Amal Alamuddin Is The Latest Exhibit in the Museum of Disempowered Women

Human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney speaks to media in Athens, Oct. 13, 2014.
Lawyer Amal Clooney speaks to media in Athens on Oct. 13, 2014 Yorgos Karahalis—Reuters

The new Mrs. Clooney is advising the Greek government on its campaign to regain looted sculptures. But the overlapping interests of her and her husband feels uncomfortable

Amal Clooney, lawyer, is reported to be at the epicenter of “the west’s longest-running cultural row.” The Guardian, which coined the phrase, meant the two-century-long tussle between Athens and London over the rightful home of marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon between 1801 and 1805 by the English aristocrat Lord Elgin and later sold by him to the British Museum, where they still reside. Clooney, née Alamuddin, arrived in Greece on Oct. 13 at the invitation of the Greek Culture Minister to assist with the campaign for the marbles’ return.

But the frenzy of flashbulbs and fashion commentary that greeted Clooney’s visit shows that she has become entangled in a cultural row of greater longevity and importance than the disposition of some antique artworks, however significant those may be. Throughout her adult life, this 36-year-old attorney specializing in international jurisprudence, extradition and criminal law has stood on her own merits accomplished, independent, respected. Now her identity risks being spirited away as the sculptures she seeks to repatriate once were. Even in the 21st century and among first-world elites, marriage retains the power to transform women into appendages, while celebrity culture reliably reduces females to ciphers. Since Alamuddin’s engagement and Venice wedding to actor George Clooney, she has never been more closely observed by a wider audience — or in greater danger of disappearing.

You might say this is Amal Clooney’s business. It is she who chose to say “I do” not only to “Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor” but also to celebrity-encrusted nuptials that created “intimate, exclusive” images for the happy couple, friends, family and the many millions of readers of publications such as People and Hello! to enjoy, showcasing the bride’s ability not only to anatomize the unfair trial of al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt under the military-backed government but also to wear nice dresses and skyscraper heels. It is Clooney who chose to retire the maiden name of Alamuddin under which she had scored many career successes and a client roster including Julian Assange and Yulia Tymoshenko. It was not, however, Clooney who chose to memorialize her first professional foray as the new Mrs. Clooney with banal reportage like this (“Move over, Kate Middleton! There’s a new hair queen in town!”). Clooney has always seemed to wear her startling beauty as lightly as her startling accomplishments, and there is nothing to suggest that she has changed.

The problem — and the reason the media repurposing of Clooney from queen of jurisprudence to hair-queen matters — is that there is still a dearth of women who rise to prominence through their own merits, reflecting the harsh reality of a world resolutely skewed against female achievement.

Many interlocking mechanisms keep women down, but in watching the transmogrification — and trivialization — of Clooney we are witnessing one of the most pernicious of these. I laughed back in June, when Britain’s Daily Mail turned its report about a global summit on combatting sexual violence into a slavering commentary on Clooney’s appearance. I laughed at reporting of the Alamuddin-Clooney marriage so tremulously overexcited by the groom (two-time “sexiest man alive”!) that it characterized the bride’s crowning attainment as “snaring” him. I laughed louder at the spoof headlines this spectacle inspired: “Internationally Acclaimed Attorney Marries an Actor,” etc.

I also laughed at that actor’s ham-fisted attempt earlier this year to boost the long-running initiative to reclaim the Parthenon marbles for Greece. “Even in England, the polling is in favor of returning the Pantheon [sic] marbles, the marbles from the Pantheon,” George Clooney said during a promotional tour for his movie about the restitution of art looted by the Nazis, The Monuments Men.

There’s nothing wrong and a lot right with stars using their celebrity power to publicize worthy causes (though it’s generally better to do the research first). However the overlapping interest of Mr. and Mrs. Clooney in this case feels uncomfortable. The Greek government originally approached the then Amal Alamuddin in 2 B.C. — that’s 2011, two years Before Clooney entered her life. Greece sought her services and those of her storied colleagues at the London-based law firm Doughty Chambers for one reason only: their collective legal expertise. Now Mrs. Clooney’s involvement in the case has been ascribed a new and more tenuous value. “We will of course be discussing all our legal options but what we really want is to keep the issue alive,” a “well-placed policy maker” told the Guardian. “There would be no better way of doing that than getting Hollywood involved and, hopefully, [George] Clooney too.”

A brilliant lawyer and strong female role model is being misappropriated, to be put on show as the latest exhibit in the Museum of Disempowered Women. Never mind restoring the marbles to Greece: give us back Amal!


