As the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine escalated over the weekend, many in the West showed an embarrassing lack of character. Seemingly contemptuous of its international obligations, a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council seized the territory of another country, justifying its actions on the same grounds as Hitler when he demanded the Sudetenland. Rather than appreciate the potential awfulness of the crisis and summon up their courage, however, Westerners reacted to it parochially and with snark.
“It’s Europe’s problem, let them sort it out,” declared many Americans, “we don’t have any interests there”, whereas various Western Europeans commented that, “We cannot be dragged into a war because of Russophobes in the East.” Those on the right of the political spectrum in both Britain and the United States blamed the supposedly ‘weak’ President Obama. Sajid Javid, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, claimed that there is ‘a direct link’ between Ed Miliband’s opposition to intervening in Syria last summer and Moscow’s actions now, making the Labour leader unfit to be Prime Minister. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: Who gives a shit about all this? Russia is invading Ukraine.
The Allies fought a world war for, and built an international system on the principle that states must not be allowed to forcibly redraw their borders – no matter how much the people in the annexed territories ‘like’ their occupiers. We enshrined it in the UN Charter: ‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity…of any state’. The system that was created by the Allies (Russia amongst them) was designed to help countries find “the surer ways of preserving peace”, as Margaret Thatcher once said, ways enabling “the peoples of each sovereign state to lead their lives as they choose within established borders.”
When President Putin seized the Crimea, Ukraine became a vital interest of Britain, the United States, the European Union, and indeed anyone else interested in maintaining world peace. Mr. Putin’s actions struck at the foundation of a global order that has, in his own words, ‘underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.’ We simply cannot allow the challenge to go unpunished.
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The recent report by the Centre for Cities was a startling yet perhaps unsurprising indictment of the UK economy in 2014. London dominates Britain more than at any other time in our history. Why, you may argue, is this even unhealthy; surely whilst London prospers the rest of the UK benefits too? Put simply, the rest of the UK does benefit but it also pays a price because as London has grown, it has become a black hole sucking in more and more talent from elsewhere to the detriment of local economies from Inverness to Plymouth.
All political parties have argued the need for a great rebalancing of the UK economy yet have offered little way in terms of substantial setups. The Government’s flagship regional Growth Fund is one such policy and has made a marked difference. In some regions such as the East Midlands, job creation is seeing a mini boom. Relocation however is one aspect which sees far too little political air time. The one move of real political courage was to relocate the BBC studios from London to Salford. It has been an overwhelming success which reaches far beyond the simple relocation of jobs from London to Manchester.
Of course, the focus on any regional growth programme should be first and foremost about sustainable, private sector growth. Public Sector institutions and private investment are however, at times inextricably linked. The BBC’s move has improved the image of Manchester, attracting young, creative talent and helping to expand the media industry in the region. These factors in turn have led to greater private sector investment and, in the long term, will make Manchester a place where businesses are more attracted to relocate.
Why then should we not look at further bold relocations to rebalance the UK? Perhaps the inconvenient truth is that this issue simply does not feature as prominently as perhaps it should do. Is moving Parliament to Birmingham such a nonsensical idea? Are moving our leading museums to Sheffield such a backwards step? If you believe in the need to transform our regions to help them attract more private sector investment and, put frankly, improve their image, then these are valid debates we should be having.
Bold moves such as this desperately need to be advocated by more politicians because the gap between London and the rest of the UK has grown so terrifyingly wide. Travelling from London to the rest of the UK often feels more alien than travelling to other major European cities. London’s identity is its own – its excellent success has allowed it to prosper in a way which means it is now unrecognisable from many parts of the UK. Long term, our national identity will be threatened because London has the potential to warp into its own state, distant and non-needing of any other UK city.
When the UK economy was on its knees after the financial crisis in 2009, the Government stepped in to provide a stimulus effectively propping the UK economy up until it recovered. London is creating ten times as many private sector jobs than anywhere else in Britain. It is prospering. Why then should no one argue that some UK institutions currently based in London such as museums or Civil Service departments not be relocated to help cities outside of London prosper until they can create enough private investment to recover and prosper themselves.
The debate on Europe within the Conservative Party is going from bad to worse. Beginning with the Business Secretary comparing current Conservative rhetoric to the speeches of Enoch Powell, to the revelation that the Prime Ministers rhetoric is causing enormous disquiet amongst our colleagues in the European parliament, with the leader of the Polish delegation telling David Cameron that unless his rhetoric on EU migration changes, it will be very difficult for them to continue working with us. Rather than seeking allies for EU reform, we’re giving a wonderful performance in the art of losing friends and alienating everyone we come into contact with. But it goes further than that. Something seems to have gone wrong at the heart of this party of ours.
In defense of my argument I’d like to offer you two substantive pieces of evidence: the EU referendum bill and the atrocious rhetoric that was directed at Bulgarian and Romanian migrants.
At the time the referendum bill was announced, I remarked to a MP that I was against it. We’d already said we’d hold a referendum in 2017 if elected, so why legislate for it now? When pressed, he explained that in the light of the Lisbon Treaty, there needed to be some form of gesture to show people we were serious about giving them a vote on Europe. While it is of course true that one cannot vote on a treaty that has been signed, the ghost of David Cameron’s “cast iron guarantee” continues to haunt party strategists. The idea behind supporting the Wharton referendum bill, I was told, was to show we meant business and win back disaffected support. It seemed a sensible way forward. However, the threats to use the Parliament Act to force the bill into law show, in my opinion, the unpalatable truth behind the campaign to “Let Britain Decide”.
This isn’t about letting anyone have his or her say. The Wharton referendum bill is nothing less than a grubby political trap, designed to ensnare a future Labour government whilst trampling on what was – hitherto – a key principle of our democratic system: that governments may not bind the hand of their successor and that none should attempt to do so. It is not in the British national interest, but in the perceived electoral interest of the Conservative party. By putting the bill into law now, the party is attempting to booby-trap the first two years of a Miliband premiership, either forcing him to hold a referendum he opposes or cry foul when he repeals the bill. It is grossly transparent, full of short-termism, and wrong.
It is this same toxic mix that has led to the some of most disheartening debates on EU migration that I can remember, culminating in the parliamentary debate on Bulgaria and Romania. It was not pleasant. We were, we were told, importing a crime wave from Bulgaria and Romania. Some MPs even went as far as pledging to man the desks at Stanstead airport on the 1st January, allowing them to interrogate new arrivals from these countries. It is hysteria of a type that would make Joseph McCarthy proud. If Dominic Grieve can be forced to apologize for suggesting corruption is endemic to the Pakistani community, how can it be right for MPs to make such comments about Bulgarians and Romanians?
The Bulgarians and Romanians I know personally are hard-working decent people, but understandably aggrieved at the way they are being castigated by our party. And so to them, on behalf of the quiet, sensible majority, I’d like to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you are being so odiously used by members of my party. I’m sorry that the fear of UKIP has made the supporters of European enlargement turn their back on the principles they once defended. The Bulgarian President is entirely right to say this debate risks damaging the UK’s image as a tolerant and open nation. As the Economist has already stated, you are very welcome here. I hope many of you will come and lend your talents to our country and that our party will finally see the opportunity you represent. You see, if the Conservative party really wanted to prevent a victory UKIP in 2014, it could simply ask for your vote. Rather than telling you what a problem you are, we should tell you we appreciate your service to this nation and invite you to join us on the path of EU reform.
This fact – that EU migrants have the same voting rights as UK nationals – has been completely absent from our internal debate. Were we to mobilize them effectively in our favour, UKIP’s hope of winning the European elections would be dashed. As to its likelihood I’m not hopeful, but who knows?
