The new - and weak - UK foreign policy

This article was published in Tribune
Driving down Britain with diplomatic impunity -

Foreign policy is exposing divisions in the British Government

10 July 2010

William Hague’s first big speech as Foreign Secretary failed to address key questions, most ­important of which is Britain’s policy on Afghanistan. David Cameron has said he expects British troops to be out by 2015, with Number 10 briefing that there would be a significant reduction in our forces next year. Working-class British soldiers can no longer be Taliban target practice in order to satisfy the desire of generals to fight a war without strategic or political coherence. Britain should continue nation-building and promoting human rights, but not send our soldiers to die for no ­purpose.

But then up popped Defence Secretary Liam Fox, now known as “13th Century Fox”, after his notorious description of Afghanistan as a 13th century country. Fox went to the Heritage Foundation, the neo-cons’ favourite Washington think tank, and said British ­soldiers would keep fighting and dying even if they were the last ones on the ground in years to come.

Fox is now the London voice of the Pentagon, whose constant briefing against President Barack Obama produced the Stanley McChrystal crisis and led to the ­general’s dismissal. Obama does not want his presidency to be haunted by a new Vietnam. Thus Britain’s Defence Secretary openly ­contradicted the Prime Minister.  However, in his first keynote speech on foreign policy, William Hague ignored the contradictions and political rivalries now coming into the open in this uneasy coalition.

Hague said he wanted more influence for Britain in Europe. Who can object?  But Hague is indulging in wishful thinking if he thinks British influence in Europe will increase as a result of one speech.

He forged the Tory alliance with those Clegg described as “nutters, anti-Semites and homophobes” in eastern Europe. This has left this country isolated politically – even if due courtesy is paid by the EU to our new Prime Minister. Hague did not mention the £500 million Foreign Office budget cuts for diplomats.

Unable to defend his department’s modest spending, Hague’s will be a Primark foreign service with everything done on the cheap. He also called for more work to be done in Latin America. I went with Tony Blair to Brazil, Argentina and Mexico on the first ever visit by a serving British Prime Minister to Latin America. Britain does need a greater presence there, but the swingeing cuts in the Foreign Office budget will make this more ­difficult to deliver.

Cameron has not been to Latin America in his five years as Tory leader. Hague’s only visit to the region was with Lord Ashcroft. In Cuba, he broke British and EU policy rules when he met Communist apparatchiks in Havana while Orlando Zapata, a pro-democracy campaigner in Cuba, was dying in prison under the orders of the Castro brothers’ dictatorship. Given Ashcroft’s financial interests in the region, perhaps his relationship with Hague deserves closer scrutiny.

Of course, it would be good to improve relations with the Chinese – but soon it may not be the democracy-deniers of Beijing in the driving seat, but the workers of China as they forge independent trade unions.
Britain also needs a new India policy, as Tory MP Jo Johnson, brother of London Mayor Boris, has pointed out. We has given more than £1 billion in international development aid to India and got nothing in return. India has more billionaires than Britain, a nuclear arsenal and the capacity to send rockets to the moon. Yet it cannot find the political will to have a dialogue with Pakistan over Kashmir.

Forthcoming Foreign Office budget cuts, which Hague is meekly accepting, will see British embassies in Europe effectively reduced to one man, an electric kettle and an email address. The BBC is looking at shutting down all its foreign language broadcasts, which began when General de Gaulle made his famous appeal to resist Nazism in June 1940 on BBC radio.

Robin Cook started his term as Labour Foreign Secretary by referring to an “ethical dimension” to foreign policy. This jarred somewhat, as foreign policy – rightly or wrongly – has to blend realpolitik and moralpolitik. William Hague will not be taken seriously in Europe unless the Tories realign with serious politicians in the EU. And if Britain is not taken seriously in Europe, it will have little clout elsewhere in the world.

New political era in Poland: time to move on for the UK

5 July 2010

The defeat of Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland’s presidential election surely brings to an end the political career of two remarkable men. This summer sees the 30th anniversary of the founding moment of the Polish trade union NSZZ Solidarnosc. The Kaczynski twins, Jarosloaw and Lech, were Solidarity activists but very much on the right-nationalist, ultra-Catholic wing of the movement. Lech became president of Poland in 2005 and Jaroslaw was prime minister of the short-lived populist, rightist coalition between 2005 and 2007. Lech was killed in the Smolensk air crash disaster which wiped out a number of Polish leaders. His bother, Jaroslaw, his identical twin, campaigned to succeed him as president. He handed out leaflets with his brother’s name and face on it, hoping for a Kaczynski sympathy vote. It did not work because the Polish economy and society has moved on dramatically from the era when the appeal of nationalist populist parties could win majorities. Under its pro-EU Civic Platform government, with a number of British-linked Poles holding key portfolios in the Foreign and Finance ministries, Poland has been one of the few EU states to grow during the recession. Polish cities are now modern, vibrant and young.