Anti-Immigration Party’s Win in U.K. Rings Alarm Bells in Europe

Newly-elected UK Independence Party MP Douglas Carswell poses for photographers with a copy of the local paper in Clacton-on-Sea, in eastern England, on Oct. 10, 2014.
Newly-elected UK Independence Party MP Douglas Carswell poses for photographers with a copy of the local paper in Clacton-on-Sea, in eastern England, on Oct. 10, 2014. Leon Neal—AFP/Getty Images

The first British parliamentary seat for the U.K. Independence Party intensifies—and reflects—the crisis of mainstream politics in Europe

Many forces are at work in British politics, but nominative determinism may not be one of them. When last month a member of parliament named Mark Reckless defected from the Conservative Party, Britain’s largest mainstream political party and senior partner in the country’s coalition government, the move looked, well, reckless.

Reckless resigned his parliamentary seat to join the right-wing, anti-Europe, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which had not yet succeeded in getting any MPs elected to Westminster. UKIP did well in some local and European elections, but conventional wisdom suggested the party benefited from protest votes against the big established parties and would struggle gain a foothold in the U.K. legislature.

On Thursday, those predictions proved wrong as another Conservative Party defector, Douglas Carswell, won back his parliamentary seat for UKIP with a thumping majority. In another by-election held the same day in a district that had previously been a solid Labour Party area, UKIP came within 617 votes of defeating the Labour candidate, overturning another piece of conventional wisdom that misconstrued UKIP as a threat only to the right-leaning Conservatives.

Reckless, who is preparing for a Nov. 6 by-election to try to capture his old seat for his new party, no longer looks reckless and conventional wisdoms appear anything but orthodox. Alarms are ringing not only among members of Britain’s mainstream parties but across Europe. An obvious focus of fear is what the rise of UKIP means for Britain; not only its attitude to Europe, but also towards its own diverse population.

In his victory speech, Carswell called for UKIP to be “a party for all Britain and all Britons, first and second generation [immigrants] as much as every other.” But UKIP’s party leader Nigel Farage was already busily undermining this message of tolerance, responding to criticism of an interview in which he called for HIV-positive migrants to be turned away at British borders by going still further, proposing a ban on any migrants with “life threatening diseases” getting treatment within Britain’s National Health Service.

The characterization of UKIP as a protest party fails to acknowledge the way such rhetoric resonates in communities that feel they are losing jobs and opportunity to immigrants. The mainstream parties have a shamefully thin record of speaking up for the necessity of immigration and an even more shameful record of harnessing anti-immigration sentiment while chasing short-term electoral gain. At other times, they find it more comfortable not to broach the subject at all—one reason Labour came so close to gifting UKIP a by-election victory.

Britain’s rumbling debate about its membership of the European Union may appear on the surface to be about bossy Brussels regulators and distorting subsidies and laws, but it is more often a proxy for the immigration debate that isn’t happening. Mainstream politicians don’t want to be tarred as Little Englanders, but increasing numbers of them, mostly Conservatives but also Labour members, are attracted to the idea of an exit from the E.U., which would instantly restrict the flow of immigrants from other, poorer E.U. countries currently entitled to live and work in Britain.

Continental Europe worries—with justification—that the U.K. is edging closer to ditching its E.U. membership. Yet the shudders attending UKIP’s latest win are not merely caused by the prospect of a so-called “Brexit“. In the flounderings and failings of Britain’s big political parties and the upsurge in support for populist alternatives sounding anti-immigration, anti-Europe rallying cries, E.U. leaders outside Britain see reflections of the turbulence in their own countries. Even in Germany, the crucible of pro-E.U. sentiment where memories run deep of its disastrous experiment with the narrowest possible vision of national identity, a euroskeptic party is gaining ground.

UKIP’s win is, with a certain irony, part of a pan-European phenomenon. Such parties grow because the political mainstream gives them the space to do so.





How the Brighton Bombing 30 Years Ago Portended Peace

Not only did Irish terrorists fail to kill Margaret Thatcher. Their movement has been absorbed into Britain's resilient democracy

In the early hours of Oct. 12 1984, a bomb packed with 20lb of gelignite gouged a ragged O of surprise—or outrage—in the frontage of Brighton’s Grand Hotel. The intended target, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, escaped the blast, but not everyone proved so fortunate. Most guests had come to the English seaside town for the annual convention of Thatcher’s U.K. Conservative Party; five died and 31 were injured, including Norman Tebbit, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and his wife Margaret, a nurse, left permanently paralyzed.

Later the same day, the Prime Minister gave her keynote speech to delegates as planned. But it was not the speech she had planned. The attack, Thatcher said, “was an attempt not only to disrupt and terminate our Conference; it was an attempt to cripple Her Majesty’s democratically-elected Government. That is the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared, and the fact that we are gathered here now—shocked, but composed and determined—is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”

From the distance of three decades, the Iron Lady turns out, as so often, to have been both right and wrong. The group responsible for the attack, the Provisional IRA, has disarmed and disbanded. The bomber, Patrick Magee, jailed for life in 1986, regained his freedom fourteen years later as part of the Northern Ireland peace process his murderous act disrupted, but failed to derail.

