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West discredited itself with invasions, able to stop nothing now - ex-mayor of London

After Islamic State strikes in the heart of Europe, nations are ramping up their security. Now, the debate rages about whether being secure or being free is the most important. And when jihadists attack, anti-Islamic sentiment gains momentum, with hate crimes threatening to spike out of control. How do you keep heads calm? Is bulk data collection, after all, needed for peace and stability? We pose these questions to a veteran British politician, former mayor of London - Ken Livingstone is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Ken Livingstone, veteran British politician, former mayor of London, welcome to the show, it's great to have you with us. Mr. Livingstone, David Cameron has announced new defence policies, including funding increase of twelve billion pounds for the military, a 10,000 rapid response force, drones and new fighter jets - I mean, that sounds less defencive and more offensive to me. Is that a necessary step? Is UK preparing for more overseas operations or something?

KL: I think that the problem with the military budget is, we're wasting almost 40 bn pounds buying 4 nuclear submarines, and that isn't the threat we face. We face a threat from terrorism, that's not going to away even if we defuse ISIS, as there are terrorist groups all the way around the world, and so I'd rather see us spending our money on building up the capacity to have troops on the ground, to intervene directly in areas where they could be a UN coalition. And so, I think, we want these nuclear submarines as some sort of political gesture, to make the Prime Minister feel more important. They aren't actually crucial to our defence.

SS: Now Russia has been calling for a united coalition against the IS, such coalition between West and Russia appears to be gradually forming - will the latest incident with Turkey shooting a Russian warplane ruined these chances for a common anti-ISIS front, what do you think?

KL: I don’t think it’s ruining our chances, because Turkey is not really been taking decisive action against IS, neither has Saudi Arabia. They are quite equivocal about this, because Iran is in there and fighting Islamic State, that's seen as a Shia-Sunni conflict. I just seems to be completely unacceptable, you shoot down a plane, which is not in any way threatening you - it looks like a gesture by the Turks... but that won't derail the fact that America has woken up to the fact that it has to have an alliance with both Russia, and, I would hope, a broader one with nations like China and Brazil and Nigeria, because the intervention in the Middle East can't just be seen as once again, Britain and America and France looking out for their oil interests. It's got to be a broader coalition.

SS: NATO is voicing its support for Turkey, but also calling for diplomacy and de-escalation. Is the alliance weary of ruining relations with Russia this time around?

KL: That's interesting because we had quite a lot of anti-Russian rhetoric over the last few years, and now we recognize that Russia is absolutely crucial if we are to defeat terror groups like ISIS, and it's not just ISIS, it's Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, there's Mali, there's great chunks of Libya now under the control of fanatics that are a real threat. We’ve got to put that coalition together, I think we need to put a bit more pressure on both Turkey and Saudi Arabia to get in line with that broad coalition rather than hanging on the sidelines and, to some degree, undermining what we're trying to do.

SS: If you could vote on the UK's bombing campaign against ISIS, would you support it? Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn doesn't think it's going to work... What will, then?

KL: I think, this is the thing: we’ve been involved with so many operations in the Middle East where Britain was seen as America's poodle. We've got to have broader UN-backed coalition, and that's what UN was set up to do, to actually prevent wars in the future, to intervene, when you have organisations like this. So, we want to see the UNSC agreeing to intervention before Britain gets involved in that, and also recognizing that bombing is not a decisive act: you’ve got to have troops on the ground. I mean, during the WWII Nazi Germany was killing 500 Londoners a night during their bombing campaign. It didn't break our will, it didn't lead to our defeat. It's troops on the ground that matter.

SS: But whose troops, mr. Livingstone? Because a lot of people seem to agree that bombing alone is not enough, we need boots on the ground - but who are these people going to be? British troops as well?

KL: Britain could play a role in that if there's a broad UN coalition. But I think we need to be engaging China, Brazil, Nigeria. It's got to be see as world standing up to ISIS, not just once again the West intervening to get rid of governments that we don't like. I mean, we’ve done that with Iraq...

SS: But why would Brazil send their troops to Iraq, for instance, when it hasn't been threatened by ISIS so far?

