Archive for the 'Middle East' Category


Latest PB/Polling Matters podcast: Are you racist? Syrian airstrikes & the Lords report on polling

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

On this week’s PB/Polling Matters podcast Keiran Pedley is joined by Matt Singh (Number Cruncher) and Adam Drummond (Opinium) to discuss:

1) Why voting intention polls and perceptions of party leaders seem to be moving in different directions

2) Reactions to the Windrush scandal and how pollsters deal with sensitive questions around immigration

3) An exclusive survey from Opinium for PB that shows 1 in 10 Brits believe the Russian military accusation that Britain staged the Douma chemical attack in Syria

4) What the Lords has to say about the future of polling and how pollsters should react

You can find data tables for the Opinium poll on Syria here

Follow this week’s guests:





TMay’s decision to back the Syria raid without Commons approval was in the face of public opinion

Monday, April 16th, 2018

Will there be a price to be paid?

Survation in the Mail on Sunday is the only polling that we’ve seen which took place after the British raid on chemical facilities in Syria and the key findings are above.

This happened, of course, without any parliamentary vote the decision being made by the prime minister using the powers in the Royal Prerogative.

On the face of it it was a very brave decision by Mrs May to join the action with the United States and France without recalling Parliament and securing the backing of MPs.

It will be recalled that four and a half years ago there was a vote in the Commons on a similar issue which went against any action. Unlike May over the weekend Cameron was not ready to act without a parliamentary vote.

Ever since the Iraq war in 2003 the British Public appears to be very nervous about foreign interventions and given that we know how that turned out this is probably understandable.

    What is intriguing about the current situation is that it highlights the leading characteristics of both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition.

The former is ready to do what she perceives to be right and is ready to face any consequences.

Mr Corbyn, on the other hand, is a long standing opponent of all foreign interventions and this puts the spotlight on his reaction. Is it tenable for the main alternative to the current prime minister to hold such views and doesn’t it expose him to attack?

Parliament returns today after the Easter break and we all get a greater sense of the political impact.

Mike Smithson


If Mrs May does back military strikes against Syria it will be in the face of public opinion

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

There is no doubt that this is going to be a tricky one for the prime minister. After gathering of the consensus of nations in relation to the Salisbury attack she’s now in a position where there’s an expectation that Britain could support action against Syria particularly because of the use of chemical weapons.

The first full national polling on the issue it is featured above in the YouGov charts and there is no doubt at all that the public is very nervous about going forward with a UK military intervention. Maybe memories of Iraq still run very deep even though that was 15 years ago.

My guess is that that there will be some sort of limited UK involvement but only if the Americans are also acting.

Mike Smithson


Challenges, challenges

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

It is perhaps too easy to assume that Western democracy, capitalism and liberalism will continue to thrive and prosper, certainly in the West, and that they will continue to act as a model for countries elsewhere. To counter any complacency, here are two long-term challenges which the Western model faces.

Money or freedom?

Paddy Ashdown said that the biggest mistake the West made in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan was to fail to make the rule of law and security the first priority. Economic activity and democratic structures need this basic framework. Without it, corruption thrives and embeds itself. People need security before they can contemplate parliaments, opposition, debates about policies and all the liveliness and unruliness of a healthy democracy.

For all the risks posed by terrorism, the lack of physical security is not the primary problem for the West. But the failure to provide economic security is. Most voters are not wedded to democracy or capitalism as a matter of principle. They prefer the democratic capitalist system because it has proved the most effective way to combine relative freedom and ever increasing living standards for the widest group of people.

But what if it stops doing so? What if the fruits are concentrated in ever fewer groups, whether of people, companies or regions? What if other systems manage to provide greater economic growth and wealth more reliably and widely?

China has, after all, been very successful in extending wealth amongst its citizens and doing so without feeling the need – or being put under domestic pressure – to liberalise politically, let alone adopt Western democratic norms. It is one of the few states which has managed to clip the wings of the global tech giants. And now it is extending its reach into Africa. Why then should African states look to the West as their model? Why should the Middle East – especially after the chaos unleashed in part by recent Western interventions? Or Asia?