That same process has quelled, but not completely extinguished, Irish republican terrorism. Magee has become an advocate for reconciliation and is scheduled to appear at an event in Brighton to mark the 30th anniversary of the bombing. Tebbit feels less conciliatory. Invited in 2007 to participate in a radio reunion of figures involved in the events of that day, including Magee, he replied: “The only reunion I’d be happy to attend was the one where Magee was reunited with a bomb.”

Just as hard for old adversaries to stomach has been the rehabilitation—and rise—of Sinn Féin, the party that once acted as the political wing of the Provisional IRA. In 2007, Sinn Féin won the second largest number of seats in the Northern Irish Assembly, installing Martin McGuinness, a former member of the Provisional IRA, as Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister. The party’s popularity south of the border, in the Republic of Ireland, is also surging. An Oct. 9 poll puts it at level pegging with the governing and hitherto most popular party, Fine Gael. The ranks of Irish republicans have not been vanquished but empowered.

Britain, meanwhile, is grappling with a new wave of terror that continues to build, from adversaries who appear implacable. Defenders of civil liberty worry that measures to counter the threat from militant Islam risk damaging the democracy they are designed to protect. Such an outcome would ignore the hard lessons of Brighton and its aftermath. The remodeling of republicanism as an electoral force may not be the triumph Thatcher envisaged as she stood at the podium hours after the bomb blast, outwardly calm, her helmet of hair immaculate. Nevertheless democracy has prevailed, as she said it would.

TIME ebola

Halting Flights to Ebola Regions Could Threaten Relief Efforts, Experts Warn

Cuban doctors and health workers unload boxes of medicines and medical material from a plane upon their arrival at Freetown's airport to help the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone, on Oct. 2, 2014.
Cuban doctors and health workers unload boxes of medicines and medical material from a plane upon their arrival at Freetown's airport to help the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone, on Oct. 2, 2014. Florian Plaucheur—AFP/Getty Images

Officials and aid agencies say the fight against Ebola is being hampered by the shortage of transportation to the epicenter of the disease in West Africa

You can book to travel on British Airways (BA) from London Heathrow to Roberts International airport in Monrovia, but the direct flight will take nine hours—and at least 25 weeks—to arrive in the Liberian capital.

In August BA suspended flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone, citing public health concerns amid the spread of ebola in the region. Now, the U.K. carrier has announced its decision to maintain that suspension through the end of March 2015. BA isn’t alone; there are now so few airlines flying into the area that key workers are being forced onto wait lists and lengthy journeys with multiple stopovers. Right now, European travelers hoping to get to Monrovia or Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown must squeeze on to services operated by Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Maroc, or thumb a ride on a military jet.

Nobody would dispute the wisdom of taking the threat of Ebola very, very seriously, but aid agencies warn that a shortage of transportation to and from west Africa, far from containing Ebola, instead risks undermining efforts to quell the epidemic.

At an Oct. 8 Washington press conference with U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for the international community to “step up” efforts against Ebola and stressed the importance of keeping air routes open. It is a point Justin Forsyth, CEO of the U.K.-based charity Save the Children, also emphasizes.

“The main way to defeat the spread of Ebola not just in the region but globally is to get it under control in Sierra Leone and Liberia and Guinea and the best way of getting it under control is to make sure that we can get health workers into the region because they’re not going to have enough capability in these countries themselves,” says Forsyth, whose charity is working with the British military to establish a treatment center in Sierra Leone, as well as setting up care centers in Liberia and training thousands of health workers. “They’re going to need a lot of people coming in, and not all of it by military [flights].”

There have been fresh calls to isolate the disease by further isolating west Africa, after Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan died on Oct. 8 in Dallas, and Spain awaits news of Teresa Romero Ramos, the first person to contract Ebola outside west Africa in this outbreak. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal had already advocated banning all flights from the region. “We need to protect our people,” he said last week.

On the surface it makes sense. Ebola may not be airborne, but authorities’ assurances that sitting on a plane with an infected person shouldn’t pose a big risk ring increasingly hollow, as Spanish health authorities try to figure out how Ramos caught the disease. She wore protective clothing and followed hospital protocols, though she has said she may have touched her face with a contaminated glove.

Yet in the view of many experts, following the impulse to isolationism is already making countries beyond Africa more vulnerable, not less. Christopher Stokes, director of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Brussels, told the Guardian “Airlines have shut down many flights and the unintended consequence has been to slow and hamper the relief effort, paradoxically increasing the risk of this epidemic spreading across countries in west Africa first, then potentially elsewhere. We have to stop Ebola at source and this means we have to be able to go there.”

