Leader: Cameron should not seek to be the heir to Blair in North Africa

Shortly after his election as Conservative leader, David Cameron is said to have described himself as “the heir to Blair”. Rarely has this sobriquet seemed more appropriate than in the days following the Algerian hostage crisis and its bloody conclusion. In an uncanny echo of Mr Blair’s rhetoric after the 11 September 2001 attacks, Mr Cameron spoke of a “generational struggle” against jihadism in North Africa, of an “existential threat” from groups that want to do the “biggest possible amount of damage to our interests and way of life” and of a global war that could last “decades”. He ended his statement to the House of Commons on 21 January by declaring: “We must frustrate the terrorists with our security; we must beat them militarily.”

Mr Cameron’s words are in part a necessary counsel against complacency. The west has been slow to recognise the emergence of new jihadist fronts across North and Central Africa. Only now is it acknowledged that the western intervention in Libya had the unintended consequence of allowing trained fighters and vast quantities of weapons to spill over into Algeria and Mali, where France deployed forces this month. Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, described the proliferation of weapons out of Libya as being on “a scale greater than [in] any previous conflict”. Malian army officers report being overrun by rebel forces equipped with anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets smuggled in from Tripoli.

The overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra is leading the rebellion against the Ba’athist government, could have similar consequences. After the uncomplicated euphoria that greeted the Arab spring, the west’s calculus of risk has shifted.

If the threat has previously been understated, Mr Cameron is in danger of committing the equal and opposite error of overstatement. In another echo of Mr Blair –who once declared, “If we don’t fight [terrorism], it’s going to come after us” – the Prime Minister told MPs, “We should be working with others to help make the world safe all over the place, Mali included, because if we do not, the threat there will grow and we will face it as well.” Yet there is no evidence that the groups Mr Cameron to which refers, increasingly localised and fragmented in nature, are either willing or able to mount attacks in Europe.

By emphasising the “global threat” from al-Qaeda and its surrogates, he is also in danger of replicating the greatest mistake of the “war on terror” – that of conflating groups with little or nothing in common. Largely disparate outfits should not be handed a banner of unity under which to shelter. In defining the conflict in Mali, Mr Cameron should have taken greater care to distinguish between the Tuareg separatists, who have been waging an insurgency against the central government since 1963, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which opportunistically seized control of the revolt last year.

A more nuanced tone has been struck by the US administration, which has highlighted the localised nature of the conflicts and has avoided rash talk of a threat to the western “way of life”. In his second inaugural address, Barack Obama spoke of “a decade of war” coming to an end and declared: “Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

For now, there remains a welcome gulf between Mr Cam - eron’s rhetoric and his government’s policy. He has wisely avoid committing British troops to the action in Mali and has emphasised the need to train local forces and address the political grievances that give rise to extremism. Yet the risk remains that Mr Cameron, like Mr Blair, will eventually be tempted to seek refuge from his domestic woes in foreign adventurism.

Before making any further pronouncements, he should reread the thoughtful speech he delivered on foreign policy in 2006. “It is not responsible to try [to] polarise debate through simplistic exercises in political positioning,” Mr Cameron said. “Foreign policy decisions are not black and white, something which the public well understands. We need a sense of balance, judgement and proportion in handling the complex and dangerous challenges of foreign and security policy in the 21st century.”

That is as true now as it was then. Although it is the neoconservatives in Mr Cameron’s party who have dominated debate in recent times, there is a rich tradition of Tory pragmatism for the Prime Minister to draw from. If he is to avoid repeating the errors that characterised a decade of western foreign policymaking, his response must be defined by patience, caution and scepticism. The UK has paid a high price for reckless interventionism in recent years. It must not do so again.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.