What is the Private Members Ballot and why is it so important to backbenchers?

In the last Parliament (2017-2019) only four private bills made it through Parliament and received Royal Assent. This compares to 63 public bills, which are usually introduced by the Government.


The Government dominates the legislative agenda and very little time is available for backbenchers to try to pass legislation. However, hope is offered through the the Backbench Ballot which takes place each year. Backbench MPs enter a ballot (lottery) and 20 Backbench MPs win the chance to earn priceless parliamentary time for a bill o their choice. Of these 20, the first seven drawn are pretty much guaranteed time to put forward their bill on Friday Mornings, which are usually reserved for backbench business.

This years draw took place on 9th January and resulted in the following MPs being drawn:

  1. Labour MP, Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale)
  2. Labour MP, Darren Jones (Bristol North West)
  3. Labour MP, Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North)
  4. Conservative MP, Laura Trott (Sevenoaks)
  5. Conservative MP, Chris Loder (West Dorset)
  6. Labour MP, Paula Barker (Liverpool, Wavertree)
  7. Conservative MP, Philip Dunne (Ludlow)
  8. Conservative MP, Dame Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)
  9. Conservative MP, Mr Mark Francois, (Rayleigh and Wickford)
  10. Conservative MP, Dr Ben Spencer (Runnymede and Weybridge)
  11. Conservative MP, Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden)
  12. SNP MP, Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire)
  13. SNP MP, Peter Grant (Glenrothes)
  14. Labour MP, Alex Cunningham (Stockton North)
  15. Labour MP, Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham)
  16. Conservative MP, Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)
  17. Conservative MP, Bill Wiggin ( North Herefordshire)
  18. Labout MP, Kate Osamor (Edmonton)
  19. Conservative MP, Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness)
  20. SNP MP, Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North Wes

Whilst these MPs will have the chance to put forward their bills, it is still unlikely that they will become law. This is for a number of reasons:

Filibustering – A filibuster is a tactic that can be used to prevent a vote on a bill by continuing to talk so there is not time left for a vote. It is also commonly called ‘talking out’ a bill. The modern record for the length of a filibuster is held by Labour MP Andrew Dismore. In 2005 he held the floor for 3 hours and 17 minutes, although he did take interventions from other MPs during this time. A famous filibusterer is Jacob Rees-Mogg who is renowned for his wide use of the English language in his speeches. One example of Mogg filibustering can be seen below:

Other recentexamples of filibusters include:

In October 2016 Labour MP Julie Cooper was attempting to pass a bill to exempt carers from paying hospital car park charges – it was filibustered by Conservative MP Philip Davies.

In October 2017 a Labour bill to reduce the voting age to 16 was filibustered by numerous Conservatives. The MP proposing the bill, Jim McMahon, reacted angrily to the tactics used by the Conservatives:

Difficulty of Cloture Motions – Under parliamentary rules a filibuster can be stopped by a cloture motion. This is a motion to bring a debate to a close and requires a simple majority. However, there is a further hurdle to overcome – a cloture motion needs the support of over 100 MPs. On a normal parliamentary day, this might not be an issue. However, Private Members bills are normally consider on a Friday, when most MPs are absent from Parliament and can be found in their constituencies. This makes achieving a cloture motion is almost impossible.

This is the kind of image viewers on BBC Parliament might see on a Friday in the the chamber.

With these challenges, the best hope a backbencher has to get his bill passed is to win the support of the government for their agenda. For example, in 2017 Labour MP Chris Bryant used his Private Members Ballot slot to make assault on emergency workers a particular criminal offence punishable by up to 12 months in prison (as opposed to six months on a non-emergency worker). This was something the government was quick to support, the bill even passed third reading without a division (vote), showing its popularity.

An even more famous example is the abolition of the Death Penalty. The Death Penalty was abolished in Britain by 1965. For such a significant piece of legislation it is perhaps surprising to think that it was a Private Members Bill. It was first introduced by Labour MP Sydney Silverman. A Free Vote (where whips do not direct their party members) and it passed the House of Commons by 200 to 98 before passing the House of Lords by 204 to 104. It was clear that the public mood had turned against the Death Penalty and MPs reflected this mood.

So, 20 MPs will be excitedly preparing Private Member Bills to make the most of their chance in the parliamentary limelight. Most will fail, however, with a bit of luck and some prominent people behind it, these MPs stand their best chance of making their legislative mark in the House of Commons.

