Politics & Policy

Loyal Opposition

The Tories know how to shadow.

Perhaps the most important difference between Britain and every other European ally that joined America in Iraq has been the nature of its opposition party. In Spain and Italy, the two most visible allies outside of Britain, forces were sent to Iraq almost entirely on the impetus of a single political leader, who in each case rallied unenthusiastic ruling parties and who prevailed over vociferously anti-war opposition parties. Support for the allied position in those two nations has been neither broad nor deep, but thin, brittle, and dependent upon the fortunes of a single leader. After the March 11 bombing in Madrid, Prime Minister Aznar (who did not help his situation by a disingenuous attempt to deflect blame onto the Basques) fell quickly, and saw the antiwar opposition take power and withdraw.

#AD#In Italy, Prime Minister Berlusconi’s government, drawing near to elections, has all the problems of a stale second-term administration, and even without a terror bombing may find itself ejected in favor of an antiwar government of the Left.

Britain is different, and it is not just the presence of Tony Blair that has made this difference. Although Blair’s eloquence and uncanny political sense of occasion have become familiar, and never more so than in the past few weeks, the steadfastness of the British Conservative party on Iraq, the war on terror, and other critical issues has been as important as Blair’s leadership, and far less noticed in the United States. In the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London, Britain has decisively rejected the Spanish temptation. It is clear from poll results and the positions of both Labour and Conservative leaders that the country will not let suicide bombers make policy by bloody blackmail. Now Britain faces a new set of challenges, including a review of past policies that left it open to such attack, as well as other critical issues that had been in the forefront before the attack, particularly the collapse of the European Union constitutional treaty, and the issue of arms sales to China.

Shortly before the 7/7 attacks, I had the opportunity to interview Conservative Shadow Foreign Minister Liam Fox, who has been noted with some frequency as one of the rising stars of the party. In a wide-ranging interview, Fox laid out several significant policy lines, including a strong commitment to maintaining the post-Tiananmen arms embargo against China, a rejection of the idea of a common defense and foreign policy binding European Union members (which would have tied Britain’s hands on Iraq had it been in force in 2003), and an endorsement of the idea of a trans-Atlantic free-trade area linking European states with the members of NAFTA, in the context of a loser European organization respecting its members’ sovereignty. In the first days after the bombing, I was able to ask several additional questions of relevance, in response to which Fox continued to enunciate a strong position in support of the struggle against radical Islamist terror. Significantly, he included the point of considering reexamination of Britain’s adherence to some of the international conventions limiting the ability to deal with illegal combatants, an often-ignored issue that has been overshadowed by debates over problematic issues like a national ID card for Britain.

Following are some of the highlights of the conversation:

Regarding Europe

It has to be good for the U.S. if we can lift Europe out of the doldrums. This won’t happen without reform. The Conservatives are beginning to develop a positive view of a Europe that is not based on the “ever closer union” language of the Maastricht treaty, a more decentralized, more flexible European Union that is run for its citizens and not its institutions.

Regarding a Transatlantic Free Trade Area

Bennett: Your fellow Scotsman Gordon Brown has endorsed, as have many in the past, the idea of a transatlantic free trade area, which would essentially create a free trading area between the NAFTA counties and the EEA countries.

What’s your view?

Fox: Again it goes back to my view of using the blocs as stepping stones.

If we can do it without too much regulation that’s fine.

My note of caution is about the way the single market developed in Europe. Instead of a market of mutual recognition it became a market of harmonization . Harmonization can only work with a substantial body of law and regulation. And you’ve got NAFTA which is much more the mutual recognition model while the E.U. has taken an incompatible approach. As they say, a bird may love a fish but they can’t go home together.

On U.S.-U.K. defense relationships and the China arms embargo

Fox:</span Ultimately, the U.S. has a clear strategic interest in Europe's continuation of the China arms embargo, and the U.S. must and will act in its strategic interest there. China has a horrible human rights record. There are a number of such strategic issues where the U.S. will see its strategic interests differently from the Europeans.