KL: Because Brazil is a new, growing power, it's now one of the most important nations on Earth, like Nigeria and India, and... it can't just be seen. We are so discredited after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the chaos we caused there, the overthrow of Gaddafi which made matters worse... The West has a terrible record of intervening only for its own interests. We've got to demonstrate a broader coalition. China's western province has a threat of Islamist terrorism, just as parts of Russia do, a large part of Africa - so, let's get a broad coalition so this is seen as the world standing up to a terrorist threat, not just the West looking after its own interests.

SS: Don't think the UK has to share some of the responsibility in tackling ISIS? I saying, London played a big role in invading Iraq in 2003, which actually led to the chaos that ISIS was born from...

KL: The real problem is, there are two causes of this fundamentalist Islam: one is Saudi Arabia which has been funding it for 70 years, this intolerant, Wahhabi trend, but then President Carter started providing armaments for Mujaheddin in Afghanistan to overthrow the government that was there, and... it's an absolute disaster. When Russia was forced to leave Afghanistan, the first thing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda did was look around and see who else is in Arab lands and they actually recognized that it was the U.S.

SS: Is this ongoing British campaign in Iraq, like one in 2003 following the U.S. lead as well?

KL: It's a much smaller involvement than we had then, but the simple fact is, there's got to be a broader coalition. If it's just seen as Britain and America, it will only alienate - and also, the other fact about bombing. You saw just a few weeks ago America bombing that hospital by mistake. There are always innocent casualties from bombing. Drone attacks sometimes kill, 90% of the people they kill are just innocent bystanders. You have to have troops on the ground, and just bombing from the air, if anything, it's the biggest recruiting engine that ISIS has actually got.

SS: The new defence strategy talks about promoting civil liberties, and at the same time puts countries like Saudi Arabia that you've brought up many times, in a "vital allies" camp. Why cling to the alliance with Saudis when it has a notorious human rights record? Not to mention funding and spreading Islamist extremist teachings like Salafism - the creed of ISIS, actually.

KL: This is why a lot of people in the Muslim world just don't take the West seriously. We never criticised Saudi which has funded this intorenant strand (0828 fff) and if you were to say to an ordinary person: "would you rather lived in Libya under Gaddafi, or in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or in Saudi Arabia, where your wife will be stoned to death for driving a car?". I mean, Saudi Arabia must be one of the most backward nations in human history, and it is appalling that that is the West's principal ally in the Middle East.

SS: I've heard you say that Britain needs to "stop being a cheerleader for Washington's interests" - why do British politicians equate America's interests to British ones? And are those interests the same?

KL: For a very long time we've been like America's loyal little poodle, wandering around, doing what they want, and America has always just pursued its own interests. We saw it all the way through the Cold War, and I think it's high time that Britain looked for allies more in Europe, much more focused on what we want, rather than just serving American interests. I mean, America was the main driving force that wasted billions and billions of pounds and millions of lives in the Cold War, killed at least 3 million people in Vietnam. Fortunately, we had a Labour government then that refused to get involved in Vietnam. Tragically, Tony Blair went along with President Bush's Middle Eastern policies, even though he was warned that this would make us a target for terrorist attacks - as it eventually did ten years ago.

SS: We started off saying another 12 billion pounds for the defence, and the current government has been advocating spending cuts, austerity policies for a long time. So, how does hiking defence spending by billions of pounds fit the austerity philosophy? I mean, one day you say you’re broke and then next day you buy new jets for 12 billion pounds?

KL: Well, this is the problem - the present government is economically illiterate. We should be investing in modernizing our economy. Manufacturing base has shrunk, we've lost 6 million jobs... I mean, British politicians have been in all that international banking and the vast profits they make, but the key to the successful economy is having good manufacturing base. I mean, if you look at the situation, half of all our exports come from manufacturing, but it's only 10% of our economy. If you look at Germany, 20% of their economy is manufacturing, they're exporting five times what we are to China (1102 fff), and we’re running our biggest ever balance of payments deficit. British economy is in incredibly weak position, and this government, by cutting public spending is most probably going to reduce the rate of growth of our economy, it will not lift us out of the terrible mess that we're currently in.

SS: So why spend on defence then?

KL: I think because the Prime Minister thinks this will be more popular, that, you know, we love being a strong power and all of that... but, spending on the military - it's not really "defence", I mean, almost all of military spending is about aggression against other nations and invasion. We've neglected our defence capacity. This obsession with having nuclear weapons... They are going to cost something like 40 billion pounds to make 4 new nuclear submarines. Yet, we are not under threat from a nuclear attack, we're under threat from terrorism, and that requires training troops, increased police force here in this country, to identify terrorist risk. The government is just completely wrong on this.