Who was Qassem Soleimani and was his killing legal?

On 3rd January 2020 a US Drone strike in Iraq killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. The action taken by the US resulted in reprisals by Iran as on the 8th January two American Air Bases were targeted in missile strikes. So who was Qassam Solemani and was his killing by the United States legal?

Who was Qassem Soleimani?

Qassem Soleimani was Iran’s most prominent military figure. Soleimani was head of Quds Force within the Iranian Revolurinaey Guard. The Quds Force essentially formed the basis of the Special Forces of Iran.

Soleimani alongside other senior Iranian Military Officers.

In this role, Soleimani was responsible for coordinating the support of Iran for proxy groups. Using proxy war (for example supporting Assad in Syria and the Houthi movement in the Civil War in Yemen). The co-operation of Soleimani with groups like Hezbollah (who the US and U.K. designate as terrorist organisations) led to the allegation that he was aiding and abetting terrorism and needed to be addressed.

What happened in the Strike?

Soleimani was killer in a carefully planned drone attack. A drone is an unmanned aircraft that can be operated remotely.

The Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel is one of the most advanced drones operated by the US.

The attack actually took place in Iraq, not Iran. The missiles were targeted at a convoy leaving Baghdad Airport where Soleimani had just returned from Lebanon. Four members of an Iraqi militia group called the PMF were also killed.

The Guardian released CCTV footage of the moment the convoy was struck.

Has this happened before?

Drone strikes have become an increasingly common way of targeting individuals considered a threat. The fact that they are unmanned significantly reduces the risk to attacking troops. However, more broadly, the United States has carried out operations to unilaterally kill individuals on foreign soil. These are commonly called ‘extrajudical killing’, as they take place without a proceeding judicial process (as would happen if someone was given the death penalty. Most notably:

Osama Bin Laden – May 2011

Osama Bin Laden was the leader of Al-Qaeda who had orchestrated the September 11th attacks against the United States that resulted in deaths of 2,997 people. He managed to evade capture during the War in Afghanistan escaping through the Tora Bora cave system. The CIA conducted one of the longest manhunts in History, eventually tracing Bin Laden to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In this instance, President Obama opted against a drone strike and sent special forces in to kill Osama Bin Laden.

This is the compound in Abbottabad that Osama Bin Laden lived in for at least five years.

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi – October 2019

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was the leader of ISIS having previously been a senior figure in Al-Qaeda. In a similar operation to the one against Bin Laden, Al Baghdadi was killed by US Special Forces.

American Comedian Jimmy Kimmel presented a ‘mash up’ of the very different ways that Obama and Trump confirmed these extrajudicial killings

Was the killing of Soleimani Legal?

International Law is incredibly complex and much harder to define than domestic laws, which are normally either codified or have very clear precedent.

In taking the action that they did the United States are likely to claim legality under Article 51 of the UN Charter. This says:

“ Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

In his speech on the 8th January Trump said clearly that not only was Soleimani responsible for attacks on American citizens, but the US had evidence that he was planning even more such attacks. In the eyes of the US administration, the intelligence that they claim to have gave them justification under Article 51 to take pre-emptive action.

However, other legal scholars will argue that the right to carry out extrajudicial killings in this way only exists when they is a clear and imminent threat, which it seems there is unlikely to be.

Ultimately, law is only as powerful as the level to which it can be enforced. No major power is going to militarily take up arms against the US response and economic sanctions are likely to be counter to their own interests. The Realist view of global politics dominates here. Realists believe that global politics is constantly dominated by the security dilemma. The killing of Soleimani was calculated not only to remove an individual who was a threat, but perhaps more importantly, to send a clear message to the Iranian regime that the US will not permit Iran to destabilise the Middle East, an area of significant strategic, economic and political importance to the United States.

What is meant by the Elective Dictatorship and why does it exist?

In 1976 Lord Hailsham coined the term ‘elective dictatorship’ to describe the extent to which the Government controls the Parliament of the day. Essentially, the term implies that in the UK political system, when elected, a government can essentially take whatever actions it wants without effective scrutiny.

Lord Hailsham held a number of senior government posts during his life.

There is no doubt that, generally, the elective dictatorship does exist. However, depending on the make-up of Parliament and the circumstances of the day, it can subside in certain circumstances. For example, Theresa May’s premiership, in which she lost two votes on her Withdrawal Agreement, can certainly not be described as ‘elective dictatorship’. Equally, until the General Election of December 2019, her successor was not in control of Parliament. As Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost his first four divisions (parliamentary votes) and became the first Prime Minister since 1894 to lose their very first parliamentary division. 