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Pundits across the political spectrum have claimed recently that had MPs supported military action in Syria last summer, the world might just have been a better place today. Yet there is no reason why those who opposed intervention should regret their stance, as there’s no reason to believe that it would have made a difference to the conflict. The truth is that diplomacy has achieved far more than punitive airstrikes would probably have done – at least as far as chemical weapons are concerned.
Last week, Syria enjoyed its longest period of media coverage since the August crisis. On Tuesday, thousands of documents and photographs were published which strongly suggest that the al-Assad regime ‘systemically’ murdered around 11,000 detainees. At the Geneva II summit the next day, negotiations between the regime and the opposition started acrimoniously. And at PMQs, Ed Miliband pushed David Cameron on whether or not Britain would accept more Syrian refugees. Perhaps because of the lack of exciting political news, these were given relatively wide coverage, and some commentators questioned the wisdom of the Commons vote. If we had gone in, journalists might have been reporting much better stories from this devastated country.
On Wednesday, both Matthew D’Ancona on the right and Sunny Hundal on the left argued that non-intervention has caused more suffering than intervention would have done. D’Ancona wondered ‘how many detainees have been maimed and killed’ since the vote. Hundal implied that due to a lack of Western military presence, al-Qa’ida and other militant Islamists have taken over the rebellion. The next day, Dan Hodges (wherever he is on the political spectrum now) basically claimed that only those who supported intervention really care about the Syrians. Presumably, we can only show our sympathy for the millions caught up in the appalling humanitarian crisis by bombing stuff.
These arguments suffer from the same flaws as those put forward by Mr. Cameron last summer. All of them are vague about the military action that was being proposed, and none of them explain why that particular use of force would have generated the desired outcome.
Shortly after the Libya campaign began, the Prime Minister argued that Britain was “sending a message” that “the way to meet the aspirations of people…in the Arab world is with reform and dialogue, not with repression.” Over a hundred thousand deaths later, we can safely assume that Mr. al-Assad did not receive that message, so why would he have gotten the one about chemical weapons? Or murdering detainees? As Mr. Cameron once remarked, “[b]ombs and missiles are bad ambassadors.”
It is easier to think about the potentialities of bombing someone than it is about the potentialities of negotiating with them, yet the Kerry-Lavrov deal has achieved far more than a few airstrikes would have done. Whereas the regime would still have possessed chemical weapons after the attack, they are now actually being removed from Syria. Last September, the regime became a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The diplomatic outcome of the crisis is the only bright spot in the civil war, the Foreign Secretary said last week, which is why those who opposed intervention shouldn’t regret their stance. It helped make the world a marginally better place.
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The moment UKIP’s Nigel Farage called for Syrian refugees to be allowed into the UK, it became an inevitability, not because he waved his magic fairy wand but because he drew attention to the inconvenient truth that, unlike many other countries, Britain is simply not doing its bit to provide a safe haven to people caught up in what the United Nations has called ‘one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history’. Here we are just a few weeks later and, sure as eggs is eggs, David Cameron has announced that he is now “open minded” on Syrian refugees. Even the most desultory Westminster watcher will spot this for what it is: thinly-veiled code for “I’m trying to find a way to back down on this as gracefully as possible because I know this is a battle I am not going to win”.
It was always going to be a lost battle because the scale of the humanitarian crisis; the basic sense of humanity with which Britons are generally blessed; and our country’s proud history of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and the dispossessed, dictate that we must play our part. Dare we risk history concluding we didn’t?
I wasn’t the only one to see this coming. When Farage’s call to let in refugees caught the government napping during the post-Christmas lull, Conservative MP Mark Pritchard said he expected the government would be forced to change its mind. “Clearly we cannot take all the refugees but I think we should play our part as a country – still an open-hearted, compassionate country – to do the right thing,” he told the BBC. “There’s real suffering and we need to do our bit along with the rest of the international community.”
Lebanon is currently playing host to over 800,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to UN data, and the tally in Turkey is approaching 600,000. Jordan may have as many as 600,000 too. In total, 100,000 people are believed to have been killed and well over 2 million have escaped to neighbouring countries. Millions more have fled their homes within Syria itself.
