By seizing the Crimea, Russia has threatened the international community

Aaron Ellis

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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Diplomacy has achieved more in Syria than bombing would have done

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Aaron Ellis

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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"Mission accomplished" in Afghanistan? For the Tory Party, yes.

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Aaron Ellis

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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Let’s be honest, quitting the EU would harm our foreign policy

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Aaron Ellis

Speaking at Chatham House the other day, Senator Marco Rubio declared that it ought to be up to Britain to decide its relationship with the European Union regardless of transatlantic considerations. “[Y]our American partners should respect whatever decision you make. Our alliance, our partnership, and our affection for your nation will continue regardless of the road you choose.” The reaction of many ‘Europhobes’ highlighted again why I would probably vote for us to stay in the EU if the referendum was held today – the better-off-out position exists in a foreign policy vacuum.

Typically, whenever Europhobes stray outside the national sovereignty vs. supranational governance debate into the wider world, it is to try to outflank the Europhiles. For example, the claim that the Commonwealth can be an alternative trading bloc is an attempt to undermine the economic case for staying in the EU. Yet the hysterical reaction to critical comments made by U.S. officials, amongst many others, shows just how isolated they are from foreign affairs.

Many seized on the words of Mr. Rubio, contrasting them with those of Obama officials. When Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary for European affairs, said that he wanted to see “a strong United Kingdom in a strong European Union”, it was part of a pattern of ‘bullying’ according to Tim Stanley. John Redwood wrote that the United States wanted us to be ‘subservient’ to Brussels, betraying the values that underpin their hard-won republic. Nile Gardiner, who advised the Romney campaign, claimed that this would never have happened had his candidate won the White House last year – even arguing that ‘Britain’s policy on Europe is none of President Obama’s business.’ If increasing tension between close U.S. allies is none of Mr. Obama’s business, then, by implication, he shouldn’t involve himself in the Falklands dispute – a regular bugbear of Mr. Gardiner’s…

Rather than simply a restatement of a position that the United States has held for decades, all this is a further manifestation of the visceral hatred that Mr. Obama supposedly feels for our country.

Yet had Tim and others looked more closely, they would have seen that both Gordon and Rubio more or less said the same thing. Like the former, the senator emphasised that he wanted a strong EU, which he sees as both “a stabilizing force on the continent” and “an effective [American] partner on key international issues”. Like Mr. Rubio, Mr. Gordon emphasised that Britain’s relationship with Brussels was ultimately a matter for us to decide. He is a Democrat, of course, whereas the senator is a Republican, which for some on the right makes a world of difference.  

Europhobes’ hysterical reaction to the foreign policy implications of withdrawal makes me reluctant to buy into the Better Off Out campaign. They have no real alternative for the influence that Britain currently enjoys due to its dominance of the European External Action Service (EAS).

Our diplomats were instrumental in drafting the 2010 declaration that made the Service subservient to the foreign policies of the Member States – effectively, the foreign policies of Britain and France. As of last year, six of the most senior positions in the EAS are held by British diplomats on temporary secondment. Given our large foreign policy apparatus and expertise in a wide range of international issues, Britain is best placed to occupy the one-third of EAS positions that are reserved for the officials of Member States and use them to push the EU in directions we want it to go.

This will be important to Mr. Rubio should he become either President or Vice-President after 2016. EAS currently controls the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which tries to bring those on the continent’s periphery into the EU’s orbit – like Ukraine. In his speech, the senator argued that both Brussels and Washington needed to “ensure that those on Europe’s periphery who still desire to join the Western community of democracies retain the option if they meet the entry requirements.” Yet if it was not for Britain, the union might not be as large as it is today, and a Christie-Rubio administration would want us to stay in it in order to continue pushing back Russian influence.

In his speech, Mr. Rubio also emphasised the importance of NATO and yet without Britain to keep the EU committed to the Alliance, then it might, as David Cameron once warned, just “fade away.” With Britain gone, there would be renewed effort on a specifically EU security arrangement, which would duplicate the work of NATO and dissipate the energies of both organisations. In my mind’s eye, I can see a very serious-looking Vice-President Rubio standing next to Deputy Prime Minister Ed Davey, telling the assembled journalists that Britain in the EU was vital to American interests.