Parliament was able to continue to frustrate Boris Johnson in his first months in office.

So, given Elective Dictatorship normally exists, what factors lead to it?

  1. The UK Electoral System tends towards firm majorities

The First Past the Post system has the effect of creating a clear two-party system. First Past the Post is also a ‘winner takes all system’, this means that minor parties find it incredibly difficult to establish a presence in Parliament. This is because votes cast for smaller parties in most constituencies are unlikely to topple one of the two major parties. For example, in the 2019 General Election the Conservatives won 365 seats and the Greens won 1 seat. Nationally, it took an average of 38,264 votes for each seat the Conservatives won, but 865, 707 votes led to the Greens winning just one seat. 

Caroline Lucas (MP for Brighton Pavilion) remains the only Green MP despite her party winning 2.7% of the UK vote.

The fact that minor parties find it difficult to make an electoral impact means that power swings between the two major parties and the swing between them is usually enough to ensure a majority in Parliament. The average majority in Parliament since 1945 is 58.4 seats with only three hung parliaments in this time. Added to this is the fact that landslide victories are not uncommon in the U.K. system. Some of the biggest are:

Clement Attlee (Labour) – Majority of 147 Seats in 1945

Margaret Thatcher (Conservative) – Majority of 144 in 1983

Tony Blair (Labour) – Majority of 178 in 1997

In cases such as these, it is clear that the government will be almost impossible to control.

2. The Government controls the parliamentary agenda

The agenda and activities of the House of Commons are largely controlled by the Government as dictated by Standing Orders (the rules of Parliament). It is Standing Order 14 (1) that outlines that the government usually have control of the parliamentary agenda:

“Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting.”

Other time allocated in Parliament that is not controlled by the government is limited to:

  • 20 Days for Opposition Business 
  • 35 Days for Backbench Business
  • 13 Fridays for Backbench Private Members Bill

3. The House of Commons dominates the House of Lords

Further to the fact that the Government largely controls the House of Commons, the House of Commons is dominant over the House of Lords. There are a number of reasons for this:

Parliament Acts (1911 & 1949) – The Parliament Acts mean that the House of Lords can no longer block legislation, but merely delay it for one year. If the House of Lords blocks a bill they the House of Commons wants to pass, it can invoke the Parliament Act. This means that if the same bill were passed by the Commons in the subsequent year, it could be forced into law. The Parliament Act has only been invoked four times since 1949 (most recently for the Hunting Act 2005) but the very fact that it exists makes the Lords more reticent to challenge the Commons.

The House of Lords voted against the Hunting Act in 2004, but the Parliament Act saw it bought into force in 2005.

Salisbury Convention – Since the 1940s it has become a well established convention that the House of Lords does not vote against a bill that was clearly a part of the Government’s election manifesto. The reasoning behind this is that if an issue was in the manifesto of the winning party in the election it is fair to infer that the policy has a mandate from the people. As an example of this, the 2019 Conservative Manifesto said that their government would bring in “An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”. This means that if this policy appears in a bill, the Lords will assent to it under the Salisbury Convention.

Financial Privilege – By long-standing Convention the House of Lords does not vote against any bill that is raising money, for example a bill to raise taxes or the Government’s Yearly Budget.

When the Chancellor o the Exchequer delivers his budget, they do so safe in the knowledge it won’t be blocked by the House of Lords.

4. Party Loyalty

One of the most important factors that create the impact of ‘elective dictatorship’ is party loyalty. In the UK political system it is exceptionally difficult to become an MP without standing as part of a political party. Currently, there is only independent MP in the House of Commons, however, Neale Hanvey was on the Ballot Paper as an SNP member, but was suspended just before the election. The last true independent in the U.K. was Sylvia Hermon who was elected as an Independent MP for North Down between 2010 and 2019.

Sylvia Hermon (North Down 2010-2019) was the last MP elected whilst standing as an independent.

Not only do MPs rely on their parties to be elected, they also rely on their party for their career development. Most MPs want to advance their career, either becoming a Select Committee Member or a Minister or Shadow Minister. To become a Minister or Shadow Minister they have to keep their party onside, whilst becoming a Select Committee Member will be much easier with the support of their parties.