It is not that Britain is doing nothing or that Cameron’s administration is being wantonly inhumane. The government points out it has pledged £500 million – not far off that contributed by all other EU states combined – to the Syria crisis. But is it just me, or is there something rather unseemly about just throwing money at a problem and hoping it will go away? Doesn’t it somehow give us an excuse not to confront the reality of the problem head on? Certainly it wouldn’t seem to tally with the government’s “Big Society” ideal of fixing problems through practical volunteering rather than cash hand-outs.
Besides, if we’re willing to throw half a billion pounds in cash at the problem, why wouldn’t we also take in the few hundred of the most vulnerable refugees the UN is asking us to help directly? Could it be that the decision not to accept refugees has been driven by political expediency, or more precisely fear of UKIP, rather than by common-sense, pragmatism and compassion?
How deliciously ironic that in trying not to give ammunition to UKIP by letting in Syrian immigrants, the government may have played directly into its hands. If it weren’t for the fact that people are dying, it would seem like a hilariously contrived episode of Yes, Minister. You can picture the scene. Seasoned Foreign Office mandarins point out to their political masters that letting in a few hundred refugees would cost us almost nothing, make us look good abroad and save lives but are overruled by their nervy, opinion-poll-fixated spads. Farage presumably followed his gut, which told him it was indefensible not to let in refugees from a humanitarian crisis that has turfed millions of people out of their homes. By contrast, our mainstream political parties seem to have been blinded by fear of UKIP and opinion polls telling them they need to crack down on immigration.
Mr Farage has, deliberately or not, pulled off a masterful double bluff that has left the government floundering. “Now who looks like the nasty party?” he will no doubt ask repeatedly in the coming months. When the full government u-turn comes, as it inevitably will, it is going to be a particularly delicious victory for UKIP. It is also going to be pretty good news for those few hundred refugees.
Some, including Conservative MP Andrew Brigden, have accused those who support the UN request of “political tokenism”. Somewhat depressingly they question what the point is of saving a few hundred people when millions are at risk. Presumably these naysayers have no truck with the Talmud’s wise counsel, made famous by the film Schindler’s List, that ‘Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’. Imagine if we all shirked our individual responsibility to save a single life? That would be a whole lot of lives lost.
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With Christmas at a close, these dreich early days in January are when we Brits hunker down and navel-gaze.
As we wrestle with inadequacies both personal and professional and strive artificially for a few short weeks to make a better fist of the lives we lead, I thought I’d take some time out from the self-flagellation and say a few good words about tolerance - that most outward-facing of British virtues.
It’s an apt enough a theme so soon after suffering our loved ones through warm food, tepid booze and the occasionally heated Christmas conversation. Apter still in the month of marauding Romanian droves. (Bulgarians also job-hunt in droves, I’m told.)
With the TRG’s capacity for tolerance beyond doubt, what of that other great British institution’s, M&S? I’m none the wiser after the front-page fuss at Christmas. Fence-sitting is perhaps a little easier when you’re the nation’s go-to retailer. A non-Trinitarian three cheers to John Lewis for not having a policy at all.
Glibness aside, there’s a good reason why accommodations are made to minorities in our democracy. In a country forged in factional, religious and ethnic conflicts, respect for weaker parties guards against the tyranny of decided opinion. It also tempers the licence of slender majorities with a more measured, consensual freedom.
Liberalism, tolerance’s -ism, is the insistence on modest liberty for the greatest number. Even when, that is, its exercise sometimes conflicts with the established mores of the day. That’s the British way. Or so it was. Today though we’re all a bit postmodern, and we don’t like to talk about -isms. Small wonder then that liberalism, our once national canon, is kicked about by more seductive forms: relativism on the Left and individualism on the Right.