Save the Children’s Forsyth agrees. He recognizes the concerns of airline staff, though, and says “It’s a big decision by anybody to go to work in one of these countries at the moment. We’ve got lots of people stepping forward to do it but it’s not an easy decision.”

The only option, Forsyth believes, is for governments to take the lead. “We need the airline industry to come together. This is where governments have a big role to play, to bring airlines together,” he says. “The other way to do it is to set up an air bridge paid for by governments or the military.”

TIME Germany

Angela Merkel Savaged by Helmut Kohl, the Architect of United Germany

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit in the first row at the German Historical Museum in Berlin on Sept. 27, 2012. Wolfgang Kumm—AFP/Getty Images

The former German Chancellor believes one-time protégé Merkel "has no idea" about European politics, a controversial new biography reveals

Angela Merkel, western Europe’s longest serving and most influential leader, was elected to a third term in office last year and her popularity among German voters remains startlingly high. But not everybody, it seems, feels the love.

It has emerged that Helmut Kohl, himself a former Chancellor of Germany, the architect of German reunification and in 1991 TIME’s runner-up as Man of the Year (to George H. W. Bush), once said that when it comes to the intricate politics of Europe, his former protégé “has no idea.”

Kohl threw in a few more barbs too. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and has never entirely absorbed the polish and formality of West German high society, “couldn’t even eat properly with a knife and fork,” Kohl told an interviewer in the early 2000s. “She mooched around so much at state dinners that I often had to call her to order.”

These comments and Kohl’s similarly ripe views of several other colleagues in Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) may never have been intended for publication. They are included in “Vermächtnis: die Kohl-Protokolle” (Legacy: the Kohl Transcripts), a biography of Kohl based on more than 600 hours of conversations with Heribert Schwan, a journalist originally contracted to ghostwrite Kohl’s memoir.

But after Kohl dismissed Schwan—who blames the influence of Kohl’s second wife, Maike Kohl-Richter, 34 years Kohl’s junior, for his sudden 2009 ouster—Schwan used the recordings to co-author an unauthorized biography with a writer called Tilman Jens, despite Kohl’s victory last month in a court tussle over copyright of the tapes. Media reports in Germany have suggested Kohl—now a frail 84-year-old with limited powers of speech since suffering a head injury in a 2008 fall—will attempt to block the book’s release, but he has not issued an explicit denial of his remarks.

The book will be published in Germany this week and is previewed in the new issue of the German news weekly Der Spiegel. The interviews with Kohl took place between 2001 and 2002, a period of tragedy and turbulence for the politician. Kohl’s first wife Hannelore killed herself as the former Chancellor battled to salvage his reputation in the aftermath of a scandal over CDU party funding. Merkel almost certainly earned Kohl’s enduring ire by helping to force his resignation from the CDU presidency in 2000, urging the party to move on without its “old warhorse” (her words) to rebuild popularity after the scandal. She may not have chosen the most respectful term to describe Kohl, who in 1991 installed her as a minister in the first government of reunited Germany. Then again, he famously patronized Merkel, often referring her as “das Mädchen,” the girl. Nobody, least of all the wily Merkel, will have been blindsided by the revelation that Kohl continues to nurse a grudge against her.

The bigger surprise is how Kohl saw the man he often hailed as a friend, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last President of the Soviet Union, named TIME’s Man of the Decade in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War. In Kohl’s estimation, if Gorbachev was a hero, it was only of the accidental kind. “Gorbachev looked over the books and realized all was lost and the regime couldn’t survive,” Kohl told Schwan. “And if he wanted to preserve Communism, he had to reform it, so he came up with the idea of Perestroika… He dissolved Communism, partly against his will, but he did dissolve it. Without violence. Without bloodshed. There wasn’t much more to his legacy than that.”

Kohl will have had an eye on his own legacy as he spilled his innermost thoughts to Schwan. The manner of their publication, unvarnished and without the pruning Kohl might have preferred, will certainly shape historians’ views of the architect of German reunification. He may have united his country, but he remains, even in retirement, a divisive figure.



U.K. Edges Toward Departure from European Union

Prime Minister David Cameron walks with Mayor of London and Parliamentary candidate Boris Johnson at the Conservative party conference on Sept. 29, 2014 in Birmingham, England.
Prime Minister David Cameron walks with Mayor of London and Parliamentary candidate Boris Johnson at the Conservative party conference on Sept. 29, 2014 in Birmingham, England. Peter Macdiarmid—Getty Images

As Britain's Conservative Party holds its last party conference ahead of May's general elections, the Euroskeptic message looks like a winning one

It’s hard to imagine anything more insular than a British party political conference—except, perhaps, for an island.

