exacerbate the killing and prolong the conflict.

        ISIS and others like them are fuelled through conflict they thrive on martyrdom. They are an ideal. You cant bomb an ideal out of existence.

        There is only one way this will end and that is negotiation. Everybody knows that. The preamble is all about setting up the negotiating position.
        The bombing the killing the drone strikes are all about setting up your stall for the negotiating process.

        You’ve seen what we’re capable of so what are you prepared to offer? Which is fine if your an uncaring despot with no morals or civilised values for Human life.

        But you cant pretend to support democracy decency and Human rights while advocating whole sale slaughter and murder just because you don’t like the ideology and beliefs of somebody else or you want to set up a position of negotiation.

        Showing your extremist right wing values again Duncan.

  3. Also, at least the SNP are fixing their colours to the mast. All that waffle you quote from Hilary Benn effectively says is “mibbes aye, mibbes naw”. Fence sitting at it’s best.

  4. Is there be any more glib response than “we have to do something”? & doing anything just for the sake of being seen to be doing something is crazy, especially when you look at our track record on Middle East interventions. Honestly, despite the understandable urge to do something to help, sometimes doing nothing is the best option & while the situation in Syria is complex, getting our military involved does nothing to reduce the complexity.

    Who do we bomb, ISIS, Assad or both?
    Once we get involved what’s the end game, Assad back in charge or regime change?
    If regime change, who determines the new leader & how, also how far do we go to help them retain power & for how long?

    1. All good questions, but Sturgeon’s blanket refusal to engage means walking away from trying to answer them. I think we should be trying to answer them.

      I am not saying do something for the sake of doing something, and I don’t think any honest reading of my piece could support that interpretation.

      1. Deciding not to involve young men and women in foreign wars a few years after exactly the same strategy proved an absolute, bloody disaster is not “a blanket refusal to engage.”

      2. Don’t be utterly ludicrous. Nicola Sturgeon has set her stall. Drawn her line. Made herself as clear a day. She has given her very clear and concise and unmistakable answer. Negotiation without the killing first.

        You and the UK Government propose to kill and kill again before getting involved in the inevitable and unavoidable negotiation process.

        You think that by killing a few thousand innocents you can head to the negotiating table looking hard mean and no nonsense. Which may even be true but it hardly leaves the UK looking like it deserves to be part of the negotiating process for peace does it?
        It leaves the UK looking like a despotic rogue state capable of inhuman and despotic acts worthy of ISIS itself.

        Right wing tories are no better than Islamic extremists in the views and narrow minded agendas. And you Duncan are a prime example of a right wing Scottish Tory.

  5. On the Syria issue.

    Much of the ‘criticism’ here so far is a bit OTT however I don’t think you, or indeed Benn from that statement, really go much beyond ten words either.

    Russian activity in Syria fundamentally changes the discussion re Western military involvement in Syria and until we understand that involvement, and I don’t think it is yet clear what Russia’s objectives are, any talk of more bombing of ISIS in Syria by the UK or anyone else is pointless.

    1. Surely the point is that not giving a definite answer, by saying “we need to think about this carefully” one is avoiding reducing the issue down to a glib sound bite.

      Yes, both Sturgeon’s and Benn’s current position can be reduced to ten words. The point is Benn’s ten words might change in the future but Sturgeon’s will not.

  6. So I can assume you didn’t like the SNP conference nor Nicola Sturgeon’s speech Duncan.
    Unlike you I give credit where it is due and I have to admit I am impressed with your English language skills. In five sentences you have managed to squeeze in your informed criticism of Sturgeon’s policy toward Syria and ISIS, the SNPs misguided tuition fees policy, the SNPs cowardly moratorium on fracking, what you see as the SNPs ‘lack of reality’ on carbon reduction and carbon capture and still you manage to return to the middle east just so as nobody can forget and yet the article scans perfectly. What an amazing piece of journalism. Let me say my gob is suitably smacked.
    Incredible as the whole article is it rises to a crescendo with the statement “Sometimes us not engaging kills more children, destroys more lives, than us joining the fight”. That really is political analysis of a unique quality.

  7. Syria is in the midst of a multi sided civil war with heavy sectarian issues. Yet Labour think the best solution is for the UK to bomb.
    The first question is—who do we bomb?
    ISIL? The Nusra Front? Assad? The Kurds? Maybe Mr Benn could stick a pin in a map.
    This is a war with no good guys. No white hats for us to cheer on. Every participant is soaked in the blood of the Syrian people, and it seems the West has only shown an interest when refugees threaten the well being of their douce citizenry. You know—“swamped”
    I know—lets sent a Trident submarine to the Med. Show the flag, and let them know the “Great White Queen” in good old blighty is watching!
    That should do the trick!

      1. Why is it an “outright lie”? The article quotes Benn “on the question of airstrikes against……”.
        I understand airstrikes to be bombing raids, don’t you?
        If he cannot get a UN resolution on “airstrikes”, then he seems to imply he would be happy to back airstrikes in any event.
        Or is it something else entirely, that I have missed, “Duncan” ?

        1. It’s an outright lie because what you said was “Labour think the best solution is for the UK to bomb”. Labour don’t think that. Labour have not said that. You lied about what Labour said, and you attempt to justify it with a pathetic “he seems to imply”. No. You lied.

          Any clearer now?

