John Redwood: Our energy policy should start with keeping the lights on and the factories powered up

20 Sep

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

We are living with a desperate shortage of energy. Successive governments and Ministers have ignored the need to ensure adequate supplies of electricity and primary fuels in their passion to close down and move out of coal, oil and gas as quickly as possible. Now we are caught up in a worldwide gas shortage, with fertiliser factories closed – and a Business Secretary summoning a meeting to ask what can be done to limit the spreading damage.

The Business Secretary knows enough economics to understand that, if gas is in short supply, the last thing that would help the UK procure more of it would be a series of price controls over those who dare to buy it on the world market and could sell it here.

We will not like it, but these now unruly global gas markets are controlled by Russia, the USA, and various Middle Eastern countries that have a surplus to export. They do not currently have a big enough surplus to need to take low bids.

The EU is already complaining that Russia is driving prices higher by restricting her large export supply. Why, then, did Germany make the world gas position worse by deciding to centre their energy policy on a further major addition to their pipeline capacity to import gas from Russia, ensuring their reliance on this source? They were warned by both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, as well as other alliesm not to make this obvious mistake.

The UK, too, has made itself far too dependent on energy imports. I have been warning government for years that we need to do more to generate additional power and extract more primary energy at home, endowed as we are with liberal reserves of oil, gas and coal and with access to water power and biomass.

The Business Secretary could do more than pose as concerned at his meeting if he puts in train work to find longer-term solutions to our chronic dependence on unreliable overseas sources of energy. He could ask why the Rough Field gas store was closed down, greatly reducing our stocks of gas which we now need. He should bring in more gas storage. He could review North Sea oil and gas policy, and see how the industry can be encouraged to tap more reserves from our own fields. He should keep the remaining coal power stations available with secure coal supplies for them, until there is sufficient greener power available to replace them on a reliable basis.

He should know that, at exactly the same time as we hit a world gas shortage, the UK electricity supply is under extreme stress. The remaining three coal power stations have been fired up, because there has been a marked shortage of wind for some weeks.

In recent years I have been wearing my keyboard out raising with Ministers and the wider public the issue of our need for more reliable electrical power to keep the lights on. The overriding preference for wind power was bound to leave us vulnerable to periods of calm weather.

If these coincide with cold winter days, the consequences could be disastrous. A modern sophisticated economy needs electrical power for most things. How would food factories keep working, vulnerable people stay warm at home, hospitals look after patients without sufficient power? It is particularly worrying that the current shortage takes place against a background of limited demand thanks to mild weather. The cool summer in the south did not help, as heating thermostats were triggering as late as May and even in August, needing more gas-fired power even then.

The UK’s passion for imported electricity has further weakened our position. The French interconnector in Kent was badly burned this week, taking out a potential imported supply of top up power which we rely too much on. We may discover soon that, if the shortages worsen, overseas suppliers will see exporting to us as an easy cut to make to husband their own limited supplies for domestic use.

When electricity was first privatised, we made security of supply the prime issue in the new system. There was a substantial margin of extra domestic capacity available to bring on stream if one or more of the baseload generating plants had problems. We did not need imports.  We made price the second important issue, with a system which always ensured the next cheapest power was brought on stream as demand picked up. In the early years of privatisation we both had plenty of capacity at home, and experienced falling prices. The dash for gas, with many new combined cycle gas plants going in, took feedstock from a healthy UK North Sea and replaced some older less fuel efficient and dirtier coal capacity, so the policy was also green.

Today, the Business Secretary needs to review the complex mesh of subsidies, regulations, penalty taxes and import arrangements that passes for an energy policy. It is delivering a shortage of power. It is holding up a good industrial strategy, as industrial expansion needs access to plenty of reliable competitively priced anergy. It is now threatening consumers with much higher electricity and gas prices.

He should order changes that will open up more UK primary energy for us to use. He should want an electricity system that has more reliable renewable power which may take the form of hydro, pump storage and battery, but which also has enough back up capacity from biomass or gas, so we can be sure to keep the factories powered up.

Elimination of our dependence on imported electricity and a substantial reduction in our dependence on imported gas should be a minimum objective. The market would do this if it were allowed to function but, because of the comprehensive muddle of government-inspired past interventions, it now needs dramatic government action to put it right for the future.

In the meantime, we rely on the goodwill of the gas and electricity exporters and will have to pay up to secure supplies. It is the perfect storm, with both gas and electricity scarce. At home, an absence of wind leaves us short, and abroad Hurricane Ida closed down some important US gas capacity. Relying on the wind is a dangerous way of living.

AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific. A tilt to it, yes. A lunge, no.

20 Sep

In a chapter of their book on Britain’s defence capability, White Flag, our proprietor and Isabel Oakeshott describe “Operation Tethered Goat”.  It sets how in the event of a Russian incursion a small NATO force would attempt to defend a 65-mile stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border “straddled ominously by Kaliningrad to the west and the Russian satrapy of Belarus on the east.”

“If Russia were to attempt to close the gap, NATO’s only option would be to punch north with the US-led brigade based here. Until then, it would be up to the Baltic states to hold their ground, supported by small detachments of NATO forces stationed inside their borders.

“One of those forces would be headed by a small but fierce battalion of UK troops stationed in Tapa, Estonia. Some 800 troops from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh are here, supported by smaller deployments from other member states”.  The isolation and vulnerability of our troops gives rise to the operation’s grim nickname.

This is the background against which to see the Americo-British-Australian deal over nuclear-powered submarines, the wounded reaction of France, and the new security pact between the two countries: AUKUS.

Further war in eastern Europe is relatively unlikely, for all the recent tangle between Russia and Ukraine.  But were it to happen, it would directly affect Britain and the alliance on which our security has depended for the best part of three-quarters of a century: NATO.  It would be war in our back yard.

Conflict in the South China is perhaps more likely, but would affect the UK less directly.  We wouldn’t be bound by our NATO obligations to participate.  And whatever may be said of the South China Sea, it is not in our neighbourhood.

None of which is to say that either the new deal or the pact is a bad thing.  Their core for us is the transfer of material – including in “cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities”, as Boris Johnson put it last week – not that of troops, for all the recent journey of the Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea.

As he went on to say, “this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands,” including perhaps the Red Wall-ish areas of Barrow and Derby.

The deal also shows how fast time moves and frail attention spans can be.  Only a month ago, Joe Biden’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan raised the prospect of an isolationist America withdrawing into itself.  Any prudent British government should be alert to the possibility and what it could mean for the future of Europe.

AUKUS is a sign that, whatever else might happen elsewhere, the United States is commited to the Indo-Pacific and that, as in Afghanistan, there is continuity between what Donald Trump did and what Biden is doing.

There has been a startling shift there in attitudes to America within the last five years or so – just as there has been one here since David Cameron declared a new “golden age” in Anglo-Sino relations.  That was before Brexit.  Of which there is a point to be made about the pact and the deal.

In the wake of Biden’s Afghanistan decision, Remain obsessives raised our exit from the EU, suggesting that it was responsible for Johnson failing to persuade Biden to delay the withdrawal, because Washington no longer listens to us.

Never mind that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel took much the same position.  The boot is now on the other foot.  Some of our fellow Leavers argue that were it not for Brexit, Britain would never have abandoned France for America and Australia – just as, were it not for our exit from the EU, the Government wouldn’t have summoned up the nerve to get on with our own Covid vaccine programme.

Like other counter-factuals, this one is unprovable.  And the lure of new jobs, plus the tug of Anglo-American and Anglo-Australian relations, might have been enough to lure some other Prime Minister in an EU member Britain to make the same decision.

What can safely be said is that our relationship with America carries on as before, regardless of Brexit, and that Britain remains a member of the UN Security Council, the G7, NATO, the Commonwealth, and is one of Europe’s two armed powers, a top five aid donor, and in the top ten influential nations list on any reckoning.  All of which Leavers spelt out during the referendum campaign.

The Global Britain slogan has been ridiculed but, whatever one’s view of leaving the EU, it touches on a fundamental reality which AUKUS, that G7 membership, that Security Council presence and all the rest of it helps to illustrate.

Liz Truss is straight out the traps banging that drum, but it is worth pondering Global Britain, as suits that spherical image, in the round.  Europe is part of the globe.  It is a lot closer to us than Australia, if not in kinship than at least in distance.  And, as we have seen, a conflict in our continental hinterland would disturb us more immediately than one in an Asian sea.

Which takes us to France, and an entente that at present isn’t all that cordiale.  It’s scarcely unknown for Macron to withdraw its ambassadors when piqued: in recent years, they were brought home from Italy and Turkey.

But he will be very bruised, not least because the deal and the pact seem to have been firmed up in private between the three powers during the recent G7, while he was talking up France’s relationship with America (plus its interests in the Indo-Pacific), and taking potshots at Britain over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The real-life cast of The Bureau – i.e: the French intelligence services – may have been asleep on the job, and there is certain to be an inquest.  British crowing at the Gallic cockerel’s embarrassment is inevitable.

But while your own neighbour next door may eventually move out, France won’t be going anywhere, and it isn’t in our interest for this complex relationship to cool further.  France is our only major military partner in Europe (and elsewhere: see Mali), a top five trading one, home to up to 400,000 Brits, the source of most of those channel boats, and tortously intertwined with our culture and history.

Nord 2 has brought Germany closer to Putin’s orbit.  The former’s election takes place soon.  Whatever the result, France will feel the tug from Germany, as will the whole EU.  We don’t want to see the latter plump itself up as a potential rival to NATO.  But it would help us, America, and Europe itself for our neighbours – bearing that Russian presence in mind – to spend more on defence.

Their unwillingness to do so (Mark Francois recently set out the figures on this site), Germany’s passivity and a certain strain in French thinking suggests a drift into the Russian orbit.