The ruling Conservative Party is currently meeting in the U.K.’s second largest city, Birmingham, but delegates tightly ringed by security and focused on the narrow issue of how to win the next election may as well be on a coral atoll for all the connection they have with the wider world.

Events in Hong Kong go unremarked. U.K. participation in the military campaign against ISIS barely merits a mention. A lone protestor standing beyond the crowd barriers bellowed rage against Britain’s fresh involvement in Iraq for hours Monday, but his words whispered in the convention center like distant waves. Even so, events on this artificial island may yet carry global significance. Britain is getting ever closer to the brink of leaving the European Union.

That is the probable outcome if the Conservatives win the U.K. general election next May, as they have pledged to allow Britain’s increasingly Euroskeptic population a referendum on whether to stay or go. Polls suggest a sizeable majority would vote to leave the E.U. under the current terms of membership.

Admittedly a Conservative victory is far from a sure thing in 2015. The Labour Party enjoys a lead of several points in most opinion polls and the Conservatives, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats since 2010, should expect to be punished by voters for implementing painful austerity policies that have reduced the budget deficit (but not by as much as they promised). But even though Labour may look like the likelier winner, it doesn’t act like it. Neither party members nor the wider public have faith in the current Labour leader Ed Miliband, who capped a lackluster conference last week by forgetting key chunks of the speech that should have energized his troops and instead demoralized them.

In truth all three mainstream parties are suffering from a loss of connection with the public — voters feel they’re untrustworthy, and incapable of championing Britain, whatever form that might take. This disenchantment is fostering the rise across Britain of populist parties that promise a new, more honest mode of politics and more localism. In Scotland this means the Scottish National Party strengthening largely at the expense of Labour, which will struggle to retain its 41 Westminster seats there at the coming election.

But in England, it is the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) that has been attracting support on the back of its strident views, which it calls “unashamedly patriotic”. The party’s manifesto not only calls for departure from the European Union, but also restrictions on the numbers of immigrants entering the country, less foreign aid, and priority in the allocation of social housing given to “people whose parents and grandparents were born locally”.

It’s a message that appeals to many who might otherwise be inclined to vote for the Conservative party. The eastwards expansion of the E.U. was enthusiastically supported by past Conservative governments, because they thought a larger union might be less inclined to move towards federalism and consequent impingements on British sovereignty. But enlargement has increased the pool of E.U. citizens entitled to work in the U.K, and fostered resentment among conservative voters, as the British economy struggles to recover from the economic slump. UKIP has capitalized on that resentment; two Conservative MPs have recently defected to UKIP and more are rumored to be considering jumping ship.

“The biggest issue on the doorstep is immigration,” says Phillip Lee, the Conservative MP for Bracknell, west of London, “but this is also related to Europe.” His constituents would like to see an Australian-style points system applied to jobseekers from abroad, he says. That’s a policy UKIP already proposes for all immigrants, whether they come from the E.U. or further afield.

Even so, the Conservatives are better positioned than Labour—which opposes giving Britons a vote on E.U. membership—to fight UKIP on its own turf. Prime Minister David Cameron’s post-Scottish referendum promise of “English Votes for English Laws” plays to demands for more local control, while his party is ramming the message home at every opportunity during its conference that only a Conservative government will deliver an in-out referendum on the E.U. It will doubtless be a pivotal passage in Cameron’s keynote address to delegates tomorrow.

Cameron first made the offer partly in an effort to hold together a fractious party that has a long history of falling out over Europe. But his official position—that he wants Britain to remain in the E.U., but on renegotiated better terms—also happens to be his real preference, not least because many British businesses worry that an E.U. exit will load costs and obstacles on to their European operations. His ideal is to retain the advantages of E.U. membership while shielding Britain against moves to closer E.U. integration precipitated by the euro zone crisis. But in a BBC interview this morning, Cameron made clear that he wouldn’t be too upset if Britain left the E.U. entirely. The sales pitch being rolled out in Birmingham is clear: vote UKIP, get Labour, lose the chance of a referendum.

Despite what the polls say, many Conservatives believe this is a winning formula, and they could well be right. But the same urges the Conservatives would be tapping to win election victory would inevitably still be in play if and when Britons voted on their relationship with Europe. An exit would mean a period of extended turbulence for Britain and for the E.U., used to British intransigence but also used to Britain as a counterbalance to German muscle and French protectionism. The rest of the E.U. hopes Britain stays put, and so does Washington, which still often looks to the U.K. as a bridge to Europe.

British politicians hear these voices but their message, like the shouts of the man outside the Conservative Party conference, are muffled. This island nation with its parochial politics could well be headed for greater insularity.