The US no longer seems willing to set itself up as an example. And if the Chinese model continues to succeed and the West continues to stagnate by comparison, how certain can we be that Western electorates will continue to value and maintain a system which no longer produces results – or the results electorates have come to expect? The willingness of voters to vote for unconventional leaders or movements in recent times should maybe be seen as a warning sign that results matter to voters, rather more perhaps than the theoretical elegance or historical longevity or formal legitimacy of their political/economic systems.

Diversity of opinion?

It is ironic and not a little depressing that at a time when diversity – of culture, identity, lifestyle – is so feted, diversity of opinion, beyond a relatively narrow circle of received and impeccably liberal opinion, is increasingly viewed with disdain. (Substitute “conservative” for “liberal” in that phrase and it would describe mainstream opinion in most of 19th century Europe.) Even asking a question in a university about whether colonialism might have brought some benefits seems to excite horrified disapproval.

We seem in danger of losing the belief (best expressed by JS Mill) that what our society should be and think should emerge from people, as many people as possible, expressing their views, debating them and negotiating compromises. If we determine in advance how society should be organised, what its principles and values should be and ban or ignore or otherwise make it impossible for any views which do not fit with a predetermined outcome to be heard, how can we answer the question “Why?” when (not if) it is put?

There is something very brittle and unselfconfident about a liberalism, about any dominant opinion, unwilling to argue its corner. The self-righteous intolerance of those seeking to deny others a voice is its shrill companion. In truth, both have a curiously religious approach to the idea of debate. The all too frequently used “You can’t say that.” / “I am offended” / “Bigoted” / “He’s a Marxist” / “hate speech” mantras are in danger of making mini-Torquemadas of us all.

And there is something very complacent about a capitalist system which assumes that its benefits are obvious and seems to have no answer, beyond more of the same, when those who are locked out turn elsewhere. Capitalism should have a better justification than “Well, look at how awful Marxism was.” To those contemplating a life of paying off student debt and renting, “Venezuelans have no loo paper” is an eccentrically irrelevant answer.

And yet debate, winning the battle of ideas, defeating bad ideas by putting forward better ones, by arguing for something, by arguing why – and showing, with examples – why democracy is good, why fairness matters, why discrimination is wrong, why social cohesion and looking after one’s neighbour matter, why capitalism can work and how, why free speech matters, why liberty benefits people, why the rule of law matters to all of us, why the right to own property securely is important, why the state should not be permitted to act overbearingly or retrospectively or without restraint are the only way in which our society and economy can renew and refresh themselves. Too often in recent years the answer to the questions posed (by our young, but not just them) has been “umm…” Time for a more vigorous response.



The Syria vote: Cameron looks set to win but how many LAB MPs will back him?

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Just over an hour to go to the big vote

Voting takes place at 10pm and the result should be known within about 16 minutes. Then there’ll be the wait, not too long, for the division lists so we can see who has not followed their parties.

There will be Tory rebels going against their party line but it is the LAB split that will get the most attention.

Mike Smithson


Syria – the big debate goes on

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015


The Commons might be about to vote for Syrian air strikes but the public is becoming less convinced

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Men strongly in favour – women much less certain

As we come to the crucial Commons vote on Syria there’s new YouGov polling in the Times this morning that suggests that support for British action is declining with, now, fewer than half of those sampled approving. YouGov had this at 48%.

The affairs impacting on the Labour leadership appear to have overshadowed the movement in opinion.

It’s hard to see the vote not going through but this latest survey will provide ammunition for those who are less convinced. This is from Peter Kellner’s Times article:

“… Last week, 59 per cent of Britons backed airstrikes; now the figure is just 48 per cent. That eleven-point decline equates to five million electors. The number opposed is up eleven points, from 20 per cent to 31 per cent. Every political and demographic group has seen a change, but two stand out:
· The gender gap has widened. Now men favour airstrikes by more than two-to-one (58-26 per cent), while women divide evenly: 39-36 per cent.
· Those who voted Labour in May have switched from backing military action by 52-26 per cent a week ago, to opposing it, by 42-35 per cent today.. *

So while Corbyn’s leadership ratings have collapsed (see last post) his position on what is the key issue of the day is getting more support.

