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What David Cameron can learn from Abraham Lincoln

Wearing the Union blue.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is one of the noblest statements ever delivered, and forcing the abolition bill through a reluctant Congress, as Steven Spielberg’s masterful Oscarnominated film attests, was a monumental achievement. But Lincoln’s principal contribution to American history was to save the Union, as those from the Southern states are quick to tell you. In the former Confederacy, the civil war is still called “the War Between the States”.

Lincoln confided his thoughts about secession and slavery in a letter of 1862. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that,” he wrote. “What I do about slavery, and the coloured race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

His proclamation did not, in fact, free the slaves in the North, nor was he in a position to free slaves in the Confederate South, but, under his powers as commander-in-chief in wartime, he issued an executive order that freed all slaves in the Southern states as soon as they were occupied by the Union army.

It may at first seem a little far-fetched, but there are poignant similarities between the conundrum that Lincoln encountered 150 years ago and the dilemma David Cameron faces today. They are both confronted with threats to the very existence of the nations they govern. While Lincoln was obliged to respond to a fait accompli, a group of slave states that had decided before his election to wrest themselves from the Union, by force of arms if necessary, Cameron finds himself under siege on all sides. But while Lincoln was presented with the simple option of whether to take up arms to defend the Union or watch as his country split in two, Cam eron has no such easy choice.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party has finally achieved what it has been dreaming of for 80 years. It has a mandate to demand from Westminster a referendum on whether, after three centuries united with England and Wales, Scotland should become a free nation again. The Union came about as a result of the Union of the Crowns, when the Scottish king James VI, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, acceded to the throne of England following the death of the childless Elizabeth I in 1603. It took a full century before the English and Scottish parliaments combined in the Acts of Union of 1707. Lincoln was obliged to defend a union barely 90 years old; Cameron must protect a union that has lasted more than 300 years.

In Ireland, Cameron presides over the latest skirmish in a bloody struggle that has lasted much longer. The colonisation of Ireland was messy and brutal from the start, and the independence wrested from Britain in 1922 left the northern, overwhelmingly Protestant and unionist part of the island in British hands. A border had to be drawn somewhere, leaving many who would prefer to live in the republic stranded in a British province. The continuing troubles offer a challenge to Cameron to find a permanent peace. No less than in Scotland, British sovereignty and British lives are severely at risk.

Then there is the European Union. Those with a sense of history will remember that joining Europe was always predominantly a Conservative project. It was Harold Macmillan, with Edward Heath at his side, who first flirted with the continentals in 1961 and had his overture rudely rebuffed by Charles de Gaulle’s “Non!”. Heath the eternal bachelor then made it his life’s mission to make a marriage with the Europeans and the lasting legacy of his otherwise awkward, chilly and ultimately tragic premiership was British entry into the European Economic Community in 1973. As Cameron must be all too aware, the principled Heath condemned the referendum that Harold Wilson called on European membership two years later as a shabby gimmick, designed to appease internal Labour divisions over the Common Market.

Since the moment when Heath’s successor Margaret Thatcher – who had campaigned in favour of remaining in Europe in 1975 – began arguing, as prime minister after 1979, against closer European union, the Conservatives have been profoundly and openly divided on the matter. The rupture over Europe, even more than Thatcher’s unpopular poll tax, led to her defenestration by cabinet colleagues in 1990. John Major’s leadership of the Tories was blighted by the question of Europe; and the election of three Eurosceptic leaders in a row – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard – did not settle the matter.

Cameron’s inheritance is a party facing both ways on Europe, and his inability to reconcile the opposing forces has given rise to a challenge for the affections of his patriotic electoral base from the anti-European Ukip. Although Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, along with every other Ukip candidate, failed to win a Commons seat in 2010 (Farage was beaten by a candidate dressed as a dolphin), his party stole enough votes from the Conservatives to deprive Cameron of a parliamentary majority.

When he dreamed of leading his party, Cameron could never have imagined that Britain’s existence would be subject to a three-pronged attack. But he finds himself in the same position as today’s Republican leadership in America, under assault from angry rank and file who feel they are being ignored and betrayed by their leaders. The Republicans, once the proud “party of Lincoln”, have evolved into a testy vehicle for insurgent mavericks and malcontents.

To add insult to indignity, the “Grand Old Party”, which once bravely saved the Union, is the home of a new secessionist movement. Having failed to devolve substantial powers from the federal government to the states, many are demanding independence. At present, eight states, all from the defeated Confederacy, have petitioned the White House to be allowed to secede: Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama and South Carolina. The muddled, ahistorical thinking behind the treacherous talk is evident in the argument proffered by the libertarian Ron Paul: “It’s very American to talk about secession. That’s how we came into being.”

On a personal level, there are as few similarities between Cameron and Lincoln as between Jacob and Esau. Lincoln was brought up in a sparsely furnished log cabin and, much to his ignorant father’s despair, taught himself to read and write, eventually emerging as a jobbing country lawyer in Illinois. Cameron, as we know, was the son of high privilege. Everyone who met Lincoln commented on his rough looks and his even rougher clothes. Cameron’s smooth, unlined face betrays an easy, affluent, well-fed life.