Their silhouettes are a long, insidious shadow over our public life: the offend-me-not culture, tolerance predictably ceding to cynicism; phoney patriotism and slogan-slinging, skepticism the master of all virtues.
If liberalism is worth a candle, it must stand its grounds against both. How? By remembering the apportionment of rights in our democracy necessarily involves one party gaining at another’s expense. Why? Because balances aren’t struck in vacuums. Law like Government is a zero-sum game. Better to strike that balance in favour of weaker parties than strong has been the cautionary tale of Brits to the world.
Minority views are challenging at times and objectionable at others. But as my Gran used to say: “you can’t win ‘em all”. We can’t, not should we expect to in public life.
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Below are five things to consider when evaluating 2013.
1. The gender pay gap is almost solved.
The findings are here. And what they show is disparities in gender pay are becoming non-existent.
According to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE), this figure ‘shows median gender pay differences by age group based on full-time hourly earnings (excluding overtime). The gender pay gap is relatively small in age groups up to, and including, the 30-39 age group (with the exception of the 16-17 age group)’. The fact that those aged 18 to 39 are more or less equal is encouraging and shows the positive impact of legislation. While there are differences in pay after 40, there are multiple reasons why – e.g. older age groups would not have felt the full impact of changes and would have been impacted by discrimination before the changes. Nevertheless, as those in the younger sections become older, there equality will become evident in future statistics, making the pay differences in older sections shrink to the levels seen between 18 and 39 as time goes on.
2. Britain’s economy is predicted to become the largest one in Europe by 2030.
The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has declared Britain the second best performing economy in the western world. Its research states that by 2030, Britain will overtake Germany and become the largest economy in Europe despite having a smaller population.
3. Plan A is working.
Following on from (2), austerity is working! Despite Labour’s claims of Plan A failing, think-tanks like the CEBR hail Britain’s austerity programme and others are quick to heap praise on the country’s optimistic growth figures for the coming year. It’s not only in Britain, however, where austerity is a success; thanks to the work of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Ireland has left the so-called ‘Troika’.
4. Plan B is failing.
Whereas Plan A is working, Plan B is not! When France decided to try a different approach to recovery from Britain’s, many applauded on the Left; but now the French economy is one the worst performing economies in the Western world. The French leader, President Francois Hollande, is deeply unpopular and richer members of the country are leaving. While Britain and Ireland’s future look positive entering 2014, Plan B has left France’s prospects looking very uncertain.
5. Britain’s youth are more right-wing than older generations.
Earlier this year, the polling company Ipsos MORI began to publish 17 years’ worth of polling results, spread across four generations, starting with those born in 1945 or before and ending with ‘Generation Y’. The latter (all adults aged under 31) reject left-wing notions of higher taxes and hand outs and are far more embracing of free market economics – breaking the stereotype that young people are left wing. It is important to note, however, while Generation Y are economically more right-wing than previous generations, they are socially more liberal than any before them also. With young people displaying libertarian trends, the political landscape of Britain will be increasingly more centre-right in hue.
Overall, 2013 was a good year for the Conservative Party, but if we want to stay in power after the next election, we must have an even better 2014. As the economy continues to grow, the Party must address the unpredictability of its own support.
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On Monday, the Prime Minister declared that Britain had accomplished its mission in Afghanistan. A “basic level of security” had been achieved there meaning our troops could come home with their “heads held high”. Mr. Cameron has a weakness for hyperbolae (e.g. GCHQ searching for online paedophiles is comparable to the Enigma code-breakers…) and he was criticised for making such a sanguine statement. The conflict is far from “mission accomplished” – though as far as the Tories are concerned, it has served its purpose.
Afghanistan is more important to David Cameron than most people, he included, probably realise. It is the source of his contradictory foreign policy and it was crucial to the rehabilitation of our Party as a responsible alternative government to Labour.