U.K. Parliament Debates Joining U.S. Air Strikes Against ISIS

Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street before heading to The Houses of Parliament on Sept. 26, 2014 in London.
Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street before heading to The Houses of Parliament on Sept. 26, 2014 in London. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images

British MPs last year delivered a surprise rebuff to plans to intervene militarily in Syria, derailing not only U.K. policy but U.S. plans. Today they are weighing another intervention — and their decision matters more than you might think

What a difference a year makes. Friday, the U.K. Parliament has been recalled to debate joining a U.S.-led military intervention, the same topic that convened Members of Parliament for an emergency session on Aug. 29, 2013. Back then, everyone expected a majority of MPs to rubberstamp the action, just as the MPs gathered Friday in the House of Commons are predicted to approve today’s motion.

These scenarios may appear near-identical, but they differ in one glaring respect. When British parliamentarians served up a surprise and rejected involvement in the planned U.S. air strikes against the Syrian regime last year, they triggered a chain of events that saw U.S. President Barack Obama abandon his mission at the 11th hour in favor of a new round of diplomacy. The consequences of that swerve are still being assessed, leaving Syrian President Bashar Assad in power and, according to proponents of the intervention, allowing jihadist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) to grow. Others maintain that the aborted campaign would have simply fueled the jihadists’ rise. Another, wide strain of opinion in Westminster and among the British public looks back at Britain’s 2003 decision to join the U.S. in toppling Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as a profound error that must never be repeated.

These arguments are even now being rehashed. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron had barely begun his speech when he was interrupted by veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner who asked, scornfully, “How long will this war last and how soon will mission creep start?”

There are other such skeptics in the chamber — their numbers will become clear at around 5 p.m. London time, when MPs vote. But here’s one reason why that vote, irrespective of outcome, looks very different to the one that took place 56 weeks ago in the same chamber: the result won’t make a significant difference to American policy.

The U.S. Air Force has been running missions into Syria and Iraq since Monday alongside jets from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, targeting ISIS militants as well as infrastructure and supply routes used by the group now occupying extensive territory on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border. If British MPs go against predictions again to vote against joining in, these missions will continue. Moreover, the motion under discussion is limited in scope, committing the U.K. to air strikes in Iraq and specifically ruling out extending any action into Syria or deploying combat troops on the ground. Britain has received a direct request for assistance from the Iraqi government that proponents of the motion argue gives the proposed action legitimacy under international law that the strikes in Syria do not necessarily share.

Even so, what Britain decides matters—perhaps not as much as Britons reared on tales of Empire and World War victories are inclined to think, but enough that the U.S. has worked with the U.K. to ease the passage of the motion, accepting its limited nature and careful to say nothing that might make it more difficult for Cameron to unite his own Conservative Party on the issue, coax his Liberal Democrat coalition partners on board and, most importantly, to secure sufficient Labour Party support. It was Labour opposition that torpedoed the 2013 vote. This time around, Labour leader Ed Miliband issued a call to support the motion, partly on the basis that in asking countries in the region to engage, Britain needed to show a moral lead. He added that in helping to oust Hussein, “the Iraqi state that emerged is partly our responsibility.”

That history has made both Labour and Conservatives wary of appearing to yield too easily to pressure from Washington. Cameron acknowledged Obama had “made clear” he wants British support, but based the core argument for British participation on a humanitarian imperative and on British national interest. “If we allow [ISIS] to grow and thrive there’s no doubt in my mind that the level of threat to the country would increase,” he said.

U.S. officials have denied claims made this week by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of a specific threat by ISIS to attack subway systems in New York and Paris, but the U.S. and the U.K. are both worried about the possibility of blowback. Last month, Britain raised its terror threat level to “severe.” As Matthew Barzun, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, pointed out in an article in the London Evening Standard, published on the eve of the debate, as many as 12,000 citizens from 74 different countries are estimated to have gone to fight with rebels in Syria alone. British security chiefs believe at least 500 Britons have made the journey, including the ISIS member dubbed “Jihadi John,” shown in videos murdering U.S. and British hostages. Those murders and the threat to further hostages still held by the group have strengthened the appetite to tackle ISIS.

In case that appetite falters, the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour have all ordered their MPs to support today’s motion, deploying the so-called whip. Rebels can expect reprimands and will certainly be marked down as troublemakers by party officials. This, together with the restricted scope of the motion, should be enough to secure a positive outcome but will also add to the resonance if there is still a rebellion of any size.

Because another reason today’s vote matters is that it marks the beginning of a longer and more difficult decision-making process in a country that has lost faith in military interventions but is also alarmed by appeal of jihadism to its own citizenry. There is little agreement among the political parties about how to counter that trend, and they are divided over the possibility of any action in Syria. There will be a brief moment of clarity later today and, most likely, an announcement of British jets roaring into action. The bigger issue of the role Britain will play in the Middle East will remain urgent and unresolved.

