He has much to teach us. Photo: Getty
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We need to bring back the Blair approach to foreign policy

As far as foreign policy is concerned, Britain's leaders would benefit from a lesson or two from Tony Blair.

It may seem odd for a liberal to look at Tony Blair in a positive light. But in a paper I’ve written for CentreForum today entitled “Rethinking the Blair doctrine”, I do just that. Specifically, I look back at a speech the then prime minister gave in Chicago on April 24th, 1999 regarding liberal interventionism.

In that speech, Blair outlined what he thought were the five key questions that should be definitively answered prior to any western power becoming militarily involved in any conflict abroad. It was a good set of principles, to which I would only add one further question (“Is there currently a military conflict active in the region/country at the time of consideration?”).

Four years and a bit later, Britain was part of a coalition of western nations that invaded Iraq. It was an invasion I and many others opposed and continue to think was a poor idea – in my case, at least partly because I feel none of the considerations Blair himself outlined in his Chicago speech of 1999 had been adequately met in the case of Iraq. However, this does not mean that the Blair doctrine itself wasn’t still a very fine set of principles to apply to any future consideration regarding liberal interventionism. Nor, more importantly, does it mean that liberal interventionism itself should become devalued in and of itself in light of the Iraq invasion.

Related to this, liberalism should not be the creed of unadulterated pacifism. Yes, any war needs to be fully justified (thus going back to the Blair doctrine in the first place), but as internationalists, how can any conflict, ever, be ruled out? I ask you this: if military intervention can be taken prudently and decisively, in a part of the world in which an active war is already taking place, in other words intervention can definitively save thousands of lives – should that be opposed? My answer to progressives is, no, it should not.

I take Syria as a case in point. In my paper, I argue that Britain should have intervened. I believe that had we done so, the Syrian civil war could have been ended there and then and what has followed – most notably the ascendance of Daesh, aka ISIS – could have been averted. But I have to admit, this is mere speculation. Neither you nor I will ever know in what such a course of action would have resulted. I say all of this to illustrate I am well aware that thinking about liberal interventionism is difficult and comes down, in every case, to making difficult decisions. But they are also decisions I think cannot be avoided. Even if you choose the road of pacifism in every instance, you are still making a choice, one that may affect thousands of lives.

I sincerely wish we all lived in a Francis Fukuyama “end of history” world in which the belligerence of nation states, either against other nation states or their own people, was something confined to the past. Sadly, in a world in which Assad and Putin, not to mention the Saudis and the Iranian theocracy, not only thrive but command real international power, we still live in a world in which military choices will still have to be made for the foreseeable future.

Nick Tyrone is associate director, external affairs, at Centre Forum.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle