Olivier Guitta: Biden’s decision to snub France will weaken, not embolden, the U.S. in its dealings with China

20 Sep

Olivier Guitta is the Managing Director of GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consulting company for companies and governments.

On September 16 President Emmanuel Macron announced that French forces had killed Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the emir of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, in Mali.

Coincidentally, al-Sahrawi had been at the top of the U.S. wanted list for murdering American Special forces in Niger in 2017. So, it is quite ironic that on the same day U.S. President Joe Biden back-stabbed France by announcing a defence alliance with Australia and the UK that included taking away from Paris the contract of the century.

France had signed in 2016 a deal worth $66 billion to supply 12 diesel-powered submarines to Australia. As late as August 30 both countries’ leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the submarine programme. This while Australia had been negotiating since at least March with the UK and the U.S. on getting a deal for nuclear-powered submarines.

It was a deal so secret and so controversial that reportedly only 10 people in the British government knew about it. The project was almost finalised at the G7 meeting in England in June under the nose of Macron while he was cosying up to Biden.

The Biden administration blindsided France, which accused top U.S. officials of hiding information about the deal despite repeated attempts by French diplomats to know what was going on. French diplomats said they first learned of the deal when news leaked in Australian media hours before the official announcement on Wednesday.

Expressing his fury for not only the cancellation of the deal but the handling of the announcement and the non-consulting of France, Macron immediately recalled its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra.

It is quite telling that this is the first time ever happened that France recalled its ambassador to the U.S., showing the seriousness of the diplomatic crisis. Interestingly enough, even Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said he understood Paris’ fury to be cut out from the alliance.

Things could have gone down way differently: If technology was the problem, why did the Australians not talk to the French about it since, incidentally, France also has nuclear-powered submarines?

We are not talking here about $60 million or $600 million or even $6 billion but about $66 billion. There was surely a way to find a consensus between the four allies, even when bringing to the table the U.S. and the UK, like splitting the contract in three.

In fact, the bigger picture is even more important than the huge defence contact since this AUKUS alliance, as it is called, is all about standing up to China. It is quite ironic that Biden has pushed away France from that alliance since in the past few months Paris has been one of the most sanguine to oppose China’s influence in the region.

Indeed, back in March, China complained about the French military’s activities in the disputed South China Sea, after it sent two warships there. In April, these ships took part in a three-day military exercise with the four members of the Quad alliance- Japan, India, Australia and the U.S.

That’s not all: France, that has several territories in the Pacific, has committed to helping Japan on the military and security level, i.e., protecting against China. Indeed, when Macron visited Japan during the Tokyo Olympics, Prime Minister Suga said he welcomed French plans to build on regional cooperation by boosting Paris’ efforts to “reinforce its strategic orientation, presence and actions in the Indo-Pacific in order to contribute to security, stability and sustainable development in the region.”

In light of this, Biden’s decision to snub France is another major faux-pas that is basically undermining his plan for an anti-China front. This hasn’t escaped Beijing that while officially very angry about the deal denouncing it, China might turn out to be the ultimate winner since it has de facto possibly broken the French resolve to side with the US against Beijing. Indeed, Macron said that France might narrow its focus to concentrate on its specific Indo-Pacific interests, rather than working to push back against China more broadly.

Biden, who wanted to break off from his predecessor when it came to trans-Atlantic relations, has missed yet another opportunity to do so with the AUKUS alliance. His potential anti-China front has been definitely undercut and ironically only of his own doing.

Including France in the alliance would have been wise to repair a deteriorating relationship with Europe that has witnessed the huge historical debacle in Afghanistan, the de facto approval of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. Biden has in just eight months lost all of his credibility in European capitals, not a small feat indeed.

Sarah Ingham: With our closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it’s time to re-assess the pieties about Britain’s role in the world

3 Sep

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home”.

In June 2011, announcing a cut in troop numbers of 10,000 personnel, President Barack Obama anticipated Joe Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh which marked the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

A decade ago, the 44th President’s enthusiasm for a continuing military presence in Afghanistan was lukewarm at best. Back then, a mere $1 trillion had been spent. Given America’s crumbling infrastructure and rising social problems in the wake of the global financial crash, Obama wanted more homeland bangs for his huge number of bucks.

Another $1 trillion later, on Tuesday the 46th President gave the speech that Obama probably wishes he had made back in 2011. Alluding to the country’s “corruption and malfeasance”, Biden was clear: “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”

For a man allegedly in his dotage, Sleepy Joe delivered an admirably clear-sighted statement of future American national security policy based on vital national interest. As well as ending the forever war, the President pulled the trigger on 20 years of meddling in the affairs of other sovereign states – also known as nation-building.

If American policy is now also about “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries”, exactly where does this leave Britain and our Armed Forces? After all, ever since the end of the Cold War, successive governments have sent Britain’s Service personnel overseas on all manner of Operations Other Than War, as our people in khaki with the SA80 A3s like to call them.

The impulse to save lives was used to justify a number of military interventions since the beginning of the 1990s, including policing Iraq’s safe havens and in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. The Rwandan genocide – about which the outside world did too little far too late – is a permanent reproach to those who consider state sovereignty paramount.

The successful humanitarian-based military operations in Kosovo and Sierra Leone appeared to vindicate the Blair government’s much-mocked pursuit of an “ethical” foreign policy, together with the Prime Minister’s Doctrine for the International Community.

Set out in Chicago in April 1999, it suggested five guidelines for intervention. They chimed with the Strategic Defence Review of the previous year which had declared that Britain would not stand idly by and watch humanitarian disasters or the aggression of dictators go unchecked. “We want to give a lead; we want to be a force for good.”

Ever since, subsequent Defence Reviews have all been the heirs to the Blairite sentiment that the British military are an instrument for global wellbeing, just as Britain should get stuck in and tackle the world’s problems.

As the Coalition’s 2010 Review stated, “Our country has always had global responsibilities and global ambitions.” Similarly, in 2015, Britain was “strong, influential, global”. In setting out his vision for Britain in 2030 in the recent Integrated Review, Boris Johnson foresaw “a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective”.

The unforeseen American withdrawal pulled the rug out from under not only Afghanistan but also from assumptions about Britain’s defence and security posture that were made in the Integrated Review less than six months ago.

With our closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it is now time to re-assess the pieties about Britain’s place and role in the world that, mantra-like, are repeated and have gone unchallenged in all of 21st century Reviews of the country’s defence and security.

The Blairite approach to foreign policy – “which should reflect our values” according to the 1998 Review – should have been shattered in Iraq. A war of questionable legality and zero legitimacy made a nonsense about ethical lodestars.

Equally, Labour’s view of the role of British soldiers in Afghanistan as globe-trotting, nation-building do-gooders – armed Mrs Jellybys – has surely had its day. The Coalition’s disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011 was nothing if not Blair-lite. Thankfully, the same itch to intervene was thwarted when it came to Syria.

For all policymakers’ non-stop talking up of Britain’s continuing interventionist global role, the public might well be sceptical. Over the past decade we have become ever-more culturally heterogenous and less happy with the concept of “white saviours” parachuting themselves into the world’s benighted regions and bossing the locals about.

In 2001, the UK’s Muslim population was 1.6 million; by 2018 it had reached 3.4 million: do these voters back Britain’s instinct for involvement in the problems of, say, the Middle East? Equally, the issue of this country’s colonial past is surely the most toxic on any syllabus – and very much at odds with any present-day neo-colonial nation-building.

Almost 30 years ago, another Foreign Secretary was in hot water. Sceptical about intervention in the civil war in former Yugoslavia, Douglas Hurd dubbed those who demanded action after the media spotlight fell on any particular trouble-spot as members of the “Something Must Be Done Club”. He could have observed that Pen Farthing’s dogs would bark, but before too long the media would move on.

Like its predecessors, the Integrated Review invokes the values of liberal democracy. After almost 18 months of government by ministerial fiat in the name of public health, with Parliament side-lined, the media suborned and Police over-reach, we should perhaps be focusing on renewing those values here at home. The defence of the West begins in Britain.

James Frayne: Polls suggest the Government will not face a backlash for the principal of withdrawal in Afghanistan

31 Aug

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

How will the disorganised exit from Afghanistan affect the reputation of the British Government?

Coverage in the media has rightly focused primarily on President Biden’s role – given the US is by far the biggest foreign player in Afghanistan – but the British Government – and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, particularly – have faced harsh scrutiny. What should we expect to follow politically?

Three interesting polls suggest the most fundamental answers. The first comes from YouGov in 2017, which asked the British public whether they thought it was right or wrong for Britain to have become involved in various wars and global conflicts since the Second World War.

While large majorities supported Britain declaring war on Germany in 1939 and engaging Argentina in 1982, significantly more opposed than supported British engagement in Afghanistan (43-25 opposed, with the rest saying “don’t know”). In addition, more people opposed than supported engagement in Libya (44-19), Iraq in 2003 (55-18) and Iraq in 1991 (35-30).

The second also comes from YouGov, a few weeks ago, which asked people about whether Britain should accept asylum seekers from Afghanistan – and also, crucially, whether Britain had a “moral duty” to accept those asylum seekers.

While the first question showed a majority support accepting Afghan refugees (52-29), perhaps surprisingly a majority could not be found to support the contention that Britain had a moral duty to accept refugees (48-36 agreed).

Third, another YouGov poll, from 2014 when Britain began scaling back operations in Helmand, which showed how the public had grown utterly weary of our engagement in Afghanistan several years ago.

They supported the withdrawal of troops from Helmand by a massive 83-5; they thought our whole engagement had not been worthwhile by 56-25; they doubted the Afghan security forces could maintain security by 67-13; and they thought the Taliban would return to power by 65-15.

These polls suggest a number of big things. First, and most importantly, that the Government will not face a backlash for the principal of withdrawal because people didn’t want troops to be there (or in the Middle East) in the first place. In fact, the public are generally sceptical about foreign intervention against states generally (as opposed to terrorist groups, which they tend to support).

Second, they show there’s a limit to the “mess” they think Britain specifically is responsible for (if people simultaneously think we should accept asylum seekers but don’t particularly consider it to be our moral duty).

Third, they show the public have long considered Afghanistan to have been a failure and that they long expected a return to the status quo ante.

While political and foreign policy commentators dwell on whether British and American withdrawal will make people think Afghanistan was a tragic waste of lives, or that it will make people question whether politicians can make the case for foreign intervention again, the truth is the public have already made up their mind on these – and did so long ago.

The deep sympathy the public feel for British troops and the sacrifices they made, the anger they feel on their behalf, as well as their general disappointment with how Afghanistan turned out, made themselves felt in the polls several years ago when other Prime Ministers were in power.

While the public are looking on at the Taliban’s advance with horror and sadness – with sympathy for Afghan civilians – they expected it and they doubt there is much that we can do, beyond extending a home for a small number of Afghans (along with other countries around the world).

This Government is therefore unlikely to be affected by those big, existential questions being played out in politics and the media. For this Government, its greatest vulnerabilities are around important but relatively narrow questions over whether it handled the logistics of withdrawal in the right way.

Did it act swiftly, competently and with good judgement as it helped British civilians, diplomats and Armed Forces out of the country – as well as those Afghans directly associated with the British and American operations in the country since 2001? (The questions in whether the Government is providing the right level of asylum support will emerge later).

In short, these are mostly questions of judgement and competence – although, certainly regarding the treatment of Afghans who directly helped Britain, there are also questions of fairness and decency.

It seems very likely that there will be enough horror stories of slow and poor decision-making from various Government Departments and agencies that the Government will take some blame. These stories will come out over the course of the next few weeks.

While unnamed Government sources are seeking to apportion blame to particular politicians (Raab, most obviously), the public don’t and won’t think along these lines; within reason, they think of the Government as an entity, rather than as being devolved in any meaningful way.

This means there’s a limit to what “damage control” the Government can do by throwing particular politicians and officials under a bus. It will all land at the door of the PM where public opinion is concerned.

Will there be enough stories, cumulatively, to provoke a general backlash against this Government at last? Time will tell (I have no idea what’s coming out) but I doubt it. Hard as it is for many commentators to understand or believe, for most of its supporters, this Government has a lot of credit in the bank on questions of judgement and competence.

In a world where politicians are seen endlessly to over-promise and under-deliver, this Government has delivered on two massive promises: to “get Brexit done” and to introduce new controls over immigration.

It has also delivered a world-class vaccination programme. These aren’t small things. Most of this Government’s supporters will not therefore be saying – as opponents will – “there they go again”. This again puts a limit on the negative effects the Government will see.

But competence is a strange question. Beyond extreme incidents that directly affect the lives of ordinary people – like the final days of our time in the ERM, when interest rates were raised, crippling many – most errors, even big ones, just gently chip away at a Government’s reputation.

This is not to suggest that competence isn’t a big deal – on the contrary, it’s vital, and I suspect it’ll be ultimately competence that does it in the end for this Government – but rather that it can take a surprising amount to lose it. We’re not there yet; Afghanistan won’t do it.

David Lidington: There’s no alternative to our American alliance. But we also need a new strategic relationship with our European allies.

27 Aug

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

This week at Kabul airport we have seen human nature both at its most heroic, in the risks taken by our servicemen and women to help thousands of Afghans fleeing persecution, and at its most depraved, in the merciless slaughter of innocents by suicide bombers.

Those appalling scenes ram home the cruel truth that we, the West, have suffered a major defeat. The return of the Taliban is a humiliation for the United States and its NATO allies, including our own country. Jihadist networks, not only Isis-K but their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East and in our own cities will take fresh heart. Russia, China and Iran will interpret the debacle in Kabul as further evidence of Western decadence and decline and see opportunities to expand their influence in the world.

Unsurprisingly, defeat in Afghanistan has sent a wave of shock and anger through the British political and media worlds. In particular, recriminations over Joe Biden’s decision to act unilaterally and his scant consultation with coalition allies have gone way beyond the normal language of diplomatic relations. One or two Ministers, who under the cloak of anonymity have bandied around not just vituperative language about the United States but personal insults at Biden, need to be reminded that the burdens of high office include sometimes having to bite your tongue when matters involving the national interest are at stake.

While it is right that this strategic reverse should prompt a hard look at its lessons for our foreign and security policy, it would be a mistake to think that every assumption about the UK’s place in the world has been overthrown.

The fundamental conclusions of the Government’s Integrated Review seem to me still to hold good. Russia is a potent threat to the security of this country and the continent of which we are part. China is both a strategic rival to the West and in some respects an unavoidable partner. Our military strength and our resilience to security threats depends on us being able to renew our capacity for technological innovation. The United Kingdom is a European power with a global outlook and global interests. The alliance with the United States is essential to our own national security.

Policy should include a measured tilt to the Indo-Pacific, doing more with countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea, while continuing to direct the great majority of our security resources and attention to the Euro-Atlantic, working with our allies in Europe and North America. Soft and hard power complement one another and both are important in defending and advancing our interests.

The missing element is a clear strategic plan to act on those conclusions. In this short space, I want to make just two points.

First, that plan should start with a clear-eyed view of our relationship with the United States.

Walk down Bond Street in the West End and you come across a remarkable pair of statues: Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt sitting on a wooden bench. The two men are presented as if in the middle of a relaxed, jovial conversation, the sculptor’s art conveying an impression of mutual trust, friendship and goodwill. The work is entitled “Allies”.

Far too often, British politicians and journalists have fallen for the beguiling romance that this work of art represents, and overlooked the reality that there have been freqtuent clashes of interest and opinion. FDR drove a hard bargain over lend-lease. Truman refused to do Attlee any favours over Britain’s war debts. Eisenhower humiliated Britain and France over Suez. Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam. Ronald Reagan sent US forces into Grenada without even telling Margaret Thatcher.

What President Biden’s recent decisions have shown is that “America First” has outlived Donald Trump. It’s not isolationism, but rather a rigorous and ruthless focus on what the White House considers to be the key national interests of the United States and a readiness to dispense with other commitments. We’ve seen it in the shift of American priorities towards the Indo-Pacific under both Democrat and Republican presidents, when Barack Obama insisted that France and the UK take political responsibility for the action in Libya in 2011 and now in Kandahar and Kabul.

The lesson for policymakers in London is not that we should look for an alternative to the US alliance. There isn’t one. No other country or grouping in the democratic world has the concentration of economic and military power of Washington. But Britain, like the rest of Europe, is going to have to work harder to prove to US politicians and the voters they represent that they should see the security of our region as part of the essential national interest of the American people.