TIME United Kingdom

David Cameron Should Be Royally Embarrassed By Independence Flub

David Cameron Attends CEO Roundtable At Bloomberg LP Headquarters
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks with Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP at Bloomberg LP headquarters on Sept. 23, 2014 in New York City. Christopher Goodney—Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II will not be amused by British Prime Minister's overheard remarks on her reaction to Scotland vote

It is safe to say that Elizabeth II’s 12th and current Prime Minister is not her favorite Prime Minister — this week at any rate.

On Tuesday, as news crews filmed David Cameron chatting with Michael Bloomberg ahead of a meeting with business leaders in New York, microphones captured the British Prime Minister in boastful mode. He described calling the Queen to tell her that Scottish voters had rejected independence in the Sept. 18 referendum. “The definition of relief is being the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and ringing the Queen and saying, ‘It’s all right, it’s OK’,” Cameron said. “That was something. She purred down the line.”

This was, at the very least, an exceptionally serious breach of constitutional protocol. The Queen has always held regular audiences and conversations with each of her Prime Ministers, starting in 1952 with Winston Churchill, acting as a politically neutral sounding board or “a sort of a sponge,” as she memorably put it herself in the documentary Elizabeth R.

Anything that is said during these audiences and conversations, by the same convention, is deemed private. “Everyone can come and tell one things and some things stay there and some things go out the other ear,” the sovereign explained in the 1992 TV film. “And some things never come out at all.”

Of all the things she would have wished never to come out at all, the Queen’s personal views on Scotland’s decision will have been high on the list. “There was a very determined effort to maintain her impartiality” during the run-up to the Scottish referendum, says one Buckingham Palace source. The Queen is something of a veteran of independence referenda in the 16 Commonwealth Realms over which she reigns, having seen Quebec twice weigh splitting from Canada, and Australia vote against becoming a republic in 1999. In every case, the Queen has carefully protected her neutrality, often keeping her feelings to herself even behind closed doors.

The source says the palace went to “great lengths to communicate the Queen’s own unimpeachable position.” A statement by the Queen released after the result, far from taking sides, emphasized the need for reconciliation: “As we move forward, we should remember that despite the range of views that have been expressed, we have in common an enduring love of Scotland, which is one of the things that helps to unite us all.”

But Cameron’s indiscretion was exacerbated by his use of the word “purred” to describe’s the Queen’s reaction. It’s hard to imagine a less appropriate verb, one that simultaneously reduces the Queen to the status of a pet and suggests that the Prime Minister has been able to reduce her still further, to a fluffy ball of pleasure response. Anyone who has spent time around the Queen knows that she is not strokeable, literally or figuratively. Touching her is an act of lèse majesté, as Michelle Obama discovered. Nor is she susceptible to flattery. She is dry, wry, humorous and guarded.

Her studied lack of bias extends to her Prime Ministers. She is reputed to have harbored a soft spot for Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and there’s an obvious warmth between her and John Major, her ninth Prime Minister, a Conservative who after the death of Princess Diana in 1997 was appointed a special guardian to Princes William and Harry. Queenologists — students of the sovereign’s micro expressions, able to spot and interpret a slightly more downturned mouth, a hint of scorn in the royal eyes — suggest Her Majesty didn’t much like Margaret Thatcher and remained immune to Tony Blair’s charms. She has seldom looked more uncomfortable than at a party on New Year’s Eve 1999, forced to hold hands with Blair on one side and her husband Prince Philip on the other as everyone sang “Auld Lang Syne” to welcome the new millennium.

Cameron once expressed the ambition to be the “heir to Blair.” He meant he hoped to emulate Blair’s success in transforming his party and delivering three thumping election victories, but this week Cameron echoed — and surpassed — Blair’s ability to discomfit the Queen. According to the BBC, Cameron said he was “embarrassed” and “extremely sorry” about his remarks to Bloomberg; the BBC also reported that he had been in touch with Buckingham Palace and planned to apologize to the Queen in person at their next meeting.

The Buckingham Palace source says such an opportunity is unlikely to present itself before October, when the Queen returns to London. Until then, she remains at her Scottish home Balmoral, enjoying views across a country that now has an insight into her views of its independence debate. Her views of the Prime Minister who provided that insight can only be surmised.

TIME United Kingdom

U.K. Labour Party Convenes After Scotland Vote

The Labour Party Annual Party Conference
Labour's Leader, Ed Miliband listens to a speech during the opposition Labour Party Annual Conference in Manchester, England on Sept. 22, 2014. Facundo Arrizabalaga—EPA

The party is ahead in the polls before next year's election. So why does everyone look so gloomy?