De Gaulle’s ambivalence about the old Soviet Union, on which he blew cool post-war and warmer later on, had its roots in a French cultural antagonism to America and periods of alliance with Russia.  The ghost of the General will believe that AUKUS proves him right: that when push comes to shove, Britain will always throw its lot in with its American cousins.

We should turn a new page with France, or at least try to  – and remember that while a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a one thing, a lunge there would be quite another.  Putin hasn’t “gone away, you know”. And Islamist extremism hasn’t, either.

David Richards: Offer a single point of contact and overhaul the National Security Council. How to help the Afghans we left behind.

5 Sep

Baron Richards of Herstmonceux is a former Chief of the Defence Staff.

We have all just witnessed the rapid collapse of the Afghan Government and the desperate attempts of our Armed Forces to evacuate both British Nationals and those Afghans who worked most closely with us throughout the campaign.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the team running the evacuation, many have been left behind. Their urgent pleas for help now fill the inboxes and WhatsApp feeds of many an Afghan Veteran. I am informed that last week the Ministry of Defence crisis box had 40,000 emails to process, and was receiving them at the rate of 10,000 a day.

Now that we no longer have a presence on the ground, helping those left behind is a challenging task and one that we appear to have been slow to start. The Foreign Secretary’s visit to the region is a positive, if belated, step in the right direction but there is much more that could be done now. Here are some suggestions.

The Government needs to communicate much more effectively with those left in Afghanistan. Understandably, perhaps, its media statements have been focused on the domestic audience, but there is an urgent need to provide reassurance to the many Afghans who are now trapped and fear for their lives.

This not difficult to do, doing it would show a nervous community that we are looking to help them. A page on the Government website in English, Dari and Pashtu would be a good start.

There appears to be no central command and control node that brings together the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the MoD and the Home Office to which Afghans can communicate and from which practical solutions to their problems can be devised.

This is a major omission. It is a symptom of a wider command and control issue that lies at the heart of the slow and poorly planned national response to Donald Trump’s original decision, let alone Joe Biden’s more recent one. The National Security Council chaired by the Prime Minster is responsible for agreeing and then directing national strategy. The National Security Adviser and his team is then responsible for ensuring its efficient and timely execution.

It’s quite clear that this mechanism is completely broken. It needs a major overhaul to turn it from a nineteenth century talking shop into a dynamic twenty first century cross-government coordination and communications centre that can handle domestic disasters such as Grenfell Tower as much as international crises of the kind we are witnessing so tragically and dangerously in Afghanistan.

Absent a crisis, its core business would be obliging a politically focused group of strategically inexperienced and sometimes disinterested politicians to think, prepare and plan long term and strategically.

Probably the hardest immediate nut to crack, which is also the most important, is the lack of documentation of those who still need to be evacuated. Many do not have passports and fewer have visas. It appears that we are reluctant to issue letters of authority or electronic visas without biometric enrolment (fingerprints and photos), and without such documents neighbouring countries will not let them pass for they fear ending up with yet more Afghan refugees. Yet, currently, biometric enrolment in Afghanistan is not possible.

Hopefully, the Foreign Secretary’s trip will begin to unlock this circular problem, but the solution will also require us to take some risk on the quality of documentation needed for onward travel to the UK.

Finally, when those who have been left behind, because of the rapid collapse of the last Afghan Government and the limited time available for the evacuation, finally make it to the UK it would seem to compound an injustice to invite them to join the back of the queue for resettlement assistance. Hopefully, Victoria Atkins already has this issue in her sights.

It is clear that we knew early in the evacuation, and most likely before, that good people would get left behind. The Defence Secretary admitted this during an interview on August 21st. But it is also clear that we then failed to adequately prepare the ground, particularly with neighbouring countries, to help those not evacuated. We are in catch-up mode. Time is short, but it is still not too late to put things right. Failure will create a long running sore with equally long running political reverberations.

Ben Roback: Biden’s Afghan pull-out represents the rash decision making we had expected from Trump

25 Aug

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

Who has failed the people of Afghanistan more spectacular, the United States or the G7? Both have made a compelling case of late.

When the G7 nations met in June under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, the group issued a customary Communiqué. The urgent priorities were clear and indeed perfectly logical – the Covid recovery, vaccinations, and “building back better”.

The middle priorities of the lengthy to do list were at times perplexing. Cyber space and outer space, a “values-driven digital ecosystem for the common good that enhances prosperity in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, transparent and human-centric”, and open societies.

Eventually, at point 57, the G7 remembered Afghanistan:

“We call on all Afghan parties to reduce violence and agree on steps that enable the successful implementation of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and to engage fully with the peace process. In Afghanistan, a sustainable, inclusive political settlement is the only way to achieve a just and durable peace that benefits all Afghans. We are determined to maintain our support for the Afghan government to address the country’s urgent security and humanitarian needs, and to help the people of Afghanistan, including women, young people and minority groups, as they seek to preserve hard-won rights and freedoms.”