As a result of this, rebellions in the House of Commons are rare. Although there are naturally rebellious MPs (Jeremy Corbyn famously voted against his own party 428 times when he was a backbencher) most MPs ‘toe the party line’ and vote the way that their party whips want them to, enhancing the power of political parties and contributing to the elective dictatorship.

The fact that Britain has a fusion of powers means that if the executive can keep their own party onside, they will normally be able to carry out most of their agenda. This is different from the United States, where there is a separation of powers. Often, in the United States there is a ‘divided government’ meaning that the party of the President does not control the Senate and House of Representatives. This makes it very hard for the President to carry out any agenda they may have, as President Trump has found. 

Donald Trump was impeached when the Democrat Controlled House of Representatives voted by 230-197. Not a single Republican voted to impeach him, but it was enough to pass the issue onto the Senate to hold a trial into his conduct.

There can be no doubt that the elective dictatorship is a concept that fits the U.K. political system. Between 1945 and 2019 there have been 19,919 divisions (votes) in the House of Commons. Of these, only 148 have been lost by the Government. This means that 99.2% of all divisions have been won by the Government – a clear indication of the power of the executive. The effects of the ‘elective dictatorship’ depend on a variety of factors, particularly the size of a parliamentary majority and the cohesiveness of the governing party. Following a period under Theresa May when she had no majority and struggled to reconcile her own party on Brexit, with Boris Johnson’s majority of 80 it is likely the elective dictatorship is back.

Britain, the UN and the Chagos Islands

The Chagos Islands are an Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. They comprise more than 60 individual islands and their sovereignty is under dispute.

The French were the first great power to stake a claim to the Islands in the 18th Century. At the time the Islands were uninhabited. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, the islands were ceded to Britain as part of the Treaty of Paris. The Islands were administered from Mauritius, which was also ceded to Britain as part of the treaty.

The Chagos Islands were ceded to Britain after the defeat of Napoleon.

From 1840 onwards the islands became permanently inhabited, most of the inhabitant were descended from slaves, however, they were Freeman. This remained the status quo for a century.

The native inhabitants of the Chagos Islands are known as Chagossians.

By the 1960s British Decolonisation was advancing rapidly and it was clear that British control of Mauritius was coming to an end. In preemption of this, the British Government paid Mauritius £3 Million Pounds in in 1965 to purchase the Chagos Islands. Their position in the Indian Ocean made them strategically important, particularly as Britain tried to balance its loss of overseas territory with the ability to remain a global power. The purchased islands were renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Over the next five years, Britain depopulated the islands. This was done in secret and without international knowledge. By 1973 the entire population of around 2,000 Chagos Islanders had been removed from the islands and the inhabitants were moved to Mauritius, a state that most islanders had never set foot on before.

In 1971, Britain and the United States signed a treaty which gave the US a leasehold over the islands in order to build a Naval and Air Base which the US saw as essential in limiting Soviet influence in the Indian Ocean. As part of the agreement, the British received significant discounts on the Polaris Nuclear Weapons system that formed the basis of Britain’s nuclear deterrent until 1996 when it was replaced with Trident. The US Air Base remains active and was used in both Gulf Wars and for action in Afghanistan.

The US Air Base in Diego Garcia with the notorious B-52 Bomber in the foreground.

In the 1980s Mauritius claimed sovereignty of the islands. They contended that the 1965 separation was illegal under international law. In recent years, the dispute has escalated significantly. 

In 2010 the UK Government declared a Marine Protection Area (MPA) around the Islands. It is currently the world’s largest Marine Protection Area. This places legal limits on ships or aircraft entering the established zone. MPAs are usually established to protect wildlife or to create oceanic research areas, however, classified diplomatic correspondence between  the UK and US released by Wikileaks in  2010 clearly indicate that an ulterior motive in the creation of the MPA might be to prevent Chagos Islanders from reinhabiting the Islands:

“ Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the [British Indian Ocean Territory]”

Legal Action in UK Courts

In 2006 Chaggosians won a case in the U.K. High Court to return to the Chagos Islands but the decision was appealed by the U.K. Government. The Court of Appeals agreed with the High Court but again the U.K. Government appealed the decision, so it went to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (Law Lords), then the highest court in the U.K. In 2008, the Law Lords ruled 3-2 in the Government’s favour ending the Chagossians hopes of returning.