Leaving the European Union would negatively affect our foreign policy, but rather than offering any alternatives or explaining why taking this hit to our influence is a necessary price for our freedom, the better-off-outers act like Scottish nationalists and attack anyone who criticises them. They attack not only namby-pamby Europhiles, but also the likes of Sir Geoffrey Howe and Radoslaw Sikorski – neither of whom are Britain-hating, probably Kenyan socialists.

The greatest historian of our Party, Lord Blake, once wrote that a characteristic feature of successful Tory governments is ‘a “patriotic” foreign policy…judiciously tempered by liberal internationalism.’ Perhaps trying to emulate our Republican cousins, some Conservatives have spurned international institutions like the EU and the UN; seeing them as threats to be countered, not tools to be used. Rather than emulating the Austrian statesman Metternich – reforming the EU from the inside, as Mr. Sikorski argues – they would rather we left it entirely. That is a reasonable position for them to take, but if Europhobes are going to push for our withdrawal then they need to man up and smarten up on foreign affairs.

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CCHQ must find a new online home for the deleted speeches; they’re invaluable

Aaron Ellis

Several years ago I started working on an article about Afghanistan and the Conservatives, only the research ballooned to such an extent that what was supposed to be a relatively short piece turned into a fifteen-thousand-word Masters dissertation. A sizeable chunk of this research is made up of quotes from speeches by senior Tory figures over the past eight years. This material has proven invaluable when writing about the Prime Minister’s interventions in Libya and Syria, as I have been able to use his own words to illustrate the contradictions in his foreign policy. So when I learnt that the Party had deleted ten years’ worth of speeches and press statements from its website, my immediate reaction was: “Is this my fault…?”

Journalists made sarcastic remarks about Mr. Cameron’s commitment to transparent government – in speeches that were no longer publicly available. A Labour MP took the prize for perhaps the most sanctimonious response: “[I]t will take more than David Cameron pressing delete to make people forget about his broken promises”. What these “broken promises” are, I don’t know; I can’t think of anything on the scale of Nick Clegg and tuition fees. Perhaps it is one of those clichés that politicians use regardless of whether or not they are wide of the mark; I would’ve thought that from Labour’s perspective, the Prime Minister has been consistently heartless…

The reason why all this material was deleted is probably mundane: the site may only have so much space and whoever runs it probably thought that few people would want to read the conference speeches of Iain Duncan Smith. A Party spokesman said as much: “These changes allow people to quickly and easily access the most important information we provide – how we are clearing up Labour’s economic mess, taking the difficult decisions and standing up for hardworking people”. As vital as it is to furnish people with the information proving these clichés, I think the decision was an unfortunate one.

Whenever someone asks to contribute to this blog, I emphasise to them that they must engage with whatever the Leadership has said about the issue they are writing about, as I do with foreign policy. That way, their articles are relevant to the Tory debate. But now that ten years’ worth of speeches and press statements have essentially disappeared from the public space, it will be much harder for them to do so. More seriously, it will be harder not only for me to check if this or that senior figure really did say whatever an author claims, but also harder for the Party to rebut their opponents if they lie about us. If Labour simply made up quotes by senior Conservatives, then the Party wouldn’t be able to furnish journalists with a link to show they’re lying.

If there truly isn’t room for all this material, then I think CCHQ ought to find a new online home for it. Perhaps the Conservative Research Department should get its own website and it can be accessed there, as well as a wealth of other material. After all, it would be an odd Tory Party that didn’t conserve its own history.

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When debating Syria today, MPs must make Cameron justify every assumption and back up every claim

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Aaron Ellis

If MPs are to do their duty today and hold the government to account on Syria, then they must resist David Cameron’s technique of generalising and essentialising the case for war. They must make him explain every detail, justify every assumption, and substantiate every claim.