In his handling of foreign policy, Mr. Cameron is torn between idealism and realism – and Afghanistan is the source of these conflicting impulses. He believes that al-Qa’ida used the country as a base because it was a failed state and it was a failed state because the West abandoned it after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. For him, it “is a great example of a country that if we walk away from and if we ignore and if we forget about, the problems will come visited back on our doorstep.” Had the West somehow ended the civil war and helped it with development assistance, then ‘just think what might have been avoided.’ This conviction lay behind the interventions in Libya and Mali. When justifying Mali, the Prime Minister argued that if Britain did not “make the world safe all over the place”, then the threat from militant Islamists would only grow and “we will face it” eventually. Yet this limitless interventionism jars with his efforts to portray himself as a prudent realist.
We are running a global race for power and influence, according to Mr. Cameron, necessitating a strategic foreign policy which focuses on our national interests. “If our influence is under challenge,” as William Hague believes it is, then we must “make the most, systematically and strategically, of our great national assets.” This is especially true when it comes to the military. Whereas Labour “made too many commitments without the resources to back them up”, the Conservatives would be more discriminating. Afghanistan is the perfect example. In 2006, Tony Blair authorised troops to go into Helmand in insufficient numbers for the goals he had set them. Just a few years later when Gordon Brown wanted to send in more, Tory support was conditional on a “tightly defined” strategy “backed up by extra equipment”. In Mr. Cameron’s view, we simply can’t afford anymore these wars to build perfect societies in inhospitable places. “Every battle we fight” must help Britain “rise” amidst the decline and fall of other Great Powers.
Underpinning this contradictory foreign policy is the way he thinks about globalisation; it justifies both his idealism and realism. For almost two decades now, many in the West have been in thrall to an idea which I call ‘the internationalisation of the national interest’. It is the belief that the world has become so interconnected that crises in developing countries threaten our own security and therefore we must resolve them pre-emptively. Mr. Blair once argued that if governments are ultimately concerned about protecting their own people, as realists argue, then “the new frontiers for our security are global”. The Tory leadership buys into this idealistic worldview, but it also believes that globalisation has created the global race, which demands a realist response. Mr. Hague once tried to square the circle: “We should never be ashamed of saying we will promote our own national interest,” for it “is no narrow agenda”.
Even though the Prime Minister thinks about international crises like Libya and Mali in Blairite terms, as Leader of the Opposition he often attacked Labour for its allegedly idealistic and astrategic foreign policy. These criticisms, especially those about Afghanistan, helped rehabilitate the Conservatives as a party of government.
By supporting the war in principle but attacking Labour’s handling of it, David Cameron could portray himself as a responsible and “hard-headed” statesman, dispelling fears that he was not up to the job of running the country. Since the mid-1990s, the Tories had been dogged by a widespread belief that they were too irresponsible to hold office. Britain is in an era of ‘valence’ politics, it is argued: voters value ‘competence and credibility over commitment to a cause or class’ according to Tim Bale. It was essential, therefore, for Mr. Cameron to portray the Party as ‘a proficient alternative administration’. When it came to Labour and Afghanistan, he used a tactic that has always worked well for us in the past: claiming our opponents were too weak or incompetent to be trusted with the serious business of war. This tactic was an important part of the long campaign to force out Gordon Brown.
It is strange to think now just how tough an adversary Mr. Brown was, especially when you examine the popular image of him as ‘substantial’ in the context of the Tories’ perception problem. Labour capitalised on this with the ‘Not flash, just Gordon’ advertisement campaign. His popularity proved short-lived, as we all know, but the financial crash could have been for him ‘what 9/11 was to Blair.’ These crises engaged their respective skills, ‘fitted into [their] worldview, and saw [them] acting in a bold and confident fashion’, writes the politics scholar Stephen Dyson. And just as the War on Terror strengthened the image of Mr. Blair as a responsible guardian of Britain’s safety, Mr. Brown’s handling of the crash had the same potential. If he was to be forced out of office, the Tory leadership would have to play on an alternative perception of him – an incompetent leader whose actions were motivated by concerns that had nothing to do with the national interest.