The last remaining place where the nationalist right-wing identity politicies of the Kaczynksi era lives on is in the European Parliament. There, thanks to William Hague and David Cameron, the Polish PiS (Law and Justice) party heads a European Parliament group called Conservatives for European Reform. Its leader is Michal Kaminski, who started his political career on the extreme Falangist right of Polish nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s, before moving into more mainstream politics as an associate of Jarsoslaw Kaczynski.

Nick Clegg has cruelly described Cameron’s and Hague allies in Europe as “nutters, anti-semites and homophobes.” The Kaczynksi were never anti-Jewish though their coalition government did have anti-semites in it but Jaroslaw was a vicious homophobe. In the election here, David Cameron said, the gay Police Minister, Nick Herbert, would go to Warsaw to march in the Gay pride demonstration there. When the Kaczynskis were in power they tried to ban it. It is not clear if Mr Herbet has honoured that pledge. Conservatives hate being reminded of Nick Clegg’s NASH (“nutters, anti-semites and homophobes”) description mainly because it is true. Tory MEPs complain to anyone who will listen that they are now utterly marginalised in Strasbourg and Brussels because the dominant ruling centre-right and liberal groupings don’t want to touch the ultra nationalist right like Kaczynski and Kaminski with proverbial EU barge-pole.

The death and now defeat of the Kaczynskis give the Tories a chance to rethink their alliance, which is extremely damaging to UK national interests in Europe. Under the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Parliament is more powerful in terms of agreeing EU rules and policy. The auto-marginalisation of Tory MEPs does Cameron no favours. As British PM, he is received with courtesy and Britain remains, under any government, an important EU player and power. But Europe is about politics and political networking and influence. The Kaczynski twins had their brief moment of power but blew it with an incompetent government and then, tragically, a hastily arranged flight to the Katyn memorial site which ended in disaster. Now the Kaczynski era is over. But Cameron and Hague show no sign of being able to move on.

This article was published in Tribune

Labour must avoid xenophobia at all costs

25 June 2010
Some among the Labour leadership contenders have found a reason why we lost the election: Johnny Foreigner. It’s nice, convenient – and utterly wrong.

So it’s the immigrants who are to blame. Like other Labour people, I have been looking for the over-arching reason why we lost the general election. Now some among the Labour leadership contenders have found a reason: Johnny Foreigner. It’s nice, convenient – and utterly wrong.

I cut my teeth in Labour politics in Birmingham in the 1970s. Then working-class support for Enoch Powell’s hostility to foreigners was all the rage. “They” were being let into Britain and were stealing “our” jobs. No one ever stopped a white Brit working as a bus conductor or prevented a white English woman from becoming a nurse. No one has ever prevented white British men from working in construction, but somehow, over a century or more, we have imported millions of Irishmen to do this work. Even today, the biggest group of non-British people from the European Union working on the London Olympics site are Irish. And yes, among them will be some – not many – who work the benefits system and repatriate benefits to Ireland.

Should we re-open European Union treaties to deal with this abuse? I wish any minister in Dublin luck as he or she explains to the Irish why European rules on the free movement of people now need to be revised. The French have long complained about the 500,000 Brits living in France fiddling benefits for children back home. And let us hope no Spanish politician starts to take serious issue with the 900,000 Brits living in Spain, of whom few have even bothered to try to learn any Spanish.

Britain has always known how to reduce the number of non-Brits coming to work in this country. It is called mass unemployment. The Tories are right to say there were fewer Europeans coming to work here when they were last in power. The reason was the four million unemployed at the height of Thatcherism. Instead we had the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet generation of British workers who headed off to booming Germany to undercut German wages by working in the black economy.

In fact, if you go to Berlin now, you will hear Polish and other east European languages, because it is a myth that denying Europeans the legal right to work stops them coming to find jobs that the indigenous population won’t do.

The Polish workers who came to Britain after 2004 did so because Gordon Brown, advised by Ed Balls, had shaped Europe’s most dynamic economy. Britain created more new companies and needed more new labour than nearly every other EU member state between 1997 and 2007.

Spain saw three million immigrants entering its booming economy between 1995 and 2005. There are 500,000 Albanians in Italy, even though Albania is not in the EU. Since 1990, the United States economy has attracted nearly 50 million immigrants – half of them illegal or undocumented.

The far right-wing Michal Kaminski, who David Cameron installed as leader of Tory MEPs in Strasbourg, is known for standing outside Warsaw railway station handing out leaflets to Ukrainians telling them to go home, as they should not come to Poland and undercut the wages of Polish workers.

The Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition may solve Britain’s “immigrant” problem quickly, as its cuts lead to deeper recession and firms laying off staff. However, behind the moans about east Europeans lies a deeper racism about “Pakis” and Muslims. We should not pander to this atavism.

Already there are more east Europeans leaving than coming to Britain as the recession bites and the sharply devalued pound means that wages and overtime in this country are worth 30 per cent less when sent home as ­zlotys. Meanwhile, the private rented sector has enjoyed a boom, as has the Roman Catholic Church, whose pews are filling up with believers. Fruit that otherwise would rot in East Anglia has been picked so that British strawberries are on sale in supermarkets. Our cars can be hand-washed for a fiver and caf├ęs are open 18 hours a day.

Certainly, under Labour we needed stronger trade union laws to support British workers and an improved education system that supported working-class jobs and let children leave school at 16with employability skills. Many employers say that, after 13 years of the Labour Government, they were required to teach basic skills to young workers. Can we blame any for hiring a Pole or Litvak who already had those skills? And how many firms kept operating in Britain instead of re-locating abroad because they had a flexible labour market? There have been many proposals emanating from the European Parliament or the European Commission designed to support workers in Britain, whether “native” or foreign. Without exception, these were opposed the Treasury, its ministers and special advisors.

Two years ago, the Federation of Poles in Britain produced a report showing 80 xenophobic anti-Polish headlines in one newspaper over a short period. That paper was the Daily Mail. Must Labour go down the Mail road?

Allies in Europe: Cameron must choose

This piece was posted on the Guardian website

Europe and the two faces of David Cameron

17 June 2010
The PM seems conflicted over the 'nutters, antisemites and homophobes' of his EU allies: where does he really stand?
On Wednesday night David Cameron did not turn up for dinner with his fellow Conservative prime ministers in Europe. The deals and decisions that Europe takes are pre-cooked, if not decided, at the dinners and informal meetings where EU leaders meet as party political animals. Civil servants churn out articles for prime ministers like the one co-signed today by Cameron and Sweden's beleaguered prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, in the FT, but the real wheeling and dealing is done on a much more party political basis than is commonly realised.

For the first time in decades a British prime minister has excluded himself from these key dinners of influence. Cameron's new allies in Europe were famously described as "nutters, antisemites and homophobes" by his deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. Sadly, Clegg's hyperbole appears to be justifiable.

In a plangent appeal, Professor Dovid Kotz of Vilnius University in Lithuania wrote about Cameron's new allies thus:

"The tiny, fragile Jewish communities that remain in eastern Europe are seriously undermined by the official British approval of its governments' distortions of the memory of the Shoa. In the UK's new political climate it is easier than ever for David Cameron to withdraw from the dangerous EU grouping and admit: 'I made an honest mistake.'"

In Britain, Cameron has done a deal with Lib Dems that, in effect, has isolated his Europhobe rightist MPs. But in Europe he persists in maintaining an alliance that seems at complete odds with his more centrist style in Britain. As Professor Rafal Pankowski notes: "Antisemitism is crucial to the Polish radical right [and] homophobia is particular has played an increasingly important role in rightwing populist propaganda." Any examination of the voting record of Tory-linked MEPs in Strasbourg proves the point.

Cameron is willing to slap down Eurosceptic Tory MPs in the Commons as he did yesterday to Douglas Carswell who raised the issue of a referendum on Europe. But Cameron appears unwilling to take on Daniel Hannam, the strongly anti-EU Tory MEP.

Or is it just a matter of time? The problem is that time is of the essence in Europe. Big decisions are being taken under the guidance of the dominant EU conservative groups. They are not just eurozone countries. Poland's Donald Tusk and other east and south-east European as well as Nordic states headed by centre-right parties all take part in the collective discussions within the EU party political networks.

Today Cameron will have a brief meeting with Michal Kaminski, the notorious Polish MEP who heads the Tory-created group in the European parliament. Without retelling Kaminski's malodorous political past, it is sufficient to note that he has no influence or status in Polish politics, none in EU circles, and that his line on the CAP is 100% at odds with that of British Tories. Why a British PM is giving status to such a marginal figure on the European landscape is a question only Cameron – or perhaps William Hague – can answer.

For the City, for British business, and for the national interest, it is a real problem that Cameron will be absent from an EU conservative dinner tonight. The French have a saying, les absents ont toujours tort (absentees are always in the wrong); it is always wrong not to turn up. British interests need our prime minister to be there where it counts, not dining with Clegg's "nutters, antisemities and homophobes".

When I first raised these problems a year ago Cameron protested privately to me, and got tetchy in the Commons when I spoke of his curious alliance. But now the issue is not about political point-scoring but about the national interest. Cameron should seek to sit at the same table as mainstream conservative parties in Europe and leave the extremes to their own devices.