Britain needs to be very firm with its European partners, because Britain has much more to lose if the U.S. decides to stop sharing technology.

Bennett: To what extent have you discussed these (tradeoffs between U.K. ties to European defense industry vs. continued access to U.S. classified technology) issues on this trip?

Fox: I have been discussing the wider context of the U.S.-U.K. defense relationship, and particularly the effect of the China arms embargo issue. To me, the stance on China should be a no-brainer for the current British government. I suppose they are now seeing sense on that issue, but I wish they could be more robust.

On the prospects for a more Anglosphere-oriented policy for Britain, particularly with regard to the Asian-Pacific regions:

Britain’s friendship, and specific relationship to India and the Indian subcontinent, has never fully exploited the potential created by the fact that Britain still has a great deal of human knowledge and ties, and goodwill with that region. I am afraid that we have been too hung up on the attitudes of several generations of people who have been so tied up in guilt trips about the past that they cannot see the opportunities that present themselves.

India and its neighbors have got to be a major area in which Britain has got to be concentrating its negotiations for joint initiatives, such as in the insurance industry.

I experienced a delightful compliment recently in Sri Lanka when someone described to me a local government that was conspicuously non-corrupt as being run on the “English model”. It takes us back to your point that’s there’s a great deal to exploit in all that common experience.

The problem with Britain is that since the end of the 1960s we’ve tended to act as if the bottom of the map was at the southern border of Greece. We’ve got to look beyond at the enormous opportunities.

The difference is in a very, very tightly competitive global economy the differences will be at the margins. And if you’ve got a historical advantage, if you’ve got a cultural advantage, if you’ve got a linguistic advantage these are things that can make a difference.

On the London bombings and Britain’s position in the war against radical Islamist terror

The current threat from radical Islamist terror is not a battle between the U.K. and the U.S. on the one hand and the Islamic States on the other.

It is a battle between those who believe in freedom and democracy and those who are willing to use a perversion of one of the World’s great religions to justify a politically-motivated war against the West.

It is quite right that we give civil liberties the highest possible priority. But, equally, governments have a responsibility to protect the civil liberties of their citizens by dealing with external threats to those citizens’ safety and security.

Perhaps we now require a review of the Conventions which previously governed our actions in wartime, to deal with the asymmetric warfare which was so often predicted at the end of the Cold War, and which we have seen demonstrated so vividly in so many countries in recent times.

Of course, Britain’s future is not guaranteed. All the usual suspects have come out of the woodwork blaming Blair’s position on Iraq for the bombings. Chatham House, a think tank, has issued a report charging that Britain has been dragged along behind the U.S. on its Mideast policy without input or influence, a charge which ignores the fact that one of the most awkward aspects of Anglo-American Iraq policy, the elevation of weapons-of-mass-destruction charges to the forefront of war justifications, was in fact done at Blair’s request. A more useful debate would be whether Blair has spent the influence he has gained with the Bush administration wisely.

Such a debate will not be initiated by the British Left. But the Tory opposition would be well-placed to direct a critique of Blair to useful purposes. Compare Liam Fox’s attitudes to the actions and threatened actions of the opposition parties of any of our other European allies in Iraq, and you will see the value of an opposition that can walk the fine line between political opposition and support of the nation’s higher goals. It is for that matter an example from which others closer to home might profit. The Tory leadership race will be decided before the end of the year. Fox’s answer on his own ambition, when put to him, was “I might.” But almost any of the declared or spoken-of contenders have declined to play the Spanish gambit in response to 7/7. Indeed, leadership contender David Davis’s post-bombing speech in parliament was considered one of the more impressive of the various responses. Britain today enjoys the luxury of a genuinely loyal opposition, one that deserves more appreciation in Washington as well.

James C. Bennett is president of The Anglosphere Institute and author of the recent book The Anglosphere Challenge (http://www.anglospherechallenge.com).


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