With the benefit of political hindsight, was the Communiqué a clear sign that, just 10 weeks ago, the international community had such a miserly grasp of what was about to unfold despite the known deadline imposed by the United States?

Or being critical and almost certainly more honest, did it prove that the G7 countries were too caught up with their own agendas and so forgot about a weak, propped up government that was inevitably going to fall the moment the US initiated its withdrawal?

The chaotic scenes that have followed are a demonstrable failure of diplomacy and military intervention. In the first instance, it is the Afghan people and those who served in uniform and alongside them who will suffer the most.

The case for the White House: Putting an end to the ‘forever war’

There is no equivocation or discussion whatsoever about President Biden’s motivation for withdrawal. He wants to pull out American boots on the ground in advance of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

He does not want to become the fourth president to phone the grieving parent of a soldier lost in Kabul, Kunduz or Kandahar. In that respect, he aims to “succeed where others have failed” given President Bush started the Afghan war and it dogged the Obama and Trump administrations subsequently.

The human and financial costs illustrate the domestic rationale. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that since 9/11, 7,057 US service members have been killed in war operations, whilst 30,1777 US service members have committed suicide.

The cost of caring for post-9/11 American war veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion by 2050. The only way to stop that tide of misery, the White House argues, is to get out of Afghanistan. But at what cost to Afghans and the United States’ reputation abroad?

The White House might also argue that, whilst the eyes of the world are on the Middle East, the Vice President is in the Far East. Kamala Harris completed a three-day trip to Singapore where she fired warning shots about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Did anyone notice? The international community remains entirely focused on the more pressing problems in Afghanistan. At home, Parliament was recalled from its summer recess to discuss saving lives, not the Spratley Islands.

The case against the White House: Biden out-Trumps Trump and hangs the world out to dry

Could we have expected such a gargantuan gaffe from President Biden? After all, this was supposed to be the president who returned America to a state of relative normalcy after four years of Trumpian volatility in the pursuit of “America First”. On the world stage, Biden’s message to historic allies has been clear: “America is back”. Is it?

Biden cannot reasonably claim a lack of foreign policy experience. 36 years in the Senate having been elected before his 30th birthday. 12 years as Ranking Member or Chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Eight years as Vice President, in which his White House bio now even boasts that “Biden played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy and describes how he was point person for US diplomacy throughout the Western Hemisphere and led the effort to bring 150,000 troops home from Iraq.

The Afghan pull-out represents the kind of rash decision making devoid of any consultation with military allies that we had perhaps expected from President Trump. But for all of Trump’s bluster and wildly unpredictable rhetoric, he did not deliver the hammer blow to US foreign policy that many had expected.

It had started to look like death by a thousand paper cuts, but the capacity to do further incremental damage was limited by being a one-term president.

It is Biden, not Trump, who has shocked US allies. “Sleepy Joe” has sleep-walked the United States into its biggest foreign policy debacle for a generation.

From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”

Where does this leave Joe Biden and his administration’s relationship with the very same allies it sought to reassure after the Trump presidency? Johnson and Emanuel Macron led the call for President Biden to extend his self-imposed deadline of August 31 for the complete and total withdrawal of US forces.

At present, that has fallen on deaf ears trained solely on a domestic audience. News outlets report the president will not extend the deadline, agreeing with the Pentagon’s assessment. An imminent detailed report by Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State. could yet reshape the decision.

The president has acknowledged that a completed withdrawal by the end of the month will be dependent upon the Taliban’s continued cooperation. The very same terror force the US entered Afghanistan to drive out is now needed to get Americans out of the country.

The administration has hinted at some flexibility. But each time Biden has spoken at the presidential podium since the fall of Kabul, he has doubled down on the decision with even greater tenacity. To alter course now would be political humiliation. From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”.

Perhaps the most striking remark the president has made since the Taliban takeover was when he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building”. Really? Twenty years training and serving alongside the Afghan military. Two decades propping up a western-style government.

It begs the question: on what basis will the US intervene abroad now, if not to nationbuild? Just under 30,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea, as the threat of war on the Korean peninsula looms perpetually.

But there is no nation building to be done in Seoul; will those troops be brough home next? Over 35,000 US troops are stationed in Germany; Chancellor Merkel needs no help maintaining her own democracy.

The Biden administration has rolled the international dice to take a domestic political gamble

The President, Defence Secretary, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser all clearly believe that most Americans do not care about the fate of Afghanistan or its people. According to YouGov America, at any one time only 0.5 per cent of Americans have ever though that the war in Afghanistan is a top issue facing the country.

They care more about a seemingly endless war in which too much American blood has been spilled. That is understandable with a domestic hat on, but deeply depressing when thinking globally.

Maybe Biden will be proven right. But at what expense? The fall of a nation into the hands of terrorists. It would be the most pyrrhic of all political victories.