This should be a time of excitement and anticipation for Britain’s opposition Labour Party. Delegates and politicians have gathered in Manchester for the party’s annual convention, its last big get-together ahead of the U.K. general election scheduled for May 2015. Since Ed Miliband became Labour leader four years ago — to the surprise of large swaths of Britain and his brother David, the former Foreign Secretary and bookmakers’ favorite for the role — his party has mostly maintained a lead over the David Cameron’s Conservatives. Britain’s Conserverative-Liberal Democrat coalition took office in 2010 and has introduced unpopular budget cuts, presiding over an affluent nation that has seen increasing numbers of cash-strapped citizens forced to use food banks. Labour should be looking forward to an easy victory next spring, and you’d expect the mood at its party convention in a city in northwest England that boomed during the industrial revolution and cradled Britain’s labor movement, to reflect that outlook.

Instead delegates to the Labour Party Conference, which opened on Sept. 21 and concludes with a guest speech from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tomorrow, seem muted and apprehensive. The conference is sparsely attended. In days gone by, business tycoons and celebrities scenting a party about to gain power reliably swelled the numbers at such gatherings. This, by contrast, is a low key event. So why the long faces?

There are several reasons: Ed Miliband, a boyish 44-year-old, handsome enough but easily caught by photographers in cartoon-like expressions of befuddlement, has yet to convince Labour supporters or the wider public that he’s Prime Ministerial material. Pollster Ipsos-MORI recently revealed that only 30% of Britons consider him a capable leader compared to 46% who find him out of touch with ordinary people. His keynote address to the conference today marks a chance to change — or confirm — such views.

It doesn’t help that Labour’s poll lead over the Conservatives is modest: only 5 points according to the latest YouGov survey. Ahead of his stunning first election win in 1997, Tony Blair consistently polled leads in the double digits. Delegates glumly staring into their pints of beer in the bars of the Manchester Central Convention Complex see a murky prospect at the bottom of the glass: a possible coalition with the Liberal Democrats, tarnished in Labour minds by their current service in coalition with the hated Conservatives.

Yet the Lib Dems’ own electoral runes look so gloomy — they polled only 7% in the same YouGov survey — that this scenario too must be in question. All the mainstream parties have lost ground among English voters to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), red in tooth and claw on issues such as the European Union (UKIP advocates Britain’s E.U. withdrawal) and immigration (UKIP doesn’t like it one bit). YouGov shows UKIP doing far better than the Lib Dems, with the right-leaning party polling at 16%.

And another populist party has left Labour with a yet bigger headache. The Scottish National Party (SNP) may not have steered Scotland to independence in the Sept. 18 referendum, but it succeeded in convincing 45% of Scottish voters to disregard the Better Together campaign and opt for a split. Better Together was, in theory, a cross-party initiative combining Conservatives and Lib Dems as well as Labour in collegiate efforts to keep Scotland in the U.K. In practice, the campaign was run by the Labour Party, the only one of the three mainstream parties to have a large support base in Scotland — and 41 members of Parliament with Scottish seats.

The lackluster Better Together campaign has raised questions about whether Labour has lost its connection to the Scottish electorate and whether it will, as a result, lose those seats. Speaking at a conference fringe meeting in Manchester last night, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary and head of Labour’s general election strategy, gave his perspective as a key member of the Better Together team and as a Scot. He said the SNP and UKIP were both benefiting from the same tailwinds — the British electorate’s lack of faith in mainstream parties to deliver. He also saw parallels with the rise of the Tea Party. “Westminster is assuming the same level of toxicity in the minds of British voters as Washington has in the minds of U.S. voters,” he said.

Britons’ trust in the mainstream parties has not been boosted by an unseemly scramble in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum vote to reinterpret promises made to Scotland to retain its support for the union. Labour had joined the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to promise further devolution of powers to the Scottish parliament and also the preservation of a controversial formula for allocating U.K. public spending that sees Scots do better per capita than their English counterparts. The morning after the referendum, Prime Minister Cameron raised the idea that these concessions to Scotland should be matched by greater local powers for the English, including “English Votes for English Laws” (the unfortunate acronym is EVEL), potentially barring MPs representing constituencies outside England from voting on matters affecting only English voters. It sounds fair enough but is constitutionally complex — and would probably deprive Labour, with its 41 Scotland-based MPs, of a working majority on key issues such as health and education.

In rejecting Cameron’s proposed breakneck schedule for EVEL, Miliband may well have put national interests ahead of party considerations. Rushed constitutional change is seldom a good idea. To voters, already disinclined to trust politicians, his response may well look like naked self-interest. He may be the most likely winner of the U.K.’s 2015 elections but Miliband, it seems, just can’t win and that’s why the Labour Party conference is such an odd, damp, dreary affair.

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