David Cameron during a press conference at the Foreign Office on June 17, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After Cameron’s summer of indecision, who will give Britain a coherent foreign policy again?

The PM is not alone in failing to articulate a clear set of principles for this new era. 

During his recent lecture in London, Tony Blair recalled his time in office and declared with pride: “We led in the world.” The remark was derided by those unable to view the former prime minister as anything other than the plaything of George W Bush, but it was not without justification. It was in 1999, when Bush was still an isolationist opposed to “nation-building”, that Blair delivered his speech in Chicago on the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” and identified Saddam Hussein as a continuing enemy. Throughout his premiership, Britain’s foreign policy was defined by a coherent set of values and principles that supporters could applaud and opponents could denounce.

The contrast with the present government is marked. When David Cameron became Tory leader, he told his aides: “Look, this is an area where I need help.” The events of this summer suggest that he still does.

Confronted by the savagery of Isis, he has oscillated between belligerence and caution, alienating almost all sides in the process. His talk of a “generational struggle” against the jihadists, necessitating the use of military power, has disconcerted his party’s isolationists. “How many more failures do we have to endure before we learn to stay out of the Middle East?” one told me. His simultaneous refusal to recall parliament to seek approval for British action dismayed interventionists who believe that the UK’s responsibilities cannot be upheld through humanitarian and quasi-military support alone.

Those close to the Prime Minister reply that he agrees with the latter point – but he is not prepared to risk a repeat of last year’s defeat over Syria, or to run ahead of a war-weary electorate. Yet even if one forgives this refusal to lead, rather than to follow, the facts do not support his assessment.

Of the 30 Tory MPs who voted against possible military action in Syria last year, I know of at least eight prepared to support intervention in Iraq, even before ministers have made the case. Nor is there inconsistency in their approach. As one, Sarah Wollaston, has noted, intervention in Syria was opposed precisely because it carried the risk of arms falling into the hands of such groups as Isis. The public, too, is not composed of Little England isolationists, as it is commonly thought to be. More than a week before the beheading of the US journalist James Foley, opinion polls showed a plurality in favour of air strikes. The government’s defeat last summer, more the product of accident than design, should not have been a turning point in British foreign policy, but the Prime Minister could yet ensure it becomes one. 

If there is any consolation for Cameron, it is that he is not alone in failing to articulate a set of principles for the post-Blair era. Nearly four years after his election as Labour leader, Ed Miliband has yet to make a set-piece speech on foreign policy. As a result of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq and his success in preventing a “rush to war” in Syria, Westminster has labelled him as a non-interventionist. In response, Labour strategists emphasise that his stance on the latter was “a decision, not a doctrine”. But this only invites the question of what Miliband’s doctrine is.

There is still time for the Labour leader to redress this – Blair did not deliver his first major speech on the subject until 1997 – and he would be wise to do so. His MPs, some of whom (Ben Bradshaw, Mike Gapes, Pat McFadden, John Woodcock) have been making the interventionist case, and the public, increasingly disturbed by images of a war-torn world, are waiting. Tom Watson, one of the party’s most influential backbenchers, told me: “Most countries will be extremely disappointed that Britain seems to have given up on foreign policy for the last five weeks . . . Cameron has given Labour a huge opportunity.”

The opposition has more freedom in this than the Liberal Democrats, who earned such renown for their lone stand against the Iraq war (a decision far riskier than it later appeared). Shackled by coalition, they have struggled to say anything distinctive.

Those who look for enlightenment outside Westminster will similarly find their search is in vain. Boris Johnson, who aspires to become prime minister, has proposed revoking the presumption of innocence for some terrorism suspects. This, despite declaring in 2005: “It must remain an inalienable principle of our law that, if the state has enough evidence to incarcerate someone, then it must have enough evidence to put him on trial.”

Nigel Farage, the other extra-parliamentary star of British politics, offers nothing beyond an anglicised version of the “America First” isolationism espoused by the US conservative Pat Buchanan. Alex Salmond, who hopes soon to lead a state of his own, limits himself to platitudes about the need for an end to “illegal wars” and expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin. Even for those inured to the defects of modern politics, it is a dismal spectacle.

If British politicians no longer feel inclined to “reorder this world”, as Blair phrased it in his pomp, it is not without reason. The west’s recent history of intervention – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – has demonstrated an infinite capacity to make a bad situation worse. There is nothing ignoble in a policy rooted in the principle suggested by Barack Obama: “Don’t do stupid stuff” (a colloquial version of the Hippocratic “First, do no harm”). The further austerity postponed until after the general election may in any case force Britain to adopt a policy better aligned with its reduced military capacity. But Westminster awaits the politician prepared to anatomise this new era and the country’s role in it. The alternative, as Winston Churchill observed in 1936, is that Britain remains “decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute” and “adamant for drift”. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.