Alan Duncan: The recently-rehashed Foreign Office is facing an identity crisis

24 Aug

Sir Alan Duncan is a former Minister of State at both the Foreign Office and the International Development department.

Any mention of Afghanistan deserves an immediate outpouring of respect for those killed, wounded, or traumatised in the service of their country.

They have been defending a just cause. During the last few days, the dutiful resolve of Sir Laurie Bristow, our Ambassador, who has remained in Kabul to the sound of gunfire, speaks volumes for the best traditions of UK diplomatic service. The danger he faces, and the apocalyptic scenes of desperation around him, starkly illustrate how decisions made in the comfort and security of a political capital can have such massive consequences for people far away. And so it has proved for Joe Biden.

After Donald Trump’s moody and fractious foreign relations, there were high hopes that the new President’s would be more thoughtful. His early focus on Yemen offered hope but, since then, there has been little else of significance – until now.

His historic error has been to think that withdrawing from Afghanistan would be a simple matter – just tidying-up a remnant of 20 years of US engagement. War, some say, is the only way to teach Americans geography: tragically, this catastrophe has now become a cruel lesson in history.

The experience of the last fortnight is not specific to Afghanistan. The history books contain many examples of conflict and upheaval which have resulted in the supposed victor leaving havoc in their wake. Nature abhors a vacuum and, where strong authority is removed, the hole can be rapidly filled by something much worse. That is the lesson that has been so willfully ignored in Afghanistan.

You don’t have to look back very far to understand this obvious danger. There is ample evidence from just the last ten years. There has been near-continuous chaos in Libya since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi; and the removal of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen let the Houthis walk freely through the gates of Sana’a, starting a conflict which has condemned Yemenis to famine, disease, and violence. The US was involved in both, and the West should have learnt from the experience.

US policy has frequently been ‘smash in’, or ‘crash out’, or sometimes both. Any defence capability should be prepared for rapid reaction to unforeseen events, and the coalition response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a classic case of successful and fully justified military action. The same can be said of the UK’s re-taking of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

But most such interventions are far more complex, and require massive planning and understanding. In the case of Kuwait and the Falklands, the objective was absolutely clear-cut, and everyone understood why armed forces had been deployed. They also benefited from unequivocal political leadership which, when combined with the highest standards of military competence, ensured that popular support for the action was massive. In each case, political authority was restored to the previous government: job done.

However, it is precisely because the reasons for being in Afghanistan in the first place were more complicated, that the process of departure is too. What are you leaving behind? The experience of invading Iraq should be deeply engrained in US thinking. It is essential to ask oneself not just whether and how to become involved in military action, but also how then to get out of it.

Put simply, the process of departing is as great a strategic and moral decision as the one to become involved in the first place. The failure to appreciate this crucial truth has been President Biden’s colossal mistake. Military engagement has a beginning and an end, and each decision is as important as the other. Starting something, be it an argument or a conflict, can look easy at the time, but ending it rarely does.

The appalling chaos in Afghanistan, and its possible relapse into medieval barbarity, highlights a broader malaise: the world is preciously short of leadership and political wisdom. There is a dearth of intellectual and moral authority across international politics. This is not a golden age for the wider world.

Donald Trump’s approach to foreign affairs was volatile, arbitrary and shallow, dominated by fuming outbursts on North Korea, China, and Iran, and tetchiness with even NATO and the EU. He showed no interest in proper policy, and stripped the State Department of much knowledge and expertise. This will have undermined the new President’s foreign policy capability, but ultimately it was no excuse for choosing to walk away from Afghanistan, and for proving so naïve about what would ensue. Twenty years were spent containing a bestial force: it has taken Biden 20 days to release it again.

The consequences go far beyond the terrified Afghans at Kabul airfield. Those they leave behind fear vicious oppression, the UK’s immigration policy is in shreds, and Moscow, Beijing and Teheran are all looking on with glee. They will be dancing a jig at the humiliation of the West.

Our commitment to Afghanistan, and the courageous sacrifice of so many, have brought pride and dignity to the UK. We have been there alongside the US; but we are not their wholly-owned subsidiary. Being a strong ally of the US should never stop us from firmly expressing our own opinions. But we have become too supine. We should talk more confidently of our own foreign policy, and not just mimic that of the US.

The Foreign Office used to be a beaming lighthouse of global competence and influence. It still contains a cadre of highly impressive people, but its status has been battered and diminished during the last 20 years. Embassies have been sold off; a diplomat’s career path has become arbitrary; the last Permanent Secretary prioritised diversity over diplomacy; and too much experienced advice has been ignored and subordinated to the whims and instructions of Downing Street. Its recent amalgamation with DFID has never been convincingly justified, and it has created a muddle of purpose and practice which is far from settled.

