hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 31 August 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being David Cameron


Alphen, Netherlands. 31 August. In his new book on David Cameron Cameron at 10 Sir Antony Seldon quotes my friend Lord Richards of Hurstmonceux. Asked about the 2013 Syria crisis Richards said Cameron was more interested in “a Notting Hill liberal agenda than statecraft”. Lord Richards should know. Then Sir David Richards was Chief of the British Defence Staff until 2013 during which time I served him as a member of his Strategic Advisory Panel. The attack by Richards has been jumped upon (predictably) by Cameron’s political allies as the jumped up remarks of some jumped up former general who needs a good jumping on. They are wrong. David Richards is one of the most politically and strategically savvy military men I have ever known. Critically, he is also a man with a clear understanding of the relationship between power, effect, influence and outcomes in strategic affairs as is clear in his foreword to my 2015 book Little Britain? Twenty-First Strategy for a Middling European Power (www.amazon.co.uk). Indeed, I recall sitting in the Kabul office of his American successor trying to convince said American general that the scrapping of the Political Action Groups Richards had set up was a big mistake precisely because it removed a key component in the relationship between strategic ends, ways and means. Richards was right then and he is right now and here is why.

Since he came to power in 2010 David Cameron has ducked, mishandled or ill-judged almost every major international issue he has had to deal with.  This was not and is not entirely his fault. The economy Cameron inherited from Gordon Brown’s Labour Party was in tatters. He lacked a clear parliamentary majority to push ahead with his own political agenda forced as he was by the 2010 elections into a difficult coalition with the Liberal Democrats. He was at also the political apex of a government machine that has lost the ability to think and act strategically, had been torn apart by Blair's wars, and in effect no longer believes in Britain as an independent, influential power.

However, as time went on it became clear to me that the ‘Lib Dems’ also provided a convenient alibi for inaction or ill-judged action that was all Cameron’s own. The botched August 2013 vote in Parliament about planned Syrian air strikes reflected a light touch politician who simply did not understand international relations and failed to think the consequence of action/inaction through.

Now, I must fess up. I also opposed the planned action in Syria not because I believed inaction was the best option but because the Obama plan would simply have made the rubble bounce. As such the 'plan' bore little or no relationship to the stated desired outcome of removing Assad and thus ending Syria’s nightmare. It was a clear failure of strategy, ambition and will (on both sides of the Pond) which revealed a prime minister clearly uncomfortable with his role in a dangerous big picture world. He also had little idea about Britain’s place and role in aforesaid world; and/or the role force and its use plays in the broad ambit of strategy of one of the world’s top five economic and military powers. Rather, Cameron seemed to be saying, ‘let me get off the world for a bit while I fix Britain’s economy and then I might get back to you’.

Critically, Cameron seemed unable to understand how his ‘Long-Term Economic Plan’ and the foreign affairs and defence austerity at its core would impact Britain’s ability to shape its environment. The most notable example of this failing was the disastrous cuts to the British armed forces in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the wider (and deeper) impact such cuts had on Britain’s wider influence, most notably in Washington.  The corrosive effect of one strategy on another revealed itself at the September 2014 NATO Wales Summit during which Cameron lectured other Alliance leaders about the need to maintain defence spending at 2% GDP even as his own Treasury (finance ministry) were planning more cuts to the armed forces.  The jury is still out as to whether the July 2015 ‘reversal’ of planned cuts is real or the kind of political sleight of hand for which David Cameron has both a penchant and a peculiar talent.

With his May 2015 victory in the British general election I had hoped that a ‘real’ Big David Cameron would emerge. That Cameron would finally reveal himself to be a prime minster moulded in the image of Britain’s great strategic leaders. There were early signs my hopes would be fulfilled, not least the announcement that Britain would indeed maintain defence spending at 2% GDP. Sadly, my hopes are once again flagging.

Two issues have again revealed Little David Cameron (Little Lord Fauntleroy?) for the essentially short-termist politician he is: immigration and the EU. Indeed, both issues reveal a politician focused almost exclusively on the ‘political moment’ and how he can manipulate it, rather than the substantive change rightly demanded by the British people. 

His position on Britain’s membership of the EU is frankly risible. To suggest one is going to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU and yet admit that if such renegotiations fail he will insist Britain remains in the bloc is nonsense.  This is particularly the case given the EU will look very different in a decade’s time. Whatever happens the political space Britain currently occupies in the EU is untenable. Worse, Chancellor Merkel now knows she has only to snap her fingers and Cameron will immediately jump into line behind Germany’s national interest. That is what is euphemistically meant by the apparently 'close and warm relationship' the two leaders enjoy. Such political subservience may be appropriate for some of the smaller EU member-states but surely not for Europe’s leading military power (still) and second biggest economy. Put simply, a real negotiator would be making Merkel work far harder for Britain’s continued membership of the EU because Britain really does matter to the EU.

However, it is on immigration that the gap between Cameronian rhetoric and reality is revealed. Ever since he came to power Cameron has been promising to get immigration under control. Last week’s figures from the Office of National Statistics revealed it is not. In the year to June 2015 gross immigration to Britain was an eye-watering 636,000 people with net immigration at 330,000. That means a city the size of Birmingham is being imported every three years.

Cameron’s response is all-too revealing and revealed again his political instincts upon receipt of bad news: a) make sure he is away on one of his several holidays and say nothing; b) let some ministerial underling take the rap; c) eventually make some meaningless ‘no ifs no buts’ promises to get immigration under control (which no-one believes any longer); and d) talk about something else.   

Something else happened last week that also revealed the unbearable lightness of being David Cameron; Chancellor Merkel acted unilaterally and thus set a precedent which clearly establishes the German national interest above that of ‘Europe’.  Having said that the Dublin Convention concerning the registration of irregular migrants in the EU was not working Merkel simply decided to ignore it and seek instead to impose Germany’s policy on the rest of the EU. What is OK for Germany should also be OK for Britain. 

Now, I have long believed in managed free movement as a fruit of winning the Cold War. However, I do not accept that free movement should also mean chaos and tbat it what it is fast becoming. If David Cameron was a great prime minister he would be saying to his EU counterparts clearly and simply that given the current crisis refusal to reintroduce proper border checks and sensible constraints on free movement will see Britain follow Germany’s lead and act unilaterally. Now that would be renegotiating.

David Cameron is a lucky politician but by no means a great one. His greatest piece of fortune is to have faced a Labour Party soon to complete its long retreat into a kind of Socialist Disneyland. However, before Cameron gloats too much he may like to contemplate his own political legacy.  As Richards suggests if Cameron wants a legacy that will last more than the time it takes to consume an over-priced cappuccino in the Ritz the prime minister must show he has “balls”. Don't hold yer breath!  

The unbearable lightness of being David Cameron.


Julian Lindley-French 

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