Eight months ago, when justifying his decision to help the French intervention in Mali, Mr. Cameron tried to imply that anyone who disagreed with him was an isolationist. John Baron, one of the most perceptive Tory backbench critics of coalition foreign policy, innocuously asked if any assessment had been made of British interests in North Africa. Mr. Cameron responded: “I would very much caution against any sense that – I am not sure that my hon. Friend is saying this – if we did not involve ourselves by helping the French in Mali we would somehow make ourselves safer. Britain is a country that is open to the world and is part of international partnerships.” Unless you support a limitless doctrine of “mak[ing] the world safe all over the place” the Prime Minister often implies, then you want to pull us out of the UN and NATO and void any and all existing treaties.

Two months ago, when justifying his decision to lift the EU arms embargo, Mr. Cameron tried to argue that supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels was the only way Britain could contribute to the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. Due to the embargo, the West was unable to engage with “the official opposition” and provide them with “technical assistance, help and advice”. As a result, “extremists on both sides” have benefited: al-Assad continues to massacre his own people and militant Islamists have gained more power and influence over the fight against his regime. Unless you support flooding Syria with weapons, then you are abetting in the crimes of these two despicable forces.

In both January and June, MPs accepted Mr. Cameron’s generalising and essentialising without much quibbling. No one pointed out that by claiming those who disagreed with him were ‘isolationists’, the Prime Minister was mistaking Mali for the world. No one pointed out that Britain has provided “assistance, help and advice” to the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), but the reason why it has failed to make an impact on the fighting is because their competitors are just better at playing Syria’s ‘Game of Thrones' than they are.

This afternoon, Mr. Cameron will use the same rhetorical tricks to sell military action again. As I wrote in these pages the other day, the question MPs must press him on is why he believes airstrikes against the Assad regime will deter it from further chemical weapons use. This assumption has underpinned the heated arguments about Syria over the last couple of days, but it is as erroneous as the belief that airstrikes would deter Iran from developing a nuclear capability.

MPs must force the Prime Minister to draw a line from ‘bombing’ to ‘re-establishing the norm against chemical weapons use’.If they have to be ‘f****** c***s’ and ‘copper-bottomed s**ts’ to hold Mr. Cameron to account, then they can consider themselves the heirs of Leo Amery, Ronald Cartland, and Duff Cooper.

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David Cameron must justify bombing Syria

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Aaron Ellis

David Cameron will decide today whether or not to recall Parliament to debate military action in Syria. There shouldn’t be any doubt about it, considering MPs’ hostility towards intervention. If the Prime Minister authorises an attack on Bashar al-Assad’s regime without parliamentary approval, then backbenchers on all sides will pour a massive bucket of s***t over his head…

If Mr. Cameron does recall Parliament, however, MPs must compel him to explain two things.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the type of military action being proposed, so the Prime Minister must explain what specific use of force he is recommending. Reports suggest that the U.S. will launch several airstrikes none of which will change the underlying dynamics of the Syrian conflict, yet some people seem to believe that they will ‘end the slaughter’. We need more clarity on this in order to ensure a better debate.

Secondly, Mr. Cameron must explain why he believes that the use of force he is recommending will generate the desired outcome – deterring Bashar al-Assad and other tyrants from gassing their own people. MPs must make him to draw a line from ‘bombing’ (Who? What? Where?) to ‘preventing the normalisation of chemical weapons use’. Shortly after the Libyan intervention began, the Prime Minister told the Commons that Britain was “sending a message” that “the way to meet the aspirations of people in North Africa and in the Arab world is with reform and dialogue, not with repression.” A hundred thousand deaths later, it can be safely assumed that Mr. al-Assad did not receive that message, so why will he and others get this one now? Mr. Cameron must explain why this is not just ‘therapeutic violence’, making us feel better about our own impotence.

Many years ago, David Cameron remarked that “[b]ombs and missiles are bad ambassadors.” Given war is the use of violent means for diplomatic ends, why are these “bad ambassadors” the best way to achieve our ends in Syria? If the Prime Minister doesn’t answer this question, then Parliament must compel him to. We are talking about “the future of the 21st Century”, according to a Downing Street spokesperson; MPs can’t leave untested the assumptions underpinning Mr. Cameron’s claims when the stakes are so apparently high.

