Jeremy Corbyn and The Times: Saudi Arabia and agenda-setting.

An intriguing thing happened this morning. The Times, in its editorial section, published a scathing critique of Saudi Arabia. In an extract tweeted by one of its most influential writers, Tim Montgomerie, it commented that:

“Britain must use every opportunity to press for reform in the kingdom. It must speak out on behalf of political prisoners, and openly rather than behind closed doors. For too long the fear of losing arms deals or other business has constrained criticism. Saudi Arabia considers itself an ally of the West. Yet there can be no ambiguity in this relationship. Not when it comes to the funding of jihadists by Saudi businessmen. Nor when its courts flog, behead and crucify those who question the wisdom of the princes in power.” (My italics.)

This is, I think, a hugely significant development. The Times boasts some of the commentators most respected by the Conservative Party; not only Mr. Montgomerie, but, to name a couple, Daniel Finkelstein and Matthew Parris. This is an editorial of which its most senior members will probably take careful note, and we do not have to look too far to see what might have prompted its publication. Just a day before, Mr. Montgomerie had tweeted that “Corbyn 100% right to criticise Cameron and UK’s suck up relationship with odious Saudi regime”.

He was referring to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Labour Party’s annual conference, in which Corbyn stated that “nor does it help our national security to give such fawning and uncritical support to regimes like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain who abuse their own citizens and repress democratic movements.”

It is remarkable to see The Times so strongly criticise a key British ally. Perhaps there are several of those in the British Government itself who have long since secretly tired of their relationship with Saudi Arabia. But it looks like it is Corbyn who has been the catalyst for the expression of louder discontent.

Just a few hours before he shared that extract to the Times editorial, Mr. Montgomerie had tweeted another extract, this time from an article of his own, in which he wrote that:

“In its last period of office Labour did things – like introduce the minimum wage, advance gay equality and devolve power – that a Tory government probably wouldn’t have done but now accepts. Politics needs the main party of opposition to be healthy generator of ideas and to possess the capacity to hold power to account. That cannot be said of Labour at the moment. The Corbyn experiment needs to be terminated quickly but we’ve learned quickly that it might be half-competent enough to survive for a couple of years or more.” (Again, my italics.)

With respect to Mr. Montgomerie, it does seem like Corbyn and Labour are in fact generating ideas, and do indeed possess some capacity to hold power to account – because, if it were not for the Labour leader’s speech, it is unlikely that this Times editorial would have been so forceful, or even appeared at all. There are many critiques of Corbyn’s alliances and views, one of the most forceful of which came from Steve Moore just a few days ago, and they will continue to come. The concerns about his foreign policy outlook will continue to be raised, and rightly so – especially for someone in his position. We should note another trend, though – which is that issues that we rarely see discussed, such as that of Bahrain, are now on the table. Corbyn and his party have been mocked for being more interested in talking than doing, but the truth is that policy changes often only come about after vigorous debate.  Given that Corbyn has only been on the job a few days, and has seemingly prompted a step this major, we can only wonder what conversations he will prompt if he remains in his position for a couple of years or more.


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