Representations to the Court of Permanent Arbitration

In 2015 Mauritius launched action against the British Government under the United Nations  Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Government of Mauritius argued that the MPA was illegal under the UN Convention. 

The Permanent Court of Arbitration is located at The Hague. The PCA is not a UN institution, but is utilised by UN Members as a place to resolve international disputes. In March 2015, the PCA ruled that Britain had acted illegally by creating the MPA. Although this ruling was not legally binding on Britain, it was a huge blow to the international legitimacy of their actions. 

The Permanent Court of Arbitration is based in the Hague but is not a UN Institution.

Deliberations of the UN General Assembly and International Court of Justice

In June 2017 the UN General Assembly voted by 94-15 to refer the case to the International Court of Justice. The 15 who voted against the referral, such as the USA and Australia, argued that this was a bilateral dispute that should be resolved directly by the two parties.

In February 2019 the International Court of Justice rules that the separation of the Chagos Islands from Mauritius in 1965 had been illegal and ruled that the territory should be returned to Mauritius as soon as practically possible. 

The International Court of Justice ruled that the separation of Mauritius and the Chagos Islands was illegal.

In response to the ICJ ruling the U.K. Government has so far refused to comply. When asked about the issue in the House of Commons in May 2019 the Minister for Africa said:

“…the Chagos archipelago has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814…The whole world benefits from the security provided by having this base in the Indian Ocean”

This case highlights one of the fundamental limits of the International Court of Justice – the decisions it makes are not binding, they simply add to the canon of International Law and, at times, put pressure on Governments to consider their policies. However, they rely on other institutions to carry out any ruling they give.

Pressure on the U.K. grew in May 2019 when the UN General Assembly voted by 116-6 to condemn the British ‘occupation’ of the Chagos Islands. The US, Hungary, Israel, Australia and the Maldives were the only countries to back the U.K’s stance on the Islands. Even the Pope voiced his concerns during an Indian Ocean visit:

“ You must obey international institutions. That is why the United Nations were created. That’s why international courts were created.”

Even Pope Francis has openly criticised British actions over the Chagos Islands.

However, the motion, this time from the General Assembly, is not binding. There is still no legal impetus for Britain to take positive action and refused to recognise the claim of Mauritius to the islands.

Britain shows no signs of vacillating on the issue and, with knowledge that they have the support of the US, there is unlikely to be anything that can force them to budge. This does highlight some of the fundamental weaknesses of the UN and other intergovernmental organisations:

  • Motions are rarely binding. They rely on self enforcement. When major powers are the subject of criticism, little is likely to force them to relent.
  • International Law is still widely disputed and despite Liberal intentions, it cannot be consistently enforced. 

The case of the Chagos Islands looks set to continue with seemingly no likelihood that Britain will make any concessions. 

What is election Purdah and why does it exist? Moo

  • General Elections in the UK are strictly regulated. For example, there are restrictions on spending, with each campaign able to spend a limited amount depending on the number of candidates they are putting forward. These rules and regulations are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) and are monitored and enforced by the Electoral Commission, an independent body that exists to ensure elections are transparent and fair.
  • Another important part of the election process in the UK is the existence of a period of Purdah. This means that during the official election campaign (which by law must last for at least six weeks) certain rules are put in place to ensure the Government is not able to take advantage of its incumbency. For example:

    ⁃ The Government are expected not to enact any new initiatives that might well be considered to be of political benefit to them.

    ⁃ Public funds cannot be used for any form of political campaigning.

    ⁃ Civil Servants must not answer questions about the potential implementation of party manifestos.

    ⁃ The Civil Service (who are required to be politically impartial anyway) monitor and ensure they Purdah is enforced throughout the different Government departments.

    Civil Servants, like Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, are expected to enforce Purdah across the Government.

    Last week the Government announced that the Benefits Freeze (the freeze on the amount paid for different welfare claimants) would end in 2020. Announcing this clearly may have a positive influence on the electoral prospects of the Conservatives. It is a good example, therefore, of something that could not have been announced after the 6th November when

    Purdah does not end automatically following an election, instead it ends when a Government is formed. This is important in the event of there being a ‘hung parliament’ and different parties considering options for coalition. This was evident in 2010 when the Conservatives were the largest party but did not have a majority. Gordon Brown therefore remained a temporary Prime Minister until a Government could be formed. Insiders to the Brown camp after the 2010 election describe him as being desperate to do something proactive, but being reminded by the Civil Service of his responsibilities under Purdah. On this occasion, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat’s agreed a Coalition Agreement and ended up in Coalition Government for five years.