Intellectually, the newly-labelled FCDO is facing an identity crisis. Its development reputation has been tarnished, and nobody is able to define quite what the UK’s foreign policy actually is. Intoning the words ‘global Britain’ or ‘the rules-based international order’ ring hollow, and have become meaningless. We have cut funding to poor desperate Yemen, and while so many voices across the world were condemning Israeli illegality and excess in East Jerusalem, the UK hardly emitted a squeak.

Personal relationships, which are so essential to our diplomacy, seem few and far between; and where they do exist, they must be prepared to be gritty, not sycophantic. We have ambassadors and officials of unrivalled competence and integrity, but their morale is low. The new order seems to rely heavily on less experienced special xdvisers, who unacceptably filter the flow of paperwork and access to their master.

Our Prime Minister is a former Foreign Secretary. His most impressive moment was when he took personal control of the Government’s response to the Russians’ use of Novichok in Salisbury. That experience should give him the confidence to re-empower the Foreign Office, and appreciate that doing so would enhance him as Prime Minister, not threaten him.

Had the Foreign Office been a much greater force, it could have offered the antidote to President Biden’s folly.

Afghanistan and America 1) Why British security policy is dangerously exposed

16 Aug

Air Force One is a period fantasy of U.S idealism and supremacy.  The Soviet Union has collapsed.  American hegemony is unchallenged.  At a dinner in Russia, James Marshall, the President, explains why the two countries have jointly apprehended the leader of a rogue state.

“The truth is…we acted too late. Only when our own national security was threatened did we act.  Tonight I come to you with a pledge to change America’s policy. Never again will I allow our political self-interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right.”

The film was released in 1997, during the decade or so between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11.  And some ten years before Chinese communism began to fill the gap that Russian communism had left.

This is the world that most of us have lived the longest in: the one that came into being after the United States got out of Vietnam and before it got into Iraq – and Afghanistan.

America is still the most powerful country in the world, at least if one turns to one of those indices that try to measure economic strength, military muscle, diplomatic reach and international influence.

It remains the lynchpin of NATO, which has helped to keep the peace in Europe since 1945, and maintains an armed presence in Germany, Kosovo, South Korea, Iraq, Djibouti and elsewhere.

Furthermore, it isn’t inevitable that China will wax while the United States wanes.  The collapse of communism, Khomeine’s rise to power in Iran, the so-called “Arab Spring”: none of these were foreseen by western governments.

Perhaps China will somehow crumple again into the “celestial chaos” of the early years of the last century.  Who knows?  But as we gaze appalled at barbarism rampant, innocents dying and the West humiliated in Afghanistan, we can only weigh likelihoods.

When Joe Biden proclaimed “America’s back!”, he wasn’t telling a lie – even if its frantic retreat from Kabul, captured in the most mortifying  footage for the U.S since the fall of Saigon, suggests otherwise.

The President has returned America to the communal fold on Iran, climate change, and engagement, ending the use of Twitter as a tool of presidential statecraft, if that’s quite the right word for it.

But it is crucial to grasp, as so much of our reflexively anti-Trump media didn’t, that America is back on Biden’s terms, and while these may be multinational diplomatically they are unilateral militarily, or at least have that flavour.

Indeed, Trump’s Afghanistan policy begat Biden’s, because the latter inherited the Doha Agreement, pledging the withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan, signed last year.

And Trump was successful at Doha where Obama had previously failed.  The former President’s administration tried at least three times to hold negotiations with the Taliban.

Such has been the direction of travel since George W.Bush – a kind of President Marshall on steroids – responded to Islamist terrorism with neo-conservative doctrine, attempting to build western, liberal, democratic states in Asia backed by American firepower.

Biden would presumably honour America’s NATO obligations were Vladminir Putin to open a new front in the Baltic States, though he has taken Russia’s part over the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipline.

Perhaps he can cobble together an international alliance against China that re-establishes U.S. leadership – though how he will to do so after his grotesque miscalculation in Afghanistan, goodness knows.

Nonetheless, British policy-makers would be wise to look at the trends in America over the last decade or so.  And not merely the ones in security.

The Obama-Trump-Biden withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq (the President wants U.S troops out of the latter by the end of the year) haven’t taken place in a social, economic and cultural vaccuum.

The United States is becoming less united, more extreme (within both the main parties), more woke, more spendthrift, less religious, more druggy, more violent, more porous, less prosperous (at least compared to its main rival).

The British state shows no sign of coming to terms with the speed and scale of the change, and reviewing assumptions that have more or less held since the Second World War and the Marshall Plan.

And were America no longer to be there for us, for better or worse, we would be uniquely exposed – at least as our security policy is concerned.

Perhaps ConservativeHome is taking a rosy-tinted view of British security policy, but it seems to us that, in the balance between realpolitik and justice, the latter weighs more heavily here than among our European neighbours.

Consider Russia – the perpetrator of an outrage on our soil three years ago.  Germany wants Nord Stream 2 and a pacific policy to go with it.  Emmanuel Macron is pivoting towards Putin.