Britain’s military and security relationships with the US functioned even during the worst turbulence of the Trump years. The Americans recognise that the UK brings things to the table that they value: our intelligence agencies, special forces, nuclear submarines and not just armed forces but a willingness to deploy them. We need to keep those relationships in the best possible state of repair and at the same time redouble diplomatic efforts to show how important American interests depend on the security of Europe.

Second, we need to establish a new strategic partnership with our European neighbours. We can and should work with like-minded nations around the world, but that should be additional to and not a substitute for an effective alliance with the democracies next door. This is important for two reasons.

The first is that it is greater capability and a greater willingness to act on the part of the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance that could give us the choice of taking an initiative when the United States does not want to be involved. And second, Washington not only wants its European allies to spend more on defence and security, but for them to show greater leadership in parts of the world: Africa, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, which America now treats as at most secondary to its strategic rivalry with China.

A lot can be done through NATO structures like the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea, and through bilateral partnerships like the E3 grouping of France, Germany and the UK. Britain is party too to the European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries.

But as governments in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere keep saying, there also needs to be a new, constructive strategic relationship between the UK and the European Union. In part, that’s because even the big member states think and work in the EU context, seeking to influence and being influenced by EU discussions on foreign and security policy, and also because many of the key levers of soft power: development aid, state capacity building, military and police training, peacekeeping missions lie at EU level.

To make a reality of the slogan “Global Britain” requires us to accept that we need to work with allies, and that we need strong, strategic relationships on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mark Francois: Why, following the crisis in Afghanistan, Johnson must avoid a Love Actually moment with Biden

25 Aug

Mark Francois is the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, a former Armed Forces Minister and a Member of the House of Commons Defence Committee.

There is an old saying that hindsight makes geniuses of all of us. However, the events of the last fortnight in Afghanistan have certainly demonstrated a lack of foresight, especially in the Biden White House.

When Parliament was recalled to discuss what went gone wrong, I was one of those who was highly critical of the Biden Administration for withdrawing so hastily, which has led to a strategic defeat for NATO, for the first time in its 72-year history.

Whole libraries have been written about the so-called “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. The term itself was first coined by Winston Churchill, whose very close relationship with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was fundamental to the allied victory in World War Two.

Similarly, the very strong partnership between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was undoubtedly essential to winning the Cold War. Although it is often overlooked, a young Senator Joe Biden even supported the UK’s position during the Falklands Crisis in 1982.

Nevertheless, 39 years on, Biden’s address to the American people on August 16 2021 was inherently isolationist. It put US domestic political interests way above foreign policy considerations and America’s relations with its allies, including us.

So, what should we do now? Does our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, need to create a “Love Actually moment” of his own and start making Johnsonian wisecracks about Americans invoking the 25th Amendment? Probably not. But some are now asking can we credibly create a European defence, sufficient to deter a revanchist Russia, without the active involvement of the United States?

NATO now has 30 member nations, a third of which now meet the recommended alliance minimum of spending at least two per cent of their GDP on Defence. According to NATO’s own latest figures, (which helpfully compare apples with apples), Greece is now the highest spender in proportional terms, at an estimated 3.82 per cent in 2021, compared to 3.52 per cent for the United States.

The UK is now fourth at 2.29 per cent; with all three Baltic States a bit over 2.0 per cent. France sits almost exactly on 2.0 per cent, with Italy on 1.41 per cent and Spain, at barely one per cent at all. Still, in most cases this actually represents an increase, since Russia invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014.

France, which maintains Armed Forces broadly comparable to Britain’s, including its own strategic nuclear deterrent, has increased its defence spending over the last seven years, has bilateral Defence ties with the UK under the auspices of the Lancaster House Agreement and is involved in a number of Anglo-French equipment programmes.

However, the calls by President Macron of France for the creation of a “European Army” have not been met by a sizeable increase in the French Defence budget to help facilitate such a concept which, for a number of NATO nations, including the U.K. is politically unrealistic anyway. Still, the French do maintain professional and operationally credible armed forces, which exercise regularly with our own.

But the great drag anchor in terms of any increased European defence capability is Germany. Although Germany recently signed a low-key bilateral defence declaration with the UK (described by one colleague of mine as, “a poor man’s Lancaster House”) even now the German defence budget has been only creeping upwards, to 1.53 per cent of GDP this year and is not due to achieve the two per cent target for several years yet – much to the repeated annoyance of former President Trump.

Moreover, the German Armed Forces are now a shadow of their former, highly operationally focused, Cold War selves. Much of Germany’s military equipment is in poor repair, with depressingly low levels of operational availability in everything from submarines to fighter aircraft. They are also a risky industrial partner, because of increasingly hostile attitudes to defence exports within the Bundestag.

Similarly, Germany’s close relationship with Russia, for instance in advocating the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, may suit Germany’s peacetime energy needs but does not help bolster NATO security, especially among its Eastern European members.

Much now hinges on the forthcoming German Federal Elections, with the era of the Merkel ascendency coming to an end and the race for her successor seemingly wide open.

Whether the largest party emerging from the elections is the CDP/CSU or the SPD, any subsequent coalition Government which meaningfully involves either Der Linke or the Greens is unlikely to be keen on the sort of very significant increase in German defence spending – and hardening of the line on Russia – that would likely be required to give a meaningful edge to a European Defence identity. Pious declarations are all very well but, as Stalin brutally put it: “How many divisions has the Pope?”