    Trump, Trade Wars and China

    This post was kindly submitted by a Sixth-Form Student at St. George’s College, Weybridge.

    US trade policy in the Trump era is defined by one word: protectionism. Essentially, this ideology argues against free trade and, to a larger extent, globalism. It is the trade aspect of his all-round America First approach. In practice, it is the economic policy of restricting imports from other countries through methods such as tariffs. In the US, protectionism has taken the form of tariffs against China. However, before Trump picked a fight with China, he had a bigger enemy – Mexico.

    An image that clearly summaries Trump’s protectionism

    While campaigning in 2015 and 2016, a common phrase heard from Trump was ‘Mexico is taking our jobs!’ This is how his protectionism was formed. His base is largely made up of white, working class men in exurban areas who had lost their jobs as companies moved to countries with cheaper labour or began to automate. So Trump fought against the loss of American jobs more than any traditional, free-market Republican. That’s not to say he wasn’t thinking about China before his presidency, but his was focus was on jobs and not trade.

    After becoming the President, one of Trump’s goals was to renegotiate NAFTA, and end the large trade deficits that the US has been running for so many years. A businessman at heart, not a politician or economist, he saw these deficits as losing. There is a logic to this – running a deficit means you are buying more from a country than selling to them, which in turn means they are getting more money from you than you are getting from them. His other complaints of China were accusations of intellectual property, and earlier this year, the administration officially named them a currency manipulator. So in March 2018, Trump laid the first set of tariffs on China, in an attempt to rebalance. The tariffs were 25% on $50billion dollars of Chinese goods, mostly on steel and aluminum. China consequently announced tariffs on approximately the same value of goods. They have been increasing the tariffs ever since, while remaining in negotiations.

    The most interesting aspect of Trump’s protectionism is how badly it fits with most right-wing ideology. When farmers in Middle America were suffering badly due to tariffs on their soybeans, the Trump administration gave them $100bn in aid. Essentially, this is government bailout due to failed market intervention – two things that Republicans never traditionally support. The ‘America First’ philosophy has inverted the traditional debates. Whereas Democrats used to be wary of free-trade, eager to protect blue-collar jobs, Republicans lived by it, preaching the invisible hand of the market would produce the outcome.

    On an international scale, the trade war has led to widespread fears of a global economic slowdown in the next two years among economists. The rest of the world is fearful of Trump’s tactics but wary to get involved. At this year’s G7 summit, the European Council President Donald Tusk said “trade wars will lead to recession.” The fact that most tariffs are on basic goods (steel, aluminum, etc.) means that the world’s whole manufacturing sector is struggling as a result of the higher prices. Germany, a manufacturing-based economy, is already in a recession.

    Tariffs were a key part of discussions at August’s G7 meeting in France.

    In the first week of October 2019, Trump has also added $6 billion worth of tariffs onto the EU, mostly as a response to the large subsidies that the EU gives Airbus, Boeing’s competitor. The Brussels-based EU executive consequently proposed tariffs worth £15 billion on US goods.  This new fight is creating tensions between the EU and US. France urged the EU to respond ‘firmly’ against the US if the tariffs come into force in the coming weeks. Juncker, the European Commission’s president, said: ‘Trade wars are easy to start but escalate quickly and usually end badly. Whoever starts a trade war will end badly in his own camp. Europe will always defend free and fair trade, based on a level-playing field and reciprocity.’ This additional tension will undoubtedly continue to build, and could lead to long-lasting damage to the EU-US relationship. It is unclear on the impact that this could have on Britain’s own special relationship with the US.

    Why is the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia so complicated?

    The Middle-East is dominated by two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

    Saudi Arabia and Iran are separated by Iraq and by the Persian Gulf.

    On the face of it, the two states are not dissimilar. Both are Islamic theocracies where Islamic teaching is fundamental to all aspects of government and wider life. Both are also authoritarian states where there is little political opposition to the government. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and has been governed by the House of Saud since 1932. Iran is led by the Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khamenei, who the main institutions of the state, such as the Armed Forces, are directly subject to.

    In addition, both countries have enormous economic potential, largely due to their oil reserves. Today, there are estimated to be 268 billion barrels of oil in Saudi Arabia and Iran is estimated to have around 158 Billion barrels.

