Saturday, 22 September 2012

The future of the special relationship?

Every four years the world waits and worries as the most powerful nation on earth votes to decide who will be the most powerful person on the planet. It is almost certain Ed Miliband privately wants Obama to win and columnists insist David Cameron is eager to see Obama stay at the Oval Office. But if Mitt Romney wins, Miliband and Cameron will smilingly congratulate him and ideological divisions will be glossed over for the sake of the ‘special relationship’.

British Prime Ministers – Labour and Conservative – have worked well with Presidents of either party. The wincingly close relationship between Tony Blair and George Bush is now remembered as part comedy but mostly tragedy. There are the collection of comical anecdotes about the two’s relationship, such as Bush remarking how they shared the same toothpaste, but it is the tragic joint failure in Iraq that will be the defining memory of the duo. Their actions were testament to how the US-UK relationship can become too close and unquestioning.

Whoever wins in November and whoever wins the General Election in 2015 will have to contend with a staggeringly powerful country that has a habit of making hugely difficult demands of British Prime Ministers.
Since 1945 there have been two hugely significant wars that US Presidents have asked Labour Prime Ministers to support. In 1964 Harold Wilson had to decide whether to accept Lyndon B. Johnson’s wishes and send British soldiers to Vietnam. Although Wilson voiced public support for Johnson’s actions and secretly sold arms to the US, he ultimately never sent British soldiers. Powerful opposition within his own party meant that Wilson had to resolve the complex competing factors of not harming the economically vital relationship with Britain’s most important ally whilst not committing himself to a war that might cost him power.

In 2003 Tony Blair faced off a large-scale backbench rebellion and huge public opposition and committed British troops to the war in Iraq. For Blair it was both a matter of standing with the USA and his own geopolitical beliefs that led him down the road to Iraq.

Both Prime Ministers had the unenviable task of deciding how to respond to these foreign policy issues and the demands of Britain’s greatest ally. How they both responded was very different.

In the future there is the chance that Ed Miliband may be faced with a US President that asks him to engage in a war or in actions that jar with the values of himself and his party. There is a chance that a President Romney may one day ask a British Prime Minister to engage in another war in the Middle East.
Some commentators have argued that it is unlikely Romney would support a war with Iran, but others have noted the extent to which the neo conservatives who drove the USA into Iraq are advising his foreign policy. All the same, considering the power of the neo conservative ideology within the upper echelons of the Republican ranks and America’s recent history, it is a possibility that Romney might order an attack on Iran.

Miliband’s past record shows that ideologically he does not see the ‘special relationship’ as entailing consistent obeisance. He was against the war in Iraq and has said, “I criticise nobody faced with making the toughest of decisions and I honour our troops who fought and died there, but I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war.” Also, during his 2010 Conference Speech Miliband said that, “this generation wants to change our foreign policy so that it’s always based on values, not just alliances” which is a clear indication that he believes foreign policy should be constrained and alliances do not necessitate mirroring other country’s foreign policy. Thus there is evidence to be hopeful that if Miliband is faced with a rising crescendo of war cries from across the Atlantic, he will have the courage and political skill to resist their demands.

This article was written for the politics blog Shifting Grounds and can be found here

The Tories' northern blues

A lot has been written about the Liberal Democrat councillors cast out of office in northern cities like Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle, but the Conservatives waning attempts at gaining a footing in the urban north is arguably more significant.  It demonstrates that for hugely important parts of the country the Tories remain a toxic proposition.

In the Sheffield 2012 local elections the electoral mauling of the Lib Dems was well documented, but the embarrassing fact the Conservatives were pushed to fifth place in the vote escaped popular attention. The city known as ‘the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ was never likely to lovingly embrace the party that oversaw the large-scale closure of its industrial heritage, but it is a humiliation to be beaten by both the Greens and increasingly popular right wing vote splitter, UKIP. Only last month the Conservative Party office in the city closed its doors. With that they seemed to close any hope of a Sheffield revival.

The Conservative is a rare animal throughout much of the northern urban landscape. Four of the biggest cities in England – Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield – have no Conservative councillors. Of the 124 urban or city constituencies in the North and the Midlands Conservatives have a paltry 20 seats. Up the road, Scotland too has an allergy to blue rosettes. There is a good and factual joke that Scotland now has more pandas than Conservative MPs. Now more than ever it is the Labour Party that can legitimately lay claim to being a party for the whole of Great Britain.

One reason why the Conservative Party struggles in these areas is because they are formerly industrial heartlands with a long tradition of voting Labour. But it is not only the past that constrains them. It is polices – both proposed and implemented – that offend many northern voters. Regional sector pay is one example. One of George Osborne’s plans includes freezing the pay of public sector workers in areas in which private sector pay is low. This would hit the north far more than the south and reduce the income of doctors, nurses, teachers and other public sector workers.

It is also the case that unemployment and public sector jobs are more significant issues in these areas. If the economy continues to flat line, whilst public sector jobs are being cut, northern economies are going to be caught in a dangerous position. A policy such as reducing regional pay would further suck money out of these economies.

The Conservatives are also not helped by outrageous suggestions by think tanks close to the leadership. In 2008 Policy Exchange released a report basically arguing that cities like Liverpool and Sunderland are now pointless and a better course would be for the population to move south. ‘Many of Britain’s towns and cities have failed – and been failed by policy makers for too long’ it claimed before going on to say that ‘no one is suggesting that residents should be forced to move, but we do argue that they should be told the reality of the position.’

Unmistakeably affluent southerners in charge is an image problem all mainstream parties grapple with, but there is no leadership in recent times that battles with this issue as much as the Conservative leadership. David Cameron and George Osborne had the public relations difficulty of being very posh and very well of, but this has been compounded by actively appearing to benefit the best off. In politics you can be rich, but it is near fatal to appear to use politics to help the wealthiest. The cut in the high rate of income tax is an added problem for a party trying to win over parts of the country with long-term economic problems.

The Conservatives are failing to even gain a foothold in northern cities. For the time being it looks like it will remain that way.

This was written for the politics blog Canvas and can be found here