The Conservative critique of Afghanistan reinforced this perception. Labour had insufficiently ‘realist’ aims (“creat[ing] Switzerland in the Hindu Kush”) and they lacked the commitment needed to fight, denying the military the resources it needed to win. In July 2009, Mr. Brown was thrown off guard when the then Chief of the Defence Staff claimed that more helicopters in the country would save lives. Mr. Cameron took advantage of the subsequent uproar, arguing Labour “have got to realise we are fighting a war”. It was not simply about money, but “about commitment. About rolling up your sleeves and realising we need more of what we’ve got actually on the frontline.” By focusing on these arguments the Tory leadership maintained their overall support for the campaign, while also playing on both popular mistrust of Blairite interventionism and a belief that the worsening military situation was entirely Mr. Brown’s fault. “We always support our troops, but we have not shied from criticising the Government’s conduct of the war,” William Hague once explained, “when we have felt we must speak out.”
Of course, the critique was only partially true; some of it downright misleading. Mr. Brown framed the campaign in the same ‘realist’ terms used by Mr. Cameron: “We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain”, he once stated. Success would be achieved by “enabling the Afghans to take over from international forces; and to continue the essential work of denying [their] territory as a base for terrorists.” Yet he had lost perhaps the most important asset of any politician, the right to be heard, as the Conservatives had already managed to portray themselves as the party of the national interest.
The historian Hew Strachan has argued that the Tory leadership were ‘reluctant to join the dots’ between the public’s support for the military and ‘the lack of [it] for the missions’, but withdrawing from Afghanistan may not have led to a landslide. They had to not only win votes, but also appear to be responsible. Michael Howard revoked the Party’s support for Iraq, one of the most unpopular wars in Britain’s history, but it was seen as opportunistic and irresponsible. However, the problem that David Cameron and William Hague created for themselves when they inherited Afghanistan was maintaining their “hard-headed” rhetoric at the same time as pulling out the troops.
Mr. Cameron’s announcement, just a month after becoming Prime Minister, that we would be out by 2015 caused a disparity between his words and his actions. Those fighting were “defending our freedom and our way of life as surely and as bravely as any soldiers” in our history. Britain could not abandon the Afghans as we had to save them “from a return to the brutality of the Taliban, who handed the entire country to Al Qaeda [sic] as a base for logistics and training”. If they came back, then “the terrorist training camps [would] come back”, which would mean “more terrorists, more bombs and more slaughter on our streets.” The rhetoric suggests Afghanistan is a war of necessity, but the deadline implies it is a war of choice. As Tory backbencher John Baron once pointed out to the Foreign Secretary: If we want to “deny al-Qaeda a base from which to operate and pose a threat to [our] streets”, then “surely we should stay there until we have achieved that objective”?
When he was pressed on whether or not British combat troops would be out by 2015 regardless of the conditions on the ground, Mr. Hague emphasised: “I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about this: we will be fulfilling the Prime Minister’s commitment.” Given that ‘the war will be lost’, according to one study, if the development of the Afghan National Security Forces is rushed ‘beyond what is possible’, the deadline contradicts Mr. Cameron’s claim that we would only leave once the job was done. The situation today is far from “mission accomplished”.
As far as the Tory leadership is concerned, Afghanistan has served its purpose: the Conservatives can now demonstrate their fitness for office by actually governing. Yet its continuing influence on David Cameron’s foreign policy has the potential to undermine his hard-won image as a prudent, responsible, strategically-minded statesman.
If the clamour for intervention in Syria continues, as well as for action in any other country that descends into civil war, the Prime Minister will be increasingly torn between his limitless doctrine of preventative action and his ‘realist’ ambitions for British foreign policy. One of these will have to be sacrificed eventually or the Party will make the choice for him – as happened when MPs rejected his call for airstrikes against Syria. Like his old Labour adversaries, he may come to be seen as a weak leader frittering away Britain’s scare military resources in idealistic wars-of-choice.
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