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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.