SS: Mr. Livingstone, as a mayor of London, unfortunately you've experienced terrorism first-hand. I mention that, obviously, because the Paris attacks are on everyone's mind right now. So, in the search for the attackers, the Belgian government has locked down Brussels on terror alert, right - and now the mayor of Brussels accuses authorities of imposing "an Islamic regime" on the city - closing bars, restaurants, et cetera. And you've been through something like that, something similar - who is right in this dispute? How do you remain reasonable here?

KL: We were planning from the moment we had the 9/11 attacks in New York, we started planning because we knew we were likely to be a target. We ran through the whole range of exercises: gas attacks on the underground, even one where I was killed in a terror attack on the City Hall, on the Mayor's Building - and so by the time we were eventually attacked, we'd actually got in place a really good system to respond to that. We minimized the damage, but we also didn't overreact. I had to take decisions - "should we close down the Underground for day or two?" - I said: "No, let people get back to work, we don't want the terrorists to see that they made us change our way of life", and what was particularly good, in the days that followed after the attack, we didn't have a single incident in which a Londoner attacked muslim. They wanted to divide us - they failed to do that. And I do worry that the scale of the reaction that you're seeing in Brussels and in Paris almost makes it look like the terrorists have managed the change the way we live our lives. That is a grave mistake.

SS: So you think Brussels is overreacting?

KL: You can only judge this if you’re a politician based in the country that's taking these decisions. I just know that when I was mayor of London, the thing was to get the city back to work as normal as quickly as possible, don't allow them to change our way of life, don't close things down, because there's one simple reality: although these attacks are terrifying and they become a dominant news agenda in the world, a Londoner is much more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than by terrorist attack. We're much more likely to be killed by the poor air quality in our city, so we shouldn't allow this to change our way of life. We just need to minimize the damage, have a good security system in operation, so you can catch... and we catched 9 out of 10 terrorists before they were actually able to do anything.

SS: But you know, when you have suicide bombers hanging in the suburbs of Paris, how do you go about that?

KL: There will always be a time when the terrorists get through this. A group you didn't know about. We've something like about 6 or 7 attempts this year, mainly by one or two disaffected individuals rather than the great international conspiracy. We've been able to catch them because we got good domestic surveillance, but, I mean, it's not possible always to stop everyone. There will be those tragic times when they get, one or two get through, and do things as they did in London ten years ago.

SS: No, in the aftermath of 7/7, you’ve launched an anti-racism campaign to avoid a spike in hate crimes. Today, British Muslims in London are feeling the effect of Paris bombings with racist attacks towards them on the rise as well. Why didn't your efforts to blend cultures last?

KL: I think, if you look back, we recognized what the terrorists wanted, it was for Londoners to turn on the Muslims and more Muslims would be recruited into terror groups, and so we avoided that. I think, part of the problem under our current government is that it's tended to ponder a bit too much with Islamophobia and we are now seeing, in Britain, and increase in Islamophobic attacks on completely innocent Muslims: women being shouted at in the street, mosques having things done to their walls and so - and this is exactly what terrorists want, and we should be making a much stronger attempt to get across to people. I mean, Islam is not an intolerant religion. If you look at the last sermon of the Prophet Muhammad, he is saying "you should not attack, invade, occupy or terrorise on convert" - this was a message of tolerance, and there's no way that Osama bin Laden, or ISIS can claim to be the "inheritors of Muhammad's teachings".

SS: Now, you are known to be a very progressive man. You take pride in London's multiculturalism. However, there are Muslim patrols on London's streets, and Sharia tribunals. When does it become too much? How do you make sure Muslims adapt to a life in Western cities and not the other way around?

KL: Basically... We had an opinion poll done a couple of years after the terror attacks. We asked Muslims in London: "Do you feel British?". 90% said they did. In Paris, that figure was just 50%. I think we made very good progress at creating a genuine tolerant culture here, in this city. When I was a young man, growing up after the war, there was a lot of racism. If a black man was seen walking on the streets with a white woman, the police would make a recording of that back in the police station. That’s in the 1950s. Now we have so many children of mixed race, or parents of mixed faiths, and you’ve got to have politicians making the case for that tolerance.  Far too many politicians and newspapers ponder to intolerance and that is damaging.

