Why an Obama victory is in Cameron's interests

Recent evidence doesn't support the idea that Tories and Republicans are natural bedfellows.

At one level the diplomatic protocols to be observed by a Prime Minister towards foreign elections are pretty straightforward. Stay out of it is rule Number 1. Since you can't predict who will win and will have to do business with the victor regardless of preference there is no benefit to be had in naming a favourite.

Easier said than done. John Major famously did himself no favours by conspicuously fancying George HW Bush over Bill Clinton. More recently, David Cameron made relations with new French President Francois Hollande needlessly tricky by advertising his hope that Nicolas Sarkozy would hold onto the job. (An error that Ed Miliband has this week exploited to fairly good effect.)

Mindful of the need not to repeat the mistake, Cameron will tomorrow host Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in this year's US presidential election, in Downing Street. Number 10 has some repair work to do after learning that Cameron's effusive praise for Barack Obama earlier this year was judged unseemly and excessively partisan in the Romney camp. (Ed Miliband will also meet Romney but no-one expects that to be anything other than a token making of acquiantence.)

There is a residual notion around on both sides of the Atlantic that Republicans have a natural affinity with Tories and Labour partner up with Democrats, although the evidence doesn't really support that view. Not recently in any case. There is, of course, the famous intimacy between Tony Blair and George W Bush as a glaring counter-example. Meanwhile the Cameroons' enthusiasm for Obama is unfeigned - approaching something like star worship, although that has as much to do with admiration for the incumbent President's brilliant campaigning style as his political inclinations.

Senior Tories are wisely staying tight-lipped about their hopes for November's poll. There is one obvious reason why they might be glad to see Romney prevail. Obama's economic strategy is, crudely speaking, closer to the stimulus-driven Keynesian prescription for responding to economic malaise than Cameron's reliance on instant, harsh fiscal retrenchment. Labour likes to hold up the growing US economy as proof of the fact that raw austerity is the wrong plan. By extension it should stand to reason that, if Obama is ejected and his economic plans deemed to have failed, Cameron can feel mildly politically vindicated. Ultimately he will want conservatism to be victorious in as many jurisdictions as possible.

But that view, I think, underestimates how far removed the US Republican party has become from what passes as normal political discourse in this country. Romney may be the most moderate candidate the Republicans can muster but the is no disguising the fact that the party's centre of gravity has shifted in recent years to terrain that qualifies as way off to the right of where David Cameron would like the Tories to stand. The "Tea Party" tendency, with its obsessive dogmatic hostility to Big Government, its fixation on the pursuit of anti-liberal culture wars and its nurturing of Christian religious fanaticism has pretty much nothing to offer a British political movement wanting to be taken seriously.

In their book It's Even Worse than it Looks US political commentators Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann memorably describe the Republican party as "an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science."

Even if a President Romney were to distance himself from the Tea Party, a Republican-led US would surely become ever more culturally and politically alien to Britain. There would be no advantage - and some hazard - for Cameron in being perceived as leading the cousin conservative party on this side of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, a separate problem for Cameron is the perception that the ongoing global economic crisis is deadly to incumbents. Sarkozy's demise was generally seen as a straightforward decision by the French electorate to sack the person in charge of a failing economy. If Obama loses it would be for pretty much the same reason. It is quite possible that, historical party alignments aside, Cameron would feel more comfortable seeing his old barbecue buddy Barack survive than see another fellow leader felled by the crisis and replaced by a man who stands for a brand of conservatism than many in this country think of as plain nuts.

 

Cameron should be hoping his his old barbecue buddy Barack will survive the election. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser