The case for freedom. For a few on the left, Tony Blair's determination to take a stand against tyranny has been a source of admiration rather than despair. John Lloyd explains why, when it comes to foreign policy, he is no longer ashamed to be called a "

Neoconservatism: why we need it

Douglas Murray <em>Social Affairs Unit, 220pp, £20</em>

ISBN 190

To review these two books for the New Statesman is to have a small irony in attendance. Two and a half years ago, John Kampfner, then the New Statesman's political editor, now its editor, published a cover story on "Britain's neoconservatives". Kampfner linked four journalists of the right with two of the left and called them all neoconservatives, a term that the left has largely seen as one of abuse. Those on the right were Michael Gove (now a Conservative MP), Danny Finkelstein, Melanie Phillips and Stephen Pollard; those on the left were David Aaronovitch and myself. Both Aaronovitch and I objected strongly to the appellation, and to the fact that we had not been consulted on the piece.

Now I have to partially - only partially - retract the indignation (I can't speak for Aaronovitch, who does indignation better than I and who was, when I last spoke to him about it, still indignant). Kampfner, who apologised for the distress that his piece caused me, was partly - only partly - right. What I was supporting was not just, as I wrote in the July 2003 issue of Prospect, the invasion of Iraq: it was a foreign policy that the neoconservatives have articulated and made their own. Why I only partly retract the indignation, and why Kampfner is only partly right, is because neoconservatism, as Douglas Murray makes clear, covers much more than foreign policy, even if foreign policy has been its most dramatic stage.

The reaction to 9/11 and to the Iraqi threat was not a one-off response: it was and is a political practice which had matured over some decades, and which allowed the neo-con view of the world to become the dominant one in the post-9/11 White House, in spite of the anti-interventionist instincts of President George W Bush and his national security adviser (now secretary of state) Condoleezza Rice. This was not because the neo-con cabal had taken over America, as has been a trope ever since, not always untainted with anti-Semitism (Mark Steyn wrote once that Paul Wolfowitz was regarded as particularly threatening because "his name begins with a scary animal and ends in something Jewish"). It is because the neo-con outlook made the most sense, and still does.

What is neoconservative foreign policy? The best thumbnail definition is the one given by Paul Berman in his hugely influential Terror and Liberalism (2003) and quoted by Oliver Kamm: "Freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for freedom for others." It is that coupling, of national security with the promotion of freedom, that has given neoconservative foreign policy its potency, and why it is likely to last through a change of power in the United States after George W Bush - certainly if the Republican victor is John McCain, probably if the Democratic victor is Hillary Clinton.

Under review are the first two (short) book-length arguments for the adoption of neoconservatism in Britain, one of only a few countries in the world in which such an argument can be made with any hope of success. Indeed, it could be said that the arguments come after their time: we already have a neoconservative foreign policy, and it belongs not to the decades-long maturing of the position in the US, but to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Where the US had a line - which Murray traces with economy and vigour - of direct descent from the scholar Leo Strauss and the (Democratic) politician Henry "Scoop" Jackson through Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom to contemporary figures such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and the journalist William Kristol (none of whom is now in government), the UK had . . . Tony Blair's instincts. For a few of us on the left - Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Norman Geras, Johann Hari and Kamm - that has been a source of admiration. That a Labour prime minister could cleave through the Gordian knot which has long been Labour foreign policy to take his stand against tyrants has been a vindication, for some of us, of many years of half-shamefaced Labour support. This is the more so because, as Murray writes:

Tony Blair's distinctively neoconservative foreign policy preceded that of the Bush administration - it did not follow it. His leadership on air strikes against Saddam Hussein in 1998, the turning-point interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and the post-9/11 conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq have been - from the point of view of neoconservatism - exemplary . . . What Blair has resuscitated (particularly during Kosovo and Sierra Leone) is the sense that Britain can lead, not follow, global trends in foreign affairs - that, as a global power, Britain's interests are best served not by selfish isolationism or abnegation of responsibility, but by being a world leader with a humanitarian urge.

That Blair took this position - the first national leader to do so - makes Sir Christopher Meyer's opportunistic memoirs, in which he accuses Blair of poodling along behind George Bush, even grubbier: Blair led, but had not the power to intervene alone, save in such relatively small-scale conflicts as Sierra Leone. His 1999 Chicago speech remains a high water mark of liberal interventionist - or neoconservative - thinking.

It is a reflection of Blair's ability to move outside of party constraints, when the occasion demands it, that both Kamm and Murray have little but praise for him, even though the first claims him as the expression of true social-democratic values, while the second points to him as an example for a renewed conservatism. Kamm, whose book is an impassioned, fluent and acerbic essay, quotes from Blair's speech to the US Congress in July 2003 - "Just as the terrorist seeks to divide humanity in hate, so we have to unify it around an idea and that idea is liberty" - and writes that "it is the great irony of modern politics that this doctrine should be opposed, indeed sneered at, and for classically realist reasons, by people who are typically regarded as being on the left".

A fair amount of the sneering has been done in this magazine, by writers such as Noam Chomsky, Richard Gott and John Pilger - all of whom are, as Roger Scruton noted of Tom Nairn in another context, "writing as an enemy". Others who have taken this position are Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein (the last of whom called for "bringing Najaf to New York", a statement Murray interprets, reasonably, as calling for another jihad against that city).

Even if these writers are extreme (though they are published in journals that would not think of themselves as extreme) it is clear that, for most of the left, and many on the right and centre, the neoconservative impulse is a bogey. So, what chance that Kamm's and Murray's pleas will be heard and acted on?

I would judge there to be a good chance. I cannot believe that Gordon Brown, if he becomes the next prime minister, will seek to withdraw British troops prematurely from southern Iraq; nor do I think his natural instincts in foreign policy are those of a Douglas Hurd/Malcolm Rifkind realist - both of whom, as foreign secretaries in John Major's cabinet, stood pat on Bosnia. And equally, I doubt that David Cameron, if he were to be elected prime minister, would return to that discredited passage in his own party's history: he voted for the invasion of Iraq and appears to agree with the pro-interventionist line taken by Liam Fox, the incumbent shadow foreign secretary.

But Blair was the path-breaker. Let us hope that the path he broke remains the one trodden by his successors.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor of the Financial Times

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2005 issue of the New Statesman, We achieved next to nothing