SS: Paris attackers, like the 7/7 bombers, were not migrants or immigrants. Radicalisation is an issue for France, and, according to the Times, it's also an issue for Britain, when young Muslims are being more hardline than their parents. How do you keep young people from falling into the trap of extremism?

KL: Well,  the four terrorists who’ve launched their attack on the London Underground and buses ten years ago, they posted on their website that they were doing this because of our foreign policy. I think, part of the problem now is the Saudi Arabians who’ve been funding this very intolerant and backward strand of Wahhabism, which doesn't like the people see dancing and makes it a crime to drink alcohol and all of that, creating a very pernicious strand, which is reaching some people over the Internet, and all of that. We've actually got to get that Saudi strand of intolerance stopped. We've gotta stop pondering to Saudi government, and part of the problem, both Britain and America are seeing Saudis as our principal ally, we sell them lots of weapons. We need to be much firmer with Saudis, to say: “Stop spreading this pernicious

strand of Islam.”

SS: Now, there are 800 Britons who have gone to fight for ISIS. An influential British Middle East research Ed Husain, he told me "reformed jihadists should be allowed back" - saying that they can help deradicalize others. Should this be allowed?

KL: We need to remember that you had British PM David Cameron calling for the overthrow of Assad, and that led many young people to go off and fight. At that stage it wasn't simply seen as ISIS, a whole range of groups out there, fighting against Assad. So we helped to encourage this. What we've got to be absolutely certain of, if these young people come back, we monitor them to make sure they're not coming back to commit terrorist attack, but they're coming back because they realized that being involved in that campaign with ISIS is quite contrary to any sort of tolerance that is the principle underlying  of Islam.

SS: Britain is doing its fair share by taking in some 20,000 Syrian refugees, and they have been welcomed with massive march by Londoners. Do you think the public will lose its eagerness, willingness to accept asylum seekers in the wake of Paris attacks?

KL: Well, let’s remember, both in London and in Paris, the people were basically born and brought up here. One or two in the attacks in Paris may have come in from outside, and if you actually look, London is the only city in Europe that matches American levels of productivity  and competitiveness. It's because we've been open to migration. Almost all the migrants who come to Britain, they come with a degree, they work hard, they help build a strong economy, and we mustn't allow the right-wing, the fascists and those intolerant groups like the National Front in France to create the wrong impression. We live in a world now which is truly global and open, people move across borders, we have 2 million British people living in other countries in Europe. We can't go back to the old world of closed borders, that's just no longer possible.

SS: The Home Secretary has put a bill before Parliament that deepens the legal power of government's surveillance in the UK. Things like Internet browsing history, police hacking, MI5 domestic spying -  I mean, that's on top of GCHQ's data collection exposed by Ed Snowden. Now, you were spied on by the MI5 even in your days as an MP. Are you okay with going through that for the sake of safety? This is an eternal question, you know - security or privacy...

KL: I have no problems with our security services monitoring a potential terrorist or a pedophile, but my worry is that over a decade, our security services haven't been completely rational. It wasn't just that they were spying on me and bugging my phone. They were spying on the deputy leader of Labour Party, Harriet Harman, and she was never a threat to national security. Therefore, we've got to get it right. We've got to target the people that really are a threat, not just have this massive surveillance of a lot of ordinary people, that's a complete waste of our resources.

SS: So, but more importantly, when it comes to facing the tech-savvy jihadis, ISIS recruiters - is bulk data collection justified?

KL: Absolutely. We need to target anybody who is actually recruiting people to a terrorist organisation. We need to work with various Internet companies to close those channels down in we can or to disrupt them, but frankly, some acts of our surveillance in the past have been... we have sort of "underground" agents in environmental groups, people who were campaigning about the environment. They were not a threat to our national security! And, the simple fact is that's what we should focus on, those who threaten our lives, not those who say things that the establishment don't like.

SS: Mr. Livingstone, thank you so much for this interview. We were talking to Ken Livingstone, veteran British politician, former mayor of London, Labour advisor, about his take on facing the dangers of terrorism in Europe, and beyond. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I'll see you next time.