So, where does all this leave us? First, it means that we should look to strengthen defence ties with our European allies – but with a clear-eyed realism about the limits of what this is likely to achieve. For the foreseeable future, the idea that NATO’s European partners could credibly deter Russia entirely on their own is completely fanciful; they just aren’t prepared to pay for it – and even the most junior analyst in Moscow knows it.

That means that we need to try and repair the damage caused to NATO by the disastrous events of the past fortnight. In that context, the Anglo-American link is absolutely crucial. Historically, whoever has been in the White House or Downing Street, Anglo-American links at the diplomatic, military and intelligence (Five Eyes) have remained strong, and we now need to bolster them again. As one example, the previous US Ambassador, Woody Johnson, was a high-profile and popular Anglophile and we need to see someone equally charismatic appointed without delay.

Hard left opponents in Britain have sometimes railed about the “Anglo-American deep State”; well, if such a thing exists, now is surely the time to use all of these contacts to best advantage to bolster Western security.

To those in the American security establishment who have become obsessed with China, we need to remind them that Russia possesses thousands of nuclear weapons too, has invaded neighbouring countries on the European landmass within the last decade.

Russian spokesmen have even boasted about new nuclear torpedoes, which could cause an irradiated tsunami against cities on the eastern seaboard of the United States (and NATO believes these weapons actually exist). Finally, Taiwan, while an important Western ally, is not a member of NATO – but Estonia most certainly is.

The Atlantic Charter, which led, in turn, to the creation of the United Nations, was originally an Anglo-American construct. The American Eagle and the British Lion have stood side by side in defence of the free world for many decades now and we cannot allow any one individual, no matter how senior, to get in the way of that.

Build back better. Does this phrase run the risk of alienating Conservative voters?

29 Jul

As the Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome, there are two expressions I come across more regularly than the average person. One is “levelling up”, and the other is “build back better”. If anyone reads or hears these expressions – and not just editors of conservative websites – frequently enough, they will begin to wince in a Pavlovian manner upon each utterance of said phrase.

But in recent times it strikes me that the expression “build back better” is not only overused (apologies to our contributors!); it could, in fact, be electorally troublesome for the Conservatives, for it has become synonymous with policies and strategies that Conservative voters are quietly dissatisfied with (another thing I do as Deputy Editor: read the comments section of this site).

What is “building back better” anyway? Log onto Twitter and you’ll see a number of conspiracy theories floating about it, due to the amount of leaders across the world and political persuasions now using the phrase (“a co-ordinated plot!”).

Mostly they are referring to the global economic recovery from the pandemic. However, go to Wikipedia and there are eight different versions of the expression, ranging from a United Nations Program to the slogan of the Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign, to “Build Back Better World”, an initiative undertaken by G7 countries.

Conservatives’ use of the term “Build Back Better” technically refers to the party’s plan for growth, an incredibly ambitious document, in which the Prime Minister has laid out how he wants to boost the country and its economy. It covers everything from infrastructure to skills to opportunities for growth from EU exit, and Conservatives should be commended for their ambition and effort in developing it.

That being said, my problem with “build back better” is that it increasingly seems to have moved away from a strategy to a meaningless phase, wheeled out whenever someone wants to justify a policy or idea they’ve had.  So long as you’re “building back better, X must be sensible”, goes the logic.

Of course it’s not the first time the Government has used a slogan repeatedly. But at least they’ve been a bit more obvious in the past. I don’t think I need to explain what “Get Brexit done” means to any readers, and even “levelling up” is fairly clear, referring to the imbalances in people’s socioeconomic status across the country, which Conservatives will fix through funding.

When Conservatives say “build back better”, though, I am often left with more questions than I have answers. For one, as a millennial, the main thing I want to be built is houses, which doesn’t appear to be a big feature of the “building back better” plan.

Perhaps this is because a huge amount of “build back better” rhetoric is tied into the Government’s Net Zero ambitions. Whenever one hears about a new green idea, you can put money on the fact that you will be told it’s “building back better”.

Indeed, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has a whole webpage devoted to “Building back better”, in which it declares that raising “the UK’s climate ambitions for 2035 will put Net Zero within reach and change the UK for the better”. But surely anyone reading the newspaper coverage on how much it will cost to replace their gas boiler will be wondering if that is really “building back better”? Along with the £372 billion pandemic bill, and the anticipated £1.4 trillion Net Zero costs, it sounds more like we will “build back broke”.

The CCC underlines my biggest reservation about the expression “build back better”, which is how opaque it is – like this unaccountable committee. You are simply meant to accept the wisdom of “build back better”, rather than getting a vote on individual policies.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that it’s not just Conservative editors who now wince at the phrase, but Conservative voters, too, for whom “build back better” has come to symbolise all the things they don’t like: huge levels of government spending, policies they didn’t vote for (Net Zero, pandemic policies) and even the scenes of the G7 Summit in which politicians talked about – yes – how nations can “build back better”. Can we Get Some New Slogans Done? We will see.

Daniel Hannan: Is it worth decarbonising if the rest of the world won’t follow?

21 Jul

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Is it worth it? The question kept nagging at me as I stood in a drizzly Derbyshire quarry, watching a miracle of British engineering. Is it worth pushing ahead with deep cuts in CO2 emissions if the rest of the world won’t follow?

The miracle in front of me was a digger powered by an internal combustion engine that ran on hydrogen – something that was, until a few months ago, thought to be impossible. Pundits and politicians like to hymn the praises of electric vehicles. But batteries have their limits. They are expensive, slow to charge and heavy. They can’t realistically power planes or trains or ships or heavy lorries – or, indeed, big diggers.

