David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street on 27 February 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron’s petty and parochial view of politics has accelerated the decline of British power

There isn’t much point expecting a more sophisticated account of Britain’s role in the world from the Prime Minister.

Alone, Britain can do nothing to reverse a Russian land-grab in Ukraine. In concert with other European countries and the US, London has some influence over Moscow but even then not much. A western military adventure on Vladimir Putin’s threshold is unthinkable. That leaves diplomatic opprobrium and economic sanctions as the only levers, over which David Cameron’s hand hovers uncertainly.

Putin is betting that a fiscally fragile European Union will not fancy taking on Ukraine as a dysfunctional client state, nor jeopardising its eastern gas supplies to make a point about sovereignty in the Black Sea. He is right. If Russia demands possession of Crimea and strategic dominance of eastern Ukraine, Cameron and others will acquiesce.

There is nothing new in the exposure of Britain as a mediocrity among powers. Our credentials as a nation that matters – a big economy, a professional army, nuclear weapons, a seat on the UN Security Council – are carried over from the 20th century. It is not clear how that elevated status will be sustained. Nor is it necessarily plausible for Britain to imagine itself as a global force distinct from the EU when other players – the US, China, India – are the size of continents.

Cameron touches on this when he talks about a “global race” but he has in mind a commercial rivalry played out within globally recognised boundaries of free-market capitalism. A lesson from Crimea is that some states don’t play by those rules.

There isn’t much point expecting a more sophisticated account of Britain’s role in the world from the Prime Minister. It isn’t in his nature to dwell on perplexing things. His friends present his short attention span as a healthy aversion to ideology; a very British pragmatism. The ungenerous interpretation that circulates among disappointed Tory modernisers and angry traditionalists alike is of a high-spec public school dilettante, clever and self-assured enough to busk an answer to most questions but disinclined to interrogate matters in depth.

That temperament is reflected in foreign policy. Cameron has handled relations with the EU – a vital strategic alliance – as a function of Conservative Party management. In opposition, it was a hazardous topic to be avoided. In government, when evasion became impossible, he switched to obstructing co-operation and calling that reform.

His attitude to overseas conflicts has also evolved ad hoc. In opposition, he rejected Tony Blair’s model of liberalising vigilantism, asserting in 2008, “We cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet.” In Downing Street, the focus switched to economic expediency. He styled himself as salesman-in-chief of UK wares.

The limitations of diplomacy as mercantilist roadshow were exposed by the Arab spring. As brittle dictatorships crumbled in northern Africa, Cameron discovered a Blair-like capacity for human rights evangelism. In Libya, that became military support for a rebel insurgency. The relative success of that enterprise from Downing Street’s point of view – Colonel Gaddafi toppled without harm to UK troops – gave Cameron the confidence to offer support for prospective US strikes in Syria last summer. But he misjudged the readiness of his MPs to go along with that gamble. Their reluctance, combined with Labour’s visceral post-Blair suspicion of military impetuosity, snuffed out Cameron’s interventionist spirit. Normal insular service was resumed.

The Prime Minister’s humiliation would have been greater had a Tory spin operation, led by George Osborne, not changed the subject. Instead of Downing Street miscalculation, the Westminster conversation switched to a supposed crisis of national self-confidence, triggered by Ed Miliband infecting parliament with lefty pacifism.

There was a brief attempt to revive that partisan spirit in the context of Russia’s Ukrainian incursion. Tory MPs, including ministers close to Cameron and Osborne, suggested that Putin had somehow been emboldened by Labour’s new tendency to appeasement. That sniping was silenced when word came down from the Foreign Office that mining the current crisis for old mud to fling at the opposition was not serving the cause of government dignity or prime ministerial authority.

The impulse to play domestic politics in an international emergency was revealing. The Conservative side of the coalition has artfully reduced political debate in this parliament to the most parochial terms possible. A financial crisis born of global economic imbalances and systemic market failure has been truncated into a parable of wanton Labour spending. The challenge of running public services on tight budgets is expressed as a test of will to withdraw undeserved cash from idle layabouts.

Cringing fear of Ukip has prohibited any serious effort to defend a single European market, including free movement of workers, as a driver of future prosperity. What vestige there is of liberal migration policy in government is secretly supported by the Treasury and publicly blamed on the Liberal Democrats. Anything amiss in the country is ascribed to failure from Labour’s time in office.

This approach to politics as glorified parlour game yields petty victories that don’t add up to successful government. It gives no clarity about Cameron’s motive for being in Downing Street, aside from the recreational pleasure of winning and holding power. Since the Prime Minister struggles to express guiding principles in a domestic agenda that consumes most of his time, it seems unlikely he will articulate a coherent sense of strategic purpose in foreign affairs, to which he pays only occasional attention. He may talk about global challenges but his record is of ducking difficult issues and keeping politics parochial. 

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

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.