My reading is that we are still seeing the effect of Tony Blair’s Iraq decision in 2003. People need to be convinced that what Cameron is proposing now is right for clearly understood reasons. It is more than a response to Paris.

Mike Smithson


Needed: a Geneva Convention for the 21st Century

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

The world of warfare has changed and its rules need to catch up

My wife and I were recently watching the excellent More4 drama series Saboteurs, about the Nazi effort to build an atomic bomb and the Allied operations to stop them, principally by putting the Norwegian factory producing the heavy water needed for the atomic reactor out of action. At one point, the Norwegian commandos take off their winter white camouflages before beginning their assault into the factory wearing their regular fatigues – something my wife commented was a bit of a strange thing to do. And on one level it was: the uniforms were much more obvious to the German guards (or should have been). On the other hand, their action was in line with a very old tradition of war: that soldiers can be readily identified by their enemies and distinguished from civilians.

So what, you might ask. The point is to illustrate the revolution that’s taken place over the last seventy years in the nature of the kind of wars fought, and particularly fought by Western powers. Which is a problem because the rules of war – largely written by Western powers – are designed to regulate the sort of conflicts which are now very rarely fought and are not designed for the sort of conflicts which are: intervening in civil wars or failed states and fighting groups which exist in a legal twilight zone; armies without states (or at least, without a widely-recognised state).

Which is where the deaths of two British jihadists in Syria, at the hands of an RAF drone, comes in. Britain is not at war with Syria, nor in targeting ISIL operatives is it acting under a UN mandate. There may well have been evidence to connect the two to a terrorist plot against Britain but even if so, does that justify their immediate deaths? Does it make a difference that they were fighting in a civil war zone? Indeed, what was their status in Syria? What rights and responsibilities does the government have in protecting its law-abiding citizens? For that matter, under the HRA, what responsibilities does it have to its law-breaking jihadist ones in Syria or elsewhere? How do you even ‘go to war’ against any entity other than a state never mind something as amorphous as ISIL?

These questions, and many others like them, lie at the heart of the problem of trying to provide a legal basis for governments to intervene in civil wars and failed states, and against non-governmental armies, militias or terrorist organisations. Not the least of the problems is in regulating when countries can intervene. At what point do security or humanitarian concerns override the sovereignty of the state in question?

What is really needed is a greatly updated Geneva Convention, to regulate and provide the mechanisms for legitimising the actions of states intervening in these situations. This is diplomatically difficult stuff because to do that confers a legitimacy on the non-state parties, and hence gives rights not simply to treatment but to recognition as something close to an equal. Many would understandably baulk at the notion that terrorists should be considered a legal entity, never mind a proto-state (that some terrorists have been successful in transforming themselves in to proto- then fully-fledged states will increase rather than diminish that reticence). It’s also asymmetric: the parties to a new Convention would have obligations to their enemies that the organisations they’re fighting against in many cases not themselves honour.

Yet the alternative is the kind of legal quagmire that now exists, where rules are made up on the hoof on the basis of what seems appropriate at the time. Public opinion might accept that but human rights groups – and potentially the courts – will not. A drone strike against a jihadist fighting for ISIL and planning attacks against the UK may well be justified, even when in another country, but what hoops should be jumped through first to be sure? And how do you extrapolate from that specific example to create a framework for the general case?

Put simply, how can the international community come up with a set of rules that allows states to lawfully and effectively protect their populations against external threats, and to protect vulnerable and innocent civilians in countries afflicted by conflict, while simultaneously not giving the green light to states to use those same rules to oppressive ends?

Finding an answer to that question will be no simple task but in Human Rights legislation makes it essential all the same. In the first place, and in the absence of an international agreement, parliament needs to pass domestic legislation to do the same job.

David Herdson