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If the Party wants more members, we must avoid ‘Tory takfirism’

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Aaron Ellis

For nine months now, I have been chairman of City of Liverpool Conservative Future. I first became involved three years ago when I moved back to my hometown after university; I didn’t know anyone there anymore and the local CF branch was an opportunity to meet people. Thankfully, its members were all nice, smart, and laidback and I developed many strong friendships. When the opportunity came to give something back and help develop the branch, I took it, as I was emotionally invested in its success.

Unfortunately, a proportion of my time has been spent dealing with extremists. ‘Extremist’ is a better descriptor than, say, ‘Thatcherite’ or ‘right-wing’ because all Conservatives are, to a greater or lesser extent, Thatcherite and right-wing. Instead, these people hold an extreme point-of-view – typically a combination of hard, unfeeling libertarianism at home and chauvinism abroad – and who accuse anyone that disagrees with them of not being truly conservative. There is also only one way to show one’s commitment to the Tory Party: leafleting. If you aren’t willing to spend your evenings and weekends out leafleting, then you are pointless.

Though not exclusively Thatcherite, the ‘Iron Lady’ has a prominent place in their thinking – at least, their understanding of her does. Rather than appreciating that Lady Thatcher was a politician who (like any other) had to compromise, dissemble, and court popular opinion in order to achieve her objectives, extremists think of her solely as a ‘conviction politician’ who did none of these things. Thus one of the lessons they draw is that in order to be like Lady Thatcher, they should be intolerant of others’ views and be downright rude about them in the process.

Another lesson they draw is that being isolated from the mainstream is a prerequisite for gaining power. Lady Thatcher was an ‘outsider’, yet she won the leadership from the Establishment ‘apostate’ Ted Heath. In this way, as with their takfirism, extremists resemble militant Islamists. They also believe isolation is a prerequisite for power; after all, the Prophet went into isolation before the people of Mecca realised the error of their ways and embraced him. That Lady Thatcher spent only approximately four years on the backbenches during her decades-long parliamentary career and that Muhammad adapted his teachings to try to win over Jewish merchants in Medina is forgotten. No compromise; no dissembling; and no courting of popular opinion.

One extremist who ran for the Liverpool chairmanship described herself, without irony, as “the Iron Lady of the North” – a pitch that would obviously go down well with voters in this city. Months later, when I said she should try to win friends in the branch if she was going to run again, she dismissed the suggestion. She would not lower herself by participating in a ‘popularity contest’; it ought to be obvious that she is the best person for the job. In a democracy, elections are popularity contests.

The same intolerance is shown over leafleting. Given the membership crises affecting all the main parties, we need to be thankful that anyone is interested in us at all - particularly in the urban north such as Liverpool - and must try to persuade them to care enough to actively campaign. Those who join who think they might be Tories and think they like David Cameron, but aren’t entirely sure, do not want to be press-ganged into leafleting in obscure council boroughs they’ve never heard of, let alone will never live in.

And in Liverpool our problem is not that activists aren’t pushing enough leaflets through letterboxes, it’s that we’re hated. I work in a bar on weekends; when one of the previously friendly customers found out I was a Conservative, he started referring to me as “Tory c**t”. Our party brand is toxic in cities like Liverpool; we could fell entire rainforests and turn them into leaflets and it would not impact this basic political fact.

Yet whenever I have tried to argue that there are many ways members can contribute to the Party and none more or less Conservative than the other, my commitment has been questioned.

For many extremists, their inspirational text is The Road to Serfdom or Atlas Shrugged; for me, it was The Conservative Party from Peel to Major. In it Lord Blake, the great historian of our party, wrote that “[s]tern, unbending [ideology] has never paid dividends” to us.

Conservatism is a diverse political ideology, like any other; we all pick different strands from within it, and even some from outside it, and weave them together to form our own personal ideology. That’s how our Party has evolved and survived for so long.

If we become both intolerant and doctrinaire, then we will die.

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