          1. OK, using just the article YOU pointed me toward.
            ” Corbyn signalled….Labour could support forms of military action……without UN support”.
            Benn writes of “intervening militarily” and “the wording is designed to IMPLY Labour recognises its prior support for military action without explicit UN authorisation”.
            It seems to me its the SAME OLD LABOUR.
            A country lies in total ruin, its people killed, traumatised and expelled. Labour’s solution? Bomb, Baby, Bomb !

        2. There are more than one processes being implemented by the UK in Syria. One is the bombing of “strategic” targets although the idea of “strategic” is a bit vague because the UK hasn’t actually decided who’s side its on or who they are supposed to be supporting.
          And the other is the targeted drone strikes at individuals or vehicles full of individuals.
          Sanctioned murder without due process in other words.
          All of this in spite of no war being declared by any of the antagonists on the UK.
          No matter how you cut it or try to justify it the process is illegal. It is condemned by international law.
          It is unacceptable and the UK Government doesn’t care because it feels immune to prosecution or sanctions.
          That’s the new world order. Right wing Neo Liberal Neo Conservative extremism running riot across the world committing acts of murder extortion larceny and High treason.

          And our wee Duncan loves and supports it to the hilt.


      2. That’s Corbyns position not Labours position Duncan. You yourself have stated above that you support the drone strikes and the sanctioned murder of UK citizens abroad by our Government.
        I bet many in Labour support your ideals rather than Corbyns who is too left wing and socially democratic for their Red Tory right wing extremist tastes.

  8. I’m astonished that this article seems to be directed at the SNP. As Bartlett says “Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? … How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now.”
    OK, so you begin bombing Syria against ISIS and Assad and his allies Iran and Russia….What’s your next 10 words? Can you do it without mentioning “Iraq”,”thousands of dead children” and “no exit strategy”?

  9. The SNP position is rock solid in that the SNP have rightly pointed out that bombing has achieved nothing in Syria and the only way to resolve the conflict in Syria is through a poitical agreement between all the various players in Syria with the support of the united nations. It will be interesting to see if the Labour Party vote with the Tories for or against any new resolution at Westminster for bombing in Syria or if there there will be a split between the 2 factions in the Labour Party between the Corbynistas and the Bairiites.

  10. The only things I can see “solving” the tragedy that continues to shred Syria is a negotiated peace between the Syrian govt and who-ever the rebels are (is anyone sure), followed by huge investment in infrastructure by the West. A strategy which would hopefully (and it could only ever be hopeful) alienate the fundamentalists and put the West in the position of “good guys”.

    Any military intervention by the West in the way of “boots on the ground” will only exacerbate and prolong the tragedy, with hate and distrust of the West cemented into the minds of millions around the globe.

  11. Duncan, will you also be condemning Justin Trudeau who appears to be in total agreement with Nicola Sturgeon’s position & is about stop the Canadian bombing of Syria?

    1. Let’s just check what Justin Trudeau said. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-34589250

      In his first telephone conversation with the US president as Canada’s prime minister-designate, Mr Trudeau informed Barack Obama that he would make good on his election promise to withdraw the fighter jets.

      “I committed that we would continue to engage in a responsible way that understands how important Canada has a role to play in the fight against ISIL (Islamic State), but he (Barack Obama) understands the commitments I’ve made around ending the combat mission,” he told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday.

      However, he said he would keep Canadian military trainers in northern Iraq, the AFP news agency reports.

      Doesn’t sound like Nicola’s position at all. Where did she endorse the UK playing an important role in the fight against ISIL? Where did she endorse UK boots on the ground as Canada has? And do you understand that fighter jets don’t bomb? Or do you just not care?

      You are still being glib. You need to stop.

        1. So now you’re reduced to picking headlines to suit. Even in that article, we read:

          Trudeau said Tuesday that Canada would remain “a strong member of the coalition” against ISIS but would “engage in a responsible way.”

          Where did Sturgeon urge that? She didn’t. She advocated non-engagement, and placed the onus on fixing the problem on others.

          1. When has Nicola ever said the UK should not work in a responsible way in coalition with other countries/ organisations to get rid of ISIS?

            What she did say was that the SNP would oppose the bombing of Syria because it’s just inflicting more misery on the people on the ground & because it doesn’t work as demonstrated by the fact that a number of countries are already bombing the country to rubble & it hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference.

          2. You’re suggesting we should assume she’s in favour of anything she doesn’t explicitly say she’s against? Not sure that’s terribly credible. You’re grasping at straws.

          3. And you are suggesting we should assume Sturgeon is against anything she does not explicitly say she is for. A view that is equally lacking in credibility.

            All we know is that Trudeau and Sturgeon appear to share broadly similar views on the effectiveness of bombing in Syria. The fact they are not demonstrably the EXACT same views does not detract from that.

            All I am seeing from you on this thread is playground politics. You say you crave nuance and honesty yet resort to childish semantics at every opportunity. Is it any wonder Labour are forever losing the argument?

  12. Unlike your assumption Duncan that her being opposed to bombing Syria means Nicola is opposed to doing anything to help resolve the issues in Syria.

    1. I’m judging her on her words. You’re defending her on the basis of her lack of them.

      1. And you complain about others being glib? How do you extrapolate Sturgeon’s opposition to bombing Syria to her opposing absolutely everything? You are guilty of the negative politiking that has seen your party plummet in the polls.

Comments are closed.