JCB (whose digger and whose quarry this was) had already produced a diesel engine that reduced air pollution by more than 99 per cent. It had come up with a small electric excavator, too. But a 20-ton machine, usually the first onto a building site, cannot run on batteries – even if it were somehow able to keep taking time off to recharge. Another solution was needed.

Full disclosure: over the years, I have occasionally worked as an adviser to JCB. For precisely that reason, I don’t normally write about the company. But, on this occasion, I reckon I’d be failing as a columnist if I didn’t tell you about the vastness of what it has just achieved.

Lord Bamford, who chairs the business, could simply have consolidated during the epidemic. He had already turned his family firm into a global leader. Another man, in his situation, might be easing his foot off the accelerator in his eighth decade.

But Bamford is, at heart, an engineer. He refines, he tinkers, he improves; he looks for what others have missed. Perhaps it is in the soil. JCB is headquartered pretty much at the epicentre of where the industrial revolution began – a revolution that was made by refiners and tinkerers and improvers, typically men who left school in their early teens, keen to get straight into the workshop.

JCB’s nearby engineering school occupies one of Arkwright’s first mills. The Bamfords themselves, if you go back far enough, were ironmongers and blacksmiths.

So when he told his engineers to find a way of creating a hydrogen engine, they swallowed their scepticism and set to work, grouping the supposedly insuperable objections under eleven headings. While the rest of the country grumbled its way through the second lockdown, they solved them one by one.

The implications are colossal. The country that invented the engine (Thomas Newcomen, who built the first practical fuel-burning engine in 1712, was another iron-monger and tinkerer) has found a way of saving the sector. Britain produces around 2.5 million internal combustion engines every year, nearly two thirds of them for export. Until a few weeks ago, the entire industry faced oblivion. Now, with a few adjustments, it can stay in business.

I tell you all this, not just to remind you that we remain a nation of innovators, but because my opening question is a serious one. If there is a global shift away from fossil fuels, then Britain is better placed than most countries to supply the new technology. It will still be more expensive than leaving things as they are, obviously. But there are ways to harness market forces, making the transition cheaper and smoother.

So let’s ask the question again. Britain, following drastic reductions, is now responsible for only one per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we acted in isolation, we could return to the Stone Age and it would barely make any difference.

Obviously, we won’t be acting wholly in isolation. The EU has committed itself to a measure of decarbonisation, as has Joe Biden’s America. Then again, as Donald Trump once put it, with characteristic bluntness: “Look at China, how filthy it is! Look at Russia, look at India: it’s filthy, the air is filthy!”

China is the world’s biggest polluter, responsible for 28 per cent of carbon emissions. India is third, at seven per cent. Both countries are reluctant to commit to binding targets. Is there much point in pushing ahead without them?

I suppose I ought to add, at this point, that I believe the world is heating, at least partly in response to human activity. If you disagree, fine. But there is then no point in arguing about targets and international deals. If you fundamentally don’t think there is any problem, we will just go round and round in circles.

If, on the other hand, you see a problem, the question becomes how to tackle it affordably and proportionately. Our aim should be to harness the genius of the private sector – to use inventions like that hydrogen motor – so as to minimise extra spending and extra bureaucracy.

It is fair enough to argue that someone needs to make the first move. It is fair enough, too, to point out that the whole world should not hang back simply because two or three states won’t join in. The question is one of proportionality.

It is here that my doubts arise. The commitments we have made go beyond most of our competitors’. The EU and the United States lag behind us, though not by much. Canada, Australia and Japan lag a bit further. China talks vaguely of peaking around 2030. A clutch of states – Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia – are barely bothering to go through the motions.

Leading by example is all well and good. Impoverishing yourself in order to make a point, not so much. The danger, as with all government initiatives, is that we reach a critical mass where, even if it becomes clear that the rest of the world isn’t following, a powerful lobby of rent-seekers and eco-corporatists continue to drive the policy for its own sake.

Don’t underestimate how painful the adjustment will be. “Energy is not just another sector of the economy,” the great Matt Ridley points out. “It is the thermodynamic lifeblood of prosperity.” Modern civilisation became possible when falling energy prices released human beings from back-breaking labour. In 1880 a minute’s work would buy four minutes of artificial light. In 1950 it was seven hours of light. By 2000 it was five days.

None of this is to say that we should give up. There will be more breakthroughs like the JCB engine. Batteries should, over time, become cheaper and lighter. New ways might be found to heat houses. We might even happen across a completely new, clean energy source – fission, say. The cost of climate mitigation, like the cost of adaptation, will fall as technology improves.

All I am asking for is perspective. We need constantly to weigh costs and benefits; to tackle the freeloader dilemma; to consider that innovation might lower prices, and so make calculated postponements rational; to ask whether there are other priorities (in 2020, for example, there was).

We should, in short, approach climate change in a transactional rather than a millenarian spirit, looking for maximum effectiveness rather than seeking to flaunt our piety. Conservatives, of all people, ought to understand that.

Ben Roback: When the southern border opens, trouble will brew for Biden and Harris

14 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

President Biden knows, just like his Democratic predecessors, that the immigration problem on the southern border is hard to solve. It almost certainly explains why he put Kamala Harris, the Vice President, in direct charge of the border, with one eye on re-election in 2024 and the possibility that his main Democratic challenger could be Harris herself. It is the most poisoned of chalices.

On this site before, I have written about whether controlling the influx at the border really matters to this administration. We are about to find out. The southern border is expected to reopen in a phased manner in the coming weeks.

