David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street on 27 February 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496