Poland and other Eastern European states are fighting back, and Britain, Brexit or no Brexit, remains their most committed military ally, with our troops exposed in Estonia in what Lord Ashcroft reported as “Operation Tethered Goat”.

London may be awash with Putin money, but it is our Government, alert to human pressures in Parliament and outside it, that has imposed “Magnitsky sanctions” on 25 Russians (and others).

Turn then to China, towards which British policy, echoing Biden’s, is more ambiguous – describing it in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy as a “systemic competitor” rather than, like Russia, as an “acute and direct threat”.

But while Boris Johnson wants to keep its options open on the Chinese communist state, an entire House of Parliament, plus a significant slice of the Conservative Party, does not.

The political push to hold China’s government accountable for crimes against humanity has found spectacular expression among peers and MPs over the past year.

Three times the Lords sent an amendment to the Trade Bill down to the Commons which would, if passed, have seen China’s leaders pursued through British institutions over the most heinous crime on the charge sheet: genocide.

On the last occasion, the Government squeaked through by 18 votes, and 29 MPs voted against the Party line – including a former Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith.

He and four other Tory MPs, including the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat, and our former columnist Neil O’Brien, now Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board, have now been sanctioned by China.

Is this site alone in pondering the possibility that the trend to isolationism in America gathers speed, returning us to the kind of world that we haven’t seen since the 1930s, in the vanished days when Britain still had an empire?

If so, can we be so noisy about Russia and China at once? Furthermore, what about Islamist extremism and, with an eye to Plymouth, home-grown terror?

Might we not have to choose – in a Europe in which Russia is the nearest and biggest threat to our national security?  Can a Britain with smaller forces really afford a “tilt to Asia“?

Air Force One ends with the vigorous President Marshall, played by Harrison Ford, despatching a terrorist with the cry of “get off my plane”.  Biden is shut up in the presidential jet, metaphorically speaking, and heading for home.

Bim Afolami: Five books to read over the summer recess

9 Aug

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

For this piece over summer recess, I thought that I might take you through some books and articles that I have recently read. It might tempt you away from reading newspapers over the silly season of August which is now upon us.

First up is The Aristocracy of Talent by Adrian Wooldridge, political editor of The Economist. I am rather a fan of his books, and believe this is his best. In my last column for ConservativeHome, I referenced the core arguments of the book, which attempts to revive the very principle of meritocracy – which is currently under attack from elements of both right and left.

It charts the history of meritocracy around the world well – the chapter on imperial China is fascinating – and sets out how far we have come in making government and economies and societies better, in large part because of a commitment to this principle, and abandoning it would be deeply unwise.

Second is a recent article in Foreign Affairs by one of the best-informed China analysts, called Dan Wang. It concisely demonstrates how the USA’s recent actions in seeking to attack the global interests of Chinese tech companies may be good in the short term, but over the longer term may lead to a faster development of domestic Chinese technology, rather than relying on American technology to supply its businesses.

That will have huge implications for the US, the UK, and the world. Grappling with how to approach a newly swaggering China, on issues as diverse as tech investment, human rights, and climate change is going to be one of the huge strategic challenges of the British Government for the foreseeable future. Moreover, I would urge everyone to subscribe to the newsletter on Dan Wang’s website. His memos on what is happening in China’s government and Chinese technology is far superior to anything I have read in the Western press.

Third up is a rare book. It is short. It informs you about a subject in an informal, entertaining way so that you remember what is written. And it leads you to investigate further. It is called Rare Metals War, and is written by a French journalist, Guillaume Pitron. It explores the dark side of our quest to go green to net zero, as it exposes the mining practices in various parts of the world, such as the Congo, where the rare metals (i.e: Cobalt) required in everything from solar panels to mobile phones to electric vehicles are extracted.

Spoiler alert: the conditions can be terrible, and the process not very green at all. In addition, the book clearly shows how the strategic importance to the UK of having a reliable and relatively cheap supply of these critical metals will only grow and grow. Unsurprisingly, China is already much further ahead of the game than most (if not all) Western countries, and it has secured supplies in most of the critical mining regions of the world. If our green reindustrialisation is going to be achievable (and we need it to be), we need to think hard about our supply of these metals, and not just hope for the best, as their prices continue to rise steeply in the years to come.

Fourth is English Pastoral by James Rebanks. If you like the countryside, I urge you to read this book. Rebanks is a farmer who manages his own land – the same that his family has managed for generations. He brutally illustrates how hard it is for farming to remain a profitable activity, and the damage that modern farming methods have wrought in order for agriculture to remain economically viable.

It also offers us hope for how we can better manage our green and pleasant land in the future. I really can’t do this book justice in a short time. Do read it: as a politician with a rural constituency (and I work closely with our farming community) it certainly got me thinking about how things need to change.

Finally, a list of book recommendations would not be complete without a political biography. I must recommend Barack Obama’s The Promised Land. It is a masterpiece. Obama is the first US President in a long time who can really write. He really can. If he wasn’t a politician, he could have made it as a first rate author. This book not only offers a good account of his presidency, but it is very moving (and candid) on how to manage trying to be a good father with a very demanding political career.

