June 24, 2002

Getting Bogged Down

Before I fell ill, I had last week meant to write about how what Britain leaving the EU would entail. I would like to be able to tell you that whilst lying on a bed of pain, a series of hallucinatory visions about the nature of foreign policy occurred to me, and hence why, again, I'm not writing about the way out this week, but I'm afraid I can't. And this is largely because I want to rant on about the two issues I always rant on about: the 'special relationship', and, what Conservatives ought to think about the national interest. Understandably these preoccupations do rather tend to read as one, and I apologise in advance for that, but let's have yet another go.

The last seven days, in many ways, have been a bit of an up-week for people like me. After all, we have seen the Defence Secretary go to the House of Commons and announce that the bulk of British forces are to be withdrawn from our, as I would see, pointless and inconclusive Afghan commitment. Even more gratifyingly, this was also attended by leaks in the press about how we are also going to scale down our military presence in the Balkans. And perhaps most pleasing of all, the Americans relinquished their WWII vintage right to occupy Bermuda 'if need arose'. The specific wartime need was in case the Nazis successfully invaded Britain, and hence, America's hemispheric security was imperilled. The more impressively awake will have noticed, 'but, erm, that hasn't exactly been on the cards for a while why on earth did the US hang onto such a "right"?' Well, empire is as empire does, as more and more Americans are going to have to add that to their lexicon of cute sayings. Yet whatever and we'll come back to them all accidental good stuff happens, you just can't get away from the fact that no matter what circumstance and chance afford Britain, there is no opportunity so good but that a Conservative intellectual will come out and cry all over it. Cry maybe isn't the mot juste, but this is a family site. Anyway, what they'll douse the flame with is irrelevant, the point is: all British right wing pointyheads believe that the only point in considering any question of foreign policy is so that they can best assess 'how high?' in response to Washington's 'jump'.

Now Christopher, I'm beginning to realise why we're not being treated to that damned interesting, intense examination of the EU founding treaties that you promised us a fortnight ago I've realised what it is, you've read some Tory lickspittle bumming the States, and it's buzzing round your head like an angry [insect] at a [suitable sticky metaphor]. Well, yes, but I've have put it a bit more subtly myself. My mistake was to read Policy Review, specifically, the piece by Robin Harris on the special relationship. Now Robin Harris is an interesting enough fellow, who did the state some service, but this (when else?) was in the 1980s. Since then his main role in life has been as gatekeeper to Mrs Thatcher, although there I have to declare a preference in that: I should write 'Lady' not 'Mrs' Thatcher, but that always strikes me as being as awkward as writing Beaconsfield for Disraeli. Mr Harris wrote speeches for Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister and helped write most of her awful autobiography; today he's an unofficial, but jolly important member of the court, and terribly, terribly, as we like to say when we're being polite, pro-American. His involvement in contemporary British politics is slight, though he was one of three 'guest workers' (along with a journalist and an economist) who toiled away on Iain Duncan Smith's atrocious, first-speech-to-party-conference-as-leader effort last year. That said, if the draft supplied by Mr Harris, or either of his peers, had had more of it incorporated, the final result would have been heaps better, but that's to revisit old wounds.

'The State of the Special Relationship' was intended to demonstrate to an American conservative audience that the special relationship which is a Good Thing is not thriving as it might, and here's how the Bush administration might care to go about tending it. What never fails to amaze, even though one should have become used to it years ago, is the way, the manner, and the purpose of this essay's argument. Quite simply, I do not see how a British conservative, whilst subscribing to either of those terms, but especially both in conjunction, can write as Robin Harris does.

Mr Harris starts off, as regards the recent and wellbeloved 'war against terror', with the unexceptional statement that, 'viewed objectively, the practical results of the revivified "special relationship" have turned out to be meagre, in some ways plain disappointing'. You'll never guess, bearing in mind all the while that this is a British Tory writing, whose 'disappointment', Britain's or America's, Mr Harris is concerned with. It is conceded that Britain obediently and instantly leapt into America's war, 'the pity is that from first to last these exploits have mattered little in the overall outcome. This has been America's war, and the U.S. has fought it according to its own battle plan and almost entirely with its own resources'. So are we gearing up to wonder why Britain bothered to get involved? Uh, no. It turns out that Mr Harris believes that we don't have the right bottles to bring to the party. Our government is guilty of regarding the armed forces as being tools of 'defence diplomacy' and that these sorts of tasks, 'hardly accord . . . with any recognisable list of strategic priorities'. How dearly I would love to hear what those are for then Robin and I could have a little chat, which would proceed along the following lines, '. . . yeess, but careful now Robin, is that in America's interest, or is it in our own?' and repeat.

As one very simple point about the way we conduct our defence policy leaving to one side how much we spend, which I think should be more, though not, as Robin Harris thinks, all doled out to U.S. defence contractors is what results, given our prescribed foreign policy, it achieves. Mr Harris is sceptical about the way we went into Afghanistan, but the point surely is, what were we trying to do thereby? Very obviously we were trying to frustrate one faction or another within the American behemoth, and affect the policy she ultimately pursued. Which we did, with American forces still stuck in Afghanistan. I hardly think that this is a policy goal we ought to have been pursuing, but that the government of the day did, and that measured use of the armed forces allowed them to achieve it is something for us to dispassionately observe and score on technical merit.