While the thousands of miles that separate the USA and Mexico are often thought of as route to freedom for immigrants, it is also a critical trade artery linking two interconnected economies. The economic need to reopen the border has to be counterbalanced with concerns about security.

White House allies are worried that neither Biden nor Harris are ready for the logistical and humanitarian impact of opening the border. Politically, the real concern is the impact and optics of tens of thousands of migrants surging towards the border and claiming a right to live and work in the United States.

Currently and until restrictions change, the United States is limiting land border crossings from Mexico and Canada to “essential travel”. The list of what constitutes “essential” is not short, but what is clear is a shared desire to limit border crossings as much as possible over ongoing Covid concerns.

Restrictions are slated to remain in effect until 23:59 on July 21. Without an extension, legal land crossing for work and recreation will resume. Like night follows day, what will also resume is the attempted illegal border crossings that take place every year.

It is hardly a shock that the Biden administration will take a softer approach to immigration on the southern border compared to Donald Trump. Law and order, immigration control and border enforcement has been a Republican talking point and policy platform for decades. Democrats have tried harder to strike a balance between border control and creating a path to citizenship for children of immigrants.

The Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Since that date, DACA has allowed more than 800,000 immigrant youth who came to the United States as children to temporarily remain in the USA, get an education and pursue gainful employment.

On June 15 this year – “DACA Day” – Biden gave a speech continuing his support for deferred citizenship. The House of Representatives passed the American Dream and Promise Act in March, and a draft U.S. Citizenship Act creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals in the USA, including Dreamers.

Are Democrats walking into a Republican trap?

Democrats want to create a legal pathway to citizenship for child immigrants. The progressive left is especially passionate about this cause and wants Biden and Harris to soften their tone on migrant caravans travelling through central America and arriving at the border.

Republicans wants to solidify the southern border and protect existing communities. Building new and enforcing existing border fencing was a top priority of Trump on the campaign trail and when president. It remains a central issue for the GOP.

With the mid-term elections next year and a presidential election in 2024, Republicans sense White House weakness and a political opportunity.

At this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, Trump gave a vintage Trump speech. Among a long list of familiar gripes – stolen election, big tech, cancel culture – and some unfamiliar talking points – magnets, steam engines, toothbrushes – were repeated mentions of the “border”. Twenty three of them to be precise.

This matters because of how structurally central Trump is to the Republican Party. Trump comfortably outpolled the field in a straw poll at CPAC, with 70 per cent favouring him to run for the presidency in 2024. Trump’s approval rating amongst CPAC attendees was 98 per cent. Where he goes, others will follow.

Use the 45th president’s CPAC speech to better understand the themes on which Republicans want to fight the midterms and 2024 presidential election:

With the help of everyone here today, we will defeat the radical left, the socialists, Marxists, and the critical race theorists. Whoever thought would be even using that term. We will secure our borders. We will stop left wing cancel culture. We will restore free speech and fair elections, and we will make America great again. It’s very simple. Very simple.

Even if this White House take a gradual and phased approach to the border, the thorniest issues will persist. The ultimate dilemma is whether to hold immigrants in detention centres or release them as they await their court proceedings. The former results in a policy that progressives consider unacceptably inhumane and positively Trumpian. The latter can create a backlog which can take years to clear.

The Biden administration would do well to listen to voters, as well as its members

Biden is working hard to keep his Congressmen and Senators on side. With the Senate split 50-50, history dictates that the Democrats will lose their de facto majority in next year’s midterms. With that, the White House will lose the ability to get legislation approved in a simple up-and-down vote. So, keeping the caucus happy matters now more than ever.

A new poll by the National Republican Senate Committee and the Republican Governors Association showed 53 per cent of voters say they are less likely to support Democrats for Congress because of the increase in migrants at the border.

Can Biden keep his party happy while ensuring he does not gift political mileage on a favourite issue of his likely opponent in 2024, Trump? We will find out soon.

Laura Round: The Conservative case for investment in girls’ education

5 Jul

Laura Round is a former Special Adviser and host of the podcast What Were You Thinking?

2021 represents a critical year for Britain on the world stage. We have already seen the Prime Minister use the G7 summit to coordinate international progress on vaccine distribution, climate change and international tax efforts. At the end of the year the UK will be able to reinforce its global leadership on climate change in Glasgow during COP26. And later this month, Boris Johnson will co-host the Global Education Summit, alongside the President of Kenya and the Global Partnership for Education.

At the core of our G7 presidency has been the need to build back better from the pandemic, and absolutely central to the global recovery is ensuring that we tackle the global education crisis, and make good on the Government’s manifesto commitment of standing up for the right of every girl in the world to have 12 years of quality education.

As Conservatives, we all recognise the importance of investment in education at home in creating opportunity and improving society. It is important that we take this approach globally, too.

Aiming to raise at least $5 billion for the Global Partnership for Education, the summit can help to turn the tide on the education emergency. It will also help to make the Prime Minister’s goal, agreed with the G7, to get 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10, a reality.

The summit represents a real opportunity for the UK to maintain its reputation as an international development superpower. A fully funded GPE would help education systems recover from Covid-19 and enable 175 million more girls and boys to learn.

This investment is desperately needed; 130 million girls were out of school before the pandemic hit. Without urgent and systemic change, many of them may never have the opportunity to learn.

The combined impact of school closures and economic crisis brought on by Covid-19 threaten to entrench educational inequality and roll back two decades of progress on learning, increasing the number of out-of-school children for the first time in years. It is imperative that we act now.

Every child should have the chance to succeed in life and reach their full potential, no matter where they come from.