    However, there are clear dissimilarities too. Saudi Arabia is a majority Sunni state, with up to 85% of the population being Sunni. Iran, however, is a predominantly Shia state, with 95% of the population identifying as Shia.

    The Saudi’s had always claimed to be the leaders of the Muslim world. Notably, because both Medina (the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad) and Mecca (the holy city of Islam) are within its borders. However, at the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the country has claimed to be the true beholder of the Muslim Faith.

    Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have actively sought to extend their influence in the Middle-East. Iran and Saudi Arabia have never gone to war with each other. Instead, they have supported different sides during the various wars that have taken place in the Middle-East. This is known as fighting a ‘war by proxy’. For example, in two prominent wars taking place in the Middle East at present they support opposing sides:

    Yemen – A Civil War has been ongoing since 2015 between the Yemeni Government and Houthi Rebels. The Yemeni Government is supported by a Saudi-led coalition. Iran supports the Houthi rebels. The conflict is further deepened by the presence of terror groups in the region, including Al-Qaeda and ISIL.

    Syria – The Syrian Civil War has taken place since march 2011. The Government forces of President Assad are supported by Iran, whilst the Syrian rebels are supported by Saudi Arabia.

    An estimated 550,000 people have died in the Syrian Civil War.

    Both sides want to ensure their influence in the region and support the sides that they do in order to do this. This was the same process that American and the Soviet Union engaged in during the Cold War, not directly engaging each other militarily, but supporting different sides in conflicts (like the Korean War) in order to preserve and extend their influence in the region.

    The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is complicated by the involvement of the world’s major powers in the region. Since 1951 the United States of America and Saudi Arabia have been actively allied on many fronts. The USA has traditionally sort influence in the Middle East to protect oil exports, a decline of which could seriously damage the global economy. The US supplies military hardware to Saudi Arabia. In 2017 Saudi Arabia and the USA signed an arms deal that would see the US sell $350 Billion Dollars of arms to Saudi Arabia over the course of a decade. In addition, the US retains active military basis in the country, with around 5,000 US military personnel based there.

    Saudi Arabia also have close relationships with other western countries. The UK’s largest ever arms trade deal is with Saudi Arabia. Most recently, the UK have sold 72 Eurofighters to Saudi Arabia. This was heavily criticised by the Labour and Green Party who criticised the decision of the government to sell arms to a country with an extremely questionable record on Human Rights.

    Britain has supplied modern Eurofigther Typhoons to the Saudi Government.

    The close relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is not mirrored in the US relationship with Iran. Since 1980 the US and Iran have had diplomatic relationship and the US have imposed a trade embargo on Iran since 1995. In 2015, relations appeared to be getting better when Barack Obama’s government negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran that guaranteed that the US would lift sanctions when Iran dismantled its nuclear facilities. However, in 2018 the Trump Government reimposed sanctions, something he had promised right from the start of his presidential campaign.

    However, Iran is supported by two major powers – Russia and China. Since sanctions have been placed on Iran by the West, Russia have provided Iran with a lifeline. Russia have supported the Iranian military, including planes and advanced artillery systems. In addition, the two countries have an extensive trading relationship, including a $20 billion dollar trade deal in 2014.

    China have been a key buyer of Iranian Oil for a number of years and Chinese companies have been given drilling rights in Iran.

    What has happened recently?

    Tensions in the region have ratcheted up greatly in the last week. On Saturday 14th September an attack was mounted on one of Saudi Arabia’s most important oilfields and one owned by the government. The fires that erupted after the attack lasted for many hours and the chaos that it created resulted in a 5% drop in global oil production.

    The aftermaths of the attack seen from the air.

    Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Houthi, a rebel group fighting against Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The attack was carried out using advanced drone technology – this is technology that is almost certain that Iran has supplied.

    Iran has denied any responsibility for the attacks. However, Saudi Arabia, in addition to the UK and US have clearly indicated that they believe Iran to be firmly responsible.

    Both Britain and the US have suggested taking action against Iran in response to the attacks.

    Any direct war between Iran and Saudi Arabia would be bloody. Iran has far bigger armed forces, whilst Saudi Arabia, with the support of Britain and the US, have far more modern forces:

    It is clear than Iran is seen by many as a force of instability in the region. Saudi Arabia, and its allies, will not shy away from checking the growth of its influence. The significance of the recent attacks should not be understated.