What really Robin Harris envisages for Britain, as distinct from skilfully, with such resources as she has to hand, pursuing her own foreign policy, is evident from his criticism of the Prime Minister, who, 'lacks both the temperament and the ideology to take on entrenched obstacles that prevent Britain's playing a more active and imaginative role as the (albeit junior) partner in America's broader global mission'. Ah, those entrenched obstacles. These, naturally, include the military high command who don't think like Americans, and the foreign ministry that prefers consorting with Serbian war criminals to following US policy on the Balkans (and yes, I'm as bored with it as you are, but can you credit it, this analysis also contests that the forces of darkness, er, the Foreign Office is, in addition to all its other sins, working for the destruction of poor, sweet little Israel).

In a sort of hat-trick of predictable opinions spouted by a 'pro-American', we are even offered the little homily that the reason why Anglophone intelligence agencies co-operate so well is that if you share anything with the beastly Frog, well, it's in Belgrade the next minute. How anyone, after all this time, can talk such drivel when today those American government operatives involved boast about their role in breaking UN sanctions on Croatia, which were enforced by the European allies, including us, I do not know. Windy, hypocritical rhetoric is, I suppose, one of the first symptoms that 'pro-Americans' pick up from the host organism.

The meat of the argument in 'the State of the Special Relationship' is that:

it is clear that the only periods when the special relationship between the U.S. and the UK has worked satisfactorily have been when it was based on effective mutual co-operation to the benefit of each country's national interest. Thus, unsurprisingly, British governments have wielded influence with successive American administrations in proportion to British contributions to American objectives.

I'm sorry, but I just don't believe that when Robin Harris writes of it working 'satisfactorily' he ever meant from our point of view. He might, at most, have meant from some metaphysical 'Western' perspective, but that really is just comfort talk, the sort of bluff and self-delusion no Tory would, or should, ever console himself with when discussing, for example, matters European. The substitution of the Western for the national is invariably bogus, but as I say, in this case, I strongly suspect it's not at issue, and that like an alarming number of my fellow right-wing countrymen, Robin Harris is all too willing to countenance putting the interests of America before those of Britain whenever they conflict. It's not fair to take him to task for not setting out what the special relationship, in the form it has actually assumed, rather than that its proponents might have sincerely wished for it, has delivered for Britain. This was not an historical survey of the Atlantic alliance, but we should make note of the unquestioned assumption that it was and is a Good Thing and move on.

'Americans at present', writes Robin Harris, 'complain (though quietly, in order to avoid appearing ungrateful) that their British allies are not really pulling their weight. They are right. Britain has to do more if it expects to be taken seriously'. We are familiar with 'seriously' this for pro-Americans is what 'influence' is for pro-Europeans. For the latter if we wish to have any of the sacred influence we must submit our goals to the collective aims of the EU; for the pro-American, being taken 'seriously' is such a high and important end in its own right, that we must sublimate our own individual objectives (the end, after all, of why we might wish to be taken seriously) in those of the US. In a passage more telling than Mr Harris intends, he sneers, out of context, at Harold Macmillan's quip about post-imperial Britain having to act as the Greek to America's Romans, as this overlooks 'the fact that most Greeks were slaves in the heyday of imperial Rome'. True enough, but wait till you see what Mr Harris has in store for us.

Since our policy decided by our government in our interest is deemed wrong, and uncongenial to the maintenance of the special relationship in suitable form by Mr Harris, he has to hand a self-evidently agreeable solution:

if Washington insists on Britain reshaping (or scuppering) European military plans, desisting from further European integration, and renewing its trans-Atlantic focus, London will comply. That's how the world still works. America has never been squeamish about telling Britain what it expects from the special relationship. If it now wants to give that arrangement teeth and it should the administration will need first to show its own.

Get that? British policy decided by the British government in the British interest is other than as Robin Harris would have it, so this patriotic Briton has as his hope for his country that another should tell it what to do. Incredible, appalling, and all too plausible.

That this is not an isolated phenomenon, well look around you. When Geoff Hoon announced to the Commons the good news about Afghanistan, his twerpish Tory shadow quibbled words with him. Yet there is no Conservative answer to the Labour defence secretary's retort: 'we disagree on his allegations of overstretch, which he makes regularly. When he criticises the number of operations in which British forces are engaged, he has never been prepared to say from which operation the Opposition would recommend withdrawal'. And he never will, because of course Bernard Jenkin the Tory spokesman has no idea where next obedient support for American foreign policy will land us. From the Conservative backbenches, the message was the same, or more craven still. This in the face of a government minister who was cheerfully asserting, without fear of contradiction that 'the stability of Kabul' had magically become 'a strategic aim profoundly important to the UK'.

And as for the newspapers don't get me started. The Daily Telegraph is meant to be the pinnacle of Tory reaction but, in its leader columns at any rate, it's as reliable a Pentagon Pravda as any American paper. Opining recently on some domestic terrorism in Saudi Arabia, the paper thoughtfully concluded that the fact that it and the regime differed in their interpretation of who was responsible was because, ahem, of their adherence to the 'xenophobic conspiracy which blames all bombs on' foreigners. Hmm, there's a state of mind. Because, you see, 'Saudi's involvement in Islamist terrorism is now well-documented'. Though, for reasons pertaining to the print medium which we all appreciate, this leader sadly found no room to document the equally well-known, British, American and, cripes, Israeli involvement therein. Dutifully and please bear in mind that this is a London paper which will in no way help determine the policy debate in Washington, nor can expect Britain to make a meaningfully significant contribution to any war of regime change against Iraq the leader writer draws his argument together, and whadya know, 'something is rotten in the Kingdom'. That there is - and until we in this one realise where our interests lie, we're going to continue tamely lapping up this diet of pro-American rubbish.

Text-only printable version of this article

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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