But this is not just a noble objective. As Johnson has said, girls’ education is the “swiss-army knife” to tackle the world’s greatest problems. Investing in inclusive education systems is the only way to sustainably transform the prospects of communities and countries.

Educating girls makes societies more peaceful, prosperous and sustainable, boosting future earnings for women and their families and adding trillions to the global economy. It helps to avoid early marriage and pregnancy, and allows their children a better chance of living healthy, informed and productive lives. The Brookings Institute has even found that for every additional year of schooling a girl receives, her country’s resilience to climate disasters improves significantly.

Those outcomes sit at the heart the UK’s foreign policy objectives – and each of the major moments we’re fronting this year.

I am proud to be a UK Champion for GPE. Since 2002, thanks in significant part to the UK’s leadership in global education, it has helped partner countries enrol an additional 82 million more girls in school. If the UK can work with other countries to ensure that we meet GPE’s re-financing target, the long-term benefits will see $164 billion added to lower-income economies, 18 million people lifted out of poverty and two million girls saved from child marriage.

Ahead of the Global Education Summit in London, 28th-29th July, every government must step up so that GPE can reach its goal of raising $5 billion and transform education so that it’s fit for the uncertain future we face.

Julia Gillard, GPE’s Chair and former Australian PM, described investment in girls’ education as a silver bullet, and one of the most efficient ways in which we can invest in the future. I completely agree with her and hope that our Conservative government maximises the opportunity of the Global Education Summit to lead from the front, and make a tangible difference to millions of girls around the world.

Iain Dale: Starmer is right to appoint one of Blair’s former advisers. But if other MPs can’t see that, Labour are doomed forever.

25 Jun

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

The RT-watching conspiracy theory creating nutters have been in full flow this week. The fact that journalists were on board HMS defender means, according to them, that the Royal Navy deliberately provoked the Russians into firing warning shots and dropping bombs in the path of the ship to warn it to keep out of Russian waters.

It never ceases to amaze me how and why these disgusting individuals always take the side of any country – usually Russia – which gives a totally different version of events to our own. There’s a word for people like them.

On one of our Cross Question shows we invited Rivkah Brown from Novara Media onto the panel. She started asserting that the Americans see Britain as a sad little country that they no longer take any notice of, and Biden had made that clear at the G7 in Cornwall.

It was total bollocks of course and he never said any such thing, or even intimated it. At that point I’m afraid I lost my presenter impartiality and asked: “Where do you get this rubbish from?”

Of course whenever you ask them to justify themselves and provide some evidence they can never do so, so all she did was splutter. Why is it that the Left still don’t comprehend that it’s attitudes like this that help them continue to lose elections. The British people don’t like it and never will.

– – – – – – – – –

The appointment of Matthew Doyle as Sir Keir Starmer’s new Director of Communications has sent the Left into apoplexy. Why? Because he’s close to Tony Blair. Yes, the man who led Labour to three election victories.

The word Blair is considered a total anathema to anyone further left that Jess Phillips – i.e. most of the Labour Party. They cannot see any good that he did in 10 years as Prime Minister. And again, until they decide to revise that opinion they will keep on losing.

The trouble is, a weak opposition and a weak Labour Party – and that’s what we have at the moment – enable the Government to get away with things that ordinarily they shouldn’t.

I’ve described the current cabinet as the weakest in my lifetime, with very few transformational figures sitting round the cabinet table. But look down the list of Labour Shadow Cabinet members and it’s even worse.

Most of them are barely names in their own households, let alone known among voters. How many of them are capable of developing the kind of sensible but radical policy agenda that they will need to put to the electorate in less than two years time – yes, I mean May 2023.

Very few. It’s all rather depressing.

– – – – – – – – –

And then we come to the Liberal Democrats who are understandably triumphant in the wake of their victory in the Chesham & Amersham by-election. Wouldn’t you be, if you were part of the “yellow peril”?

I’ll admit, like most of the punditerati class I didn’t see it coming. It’s a long time since the Lib Dems won this type of by-election, and they did it very skilfully, even without the guidance of Lord Rennard.

They concentrated on two issues – HS2 and planning laws – and did them to death in their literature on the doorstep. And it worked for them, even though they were campaigning against policies they actually support. No change there then.

One swallow does not a summer make, though. They got one per cent in the Hartlepool by-election and I doubt they’ll do an awful lot better in Batley & Spen. The long-term consequences of this by-election, if there is one, will be to entrench the view among Lib Dem strategists that they should regard the Tories as their prime enemy or competition, and squeeze the Labour vote in southern, eastern and south western constituencies.

But they need to do it in a way which doesn’t frighten off moderate Tories who, for whatever reason, have tired of Boris Johnson.

– – – – – – – – –

I’ve been writing this column for a decade or more now. That amounts to more than 500 diaries. I’m sorry to say that this week’s column will be my last. All good things come to an end, and I think now is the time to end it.

It’s my decision to do so, and I am also giving up my weekly media review column on Reaction. Why? Well, I’ve just signed a contract for another book and I have to deliver the manuscript by January 31 2022, and frankly there are only so many hours in the day. I need to commit much more time to the book and this frees up two mornings a week.

It’s important for me to be open about that because I don’t want anyone to think there’s been any falling out. ConHome is a brilliant site, led by the excellent Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace. I’d like to thank Paul in particular for allowing me to write the column for so long and for being so supportive. And I’d like to thank you all for reading my words each week. I know that from time to time, I’ve tested your patience.

I’ve said to Paul I’ll happily contribute the occasional column or chair conference events, and I’d like to continue to support the work of ConHome where I can.

So as someone once said, that’s it. The end. Goodbye.