As a black politician myself, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by how he managed as the first black President. He did it with grace and courage. Regardless of your view of his politics (I personally think he had many failings in both domestic and foreign policy, and his style could be somewhat arrogant and condescending at times), there is little doubt that he is an extremely good analyst not just of US politics but also US culture.

The final section is the account of how the US military took out Bin Laden, and despite the fact that you know the ending, it is a very gripping read. Can’t wait for the second volume and the arrival of Donald Trump….

Politicians need to reflect and read. I find it really helps me get a perspective on what is going on, whether in my own constituency or in the country more broadly. You will notice that I haven’t mentioned even one novel – a real failing of mine that I am trying to rectify. When I attempting to navigate the crowded beaches of Daymer Bay, I shall be re-reading a book that I haven’t read since studying German at school – Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann: a wonderful story about family, wealth, decline, and culture.

Ben Roback: Is freedom from vaccines worth dying for?

28 Jul

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

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

President Ronald Reagan’s words have been immortalised over time by conservatives who consider the government an irritating source of interference. Too often governments get in the way when they should be structural facilitators of growth and development. Cut red tape and let businesses/people thrive, don’t flood them with a tsunami of requirements, regulations, and checks.

But what about when any given central government is the only viable solution to a truly existential problem? In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, there appears to be no alternative to a centrally driven vaccine rollout programme.

Trump started it, Biden is finishing it.

The response to the pandemic and the vaccine rollout has been conducted entirely under a Conservative government here in the UK. It gives less cover to those whose mistrust in the government might be centred on an opposition party being in power.

On that basis, in the United States, the Republican position on the vaccine remains curious. After all, the vaccine programme owes its creation and early development to the Trump administration. The former president does not get enough credit for Operation Warp Speed, the public–private partnership initiated by the United States government to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The US Government sprung rapidly into life and showed how it can be a friend, not the kind of foe described by Reagan.

Donald Trump rightly boasts about the achievement. In a recent speech, he said: “Our operation warp speed was absolutely breath-taking…the Trump administration deserves full credit, which we do.”

Given Mr Trump remains at the political and philosophical heart of the Republican Party, why do so many Republican politicians and the party base itself remain so hostile to the vaccine?

Consider the evidence. Arkansas’s Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson was booed on stage after he said that the Covid-19 vaccine doesn’t affect fertility. Fox News has begun to roll out a new out a new public service announcement to encourage viewers to get a vaccine. “America, we’re in this together,” one presenter said. “If you can, get the vaccine,” another added. Meanwhile, its star presenter, Tucker Carlson, continues his perennial campaign against Covid restrictions and inferred hesitation towards the vaccine programme. Analysing why the American vaccination programme is stalling, The Economist wrote that ‘populist conservatives are to blame’.

Mr Trump is not consistent on the matter. On the one hand, he boasts in speeches about shattering records for vaccine manufacture, approval, and deployment. On the other, he kept his own first vaccination silent for weeks initially. That has created a framework for elected Republicans at all political levels, flanked by conservative commentators through their social and mass media platforms, to continue to decry the vaccines as part of a liberal ploy to control their brains and bodies. That would be strange given the vaccines were approved and rolled out initially by a Republican president, would it not?

The pursuit of freedom is an admirable goal and one that we should encourage, not suffocate. But is freedom an absolute outcome or an aspiration with occasional practical limitations? In the case of the vaccine rollout in the United States, it is clear that health guidance designed to protect Americans from a deeply infectious and all too often deadly virus, has been caught up in enflamed cultural tensions deep-rooted in an inherent mistrust of “the Government” – whether at the local, state or federal level.

One step forward, two steps back

The United States made an impressive start in getting federally approved jabs into arms. For the Biden administration, the weather ahead looks troubling. Fully vaccinated Americans have had the taste of freedom in their mouths since May, when the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) announced that masks needn’t be worn following vaccination. This week, in the face of rising Delta variant case numbers, the CDC reversed its guidance and recommended that Americans wear masks indoors again, particularly in crowded indoor settings. For many, it will feel like a prisoner being released from jail, and then being asked to return through no fault of their own.

The new mask mandate comes at a particularly troubling time for southern states like Louisiana, Alabama and Missouri. These three are suffering from a killer combination – literally – of sudden spikes in Covid-19 cases and weak vaccine uptake. The causal evidence? More than 95% of the patients hospitalised nationwide are unvaccinated, according to state public health officials and the CDC.

The Trump administration deserves credit for initiating the vaccine programme. The Biden administration deserves praise for ramping up its rollout. For the health and prosperity of all Americans, the country has little choice but to come together and recognise that vaccination is the only way out of this Covid-19 nightmare which we have all endured for far too long. Freedom can be pursued at all costs, but in the case of the campaign against the vaccines, is it worth dying for?

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.