The Taliban recently ordered the stoning to death of an adulterous couple in Kunduz province. I read a newspaper report of this just after deciding to run with our cover story on how we must learn to love the Taliban. The stoning story made me shudder. But we do still have to, if not love, then at least understand the Taliban: their place in Afghan society and thus their role in any peace agreement. Of course the Taliban, representing the conservative traditions of Pashtun society, have a more brutal moral code than we do. It is not moral relativism to say that we should nonetheless negotiate with them: it is historical realism. Their doctrines come from a different time and place to us—we do not have to approve of them, and we should continue to support the more enlightened forces in Afghan society. But we cannot rule the Taliban out of a political settlement because we do not like their values. Moreover, if James Fergusson’s cover story is right, their ideas are not quite as bad as we think, and their political strategy has certainly mellowed in recent years.
Also this month, the first thoughtful post-mortem on Labour’s defeat and where it should go next (p46) from two writers—Nick Pearce and Gavin Kelly—who were at the heart of the Gordon Brown machine at No 10. No longer muzzled by power (or Labour’s dreary leadership election), they point out that the big idea of centre-left political economy—popularised by Robert Reich in the early 1990s—is no longer working. The idea was that globalisation would benefit almost everyone, so long as governments in rich countries equip their citizens with the education and skills needed to switch into growth sectors, and away from the low-skilled work that is emigrating to poorer countries. Pearce and Kelly argue that workers in Britain have on the whole become more skilled and certainly more flexible, yet their real incomes have stagnated since 2003. What is to be done? They acknowledge that the tax system is about as redistributive as it can be, so want higher earnings from work—although they have little idea how that is going to happen apart from raising the minimum wage. More daringly, they also want to reach out beyond economics and foster a new “social patriotism” and ask: “How much is the centre-left prepared to embrace a conservative impulse to protect valued ways of life, and the institutions that sustain them?” This is getting close to Maurice Glasman’s “blue Labour,” and could be attractive to an electorate that is “both culturally conservative and socially liberal—in new and unpredictable ways.”