There is little that Owen Smith has said during the Labour leadership debate thus far that I find it easy to agree with. Until yesterday, when I found myself agreeing with what I thought was a bold and realistic statement … and then he issued a qualification so sweeping as to come close to negating what he’d said in the first place.
He is surely only stating the obvious when he says that, eventually, there will need to be negotiations with ISIS, or whatever they want to call themselves at the time. I might have been inclined to add “or its successors”, on the basis that even if there were to be a military ‘victory’ at some point, the ideas and ideology will not simply go away. Accommodation and agreement will be necessary at some point, as they have been in other situations around the world in order to bring an end to conflict.
And I thought he was also spot-on in arguing that the leaders of ISIS are clearly not interested in negotiating at present; bringing them formally round the conference table today is clearly a non-starter. But it’s usually a mistake to assume that all members of any organisation are entirely homogeneous in their beliefs and aims; whilst the idea that ISIS has some sort of ‘moderate’ wing may seem highly unlikely, it is not certain that, at all times and in all circumstances there is no possibility of dialogue with anyone.
I thought Smith was only stating the obvious up to this point. And given the way in which all other politicians are keen to demonstrate only their absolute resolve in giving no quarter and accepting no compromises, it was also a very brave thing to say. The condemnation by others which followed was as predictable as it was wrong-headed.
The sad part is that, having actually made a brave stand for the first time that I can remember, his reaction to the criticism and condemnation was to backtrack to such an extent that it made his initial statement almost meaningless. Arguing that there can be no negotiation “… until they renounce violence, cease all acts of terror and commit themselves to a peaceful settlement” is imposing a level of pre-condition on negotiation which was not imposed, for instance, on the IRA or on numerous other violent groups around the world. Those criticising Smith know all this as well as he does.
Sadly, the way in which he backtracked so rapidly and completely tells us more about him than his initial bold statement.