Both men, however, could be described more accurately as Whigs than Conservatives, in their commitment to parliament or Congress over absolute powers held by the monarch or president. Indeed, Lincoln was an old American Whig before he joined the Republicans over the issue of abolition. Allied to their commitment to rewarding individual effort, irrespective of background, is a strong, Protestant sense that their good fortune entails paying something back. Despite his comfortable circumstances, Cameron has argued that “it’s where you are going to, not where you have come from, that matters”. In a decisive break from the philosophy of heroic individualism that inspired Thatcher, he believes “there is such a thing as society”.

As well as soaring ambition, the two men share other similarities. Both are most eloquent when they do not refer to notes. Although stiff and wooden at first, Lincoln’s speeches gathered pace and by the peroration he would be ripping off his necktie, loosening his starched collar and throwing his arms around like a deranged windmill. “His pronunciation is bad, his manners uncouth and his general appearance anything but prepossessing,” is how one eyewitness described his platform presence.

Cameron’s delivery is calm, ordered and deliberate. His speech to the Tory party conference in 2005, delivered without notes, may not have been as powerful and inspirational as the 268 words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863, which would be a tall order for anyone except, perhaps, Winston Churchill. But the performance at Blackpool, in its carefully pitched content tailored to the party faithful and the confidence of its delivery, ensured his election as leader.

Lincoln took into his administration the big beasts of the Republican Party whom he had beaten to the Republican nomination: William H Seward, Salmon P Chase and Edward Bates. And Cameron, too, assembled a team of former rivals. To become Tory leader, he saw off David Davis, Liam Fox and Kenneth Clarke, all of whom he invited into his shadow cabinet. Like Lincoln, Cameron leads his disparate colleagues with the minimum of friction. But there the favourable comparisons between the two leaders start to run out.

Lincoln was always a man of principle rather than pragmatism. He could be rash, failing to hold his tongue in the presence of those he knew disagreed with him, and found it difficult to compromise even when it was in his best interest to do so. Nowhere was this more obvious and powerful than when he spelled out, years before running for the White House, what he felt about race.

He declared that when the Founding Fathers wrote, “We hold these truths to be selfevident: that all men are created equal,” they meant “the whole great family of man” and not merely those with white faces. Lincoln said the founders knew enough about human nature to imagine that, “in the distant future”, people would emerge who would “set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. But he was certain that racism could never have been in the founders’ minds and he would have none of it.

In comparison to this eloquent statement of principle, just one among dozens that Lincoln crisply articulated in his short life, Cam - eron emerges as a dissembler, always alert for a way to delay taking a stand, ever ready with the smudgy phrase and the tactical retreat. Let us give him a pass on Ireland. Few have got it right and it may well be insoluble so long as a vociferous minority in Northern Ireland demands the impossible and the intractable majority insists on being British. In Scotland, however, when the SNP obtained a majority in the Scottish Parliament and claimed a mandate to call a referendum on independence, Cameron readily ignored Lincoln’s example to resist the dissolution of the Union and readily agreed to Alex Salmond’s demands.

In calling an all-or-nothing, in-out referendum on independence next year in Scotland only, David William Donald Cameron, to give him his full, Scots-derived name, failed to question the legality of one half of the nation being able to secede from the other on its own cognisance. Instead, he conceded the principle that if the referendum records a majority of Scots in favour of secession, that is enough to grant a divorce, as if England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Scots living in the rest of Britain, were not entitled to a say in the dissolution of the United Kingdom. “I’m not going to stand here and suggest Scotland couldn’t make a go of being on its own, if that’s what people decide,” Cameron said. “There are plenty of small, independent nation states of a similar size or even smaller. Scotland could make its way in the world alongside countries like those.”

Lincoln would never have yielded on such a fundamental principle. As he put it, “If we do not make common cause to save the good old ship of the Union on this voyage, nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage.”

When Cameron conceded the principle that one part of the United Kingdom may constitutionally break from the rest, he also declared himself “ready for the fight for our country’s life”. He appears to be in favour of two incompatible principles, the right of Britain to remain a nation and the right of Scotland to secede. He then adopts the principle that gives Scotland the moral right to secede to inform his party’s demand that Britain be allowed to renegotiate a looser union with our European partners. What, then, is Cameron’s guiding principle when dealing with Scotland and the European Union? There is none. Both are craven acts of political expedience. His promise of a referendum on British membership of the EU is largely an attempt to save the Conservatives from being driven from office by Ukip.

Cameron’s answer to the Ukip threat to the renewal of his Downing Street lease is to avoid saying exactly what the relationship between Britain and the EU should be, because plainly he doesn’t know where the line should be drawn. Instead he abrogates the responsibility of a true leader and, in the hope of being re-elected, promises an in-out referendum on EU membership, so long as he is re-elected. As Lincoln asked, “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?”

Cameron is less a conservative than a trimmer, less a Heath than a Wilson, less a That - cher than a Blair.

When Lincoln confronted the break-up of the United States, he borrowed from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” To avoid the consequences of the Conservatives’ deeply divided house, Cameron is willing to risk the dissolution of the United Kingdom and British withdrawal from the European Union. Both are too high a price to pay for trying to bridge the irrevocable schism in the Tory ranks.

Nicholas Wapshott’s most recent book is “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics” (W W Norton, £12.99)

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror